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?

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Time And Again . . .

Recently I’ve been talking to an old friend after a long hiatus in our relationship. One thing we both agreed on was that the land of what-if was not a place to dwell. Yet we all do it. What if I’d stayed up north instead of moving south? What if the person I’d wanted to study under in grad school hadn’t died? When young the choices seem infinite. As we grow older the decisions we make narrow our path. And so like Robert Frost I sigh, “knowing how way leads onto way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”

Of course writers constantly deal in what-ifs, and one of the greatest what-ifs centers around manipulating time. I’m fascinated with the concept of time and stories that put their own twist on it, from Jack Finney’s Time and Again to Stargate’s 1969 to Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Then there is Dr. Who, a Time Lord. (Martha, arriving in Shakespearean England, asks, “What if we step on a butterfly?” Confused, the Doctor says, “Don’t step on any butterflies,” then adds, “What do you have against butterflies?”)

The Poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries.” This is what I thought of when slowly I developed my little Time Witch in The Wastelanders. Si-Ting has prescient powers and discovers she can “bend time.” Think of the cat in the Matrix. Neo sees it then sees it again and comments he’s had a déjà vu. Instead it’s a glitch. Time has changed. Si-Ting can make changes, though they must be immediate and she is limited to the shadow of the present. It makes her strong, yet it also makes her vulnerable, open to danger. It is a powerful tool for good. Or evil, should this knowledge fall into the wrong hands.