Voyage to the Dark Side: Notes on Reviewing
Back in 1988, a New York paper invited to write a review of Philip Roth’s memoir The Facts. I was intimidated by the idea of reviewing an author I admired so much, but there was something more holding me back. Why would I want to join ranks of those sour, vindictive gnomes who had no life and took out their frustrations by bashing authors? Reviewing seemed a nasty sort of business. George du Maurier (grandfather of Daphne Du Maurier) put it all too well in his novel Trilby:
To write in hissing dispraise—that is not a clean or pretty trade. It seems, alas! an easy one, and it gives pleasure to so many . . . pandering for hire to the basest instinct of all—the dirty pleasure we feel (some of us) in seeing mud and dead cats and rotten eggs flung at those we cannot but admire—and secretly envy!
The very first reviews I received myself, for an anthologized short story which came out that same year, were glowing, but when my collection of stories Dancing on Tisha B’Av appeared in 1990, among the sixty-odd reviews over the next year there were occasional ones that felt like poison seeping into my blood. One crazed reviewer even claimed that I couldn’t possibly be Jewish, since too many of my characters did not have brown eyes. It took me days and weeks to get over each nasty review, which always seemed to have far more power over my mood than twice as many positive ones. Ironically, I would later find out that most “civilians” (i.e., non-writers) don’t really pay attention to the tone of a review; they’re more focused on the fact that you’ve been reviewed at all, and their praise is a version of somebody’s grandmother beaming and saying “Isn’t that nice?”
I also hadn’t yet learned what I came to discover after publishing half a dozen more books, that I should always have reviews vetted by my partner, and if there was nothing in them that would keep me up at night, then reading them could do no harm. Otherwise, they usually weren’t worth my time, for as I heard Roth once say to an audience of fans, it’s rare that a reviewer has anything to teach an author. When I was hosting my own public radio book show a few years ago, Julian Barnes told me in an interview that he didn’t look at any reviews whatsoever, merely asked his wife what they were like. They’ve developed their own code, and a good review is “We could have him (or her) to lunch.” Dinner meant a superb review, and no invitation at all meant a pan.
I published two more books in the early nineties and the bad reviews hurt, usually because they either seemed angry or disgusted and their not-so-hidden subtext was, “Why didn’t he write this book the way I would have written it?” Apparently not all reviewers agree with Henry James’ advice about reviewing: “Grant each author his option.”
In the early 1990s, I was asked to be a regular reviewer for the Detroit Free Press and this time I accepted reviewing with alacrity. A lot had changed for me. I had three books to my name and had toured with them, which made me feel more established. Michigan was also my home; this would be a regular gig; and I thought writing for the “Freep” would not just be fun, but good publicity to get my name out there now that I was myself launched on a career. My brief was happily wide: anything I liked from among the books that were sent to me. Boxes came every few weeks and what I always looked for, whether it was history, biography, fiction, memoir or some was a compelling story, beautifully written. That was all, but it wasn’t common enough in the seemingly thousands of books that came my way over the years.
Eventually I also became the mystery columnist for the Freep, generally also reviewing three books a month that shared a theme, a setting, a type of sleuth of something else that formed an organizing principle—as opposed to picking books at random. I enjoyed pointing my readers to books they might miss or not even hear about: paperback originals from small presses like Akashic or Perseverance, translations of terrific crime writers like Leonard Padura and Jean-Patrick Manchette. This was eventually not what they wanted higher up and the first book editor I worked with explained why she was leaving after sixteen years: “I’m tired of being pushed to do yet another feature on Stephen King.”
However, with a new editor, the pressure grew for me to review the big bloated thrillers (Deaver et al.), but my argument was that mystery readers would hear about those books in most reviews and would find it hard to miss them when they walked into a store. Those were the books filling end cap displays and sometimes half a wall. Those were the books being endlessly promoted because their authors were name brands. As a compromise, I say I would list those at the end of my column under “Also out this month.” That was acceptable to my bosses.
Over time I also got invited to review for Jerusalem Report, the Washington Post, the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, and Boston Review, and sometimes reviewed authors like Cynthia Ozick and Updike, but my heart was generally with the little guys, the books that weren’t getting massive publicity campaigns, the books whose authors weren’t either famous or deeply entrenched in the literary establishment, the books that hadn’t been anointed by the reviewing world as the rebirth of wonder. Perhaps one of my all-time favorite “unknown” mysteries was Hell’s Kitchen by Chris Niles, a satire of serial killer books. When I found it, I had already grown sick of the clichés in that genre, the paint-by-numbers pathology, the psychotic’s passages in italics, the sense that the author might have been consulting Serial Killers for Dummies.
The premise in Niles's very New York book is that a serial killer lures his victims by advertising an amazing sublet in a tight real estate market, and what has driven the killer mad isn’t childhood abuse, but a self-help book. It is, amazingly, hilarious. And that’s what I look for in whatever genre: something unexpected, out-of-the-box, original, and with a voice that compels me to read on. It’s always a joy for me to be able to share my excitement about a book with readers or listeners. Here are some other, random choices of books I’ve reviewed that have made me glad to be a reviewer, and many are from smaller presses or authors you might not have heard of: Charlie Houston’s Already Dead, David Albahari’s Gotz and Meyer, Esther Cohen’s The Book Doctor, Lisa Zeidner’s Layover, James Hamilton-Paterson’s Cooking with Fernet Branca, Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma, Terrill Lankford’s Shooters (which I’ve read three times), Karoly Pap’s Azarel, Chantal Pelletier’s Goat Song, Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, Michael Pye’s The Drowning Room.
In the heaps of books that come to me, I’m always hopeful, looking for one that will blow me away. I want to feel almost like Viola de Lesseps does in Shakespeare in Love when she longs for “love that over-throws life. Unbiddable, ungovernable—like a riot in the heart, and nothing to be done, come ruin or rapture.”
Of course, that doesn’t happen often enough, but I’ll settle for a crush.
Books mentioned in this column:
The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography by Philip Roth (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988)
Trilby by George du Maurier (Oxford University Press, 2009)
Dancing on Tisha B’Av by Lev Raphael (St. Martin’s Press, 1990)
Already Dead by Charlie Houston (Del Rey, 2005)
Gotz and Meyer by David Albahari (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005)
The Book Doctor by Esther Cohen (Counterpoint, 2004)
Layover by Lisa Zeidner (Random House, 1999)
Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson (Europa Editions, 2005)
Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin (Penguin Press, 2005)
Shooters by Terrill Lankford (Forge, 1997)
Azarel by Karoly Pap (Zoland Books, 2001)
Goat Song by Chantal Pelletier (Bitter Lemon Press, 2005)
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002)
The Drowning Room by Michael Pye (Viking, 1996)
Lev Raphael grew up in New York but got over it and has lived half his life in Michigan where he found his partner of twenty-four years, and a certain small fame. He escaped academia in 1988 to write full-time and has never looked back. The author of nineteen books in many genres, and hundreds of reviews, stories and articles, he’s seen his work discussed in journals, books, conference papers, and assigned in college and university classrooms. Which means he’s become homework. Who knew? Lev’s books have been translated into close to a dozen languages, some of which he can’t identify, and he’s done hundreds of readings and talks across the U.S. and Canada, and in France, England, Scotland, Austria, Germany and Israel. His memoir My Germany was published in April 2009 by the University of Wisconsin Press. You can learn more about Lev and his work on his website. Lev has reviewed for the Washington Post, Boston Review, NPR, the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Jerusalem Report and the Detroit Free Press where he had a mystery column for almost a decade. He also hosted his own public radio book show where he interviewed Salman Rushdie, Erica Jong, and Julian Barnes among many other authors. Whatever the genre, he's always looked for books with a memorable voice and a compelling story to tell. Contact Lev.