Human beings do like to contemplate the belly button. It’s so obviously there, and convenient.
Book reviewers have a few bellybutton-type issues that require regular revisiting. For example: the question of objectivity. A good reviewer is a fair, even handed reviewer. A good reviewer will admit up front if they bought the book in question at full price, or were given a free copy. That same reviewer will disclose any connection to the subject matter that has a bearing on the review.
Now, some of this is just logical. If I spend my whole life campaigning for civil rights, if my mother was interrogated by faschists for her journalistic efforts on behalf of freedom fighters, those are things you should probably know before you read my review of Cheney’s autobiography.
On the other hand, how I got that book is (in my opinion) not so important. If I bought it, if somebody gave it to me or lent it to me, none of these things matter: you have to know up front that I am not going to like anything the man has to say. Even if I did get that $24 book for absolutely free: would I sell my conscience for that paltry sum?
But here’s the more complex problem.
A new novel comes out. Given the need for authors to do a lot of their own promotion, I will send copies to friends. Some of those friends will be in a position to review the book. I will also send the book to reviewers, in hopes of a review.
Do I send them my new book hoping for a bad review? Of course not. Do I expect every book I send out to result in a review? Nope. What I do hope for is a certain kind of response. Here are some scenarios:
1. (Fairy tale version) I send the book, three days later I get an email or phone call, gushing praise. Wow, what a book. What can I do to promote it? Tell me, your wish is my command.
2. (Horror story version) I send the book. Three months, six months, a year goes by. No word. So a gentle inquiry, did you ever get… and then I wait, cringing, for the shoe to drop.
a. (the boot version) I’m sorry, I’ve just been swamped. No idea when I’ll get to it, sorry sorry. By the way, have you read Joe’s newest and Sandy’s newest and Maggie’s newest? Fabulous. I highly recommend them.
translation of the boot version: there’s a cool crowd of people whose books I do read, no matter how swamped I am, and you’re not in it.
b. (the stiletto heel version) oh yes, I did, wait, was that the one with the photographer? Your stuff always cracks me up, I don’t know how you do it.
translation of the stiletto heel version: You pitiful thing, you misguided, self-delusional dope, how do I let you down lightly? Never mind, maybe a knock to the head will clear things up for you.
c. (the ballet slipper version) gosh, I have been meaning to write that review, it’s been on my mind for months, I’ll nudge it to the top of the pile.
translation of the ballet slipper version: where in the hell did I put that book? Did I ever finish it? How long before she forgets she ever sent it to me? Soon, I hope.
d. (the tap-dance shoe version) the thing is, I did read it and I want to review it but I don’t have the right venue for it now, it’s such an interesting book, it doesn’t really fit into the genre, does it? And I don’t want to misstep with this review.
translation of the tap-dance shoe version: I have no idea how I can write a review that won’t piss you off. So I’m not going to write one at all. Please let me off the hook.
Between these two extremes there’s this (hoped for) possibility:
I know you were hoping for a review, and I wish I could help you out. The problem is that while I really admire your work, this particular story never quite made it for me. You know the old truism: I’m just the right reader for this book. But I am looking forward to your next one.
or, best of all,
You know I liked this novel of yours, I meant it when I wrote to you a few months ago to say so. But I’m at a loss about reviewing it. Politically it’s too hot a potato for me right now given that episode with the Podunk Times and the red wine fueled indiscretions at my last book launch party. I hope you know that if I could do it, I would. What I can do, and will do, is mention it to friends and other readers in a less formal way.
You can see that I’ve been on both sides of this issue. More usually I’m the author, wondering why in the heck I haven’t heard from x, y or z about the book and trying to guess what kind of shoe I’ll hear dropping if I should ask. In the case of Tied to the Tracks, I’ve got three people out there, standing around, shoes in hand. Pardon me while I go put on a safety helmet.