On Reviewing by Jim Thompson

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By taking on this topic, as an author, I’m already on thin ice. It will offend some reviewers—I’m targeting no one and have no one in mind in this essay, except occasionally myself—but as there are now thousands of reviewers out there, amateur and professional, some of them will inevitably see themselves mirrored in these words, take offense, and perhaps take it out on me in print (or bytes). So be it. I’m prompted to write this because I’m a reviewer myself, for the New York Journal of Books http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/, have been contemplating reviewing, all that it means and entails, am appraising my work and taking myself to task for it. So, these thoughts are generated by self-criticism that led me to consider reviewing as a whole. Please don’t think otherwise.

“All men are created equal.” Profound words. Let’s focus on “created,” because as soon as people are born, there inequalities readily become apparent. Some are smarter, better athletes, better spouses and parents. Better everything. For a person to be good at something in comparison to the vast majority of people in this world, as there are about seven billion now, is a rare thing. To be good at even one thing in life, compared to all others in this world is a nearly impossible feat. In probably every aspect of our lives, compared to someone who is truly gifted in something, most of us are hopelessly mediocre in every possible way. Mediocrity is such an ugly word, none of us want to believe that it could apply to ourselves, but nevertheless, it’s true.

For some reason though, the written word strikes many people as the great equalizer. As with everything else, however, most writing is mediocre, as are most critiques of it. When it comes to opinions concerning storytelling, people tend to think theirs are just as valuable as anyone else’s. Who told them that? It’s not true. Now I’ve gotten some backs up, maybe garnered some sneers. I have read 5000 mystery novels, you may think, and I know as much about mystery novels as anyone alive today.

Perhaps, but not necessarily. All this tells me is that you like mystery novels. It’s as if you said to me, “I like to eat, therefore I know how to cook.” Have you studied literature on an academic level? Every book, even a bad one, has a place in the historical continuum of its genre in literature. Can you discuss this? Every book is structured, in the same way that a house is a construction. Do you understand story structure, understand that structure from the inside out, or are you only able to see it superficially, from the outside in and analyze the final product? These are but a couple of important questions that go to qualification. I can think of a hundred more.

These are important questions, because if you choose to review a book, you have taken on a task that has serious consequences. We all understand the importance of a positive review in the New York Times Book Review, but in this era, a massive percentage of books are sold via the internet, and nearly all of the major vendors offer starred consumer ratings. Thus, your rating affects the livelihood of authors. I know at least one influential blogger who is so aware of this that she won’t review a book she doesn’t like. I wouldn’t suggest you go that far, and I sometimes write harsh reviews, but know that what you do has meaning, and as such, carries with it ethical responsibility. I would like to point out a few things I frequently see that I feel either betray that responsibility, or at the very least fail to treat it with the gravity it deserves.

The I like it or don’t like it litmus test. The mark of the amateur. Certainly, whether you like a book is a factor in reviewing it, but all things considered, might by necessity be a small one. Perhaps you don’t like the genre. Perhaps—and I see this more frequently than any other unfair analysis—“the book has too much sex and/or violence.” This is only your taste. This is discussed more, especially in amateur reviews, than the quality of prose. In making this value judgment, you have made the review about you. And that’s the main thrust of what I’m getting at. This whole essay might be summed up in this single sentence. A review is not about you, the reviewer; it is about the book you are reviewing.

The New York Journal of Books has a policy that a reviewer may not refer to his/herself in a review without some compelling reason. I’ve found this to be most helpful and believe it’s made me a better reviewer. Try writing a review without a single “I” in it and see what happens. I think you’ll be pleased with the result.

This may leave you bewildered and asking: “What then, constitutes a good review, and as a reviewer, how do I accomplish it?” It’s really pretty simple. Judge each book on its own merits. Leave your likes, dislikes, and preconceptions on the doorstep. Ask yourself a few basic questions. What was the writer trying to accomplish in the writing of this book? Was the writer’s goal a worthy one? Did the writer succeed or fail to achieve that goal? Why or why not? You don’t have to like a book to answer these questions objectively. If you maintain your objectivity, you may find yourself writing positive reviews for books you didn’t care for. You read the wrong book for you. You needn’t ever read anything by that author again.

As an author, I don’t mind negative reviews. Sometimes a reviewer raises a valid point and I learn something. In fact, on a personal level, meaning disregarding the effect it has on a starred ratings, sales, and that sort of thing, I prefer a scathing, “this garbage is good for nothing but the trash bin” review to a “ho hum take it or leave it” critique. I know then that the work at least had a strong effect of some kind. Leaving a reader cold—THAT makes me feel that I’ve failed. I do though, as an author, have a few personal pet peeves regarding reviews. And it’s not just me. Every experienced author I know has thick skin, but some things get under it.

Addressing me by name and lecturing me on the craft of writing. It’s obnoxious and presumptuous, a form of personal attack. If you feel the need to slam a book I wrote, go ahead and trash it, but we’re not friends or colleagues. If you want to express something directly to me, send me an e-mail. If you call me no more than three foul names, I’ll answer you. Along the same lines, please don’t write something about me in which you claim to have divined something about my personality from my writing. The key word is FICTION. If I wanted to write a story told through the eyes of a nine year-old girl, I promise you that I would make you believe a female child wrote it. I’m separated from my storytelling. You can’t intuit anything about my political, religious or other personal beliefs from my books. Attempting to do so can only result in foolish mistakes. And lastly, personal attacks. They’re usually veiled, but there nonetheless. I fail to see the point of someone I don’t know doing such a thing or what pleasure is gained from it, but it happens.

This last paragraph might make it seem as if these pet peeves of mine happen frequently. They don’t. A new book generates hundreds of reviews and there are bound to be a few that are mean-spirited and/or ill-thought out. In general though, the reviewer community has been kind and generous to me, and all those reviewers have my gratitude for the time, energy and dedication they’ve put into considering my writing, and they all have my thanks.

With Warm Regards,

James Thompson

Helsinki, Finland

January 10, 2012


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James Thompson is an established author in Finland. His novel, Snow Angels, the first in the Inspector Vaara series, was released in the U.S. by Putnam and marked his entrance into the international crime fiction scene. Booklist named it one of the ten best debut crime novels of 2010, and it was nominated for the Edgar, Anthony, and Strand Critics awards. His second Vaara novel, Lucifer’s Tears, earned starred reviews from all quarters and was chosen by Kirkus Reviews as one of the best novels of 2011. The third in the series, Helsinki White, will be released in March, 2012.

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6 comments on “On Reviewing by Jim Thompson
  1. Be more concerned with the kind and generous reviews, Jim. They can be the most inaccurate and amatuerish of all.

  2. Odd that you write that a reviewer who writes whether or not they liked the book is the mark of an amateur, as I have read many book reviews over the years in professional publications (and have been a book review editor myself for one such) in which the reviewer states whether or not s/he likes the book.
    I find the concept of professional vs amateur reviewer not very helpful myself, given how many people crossover into both categories, such as yourself (reviewing for a publication and writing a blog). There is a paucity of professional book reviews nowadays, as many newspapers/magazines have cut or cut back their review coverage. On the other hand, there are many blogs and websites that run very good what you would call “amateur” reviews of books that otherwise would not get any comment at all.

    Amazon reviews are an interesting mix, as some are of very good quality whereas others are ignorant/friends of author/poorly written, etc. It seems pretty easy to me for the intelligent potential reader to sort these out accordingly when deciding whether to buy a book.

  3. As mentioned, one reviewer only posts positive reviewers. Likely, that is because reading is such a personal experience that it seems unfair to discourage someone from giving an author a fair trial because of a personal bias.

    Reviewers may choose to confine themselves to subsets in a genre because they feel that they can’t relate to the book for any number of reasons. For instance, a reviewer may not have any interest in reading about life on Mars. How easy is it to write a fair review of a book in which the setting on Mars is likely to distract them from the story?

    There are so many wonderful authors, such as yourself,

  4. (Sorry; I don’t know what happened).

    who write stories which are set in places that are fascinating because they are unfamiliar but have characters with whom it is easy to relate.

    ***Made it with only one personal pronoun but it isn’t easy to do. Forgive reviewers who get stuck in a grammar labyrinth trying to avoid them.

  5. Dear Maxine, I agree with pretty much all you’ve written here. By the “I like it/don’t like it litmus test,” I meant that it shouldn’t be the overwhelming factor in reviewing a book, at the expense of all else. Hence “litmus test.” I didn’t mean to imply, despite saying that leaving “I” out of a review is helpful, that a reviewer should never state whether he/she liked the book. Of course different reviewers have different styles. And I should have used the description amateurish, not amateur, because there truly are many excellent non-professional reviewers. As you point out, we need their voices now more than ever, as there are fewer and fewer people reviewing as their primary source of income. If I’ve come off like a dogmatic pedant, forgive me, I’ve expressed myself poorly.

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