Reviewing the Reviewers: A Dialogue about Book Reviewing

The idea for this dialogue came after the controversy regarding the review of John Lacombe’s Winter Games.  If you haven’t seen that thread, check it out, it’s a long one – it has a lot of interesting commentary about how writers and/or their fans should respond to reviews, including examples of how not to respond to a review.  Carol Buchanan, who reviewed the book, didn’t like the novel.  Steven Reynolds, who reviews for SPR, liked the book in a review for the now-defunct Podler.  Carol and Steven got together to talk about the controversy and book reviewing in general. This will be the first in a series.

Self-Publishing Review: You’ve both read Winter Games by John Lacombe and had quite different responses to it. Why do you think this is?

Steven Reynolds:  It’s because Carol doesn’t know what she’s talking about! Just kidding. We had different responses because we’re different people: we have different backgrounds, interests, reading histories, and tastes. Carol’s an award-winning novelist, I’m not. Carol has a PhD in English Lit, whereas I have degrees in Economics, Literature and Film Studies. Carol’s a woman, I’m a man. Carol grew up in the 1940s-50s, I grew up in the 1970s-80s. Carol reads James Lee Burke, Val McDermid, Michael Connelly and Craig Johnson, whereas if I’m looking for chills and thrills I might pick up Thomas Harris, Michael Crichton or the darker volumes of Robert Cormier. Some of these factors might have influenced our readings of Winter Games, whereas others might be irrelevant. Who knows? What I do know is that it’s possible for two, three, or thirty-three people to read the same book and each form a different view. Some will be broadly similar, some will differ wildly.

Without wanting to get too esoteric about it, the act of reading – making meaning out of words on a page – is an essentially subjective experience. They’re just dots of ink assembled into shapes we call letters and words. The magic happens in our minds, and it’s going to be influenced by what’s already there. This is why I can read Ian McEwan’s Saturday and think it’s wonderful, and my friend Kath can read it and declare it “ideologically rancid”. Who’s right, Kath or I? That’s not a question with an objectively verifiable answer, and it’s actually an extremely boring one. This is why I don’t give books a score or a star-rating anymore (unless it’s compulsory). I’m more interested in exploring what the novel’s about, how it works, its relationship to other books, and who might enjoy it. You must pass judgement, in some sense, because readers expect that. But when I say of Winter Games, “Overall, this is a slick and solid action-thriller from an emerging writer of considerable strength,” readers know this isn’t a statement of fact, even though it’s phrased as one. It’s my opinion. Whether or not they value my opinion is up to them.

Carol Buchanan:  As Steve says, we’re different people. We both read thrillers, but by different authors. Steve appreciates Michael Crichton’s work, while I’m partial to the novels of James Lee Burke.

Novels are an art form. Being a writer myself, as well as a former college English teacher, I pay attention to the writing of every book I read – how the sentences and paragraphs are constructed. I listen for rhythm and variety, to hear the English language sing, which it does for good writers. One of my favorite authors disappointed me recently with this sentence: “Rows of windows … rose above ….” The kernel of meaning in that sentence, the part a writer can’t strip out and have anything left, actually reads “Rows …. rose.” Not “windows rose,” which would say something entirely different again. For some people, windows rising might recall sash windows; for others it might portray a different window action. But these windows could not rise. They were set in stone. Whether “Rows …rose” or “Windows …rose,” it’s sloppy writing. It jars the ear.

Does that mean the book wasn’t any good? Or the author is a poor writer? Not necessarily, but if I were writing a review, I would be obligated to point out problems and let the readers judge for themselves if it might interfere with their enjoyment of the novel.

I write reviews primarily for the reader, who may lay out money for a book. If the author reads a review and learns from it, so much the better.

When Steve says his reviews are his opinion, that goes for me, too. The reviews I write are not fact. They are my opinion, even though they are based on some decades of reading and studying and writing fiction. Readers can take them or leave them.

SPR: What makes a “good” novel? Similarly, what makes a “bad” novel?

SR: For me, a “good” novel has most of the following qualities: an absence of typographical errors and basic grammatical screw-ups which shows the writer cares about language and about readers; an appealing voice; a tone and style appropriate to the subject; an effective narrative viewpoint; engaging characters (usually with interesting flaws); a compelling plot, or at least an effective use of structure and length; internal consistency; it’s “about something”, in the sense that it involves serious ideas or themes (optional); some kind of intertextual or metafictional cleverness (highly optional); some kind of innovation (again, highly optional); and a satisfying ending. By implication, a “bad” novel lacks most of these qualities.

Are these standards objective? Of course not, beyond a certain point. But that “certain point” is real, and includes spelling, grammar and the ability to construct a meaningful sentence. Now, before all the experimental prose stylists out there start drafting their outraged and uniquely formatted responses, let me say this: I know some very talented writers have shattered these conventions and remade the language to their own ends. There are other exceptions, too, such as a novel written in the voice of a character. (I’m not about to decry The Catcher in the Rye because Holden splits his infinitives). But most novelists aren’t attempting either of those things. So for a writer to justify their novel’s manifest sloppiness on the basis of artistic license is both lazy and ridiculous. I’d argue such a novel is objectively bad, and it’s bad because it’s careless and essentially unreadable. Rules don’t exist to confine you. They exist to enable you to communicate clearly. If you’re not interested in communicating something with your novel – an idea, an emotion, an experience, or even just a damn fine yarn – then I wonder why you’re writing at all.

Beyond that one objective measure (basic competence), all judgments are subjective. Someone could have a list of “good” qualities completely different to mine. Even if we had the same list, what they deem “appealing”, “appropriate” or “effective” may well be different. It’s subjective. But subjective and groundless are not the same thing. All reviewers have grounds for their opinions. Ideally, a review will imply these through its analysis, argument and examples. Subjectivity then ceases to matter: the grounds are exposed, so readers can inspect them and reject the review if they disagree.

This raises an obvious question. If reviews are subjective, why should readers care what reviewers think? Well, they shouldn’t – not automatically. But reviewers do bring certain skills and experience to the task. One is wide reading, which gives them a deeper understanding of how fiction works. It also means they can position the novel in relation to others – not on a scale of one to ten, but in terms of its themes, techniques, and its historical and commercial context. A good reviewer can also clearly articulate their reaction to a novel, and this may be shared. I’ve received e-mails from people saying, “You know, I couldn’t figure out what I liked/loathed about this book, but you nailed it for me. Thanks.” So the perspective and clarity reviewers bring can be valuable to other readers.

CB: The elements of fiction are character, plot, dialogue, setting, scene, and structure. Each element has certain “standards” by which they are judged to succeed or not, and entire books have been written to define those standards. Writers Digest Books has published separate titles for all of them. I would add writing to this list. Effective sentences, even effective fragments.

Still, standards of “good” and “bad” in literature have been debated fiercely ever since Aristotle (384 B.C. – 322 B. C.), and I don’t expect Steve and I will lay any controversy to rest now. For one thing, standards evolve with every new audience and within a culture over time. For example, Aristotle thought violence must take place off stage, while nowadays a writer’s or a film’s depiction of violence might well be judged for how well it portrays what happens when bullet meets bone.

If the elements of fiction are all well done, though, and I still have no emotional reaction to the novel or story, I wouldn’t consider it “good.” Years ago, I heard a pianist play a difficult Beethoven concerto perfectly, in excellent tempo, with all the right expression, and nary a missed note. But without feeling, though it was technically good. Years later, I heard another pianist play the same concerto with abandon, damn the torpedoes, rocketing through it seeming not to care if fingers hit the right notes or not or landed somewhere in between. At the end, we in the audience leaped to our feet, applauding. I wept for the beauty of it.

Just yesterday I read a story that still needs work, but the suspense had my heart beating faster because I feared for the protagonist. At the end, a truly original and surprising conclusion that grew out of the protagonist’s change in attitude, I felt that prickle up the backbone that tells me this writer has the gift.

So, yes, once again Steve and I basically agree that our reviews are subjective.

Based on experience, education, and wide reading, we can tell if writers respect their stories and their readers.

Many self-published writers, I might add, quit revising about three drafts too soon. They don’t seem to realize how much sheer hard work goes into a novel, and they go to press with their first drafts. Also too many writers don’t seem scared enough. Writing a novel is frightening, because a writer can put heart and soul into something and it might still suck. It happens. Just now, writing the sequel to my first novel, I’m scared because I have an obligation to the readers, to write a book as good as or better than God’s Thunderbolt, not to disappoint them, and I have no idea if this one will or not.

SPR: Do different genres have standards for “good” and “bad”? Or are standards in genres primarily expectations?

SR: For me, the standards I listed above apply to all fiction. They’re the things I want in a novel, irrespective of genre. But how I apply them to any particular book is influenced by what you might call “genre expectations”.

For example, I say I want “engaging characters”. A middle-aged, alcoholic, Irish-Catholic spinster can be an immensely engaging character in a literary novel, as evidenced by Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. But she’s unlikely to engage as the heroine of the latest erotic release from Silhouette Desire. Similarly, I say I want an “effective narrative viewpoint”. Narrating from the unreliable perspective of a single character can be very effective if exploring that skewed perspective is a central concern of the novel, as it is for Zoë Heller in Notes on a Scandal. It would probably be less effective in an action-thriller, since the genre is more concerned with the detailed depiction of physical action, and that’s usually better done from a position of reliable omniscience.

Every genre has broad conventions. These exist because its readers want repeatability: they want the same kind of immersive, pleasurable experience each time. The conventions help deliver that. That’s why they became conventions. So a “good” genre novel will usually hit those marks – and if you’re going to review genre fiction, you’d better be aware of them, no matter what other “standards” you wish to apply.

CB: I think standards exist, although (as Steve says) standards for one type of fiction apply to all types. Fiction is best when characters are multi-dimensional, plots are plausible, conflict is believable, dialogue helps to move the story along, and scenes foreshadow events or reveal character (among other things).  And the writing sings.

Some genres define those elements differently, because each genre expects something specific from its own “fictive world,” as it’s called. Within that world a writer can do pretty much whatever, as long as the laws governing that world are understandable. A thriller world differs from the world of an Amish mystery, and a science fiction world differs from the world of a Western.

Standards in all fiction are expectations. We expect certain laws of physics will apply unless the writer makes it very clear why they don’t. We expect human beings to be subject to hypothermia or gravity, unless the writer makes it plain that Planet Xenon has the same specific gravity to that of Earth. If the world of the novel plausibly extends the envelope of what we know about the sun rising in the east, then we’ll accept the sun rising in the north.

When it comes to historical fiction, I expect characters who think and feel as people in that era thought and felt, not like a 21st-century person dressed oddly. That puts a burden on the writer to block out a great deal of technical information we take for granted, but that’s the easy part. I found it very difficult to write about the Civil War era and develop some sympathy with pro-slavery characters. In previous eras people might hold views that we find reprehensible, and still be decent people in other ways. Writers, I think, cannot pass judgment on our characters.

Mystery and thriller writers understand this, when they write sympathetically from the point of view of a serial killer, a pedophile, or drug dealer. It’s a supreme challenge in fiction to write from the POV of a character we have little sympathy with. Yet it has to be done to make a good novel.

SPR: Do you think those who write or prefer one kind of fiction are qualified to review another kind? For example, can a fan of literary fiction capably review genre fiction, or vice versa?

SR: I’ve said a reviewer brings certain skills to the task. I suspect the more you read a particular kind of fiction, the better you become at applying those skills to it. So I’d say we probably are better at reviewing the kind of books we prefer to read. A Dan Brown devotee isn’t the first person I’d ask to review the latest David Malouf – or vice versa.

Still, I challenge this notion that we must label ourselves as one kind of reader, and therefore one kind of reviewer. I grew up reading Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Robert Ludlum and the Scholastic novelizations of the Star Wars trilogy. Today, my favourite writers include Saul Bellow, A.S. Byatt, Ian McEwan and Philip Roth. I can spend a weekend with an airport novel and enjoy every sordid minute. Nicholas Sparks can make me cry, and Georges Simenon can leave me thinking for weeks. What I read depends on my mood. The same applies to music, film and television. Some days I want to watch Krzysztof Kieslowski, other days it’s Judd Apatow. I’m not barred from appreciating Knocked Up because I happen to love Three Colours: Red.

So if a fan of literary fiction is familiar enough with a genre’s conventions and can approach the book with enthusiasm, there’s no reason they should be deemed “incapable” of reviewing it. The same goes for a genre enthusiast who also enjoys literary fiction. It’s a matter of calibrating your expectations. Just don’t tell me you hate Austerlitz because the sentences are too long and it doesn’t have enough explosions.

CB: Yes, although I’d have to excuse myself from reviewing some types of fiction I can’t appreciate as well as someone else might.

Stephen King, for example, is a brilliant writer, but I can’t appreciate the horror genre, so I don’t think I could reliably review it.

When people regard literary fiction as superior to genre fiction, I suspect an element of snobbery. Why the prejudice exists, I don’t know. William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, and others wrote cracking good stories. Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, in the mystery genre were among the best novelists of any era, and in our own time, I’d put thriller writer James Lee Burke in the same category with any Pulitzer winner I’ve read. Literary Westerns  have given us some American classics from Willa Cather, Jack Schaefer, A. B. Guthrie, Jr., and Wallace Stegner. And Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove did actually win the Pulitzer. The mystery novels of Britain’s P. D. James merge into the literary category.

Fashions in literature change. For some time it has been fashionable to explore the inner psyche of a character, to write about grotesque individuals and their mistreatment, and among women writers, to write about how awful men are. During the 1930’s, with 30% of the population out of work, the plight of the working class was fashionable in novels.

I suspect that someday readers may well look back on much that we admire and shake their heads. “How could they like that?”

Update: John Lacombe responds to the controversy over his novel.

  • I don’t find the thought that my writing could be bad to be scary. It’s not what it’s intended, although it’s not something that’s worth worrying or fearing over. Many times it may even help writers grow to be better. Sometimes we learn more from mistakes than we do from success.

    I place my trust in God and hope that what I write will be pleasing to Him, and that is enough for me, even if everyone who read what I wrote thought it was bad.

    God Bless,

  • Kevin J Jr

    Nice piece, Henry, and great commentary. I think what would add to the series is an interview with the author of WINTER GAMES. I just finished the book and really enjoyed it. I have to admit to being just as puzzled as everyone else about the robot issue. When a reviewer writes a commentary, I do feel he or she has a certain responsibility to present the story accurately. I could be wrong, but I think that’s what charged up Lacombe’s supporters. WG is a thriller with strong political sub plots which interestingly, Reynolds picked up on. Buchanan didn’t. The book didn’t float her boat apparently, and perhaps it clouded her perspective. I can see a reviewer not liking a book and admitting to such. But she literally had one positive sentence about WG, and didn’t elaborate at all. Had she been a bit more even handed in her review, the controversy probably wouldn’t have ensued. Oh well. . .as you said, Henry, it’s probably good for JL. People say controversy sells. Would love to get his take on what this has done for sales.

  • Christa

    Alain de Botton, the philospher and author was recently quoted as saying


    “Authors should not always turn the other cheek. . .Authors are totally powerless in the face of reviewers. Someone can go into print and say ‘This person has published the worst book on Earth’ and basically the author can’t do anything about it. . . .There’s an onus on the reviewer to be halfway fair. Essentially, give the reader a sense of what’s going on, try and give its merits and demerits.”

    Sometimes, it appears that reviewers want to review a book and consider the matter closed. It just doesn’t work that way, nor should it. Just as a book and author can be critiqued, so can the review and reviewer. Steven Reynolds reputation as a reviewer precedes himself. Some have called his reviews “the only ones worth reading,” because, regardless of his viewpoint, he is thorough, fair, and his reviews are exceptionally well crafted.

    With their opinions about the novel and reviewer backgrounds put aside, a comparison of the two reviews cited above speaks for itself.

  • Sam

    I read “Finding the Moon in Sugar” last night, cover to cover. Cheryl Anne Gardner gave it 4 stars on Amazon, and overall, she loved it. In her review she wrote, “The story flows smoothly, the plotline is flawless, and the imagery is restrained and innocent in its beauty. The prose is tactile and at times even poetic.”


    Now, compare it to the review by Jane Smith over at that other self-publishing review site. But first, you have to understand that when Jane Smith reviews a book, she counts all the errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar she finds, then lists each book she attempted to “review”, along with how far she got through each one. When she reaches 15 mistakes, she stops reading. She got as far as page 18 in Finding the Moon in Sugar. Not only does she miss out on a wonderful story, she loses credibility as a reviewer. If we were all to follow her formula, we’d skip a fair amount of Pulitzer Prize winning work. Not to mention the writing of famous dyslexics such as Agatha Christie, Fannie Flagg and William Butler Yeats, who was refused a post at University College of Dublin, because of spelling mistakes in his letter of application. (Take a moment to ponder that.)

    John Kelly once commented, jokingly that, Yeats’ terrible handwriting hid his even worse spelling. Despite his problems with writing, and the fact that he only had two years of formal schooling, Yeats OBVIOUSLY had a great deal of poignant thought to share with the world.

    There are reviewers of Reynolds’ and Gardner’s caliber and then there are those like Jane Smith. Readers will gravitate toward those whom they prefer.

  • I don’t like jumping on a fellow reviewer, but I find JS’s system very flawed. Grammar/typos are only one part of a book. Not that these issues should be excused, but it overlooks so much else that could be positive about a book. It really seems more like a system set up to dump on books than to honestly critique them.

  • Christa quotes Alain de Botton as having written (probably after getting a bad review), “Authors should not always turn the other cheek. . .Authors are totally powerless in the face of reviewers. Someone can go into print and say ‘This person has published the worst book on Earth’ and basically the author can’t do anything about it. . . .There’s an onus on the reviewer to be halfway fair. Essentially, give the reader a sense of what’s going on, try and give its merits and demerits.”

    Yes. Someone can go into print and say “This person has published the worst book on Earth” and the author can’t do anything about it. The review is out there and people have read it.

    I truly, truly understand how upsetting that can be. But, on the other hand, “Authors are totally powerless in the face of reviewers”?

    First, and at the risk of sounding mean, that’s just whining. Stop it.

    Second, the author isn’t powerless. The work is out there to defend (or destroy) itself.

    The author has written the work. The author should know that once it’s out there, it’s open to criticism. Or praise.

    As to the onus being on the reviewer to be “fair”…

    If a reviewer praises something in an author’s work but does it as a result of a misunderstanding – “The way Mr. Rugshow uses an electrical cord as a metaphor for love is absolutely genius” even though Mr. Rugshow didn’t intend to do that at all, for example – do you think the author, Mr. Rugshow, will write a note saying, “Uhh…actually, your review is stupid because I didn’t mean to use any such metaphor”?

    Maybe, but it’s doubtful.

    The author has his or her chance to present a case: that’s the work itself.

    The reviewer then presents his or her case: that’s the review.

    It is what it is. Some will like it, some won’t.

    And while some reviewers are probably really, really bad at reviewing (they’ll post a synopsis of the book, essentially, and leave it at that), the last person who should criticize the reviewer is the person being reviewed (or their family and friends).

    I’m scared for today’s authors.

    Our access to the internet and immediate gratification is dangerous.


  • Paul

    Carol Buchanan and I grew up during an era when English teachers taught students how to conjugate verbs and diagram sentences. I admire Carol a great deal, and enjoy following what she’s up to. We both share a love of horses.

    I had never heard of John Lacombe until I came upon her review of his book Winter Games. Were it not for the ensuing controversy, and Henry Baum’s posting of the link to Mr. Reynolds’ review, above, I most definitely would not have acquired an alternate perspective.

    Carol enjoys delving into the “how tos” of writing. As a university college professor, myself, I am less interested in my students’ mechanics, however, than I am in their ability to formulate creative, independent thought. Children of today have grown up watching too much TV. Their writing, as a whole, indicates an absence of practice.

    True, I am presented with far too many essays rife with spelling and grammatical errors. I don’t ever recall a time, though, when I allowed the presence of spelling or grammatical mistakes, to affect my ability to evaluate an exceptionally creative story. Rather, I’ve had a few mechanically perfect papers and found myself wondering, “Where is the creative thought?”

    I read John Lacombe’s Winter Games. It is a very, very clever story—one that had me eagerly turning each page. And, because the story is so compelling, I am able to easily assign Mr. Lacombe a considerable degree of poetic license.

    I applaud Henry Baum for allowing me to obtain a more balanced perspective, than the one I initially had.

  • Jared

    In his recent response to the “controversy,” John Lacombe makes some interesting and salient points, particularly concerning the usefulness, or lack thereof, of a negative review.

    In other threads, reviewers, on the other hand, seem to advise that authors glean information and learn from the criticism book reviewers dish out. In addition, they bemoan (“Stop whining,” “suck it up and move on”) the public outcry that follows a negative review, even if the review is a shoddy piece of work.

    Cheryl Anne Gardner recently wrote, “Sometimes critics can get a bit above themselves, and on occasion, they don’t always choose the best, most productive language, often overindulging the negative with a healthy dose of sarcasm, ridicule, and personal diatribe.”

    One wonders, then, “What real purpose does a negative review serve?”

    Does a reviewer feel a certain number of reviews must be negative, in order to establish some kind of credible bell curve?

    Or, is she simply implying, “If I don’t like the book, then no one else should read it.” ? (I’ve yet to read a review that totally trashes a book, but ends with, “I recommend a lot of people read the book, however, and decide for themselves.)

    John was fortunate to have received a couple of excellent reviews and articles written about him in papers like the Chicago Tribune, before Buchanan picked up his book. But what if novelists’ first reviews comes from the likes of Jane Smith, and they are so embarrassed, discouraged and demoralized that they stop writing? Lacombe alludes to the destructiveness of negativity. Fortunately for him, he has a score of five star reviews on Amazon.

    But what about the budding novelist who doesn’t?

  • Megan


    I can’t help but wonder why an English professor such as yourself would misuse commas the way you do.

    “I don’t ever recall a time, though, when I allowed the presence of spelling or grammatical mistakes, (<– why is that comma there?) to affect my ability to evaluate an exceptionally creative story.”

    “I applaud Henry Baum for allowing me to obtain a more balanced perspective, (<– what’s this comma for?) than the one I initially had.”

    I agree with you, though, that some mechanical errors should not detract from the overall story or message.

  • William


    LOL! I can’t help but wonder why you felt compelled to point out and publicize Paul’s mistakes. An attempt to get back at a professor who gave you an B+, perhaps? (Oops, should I have had a comma back there?) Gee, I wonder if Pavaroti ever missed a note in a performance. How could he possibly?

    Nobody is perfect. Your comment effectively proves Paul’s point. Who knows, maybe that was his intent. The point being, Megan, that creativity is more important than punctuation, spelling and grammar. If Paul erred, as so many of us do–especially when typing something quickly on line–it does not detract from his message.

  • Jared,

    That’s a good question: What real purpose does a negative review serve?

    What if it doesn’t “serve a purpose” other than to exist as one reviewer’s take on the work?

    (It could be argued that negative reviews, if they’re specific about unfavorable aspects of the work, can be helpful criticism when it comes time to write the next thing. It can also be argued that negative reviews probably reflect the opinion of at least a portion of the people.)

    What would be the point of reviews if all of them were positive?

  • Jared

    Well, Kristen, that’s a good question: What would be the point of reviews if all of them were positive?

    But didn’t you have at least one parent at some point in your life say, “if you don’t have anything positive to say, don’t say anything at all?”

    Consider this, though. What if reviewers selected only those books they felt were worth their time and effort? An emerging writer might not get bashed, but he might not have any reviews, either. I think harsh, negative criticism is best done in private. Some of the stuff these (you?) people write is just plain mean.

  • Daniel

    William, I think Megan opens an interesting door and I tend to agree with what she subtly implies. Any English teacher, journalist or book critic who picks apart an author’s usage, has to demonstrate her own skills consistently. Otherwise, in the final analysis, she ends up looking pretty foolish.

    Personally, I think English has evolved to the point that traditional grammatical technicalities aren’t as critical as they used to be. However, if you’re going to knock someone ELSE”S writing and then make your OWN errors, you’re just setting yourself up.

    Case in point. Take a look at the thread following Buchanan’s review of John Lacombe’s book. In one comment, Angela Wilson misspells his name. She announces that she’s an experienced journalist, and thereby worthy of wearing the critic’s hat, but breaks the first rule in journalism—get the subject’s name right.

    Carol Buchanan doesn’t hesitate to point out authors’ errors in her reviews. As she does so, her tone is one of stern lecturing. Yet, she herself, in comments later in the thread, begins sentences with “and,” ends sentences with prepositions, and throws in a few fragments to boot.

    Old rules dealing with “and” at the beginning of sentences and prepositions at the end, have loosened. Sometimes, doing so can’t be avoided. Most teachers still advise against it, though. Carol could have easily written “endow them with qualities with which the reader can identify,” and avoid ending with a prep. She didn’t. Of course, I don’t CARE that she didn’t.

    It’s only worth mentioning because, the picky criticism I lobbed in the last paragraph, is EXACTLY the kind of stuff she puts in her reviews.

  • In response to this, from John:

    —But didn’t you have at least one parent at some point in your life say, “if you don’t have anything positive to say, don’t say anything at all?”

    Consider this, though. What if reviewers selected only those books they felt were worth their time and effort? An emerging writer might not get bashed, but he might not have any reviews, either. I think harsh, negative criticism is best done in private. Some of the stuff these (you?) people write is just plain mean.—

    (Me? No.)

    Saying you think there should be no bad reviews makes me think of schools not giving grades because they don’t want kids to feel bad about getting a D or an F. It makes me think of removing kickball because kids get their feelings hurt. It makes me think of how so many of us don’t want to “hurt” people with realism so, instead, we think it’s “nicer” to pretend everyone is good at everything and everyone is special and very well liked.

    That’s not realistic.

    A good review means nothing if there are no bad reviews. No one will read reviews if, any time they see a book reviewed, they already know before reading it that it will be a good review.

    A bad review isn’t (well, shouldn’t be) considered “mean.” If an author doesn’t do a good job at some THING or other, the reviewer should note that. If the reviewer thinks the story is thin and/or predictable and therefore not enjoyable, the reviewer should say that.

    Could you imagine if all reviews were nice? Or if all reviewers only reviewed things they knew they would like? Movie critics, restaurant critics, book critics, art critics…every one of them only saying “It was GREAT!”

    It just doesn’t make sense to me.

    Why does anyone deserve to be coddled? Fledgling writer or not, if you’re putting your book out there, you’re putting it out there. It will be judged for what it is: something that’s been put out there for judgment.

    (None of the above has anything to do with Lacombe’s book – I’m speaking very generally. I haven’t read “Winter Games,” so I can’t comment on the book or on the review of the book.)

  • Sorry! Not John – that response was to Jared.

    (Apologies. If it helps, for some reason people always call me Karen. I even called another Kristen “Karen” – not long after correcting someone who called me Karen. Why these things happen is a mystery.)

  • Jared


    I appreciate your points and some of them are valid. I don’t mean to suggest that anyone needs to be coddled. On the other hand, they don’t need to be persecuted, either. If all reviews were positive, but they were highly sought because there were so few (sort of like the rare A+ in a course where most get Bs or lower) people might value them.

    When I’m looking for a movie to watch, I don’t look for bad reviews, I look for great ones. Those are the movies I watch. I supposed if people I know pan a movie, I might not watch it. But if I’m looking for a movie, I look at whether or not CERTAIN reviewers rated it highly.

    Appreciate the apology. A certain SOMEONE could learn from you.

  • Steven Reynolds

    In his recent Guest Post, John Lacombe says: “Negative reviews, even excellently-crafted ones, have limited value to an author … (Reviewers shouldn’t) expect that authors will alter their approach to writing based on reviews; constructive criticism is the job of an editor. Reviewers’ responsibility, rightfully, is to the consumer.”

    John goes on to explain that he draws inspiration from favorable reviews and detaches from bad ones. Good for him. I’m not going to criticize anyone’s personal creative process. However, I do think this view of reviewing is pretty limited.

    Andrew Riemer – a retired academic and author who has been reviewing books for newspapers for several decades – had this to say recently when asked who he writes for: “I am providing information for the intelligent, educated but not specialist reader … Beyond that audience, I am writing obliquely to the author, even more obliquely to publishers as well, and lastly, at a remote level, to what we might call the ‘literary culture’ – though to think that I have any kind of influence on that culture would be self-aggrandisement.” (Australian Author, August 2009).

    I agree. The reviewer’s primary focus is readers, but you’re also addressing authors, publishers, and the broader literary culture. When it comes to reviewing self-published work for a site like SPR, the focus on those last three is even greater. Why? Because I very much doubt consumers are coming to SPR looking to spend their money on the latest hot “indie” novel. SPR is a forum of enthusiasts more than consumers. So when I write a review for SPR, I have in mind the book’s author, aspiring authors, and the self-publishing community generally, as much as I do potential readers.

    When John says “constructive criticism is the job of an editor,” he’s absolutely right. Trouble is, almost every self-published book that arrives on my desk has deliberately by-passed the editorial process on the way. If the reviewer isn’t going to provide constructive criticism, who is?

    This is why, abrasive as it seems, calling out technical sloppiness does have its place. If an editor at a traditional publishing house, or a reader who has just bought your book, opens it up and finds it’s full of errors, most will toss it aside in anger or disappointment. The only reason I continue reading an error-filled novel is because I’ve committed to reviewing it. No author should feel their “creative spirit” is being crushed if I mention their mistakes. It has nothing to do with your creativity. It’s not a sign you’re untalented. It’s a sign you should hire an editor. Don’t expect readers to fork out good money for sloppy work.

  • Steven Reynolds

    Paul – I expect Megan replied as she did because the “Winter Games” controversy has seen several people obviously posting comments under false and multiple names. You could clear the whole thing up by telling us your real name and which university you work for.

    For the record, sloppy usage in blog posts and comments doesn’t worry me at all – this kind of writing is more akin to speech than formal prose. We don’t always speak in complete sentences, do we?

  • George Bernard

    Could it be that Paul doesn’t trust the confidentiality of this site anymore than I do? I mean, who is Megan? Who is Kristen? Megan doesn’t disclose her full name, yet you seem to know her. Otherwise, how could you “expect?” You don’t ask HER for her full name. How much behind the scenes discussion goes on at this site? How many people get to see our e-mail addresses? What kind of ethics are established? A couple of people wrote anonymous comments in the original post, probably trusting that they could do so, and then were outed and rebuked. Who cares what name they use.
    There’s no way in hell I’d give my work e-mail or identify any more about myself than I’ve done. George happens to be my name, but that’s all anyone is going to get.
    I got to wondering though. Did Carol Buchanan happen to tell you something like, “I don’t know any Paul…please find out who he is and where he teaches.” God forbid a colleague or friend disagrees with her.
    But think about it. If Paul knows her, and while you’re at it, take any of her other supporters, family and friends, do you really think they’re going to expose themselves to the potential wrath they could face?
    First, you’ve got to find a way to guarantee someone’s privacy, and while you’re at it, promise they don’t get bombarded with spam, too. After what Henry did to one of John’s alleged relatives, who was obviously pretty naive about how sites like this work, who in the world is going to trust you?

  • William

    Steve, Henry,

    George is right and I was wondering about this, myself. Let’s say, for illustration, that someone with Buchanan in the e-mail address, with a first name of Joe, changes it to Bob. His comments are not flattering and he wants to be anonymous. Makes sense. Arguably, it’s cowardly, but so what? But you happen to know that it’s a disenfranchised ex-husband or former colleague and you also know he used a different name. You then feel compelled to “out” that person, to more or less suggest that his comments are invalid because of his relationship status. This raises the question of ethics.

    There needs to be something in place more akin to how Amazon handles the issue. On Amazon, you have to have purchased the book using a credit card. Thus, you’ve proved you actually exist. When you post a review, you then have the option of using your real name, or choosing a pen name. Amazon implies that there’s more status, if you will, in the “real name” badge, but I don’t think it influences anyone other than people like Steve who want to establish a reputation as a reviewer–i.e. read my other reviews. Just as many people giving positive reviews as those giving negative ones use pen names. In this day an age, there are many, many reasons to be anonymous and as George points out, spam is one of them. No one I know has been burned by Amazon, because their success depends on upholding certain, ethical standards.

    I think you guys need to find a way to do the same.

  • I don’t get what you guys are getting at. Someone posts a comment on a blog using two different names in order to make it seem like more than one person is making the same point and this is OK? It’s lying. Not leaving a last name is fine. Anonymous comments are OK, even if annoying – though if the comment’s constructive, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to reveal yourself. But posting under several pseudonyms? The “question of ethics” is for the commenter, not the moderator of this site. I don’t think there’s a great ethical quandary about outing someone who’s being dishonest. For the record, I’m the only one who sees email addresses when someone makes a new comment. And the only discussion going on “behind the scenes” is between Carol, Steven, and I wondering what should be discussed in the next post.

  • Steven Reynolds

    I’m not seriously expecting anyone to reveal their real name if they’re not comfortable with that. The risk of harassment is real, and anonymous posting is half the fun of web forums. But there is a significant difference between: (1) engaging genuinely and in good faith in a conversation using a single pseudonym to protect your privacy; and (2) pretending to have qualifications or experience you don’t have in order to add weight to your argument, and/or using multiple pseudonyms to make it look like your argument has broad support when it doesn’t. In the first case you’re protecting yourself from vindictive fools. In the second case, you’re behaving like one. Only “Paul” know which case applies to him here.

    George – Carol Buchanan didn’t ask me to ask anything. She can do her own asking. I have no idea who “Megan” is, and only “expect” she replied in the way she did because the hilarious misuse of commas in Paul’s comment immediately raised the same question in my mind. I didn’t reply as Megan did because I suspected it would trigger three days of tedious bitching about the use of commas and the same tired old arguments about the evolution of language, pedantry, intellectual snobbery, declining standards of public education, blah blah blah… But if we’re heading down that path, here’s my sole contribution. If you want to learn effective use of the comma, go transcribe an essay by T.S. Eliot.

    William – At Amazon, you don’t need to have purchased the actual book you’re reviewing. You just need to have made a purchase from Amazon, as they use your credit card to verify your “real name”. Interestingly, Amazon introduced name verification to prevent authors posting multiple generous reviews about their own books, and their friends and family doing the same. I think it was also an attempt to monetize the review/comment community, because you have to buy something from Amazon if you want to participate. The apparent kudos associated with a “Real Name” badge was how they sold the scheme to reviewers, but it’s pretty meaningless. I would love all sites to have an identity verification feature similar to Amazon’s because it still allows people to use a single pseudonym if that’s what they prefer, or they can use their real name. But it would be technically difficult and expensive to implement, and would probably cause of lot of very useful community-based sites like SPR to close down their Comments. One of the things I love about the web is that anyone can setup a site, and anyone can participate. If the price of that is putting up with a few people who want to use lies and multiple identities to muddy the waters, then so be it.

  • William

    Okay, fair enough.

    I think to a certain extent, though, you’re trying to play “God” in judging who’s doing what and when. Really and truly, you don’t know. People these days have two or three e-mail addresses. Who’s to say Kristen isn’t Megan.. Or for that matter, Merilee isn’t Carol? And unless you put in safeguards to ensure that can’t happen, you shouldn’t selectively dump on whomever you decide warrants it. Because that’s what you’re doing.

  • (raises hand)

    I’m Kristen. When a name is red, you can click on it and it links to a web page.

  • Just thought I would weigh in here since my quote is being bandied about “Cheryl Anne Gardner recently wrote, “Sometimes critics can get a bit above themselves, and on occasion, they don’t always choose the best, most productive language, often overindulging the negative with a healthy dose of sarcasm, ridicule, and personal diatribe.”

    And Jared wonders, then, “What real purpose does a negative review serve?”

    Let me clarify my out of context statement here: A balanced review contains both positive and negative. Sometimes I find the well thought out negative to be more beneficial than the positive. A negative based on personal taste isn’t really all that helpful to me as a writer, but a negative that addresses the art and the craft of creative writing is helpful — very helpful. Commentary based on personal preference is helpful to readers. If a reader shares my preference then they can determine by my commentary whether or not they might like or hate a book. Even if I dislike a book, I try to write from the perspective of someone who might. Editorial issues are a different animal and need to be treated as such. I always mention editorial issues, if there are any, in my reviews. Awareness helps the author.

    What I was speaking to in my quote had nothing to do with positive or negative, it had everything to do with “Tone.” That is what I mean by “overindulging” the negative. Addressing the negative is one thing; hyper-focusing on it is another. A good reviewer can tell the difference by the tone and tack they choose to take — the words they choose to use in their review. There are academic standards for writing literary criticism, and Updike had more than a few words to say on the subject, as well. Review from the perspective of “author intent” and watch your tone. Do that and you can’t go wrong as a reviewer. If it’s sensationalism you want, and your audience likes that sort of thing, well then, snark away. We have all run across that kind of reviewer. As for me, I am more interested in the literature, so I check my emotions at the door prior to writing the review, as do most knowledgeable reviewers who have been in the game for a while.

    One last thing on comma usage. In creative writing, the comma doesn’t have hard and fast rules. European usage is different than American usage, and within the confines of creative writing, sometimes the comma is used to mimic the natural inflection of the spoken word. When I review, I look at comma placement with regard to poetic flow and clarity — not strictly according to some outdated rule. Commas are there to improve the readability of a sentence — a structural pause if you will — one that might express tonal quality and/or add clarity, and so they should be placed as necessary. I am used to some strange punctuation styles, as I read a lot of foreign literature, so I am not so hard about punctuation. I will, however, rant and rave about inept modifiers, which happens to be my own personal writing nemesis.

  • Laura

    Eloquently written, Cheryl Anne,

    I come to this site with “fresh eyes,” and I must say that the best pieces so far are yours–by far the best, followed by Steve Reynolds’, John Lacombe’s and Gareth Hayes’, the last of whom, while not a “professional” writer, nonetheless conveys intelligence, humility and a distinctive voice. Mr. Hayes is a perfect example of a person with strong writing potential, perhaps even a natural gift, who shouldn’t be put through the wringer on a first attempt. His use of vocabulary, in itself, is exceptional.

  • Steven Reynolds

    William – We have no way of knowing that Kristen isn’t Megan, or that Merrilee isn’t Carol, etc. unless they all have links to their own websites. Doubt about identities, and the occasional nonsense that comes with it, is the price we pay for an unrestricted forum. However, I don’t think it’s wrong to try to minimize that price by calling out people such as “Paul” when it seems pretty self-evident that they’re bullshitting.

    Henry, Carol and I started this thread because we wanted to engage the community in a serious conversation about reviewing. If someone wants to wander in here posing as a college professor so they can lob another grenade in the “Winter Games” comment war, nobody can stop them. That doesn’t mean we have to let it pass uncommented. If it turns out that “Paul” actually is a college professor, I’ll be the first to apologize (and then quietly ensure my kids never enrol in his writing class).

  • Now why did you drag me into this, Steven? I only just got here!

  • Steven Reynolds

    I’m innocent! See William at Comment 25.

  • Calvin

    Here’s a response from a former teacher who had the luxury of assigning stories and poems and papers to youngsters who were motivated, mostly.
    For an English teacher, there is nothing quite like a classroom full of potential scholars who have, in fact, read the bloody story. Those young readers may not have gleaned all the measures contained within, but no matter. Then the teacher has to go to work, eliciting what the readers themselves did not realize they had gleaned. Bandying the ideas is what makes teaching fun.
    But here’s a grim fact; sadly, more than a few in our profession heave sighs of relief when anyone–anyone!–has truly delved into the assigned pages.
    The problem with many book reviewers, and I’ll refrain from commenting specifically about Ms. Buchanan, is that they have not truly delved into the assigned pages. They lift much of their synopsis from the book jacket, or stop reading the book half-way through.
    The quality of the writing and the depth of thought, those are the elements that demand the reviewer’s attention, and short of such a reasoned review, then we have a posting that serves precious little purpose beyond adding to the reviewer’s nascent resume.

  • Right! Now why did William drag me into this, I wonder? 😛

    So I’ll weigh in with a comment to Cheryl, who said: “Review from the perspective of “author intent” and watch your tone. Do that and you can’t go wrong as a reviewer.” and “Even if I dislike a book, I try to write from the perspective of someone who might.”

    This, to me, is how we end up with positive reviews for truly appalling books. Taste and judgment aside, some books lack any positive qualities whatsoever. The reviewer’s job, in my opinion, is to tell potential readers what they thought of the book; their feelings, their impressions. From that, from the reviewer’s tone and words, the reader gets an impression not only of the book, but whether the reviewer responds to the same things the reader does.

    When I read a bland, sunshine and happies review, I might as well be reading the back cover blurb.

  • No Merrilee, that’s not entirely true. I think if you search down John Updike’s article on reviewing you’ll understand what I meant by that. What he meant by that. I discuss Updike’s rules as well as the Academics of reviewing in more depth here: http://podpeep.blogspot.com/2009/07/real-life-reviewers-cannegardner.html

    I might review a paranormal romance, and even though I am not particularly fond of the genre, I need to be able to understand why some readers are and what they look for so I can address them directly. In no way does that mean one gets a fluffy review. No one has ever accused me of writing a fluffy review.

    One of a primary things a good reviewer looks at is author intent. What was the author’s intent? And how well did they convey that on the page. To do that effectively takes a bit of skill. The Podpeeps don’t generally wind up with appalling books to review, simply because many submissions get nixed at the query. We require a proper literate query with a synopsis and a link to preview pages or excerpts. It’s pretty much the same submission requirements one would find when querying an agent. If the query and the synopsis are well written and interest us, we go out and look at the excerpts. If we like what we read, and it’s well written, then we agree to review it. Sometimes we go wandering around Lulu and other sites looking for books to read on our own, which means we read the previews extensively. We are also very candid when it comes to editorial issues and technical issues in a book.

    If you spend some time looking at The PodPeople reviews, you’ll notice that they are less than fluffy. Fluffy reviews do nothing for the reader or the author. We know it, and this site knows it as well. So do many other serious book bloggers and reviewers. Sure, you’ll find the fluffy reviews out there, but you can spot them a mile away, but we feel that sort of review is not in the best interest of the reader or the writer.

  • Yes, Yes Calvin.

    The depth of thought is particularly important as that is where the author’s intent lies. To get a good grip on the author’s intent a reviewer needs to be an interpretive reader. I have spoken to that on the Podpeople site as well at great length. And reading that way is where I find the most joy.

    What’s the author saying that might not be on the page? That is the question I ask myself first and foremost before I begin the review. Sometimes when reviewers focus too much on plot summary they miss the intent hidden within. You are right. It’s insight that makes a review good. Readers want it and so do author’s.

    Yes, we are all against what we call “the strip search” review. I don’t have to explain what that is.

  • William

    For anyone who missed Merrilee’s comment–#19 in the original thread–here it is:

    “I sympathise with Carol. Good on you for being honest, Ms Buchanen.

    As for the author, here’s a tip. You will get more negative reviews. Either accept them with good grace or STFU. The internet is a big place. By making a fuss, you just highlight your inexperience and arrogance, and deter potential readers from every picking up your work.”

    I think the content and presentation speaks volumes.

  • Thanks for the clarification, Cheryl; I misunderstood your reference to “author intent”. And yes, I agree that even if you’re not a fan of a particular genre, you can still read the book and comment on whether the author has ‘hit the mark’.

    William – I’m not getting your point. Speaks volumes about what?

  • You’re welcome Merrilee. I took a look at your site, very nice. Mind if we give you a shout out over at the peeps. We like to make our readers aware of places they might get reviewed, especially for e-fiction. So many reviewers want hardcopy, but with the e-book age upon us there is so much great digital only fiction out there. It’s nice to know of other review sites who are willing to take that on.

    I can do a post, so anything you want to say about your site and what you accept would be great. If you want, you can shoot that over to me in an email. cannegardner-podpeep at yahoo dot com

  • William

    Well, Merrilee, I thought it was obvious. In pondering what appeared to be a difference of perspective, I compared your style of expression to Ms. Gardner’s. Hers read like lyrical poetry. Your style is more primeval; i.e “Shut the f * * k up.”

  • Janet

    I wasn’t sure where exactly to post my thoughts, so I’ll put them here. I’d like to comment on the “controversy” itself.

    If you Google John Lacombe’s name, the first thing that comes up is the Self Publishing Review of his book Winter Games, followed by his “Response to the Controversy.” So my very first thought about all of this, before even reading the review, was What controversy?

    I don’t know John Lacombe personally, although I have met him a couple of times. He spoke about popular fiction to a large group of students at our high school—his alma mater– last spring. Afterwards, he met with individual classes and interacted with students on a more personal level.

    There are, as of this evening, 63 posts following Carol Buchanan’s review of Winter Games. I checked out other reviews on the SPR site, and most have one or two comments by other reviewers, which appear in red. That also means they’re linking to their own websites and own work. The only other review with numerous responses is that of No Mad by Sam Moffie. Frank Daniels rips the book to shreds, in almost comic fashion, and understandably gets a few irate responses. Subtract the five reviewers’ comments from the 11 posts, and that leaves 6.

    So, why the atypical interest in Winter Games?

    Here are my thoughts.

    One, Winter Games is an impressive debut novel. It has 24 positive reviews on Amazon as of today, 21 of which are five stars. When a book first comes out, it gets its fair share of reviews on Amazon from family and/or friends. That goes without saying. For the most part, however, these subside. Amazon reviews are still coming in for John Lacombe’s book, including a few since this “controversy” unfolded. I think the momentum extends far beyond the requisite posts by family or close friends. So that doesn’t explain the prolific response.

    Now, let’s look at the Amazon posts for No Mad. There are 3 five stars, 11 four stars, and 2 three stars. Chalk up a few to family and friends, and we’re left with a fairly diverse representation. The book may not be as bad as Daniels suggests. I’m guessing it’s somewhere in the middle.

    There really isn’t any “middle” with Winter Games. Carol Buchanan is the only person to post a negative review since May of 2008 when the book came out. The controversy stems in large part, because her take on a well-regarded book is totally off the mark. Enough has been said about the robot. But therein lies the lion’s share of the “controversy.”

    Since the book came out, John Lacombe has spoken, free of charge, to a number of high schools. He doesn’t just show up, give the perfunctory talk, and then leave, as so many authors do. He truly engages kids. Individual kids. Let me provide a little additional background color commentary.

    In high school, John was a top student, sports editor of the newspaper, King Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Judd Fry in Oklahoma, junior prom king and captain of the football team. Yeah, yeah, I know. So are a LOT of kids. But here’s what a lot of kids aren’t. John Lacombe was one of two athletes presented with the NH Interscholastic Athletic Association Award for sportsmanship.

    I am not surprised in the least that so many fans rallied to John Lacombe’s defense. He has appeared with little fanfare at various libraries and clubs, and put in long hours signing at bookstores. John spends just as much time talking to the children of his fans at these events, as he does the adults. He is an extremely likeable fellow. John’s sincerity is genuine, his affect, profound. Although people try, it’s hard to fake that.

    I believe this “controversy” arose because Winter Games is an impressive first novel that received one ill-fated, poorly worded review. Fans perhaps feared that Carol Buchanan’s review might kill John’s enthusiasm, and ultimately thwart the promising career of a talented, but also extremely likeable, young author.

  • I think it’s nice that people wanted to stand up for John by not only presenting their reasons for disagreeing with the review, but also by defending the author as a person. Nice, but unnecessary. Someone who took the time to write what so many are calling a great novel, and who then had the ambition to self-publish it, doesn’t seem like someone who would be discouraged by a single bad review.

    I think he may have been given too little credit, if that was the reason for so many people coming to his defense.

  • Sam Rutting


    I give John a ton of credit. I posted on SPR, because of the undeserved, venomous barbs that other reviewers were hurling John’s way. (As an example, see Merrilee’s quote in # 37, above.)

    Recently, President Obama’s supporters protested the “You lie!” comment by Rep. Joe Wilson. Wilson subsequently apologized. There just comes a time when supporters stand up for what’s right.

    For the record, no one has apologized to John.

  • Sam,

    Apologized to John for what? Has he been personally attacked in some way? I say this not to be difficult, but because I don’t think there’s any reason he’s owed an apology. Or do you think Carol should apologize for what many of John’s supporters are suggesting was a sloppy reading?


  • Sam Rutting

    No, no, no Kristen, I’m not suggesting that Carol should apologize. Not at all.
    If you follow the thread, you’ll see that a number of critics assumed, wrongly, that John was behind the flurry of responses to Buchanan’s review, and wrote their comments as though they were talking to him. Angela Wilson even wrote an article that led off with an accusation that John had “taken to the internet” to solicit family members to respond on his behalf, as Hoffman had done. She later changed the article and removed the thread of comments that had protested her actions. But she didn’t apologize. If you accuse someone wrongly, the decent thing to do is to make amends.
    Other reviewers even suggested that John’s work could be blackballed in the future, because of what his supporters had written. Steve Reynolds eventually disassociated himself from THAT group and said he looked forward to reading John’s next book. The silence on the part of the others, however, is deafening.

    If you read Gareth Hayes’ posts, you’ll see that what he objected to most was the extent to which John was pilloried for events over which he had no knowledge or control.

  • I see. Thanks for explaining, Sam.

  • Steven Reynolds

    I think John will be waiting a long time for an apology from anyone here, “Sam”. It’s been an interesting 6-week conversation, but the truth still isn’t clear.

    Did John encourage his family and friends to post on his behalf? Who knows? John had the perfect opportunity to issue a flat denial in his Guest Post of September 18, and he didn’t take it.

    I’ve seen no evidence John encouraged anyone to defend him, and no evidence that he didn’t. All we know for sure, thanks to Henry, is that several people who share John’s surname chose to defend him here under false and multiple names. There are various conclusions one could draw from that, as the conversation to date has demonstrated.

    Frankly, I don’t care either way. As I’ve said already, none of this will have any bearing on my decision to read and review John’s next novel. I’ll read and review it because I think he’s a talented writer and I’m really keen to see what he does next. (I’m quietly hoping it involves robots.)

    If John thinks he needs an apology from anyone, he can ask for it. If he wants one from me, he’s had my e-mail address for months.

  • Cathy Lacombe

    On August 19, I e-mailed John about Carol Buchanan’s review. This is John’s e-mail response to me, verbatim:

    LOL, well, to each their own, I guess. It’s annoying that this comes up when someone searches for my book now, but what can you do. Just remember in the future that I don’t want to read bad reviews, so don’t pass them on to me if you see them. It’s funny: I can’t tell whether she disliked the book enough to maintain extreme sarcasm throughout the review about Sarah being a robot, or if she didn’t actually read the whole thing. Oh well, it’s done, let’s just forget about it. DO NOT try to find a way to respond to this. Some times you just get kicked in the groin.

    To Steve and Henry: The word “several” has been used more than once. Who knows what several means to people. There were two–James and Cathy. John is an only child, by the way. So, if people were envisioning legions of Lacombes responding, there weren’t. You should be fair and honest about that. I shouldn’t have responded to the review because John asked me not to. I did. It’s done. I regret it. Diego is spanish for James, so it’s a bit of a stretch to call that dishonest, especially since he said nothing critical about Ms. Buchanan. James is essentially Will Sutton, and Diego spoke from the heart in his comments.

    It was dishonest and wrong for ME to post negative comments as “Marion.” For that, I am truly sorry. I apologize both to Carol Buchanan and to Henry Baum. What I wrote as “Elizabeth” however, were supportive comments of John, simply under a pseudonym.

    John has chosen not to address this specifically. I respect that. I can’t remain quiet about it any longer. If this means I have to weather an onslaught of written attacks on this site, so be it.

  • To Cathy Lacombe:

    It takes courage to apologize to someone in as public a venue as this. I accept your apology.

    Carol Buchanan

  • While I certainly don’t want to get into ancient graduate school debates on literary criticism, I disagree strongly that a reviewer should consider the author’s intention. That’s called the “intentional fallacy,” because no one can ever truly know what an author’s intention is or was. On the basis of the text, readers can’t know what an author’s intent was, and sometimes the author doesn’t know, either.

    If you read Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” you’ll have to figure out from the subtext that Hemingway was talking about a woman reluctant to have an abortion. It’s never overtly stated. Then consider when the story was written, during a time when being pregnant and not married was disgraceful, and abortion was doubly so. Did Hemingway intend for the man to be unsympathetic? That’s how many people read the story. Did Hemingway intend to applaud the man for standing by his girl friend during a difficult time? Or did he intend to portray an unfortunate situation between two people?

    I think valid arguments can be constructed for more than one interpretation of a story, a novel, or a poem. In the final analysis, all a reader has are the words the author wrote and the particular order in which they appear. Given metaphor, simile, and other rhetorical devices writers can bring to bear in order to convey a feeling to the reader, it’s no wonder different people will interpret fiction in different ways.

    Sometimes, when I give readings of my novel, people tell me what they got out of a certain passage, or how they interpreted something I wrote. When I’m surprised they found that in the book, they often respond, “Isn’t that what you intended?” And I honestly won’t know what I intended. Yes, I can say I intended the plot to go this way, to some degree, but I might have had a different effect of emotion in mind when I used a particular metaphor. It’s not that a lot of time has gone by and I’ve forgotten, but that I can go so deep down when I write that emerging from the world of the novel is like coming to the surface. It’s being immersed in what Robert Olen Butler calls the “fictive dream.” I call it the world of the novel. Same thing.

    Most fiction writers experience the characters taking over the story and carrying it in a direction they did not at first envision. Or a character they thought was the villain becomes the hero. Writers constantly discover aspects or dimensions of a character they didn’t expect to find.

    To say that a reviewer considers or should consider the writer’s intent is to assume that the process of writing fiction is far more analytical than it is. It’s not analytical at all. It comes from deep inside the subconscious mind, and the conscious in many cases has little control. Saying that largely depends on the writer, but in the case of many writers the subconscious is where their best work comes from.

    Fiction writers may well begin by intending to tell a certain story, but find themselves at the end with something quite different, without knowing quite how they got there.

    So if even the author can’t say what the intention was, how can the reviewer?

  • To all:

    Let no one scold Ms. Lacombe for anything she may have written or said. You will do no one a service, and I will not support any criticism of her.


  • Carol, I don’t think that’s what Updike meant when he mentions the words “wishes to do” as in the authors “intent” in his 5 principles for reviewing:

    From John Updike: A Well Respected Literary Critic’s Perspective

    1. Try to understand what the author wishes to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
    2. Give enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
    3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.
    4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.
    5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

    I don’t think he was talking about interpretation of the underlying theme of the story or its symbolic aspects. I think he was speaking more broadly to the structure and genre with respect to writing style choices and dramatic license not “deeper meaning.” Every story means something different to every individual. Yes Carol, I remember that Hemmingway story; it’s one of my personal favorites. That story was diliberately written in the dramatic style and is emotionally ambiguous, that was his intent and he succeeded. I think I spoke about it in one of my articles this year as well. But I think Updike was taking about: Did the author intend to write an action packed thriller say along the lines of a James Bond type story, where very little is ultimately believable in reality. Or was the story supposed to be true to life? I think that was what Updike meant when he said “attempt” and what the author “wished to do.” Interpreting what the author meant is an entirely different discussion and really irrelevant to a review because it’s entirely subjective. I like to say what I think a story meant in my reviews, what I got out of it on that level, but it’s just my personal opinion so it affects the review very little in the long run.

  • I think where the confusion lies Carol is that “intent” is a multifaceted term when it comes to literature. Calvin and I were discussing “depth of thought” and intent with regards to hidden meaning and reader interpretation of the story, and Merrilee and I were discussing intent with regard to genre and styalistic choices as in: what “kind” of story did the author intend to write and did they hit the mark?

    I suppose I might not have articulated that well enough so that people could understand the two different kinds of intent. I hope this post clarifies it a bit more.

  • Steven Reynolds

    I think both kinds of intention Cheryl mentions are important to think about in reviewing, and both are ultimately unknowable. Barthes is right. Authors are effectively “dead” to us the moment their words hit the page. There is no reviving them.

    This doesn’t matter, though. We can make assumptions about intention, and we do this all the time. Interpretation requires these kind of assumptions, and authors rely on us making them. Communication of any kind relies on us making them. Confusion and misunderstandings show we aren’t always correct.

    Quick and superficial assumptions about intention are no substitute for close reading of the text itself and deep reflection. Here’s an example. In 2003, one of my favourite novelists, John Scott, released a novel entitled “Warra Warra” (the Australian aboriginal words for “Go away”, which were, appropriately enough, the first recorded words spoken by an aborigine to a white invader). Because the novel was subtitled “A Ghost Story”, involved ghosts and violence, was packaged by the publisher to look a bit like a thriller, and was less obviously literary than Scott’s previous novel, one critic assumed the author had tried to write a horror bestseller – and slammed it. What (I think) Scott had actually intended was a fantastical inversion of a dark moment from Australia’s colonial history as a way of talking about our contemporary national identity. That’s quite a difference.

  • OMG, don’t get me started on bad marketing.

    I don’t pay any attention to marketing when deciding what movie or book to watch or read. If I had paid attention to marketing, I would never have read Fight Club. And don’t get me on the I am Legend movie remake ruining a book rant either.

    Right now I have been eyeing up “Drood” but it seems it may have also been a victim of some off marketing. I think the publisher screwed up the cover copy as well. It’s listed in the Horror genre, but from my samplings, I don’t think that’s what it is at all in the general definition of horro, and the negative reviews seem to indicate something went very wrong. From the pages I have read, it’s more of a psychological character study and the narrator is quite a loathsome fellow, but the marketing seems soley based upon a very small technicality in the novel. Many readers claim they were misled.

    So yes, I agree, reviewers have to be very careful. They should try to understand the authors intent sans the marketing hype, and that, like Steven says, takes a very careful reading and deep reflection. I may not review more than one or two books a month, but the ones I do, I take great care with, especially if they are out of my genre comfort zone. In some cases, I have even read a review book a second time.

    In American Psycho, some readers found the narrator’s endless descriptive content to be irritating and disruptive to the flow of the story. I thought it seemed natural, considering the narrator’s obsessive psychotic personality, and even though the story was horrfic and thrilling and ludicrous all at the same time, the satirical element overruled any judgements I would have made based on the content with regard to believability and its relation to reality.

    I think what we are all trying to say here is that it is just as difficult to be a critic as it is to be a writer. Both are flawed to some extent. What can you do?

  • My initial impression is that this whole thing has gotten way out of hand. My own approach as a reviewer is that I’m working for the average reader and not doing “criticism”. Is this book worth your time, attention and money? I think it a fair question and I don’t much care about mechanical issues (unless they are so prolific that they distract and pull me out of the story.) I want to see a clean narrative thread and characters who engage my sympathy and, in the end, a totality that informs me about the human condition. Is that too much to ask?

    The problem with this episode is that some well meaning fans decided to harass Carol Buchanan for doing her job. This is simply unacceptable and actually harms the interests of the author they seek to defend and promote. And it has been harassment, pure and simple rising to the level of bullying.

    In the end it is not Carol who will suffer for this, but John LaCombe, but failing to control “his people”.
    The more they go on, the more exposure he gets, but of the “negative sell” variety. I’ve never actually met Carol Buchanan. We know each other from the Amazon Shorts boards and then from other online venues like this. I respect her as a fellow professional. I like her book enough to have read it twice, which is the “Gold Test” for me. I am certain that she does not deserve this portion of BS that has come her way because she was honest in her opinions.

    I’ve also not actually met Henry Baum yet. I signed on for this site because he was doing something that needed to be done and which I do not have time to do, and now we have this very lively virtual community. Carol and Henry and the rest of the contributors, none of whom I’ve ever had so much as cup of coffee with, are now friends of mine. But I wrote a book on Virtual Reality and have long been comfortable with virtual communities of colleagues. Most trade magazine staffs run the same way.

    Henry will let critics rattle on here because it’s free copy and that’s simply gold to any editor. But those who attack us for simply being honest really are beating a dead metaphor. Every author, self-published or not, needs reviews, and as a consumer, what you really want to do is to read all the reviews. The only reviews I ever object to are the ones that are done where it is quite obvious that the reviewer has not actually read the entire book and is cribbing from jacket copy, or a press release, or has read selectively. I do not object in public, but send a letter or e-mail to the editor to warn them that they’ve employed someone who is cheating them and their readers. I’m not going to add fuel to the flames because I figure that one bad review in a dozen good ones will be regarded on the basis of the collective opinion of those reviewers.

    I’m still sending out review copies. I’m sending out one today in fact. Mr. LaCombe should do likewise and tell his many fans to consider the whole, and not any individual part If he has confidence in his work, that should suffice. A review is one person’s opinion, nothing more.