By Marj Charlier | Contributing columnist
Every month I read six to eight books, mostly fiction, but sometimes up to two non-fiction. Sometimes I feel like a delinquent for hours on end sitting on my couch under my reading light, my laptop by my side and my feet on the coffee table. One way to allay my guilt is to write book reviews. I write four to six times a month for a book review site and for my website.
I don’t get paid for these reviews, but writing them helps me think about how I was intrigued, challenged, repelled, or entertained by the book in hand. Since I am a fiction writer, this is an educational excuse: I learn so much about writing by reading. Isn’t that everyone?
Book reviews carry the risk that a reviewer of any medium must assume. Telling (or suggesting to) readers what they should or shouldn’t like, what writers should or shouldn’t have written, what browsers should or shouldn’t consider, I can easily be accused of party caught, of pedantry, cultural myopia, stupidity, and, in general, being out of touch with what is going on in the world.
All of these indictments are sometimes valid. And, because I’m over 65 (I don’t think you need to be more specific), the charge of anachronism is perhaps the most reasonable. I have no children or grandchildren to keep me posted, and my nieces all live at least 1,200 miles away. But reading, in and of itself, is a way for a writer to keep abreast of trends, attitudes, habits, and vocabulary that have proliferated since we baby boomers walked through the decades of our youth. I have read (in the present tense) Sally Rooney, Rachel Kushner, Lily King, Mona Awad, Tea Abreht, Laila Lalami and Sloane Crossley, for example, who are all about 40 years younger than me, and although their worlds, neuroses and obsessions can seem a little foreign at times, I find them more relevant than some writers my age. We think of Mary Piper and Cynthia Ozick. On the other hand, I don’t have to cross any generational chasm to read Jess Walter, Sigrid Nunez, Margot Livesey and Geraldine Brooks.
In my reviews, I focus as much on the elements that I find remarkable as on my reservations (generally minor). I strive to be fair and balanced, and even when I review books published by my own publisher, I don’t let my loyalty to the imprint color my review.
As a writer, however, I face a particular risk as a critic: making myself enemies of other writers, who are all free to criticize my books as well. And since most of them are better off than I am with the language, the risk is to be ridiculed by a retaliatory mega-talent. Indeed, in reading my own books, I find oversights, sloppy word choices, inadequate settings, oxymoric behaviors and superficial themes. The only way for me to get out of bed in the morning and sit in front of my keyboard is to assume that no perfect book has ever been written, even considering the classics, as some were not only in their time inaccessible for many readers, but in their fermentation over time they have also lost their cultural and ethical relevance. But as I publish my books so that the world can read and judge them, I recoil from the idea that any writer I have ever criticized would take revenge on me, given how easy it would be to make. (Of course, there are always the one-star reviews by non-professionals who don’t like your politics or your philosophy, or didn’t like the way you treated their religion, their state, their city. or their hair color etc. can do about it except write without any point of view.)
Does this make me more cautious about how I assess the effort of a fellow author? Yes. I have adopted a policy of not reviewing a book that I can’t complete or that I just don’t like. If I hate it, not only do I not revise it, but I might even throw it away (in the recycling, of course).
Does that make me an untrustworthy critic? Maybe if the only reason I avoided reviewing books was because I’m a chicken and I’m afraid of retaliatory reviews. In fact, this is not the main reason. It’s this: if I had to criticize a book harshly, a book that I wouldn’t recommend to someone, who would benefit? The reader does not need me to bring this book to his attention – it would be better (in my opinion) not to know. And the author doesn’t need more effort to make a living than he already has. Writing books is hard, but any author – even those with Big Five (or soon to be four?) Publishers – will tell you that selling books is much, much harder. This is as true for me as it is for any writer other than the privileged figures of the NYT bestseller lists. So, I am gentle but fair. I will review a book if I find redeeming qualities in it. But I won’t jump on poor fellow writers who themselves have a hard time getting up in the morning and facing that blank screen.
Some of my reading friends have told me that they want to know if I don’t like a book. And I will gladly tell them, because I want them to lend, buy and read only books that they will enjoy. But I will never put it in writing.
Marj Charlier is a Palm Springs-based writer. Her latest novel is “The Rebel Nun”, published by Blackstone Publishing.