Writers suffer a strange duality. We work in private but the product of our work is very public. Must of us are shy people but we’re often asked to speak in front of large crowds. We can be rather arrogant at times (what’s more arrogant than thinking your thoughts ought to be interesting to the throngs?). As creative types, we can be terribly insecure. This tension between the public and private in a writer’s life can lay traps for us that can lead to some embarrassing missteps.
For example, you might be giving a speech some day and you might be extremely tempted to call the work of another author overrated. I suggest that you refrain. Saying nasty tidbits about other writers can come back to haunt you in a big way. The hack you malign one year could come out with a major best seller the next and you’ll find yourself in the position of having slighted a powerful person who has the ear of the media. Even if said writer remains obscure, speaking ill of him casts an unfavorable light on you and can make you seem as though you were sucking on a bunch of sour grapes. When speaking in public, I have found it best not to suck at all.
Just as speaking ill of another writer is not advisable, writing reviews, even in respected journals or newspapers, can be fraught with peril. Plenty of aspiring novelists begin their career reviewing fiction in trade publications, but I humbly submit a caveat to this practice: a mean review can be a veritable boomerang, especially if the author finagles a way to review your next book. (This has happened. For real. I won’t name names.) Even worse, a nasty review can offend a potential editor, who might have poured her heart and soul into a book only to have it maligned by you. Editors have long memories and might not consider a piece of fiction by a writer who has offended them.
If reviewing fiction is something you feel called to do, or if it helps you pay your bills, keep your reviews honest but civil, and read any book very carefully if you plan on giving it a negative review. You especially don’t want to be in the position of excoriating a book while revealing through poor fact checking that you weren’t paying attention. Just know, I have never, ever heard of an editor or agent reading a review and thinking to herself, “This review is delightfully pithy… I wonder if this reviewer has a novel?” If your true passion is writing fiction, it might be best for you to concentrate on your own writing and leave the criticism to the critics.
That said, once you’re published, you’re likely to have an online presence on sites like Goodreads where book reviews are the name of the game. I am not particularly active online, and I should be, but I have always made it a policy to only write a review of books that I think are truly excellent. About the books I don’t love, I am silent. I am a believer in the power of good vibes. I try to keep my public persona positive and sunny, because life, and careers, are too short to waste them spreading bad vibes.