A Book Reviewer Reviews Reviewing

by Judi Goldenberg

Writing book reviews is my way of putting an abundance of opinions to good use.

While raising a family and earning a living as a teacher, a market researcher, and finally a marketing and communications manager, I wrote book reviews on the side. A voracious reader and vigorous opinionator, I never tired of receiving advance copies in the mail, even when (in the days before bubble wrap) they came in envelopes sealed by staples that drew blood when unfastened, unleashing a shower of cardboard fluff.

I wrote my first book review for a newspaper editor desperately seeking a writer who could spell. The editor printed the piece as written, omitting two words: “cinematographic” and “screwing.”

“We are,” she explained, “a family newspaper.”

Understanding the limits, I went on to opine in print about unmatched masterpieces like Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and undying blockbusters like Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. I learned more from readers than they learned from me. Book review readers are savvy readers, I discovered. They read opinions for entertainment and to stimulate their thinking. They use facts and their own perspectives to make up their minds.

When the Forecasts editor at Publisher’s Weekly needed a reviewer for unliterary literature she hired me. That made two outlets for my opinions, which worked out well since readers were generally more receptive than family and co-workers. Thanks to PW, I added romances, thrillers, westerns, historical romance, gothic thrillers, and one romantic historical western gothic thriller to my reviewing roster. Once I got used to working with fact checkers, I welcomed the respite from Joyce Carol Oates.

Then my newspaper editor retired. The book reviews were moved from the editorial section to behind the television listings. A new editor informed me she wanted more opinion, less fact. In my search for alternatives, I turned to the Internet.

Talk about an abundance of opinions. I found a cacophony of cleverness online, extremes of delight and derision, all limitlessly confident. One reviewer bragged he never read the book he was panning and never would.

The Internet, it seems, changes the nature of book reviewing by presenting authentic and inauthentic, thoughtful and careless, expert and non-expert, opinions without distinguishing among them. Some say it renders expert opinion obsolete.

I have an opinion about that. I believe democratization of book reviewing is not a bad thing, as long as readers exercise the judgment they’ve shown me. I don’t mind if publications offering expert opinion feel pressured to make their reviews as fresh and energetic as the online competition. I just hope that, regardless of venue, emphasis remains on critical thinking and not on criticism.

Of all the opinions I’ve shared over thirty years of reviewing, the best, readers tell me, was not mine. Discussing Philip Roth, I quoted my Jewish mother’s take on his Jewish mother caricature: “You have to be really sick,” my mother concluded, “to write something that true.” It was not an expert view, but it was incisive, pithy, evocative, and accurate: everything a review should be, and perfectly spelled.

Judi Goldenberg was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. She first came to North Carolina for graduate school and returned years later with husband Joe for their retirement. She’s been a college teacher, a market researcher at an ad agency, a marketing analyst and a communications specialist at a bank. Her book reviews have appeared in the Richmond News-Leader and Times-Dispatch, American Book Review, and continue to appear in Publisher’s Weekly. She’s also published short stories in small literary journals. For two years, she was a local columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times.