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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

The Reader as Reviewer

The egaletarian nature of the internet has been known for some time: we all have a voice, and, we can express our opinions to the world. Whether someone is listening, or even knows your voice is out there, well, that’s another subject altogether.

In a recent post on getting no reviews for “What Beauty” from the establishment reviewers (ie., newspapers, magazines, and popular websites), I lamented the small-press lockout that the reviewers play. One commenter on this essay-lament said that BigPublishing has created a scare throughout the reviewing world because of the advertising dollars spent in the dying print journalism publications, and therefore some payback is expected: review our books only, or else!

This situation doesn’t exist among readers. Book readers have had the chance to review books online since 1999, at least, and in some print venues, for at least a hundred years. They — these non-professional reviewers — sometimes wax eloquently, and other times give “book reports.” Nevertheless, they are the common voice that disseminate LIKES and DIS-LIKES in such an idiosyncratic manner that, outside the professional review journals (NYRB, TLS, London Review of Books, and BOOKFORUM), you can find some refreshing voices talking about good literature.

Some readers don’t know how to review a book. Others have a take-no-prisoners approach to their reviews, spewing damnation and invective with no moticum of evidence presented. Many seem to go counter to what John Updike wrote eruditely about the reviewer’s responsibility: (1) don’t give away the ending or spoil important moments; (2) “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt” (I got one of these, for my first novel, The Village Wit); and, most importantly, (3) “If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?” (Amazon reviewers relish in this inequity.)

Yes, idiosyncracies.

Then, of course, there is the reader who sees more of what the writer intended than even the writer thought was done. I have had just such a review recently, from a Smashwords reader of my latest novel. He wrote:

By the time his protagonist, sculptor Minus Orth, has decided to base his latest series of works on characters from classic lore, Beyer has already given his reader enough clues about the importance of the ancient Greek epics to his modern-day vision. There are chariots rolling down the streets of Manhattan, wars of wits with inscrutable fathers, aloof gods playing games with us mortals, wounded warriors waking to visions of beautiful temptresses, and a fascinating hero-in-disguise plot that unravels with amazing expertise. Orth’s ambition to succeed in the art world is a Herculean fight in our secular age, and he does battle with adversaries as dangerous in their way as anything Odysseus faced: critics, rivals, and a mentor he’s not sure he can trust.

Thanks for the accolade, Steve Farrell (himself a writer, if you hadn’t guessed; you can read the entire review here). Essentially, I hadn’t planned Minus Orth’s father to be a mythic figure, or the FaceCards (a quartet of card-playing arristocrats) as Gods-on-High messing with the pavement-bound mortals. But, within the realm of reason, as the Greek gods were themselves invented by mortals to describe life on Earth against the heavens they, lowly mortals, didn’t understand, it’s easy to see how regular, everyday life can be seen as bits of an epic.

While I’ll take good music from whichever direction I hear it, I’m humble enough to understand that I mustn’t take this review too seriously. Whom do I really believe — the reviewer who loves me, or the reviewer who says “he doesn’t have what it takes”? I have to believe in myself, and my writing, and, naturally, in the characters I create for the stories I write.

From the readers’ perspective, they are only reflecting their tastes, their knowledge, their likes & dislikes, and their way of judging good writing from bad, strong characters from weak, or even too-long-a-story from the-beach-book. I know this, and also I’m part of this, both as a professional reviewer, and as a non-professional blogger.

Ultimately, what I find is that readers are looking at the books they read and see something of themselves in them, or something of the world in which they live. Or they see nothing that they recognize. Both are mirrors, but, where one is looked at into the light of day, another is looked at into a prism, where all that dissected color glosses the true palate.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

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