I pontificated this into a thread on Facebook, and it sounded more or less worthwhile to me, so I thought I would copy it here and expand on it a bit.
I disagree with the idea of “I won’t review a small press book I didn’t like.” First of all, unless a book is complete garbage, a mixed review that attempts to tease out what does and does not work will often make me want to read a book much more than bland praise. If a book has sufficiently engaged someone that they will spend the time to think through their feelings on it, then it is often a deep book that I will find compelling in some ways (and maybe I will like it more than them). It’s usually when we are wrestling with our feelings that we produce the best criticism.
Secondly, every author needs rigorous and honest critics. None of us write perfect books, we can all profit from people making intelligent critiques of what we have done. Authors only become better writers if people take the time to critique weak spots and help make their work more rigorous and in-depth.
All that said, hatchet jobs may have some place (yes, they’re fun, and it comes with the territory when you’re as big as Auster), but they are rarely of any lasting value for anyone—critic, author, or audience.
I do understand the idea of just letting a book die from lack of attention, and certainly this is something that tends to happen in the great majority of cases, intentionally or not. I don’t necessarily disagree—oftentimes I do this myself when something just doesn’t seem interesting enough to critique in any meaningful way. But if the author is someone I’ve cared enough to take an interest in, then in almost all cases it will be worth both of our time to sit down and write out my honest feelings about the book. I will have gained from the rigor of working out my thoughts, and the author will gain from the second perspective on his/her work.
My review of Javier Marías’s latest novel, Thus Bad Begins, is a good example. Certainly it is not a bad book, and I could have given it a rather honest if bland positive review. But of course if you look around the web you will see many, many such reviews of that book. There was no need for another. And, in fact, I felt that there was some ground for critique: yet, Marías is a gifted writer who would be hard-pressed to write a bad book, but this one was rather weak when placed against his other novels, and it is filled with repetitions of things he has said better elsewhere. (Also, for whatever reason, I found the typical Marías sexism must more jarring in this one.)
So I gave it a mixed review, partially to be completely honest, partially as a way to impart my feelings to other writers who are not as good as Marías but who may gain something from reading an honest critique of him, and partially to tell Marías himself that he’s beginning to repeat himself. (I have no idea if the message ever reached Marías, although I do know he has read and admired other things I have written about him.) Obviously, in the small press sphere the chance is much, much greater that a writer will read your critique, and possibly take it to heart.
Being the author of two published books and many, many essays, I know that reading a negative critique of your work is a bracing experience. I have read negative reviews of my own work. It’s not a fun thing. I take other people’s feelings seriously, and I do not criticize a fellow writer lightly. When I do critique, I try to do it with dignity and respect.
But I do think that the shock of reading a negative review of one’s own writing does wear off fairly quickly—what is much less ephemeral are the lessons you learn about your own work, which are not things you can figure out for yourself. These lessons take your arguments and art to a deeper level, they force you to be more rigorous, and they keep you honest. In short, they make you a better writer and probably a better person.
Of course, honest criticism is also the mainstay of the writer/editor relationship, and that is one of the great sources of improvement for a writer. It is not a common thing to find an editor with the time and capabilities to truly analyze your work word by word and to make deep and lasting critiques, but every time I have come upon such an editor I have gained greatly. It may be in many ways easier and safer to just blindly praise and copyedit as an editor (and sometimes this must be done, particularly in the small press world), but you are always doing your writers a service if you give them a rigorous and deep response to the work they have taken so much pain and effort to labor over.