On Reviewing

As a writer, I take reviewing another author’s book seriously. Let me preface this by stating I only read manuscripts I like. There are too many good books and too few hours, so if a piece hasn’t hooked me within the first hundred pages I quietly place it in the box destined for my local used bookstore. Because I don’t waste my time or energy on bad novels, the reviews I give tend to be highly positive. Is that wrong?

Frankly, I enjoy connecting with fellow writers and reviewing their work. Writers have done that forever. Hemingway reviewed Fitzgerald and visa-versa. Ezra Pound helped launch Robert Frost’s career with one of his reviews. Walt Whitman, showing perhaps the brassiest literary balls, anonymously reviewed himself. Three times. And he proclaimed himself “a new type of character . . . for the present and future of American letters.” Nonetheless, writers like to help when they appreciate the other’s work. I freely admit this is my attitude toward reviewing as well.

Kelley Harrell asserts “online review sites are the slush piles of feedback.” Any generality tends to be unfair, yet at the same time there is a hint of truth. Somerset Maugham said, “People ask for criticism, but they only want praise.” Along those lines, one knock against online reviews is that writers solicit five star ratings from friends and family. The danger there is an overabundance of watered down recommendations that cause honest readers to distrust them. After all, who wants to download a five star book only to discover two star writing? Blind praise can be as misleading as the poison pen.

While I don’t bother reading and reviewing books I don’t like, I realize I’m in the minority. Bad reviews are part of a writer’s life. If they are given honestly I can accept it. Not only have I been writing and receiving criticism for over thirty years, as I’ve mentioned before I also teach adolescents. I have a thick hide. I know my work isn’t for everyone. To my amazement, some people don’t like sci-fi or cli-fi novels with a dark dystopian edge. Yet when someone reads my novel and gives me a thoughtful critique on what he or she didn’t care for, I’m fine with that.

A pet peeve of mine is the reviewer who begins, “I don’t usually read (insert genre: e.g. science fiction/ fantasy/romance) and really couldn’t get into this book . . .”—come on, if it’s not your cup of tea, why drink it? What bothers me more is a poor review from someone who obviously hasn’t even read the book and for whatever reason feels the need to be nasty. They remind me of that angry teenager who destroys school property in order to gain attention. I suppose there’s little to be done about online haters who hand out hack reviews—other than to ignore them. Chalk it up to the dark side of Harrell’s statement.

I for one will continue to read thoughtfully and attempt to write intelligent reviews. After all, isn’t that what sincere readers look for and what serious writers want?

The Creative Mind Part 1

Whether we know it or not, we all have creative minds. That can be good or bad—God knows we’ve been creatively killing ourselves since the dawn of time. Necessity isn’t the mother of invention. War is. I tackle the theme of war in The Wastelanders, the insanity of it taken to another level. Hemingway said, “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.” Interesting from a man who wore it like a badge. Yet for the moment I’d rather focus on something else Mr. Hemingway said—“The writer must write what he has to say, not speak it.”

I’ve said this before but it’s worth saying again. Many people talk about becoming a writer because they like the idea of being a writer. However, they lack the work ethic it takes because they don’t follow Mr. Hemingway’s advice and actually write what they have to say. Writing is hard. Good writing is even harder. For instance, anyone can scribble “he looked old and addled” but it takes a Moira Young to write “Jest like the land, Pa’s gittin worse an his eyes look more’n more to the sky instead of what’s here in front of him.” That’s from Blood Red Road—a great read! So I try to follow Natalie Goldberg’s advice: “Use original detail in your writing.” Of course, that’s easier said than done, but that’s also why writing is a contact sport.

As a teacher, it drives me to the brink of madness when a student tells me he doesn’t read because he doesn’t want to be influenced by a particular writer. That attitude is wrong on so many different levels; I want to bang my head against the wall. We wouldn’t have West Side Story if Sondheim, Robbins, and Bernstein thought along those lines. I tell my students that any artist worth her salt is influenced by the artists that have come before her as well as by those with whom she associates. Recently a quote by Stephen King has been floating around twitterland: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Yes, simple as that. I tell my students to read, imitate, and learn. It’s what the Beatles did in their early days playing in Germany, and talk about the original work they produced. I fully admit to being influenced by Mr. King, Frank Herbert, and Philip K. Dick when writing The Wastelanders. The trick was turning the novel into my own work. And I think I pulled it off.