In language evocative and vivid, Wetzel, selected winner of the Levine Prize in Poetry by judge Garrett Hongo, transports her readers to
— Alizah Salario, Booklist
Now I have a question: What good is a review anyway?
Perhaps a better way of pondering the same question is via its flip side—how much does a bad review matter?
For those of you who think there is another answer, let me tell you that on the personal level, it matters a lot. A reviewer approaches a book, obviously, from a much different perspective than a pure reader. A pure reader may or may not enjoy a book, but rarely makes the effort to articulate why she responded in a particular way. So a writer has little insight into why his or her book connected or failed to connect with the reader. This provides enormous psychological benefits for the writer. A writer can put a reader’s enjoyment or lack thereof down to subjectivity, to mood, can blame it on the weather or, even better, blame the reader. The reader just wasn’t educated enough or worldly enough or harbored hidden gender/racial/sexual biases. "It wasn’t my fault that the reader didn’t get me or my work."
On the other hand, a book reviewer has authority. The authority comes via three channels. First, the reviewer agrees to spend enough time with a particular work so that he or she can speak informatively about content, style, form, etc. Second, the reviewer presumably approaches the work with enough background in that particular genre to respond intelligently to the aforementioned criteria. Third, the forum publishing or presenting the review sanctions the opinion of the reviewer by propagating his or her words. This typically means a forum that is fairly well known or respected in its domain. Blogs and personal websites are also (increasingly so) becoming regarded forums for book and art reviews, but the market here is so fragmented, most haven’t obtained wide enough readership to move them significantly from the pure reader response category to the reviewer.
All of that to say, that a writer has a more difficult time blaming the reader for a lackluster opinion of her work. Gasp. It might be the work and not the reader.
So reviews matter. Of course they can help or damage sales, writer reputation, especially if the review comes via one of the major venues (e.g., NYTimes Book Review, New Yorker, etc.). But chances are if a book is being reviewed in these forums, the writer already has a large and loyal following. For less well known writers, it is the literary magazines, the online resources that come first.
Which is why I felt such release when my first review from someone who doesn’t know me was positive. This of course excludes the wonderful words penned by Garrett Hongo (who doesn’t know me personally) and who chose my book for publication. I know, I know. Much of what I’m saying here doesn’t need putting down and may in fact be obvious, but it helped me articulate for myself why I experienced the relief.
Anyway, as mentioned, the review was from Booklist, which for those of you don’t know (and why would you) is a book review from The American Library Association. I’m not sure it will generate sales but I do know, that if they had had nothing positive to say, I’d have been enormously down. And today is Thanksgiving! I’m hoping for other reviews and will steel myself for any and all critiques. But for those of you reviewing books, it matters, not just for readers, for those of us attempting to write.
Back to Booklist. Booklist is a subscription service and if you purchase books, a must-have resource. But they apparently don’t mind if I cite my small review (as long as I reference who wrote it.) P.S. I have a warm place in my heart for Alizah Salario, who reviewed my book.