The indiePENdents being an international group, my email rings around the clock. At many a time in the middle of the night, I answer.
Last night, it was about the qualification of reviewers, ours, those on indiePENdents.org. I answered by asking about the qualifications of mainstream reviewers, who anoints them and why. Ours are professional writers and editors, probably at least as good, I said.
In the morning, letters to The Sunday New York Times Book Review made me take the compliment back. Four out of six letters addressed reviewer’s inaccuracies, misrepresentations, or lack of understanding of the books they were writing about.
One of them pointed how the reviewer of A Difficult Woman -- a history book about Lillian Helman by Alice Kessler-Harris -- made the review a polemic against Hellman’s character and took the opportunity to express agreement “with McCarthyite purges that Hellman abhorred.” The reviewer also referred to the work as an “unsparing psychological examination of Hellman and [Dashiel] Hammett”, to which the author responded that “there are no psychoanalytical categories involved in my biography.”
Another reader speaks of a “scathing and unwarranted” review of Anna Quindlen’s Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. “I defy anyone" -- the letter goes on to say -- "to read the book and not find it uplifting, humorous and personal on some level. The reviewer definitely sounded churlish, negative and sarcastic ... The book isn’t just an honest and thoughtful look at the good things that age and experience bring most people. I think I am in good company in having eased into my older age with a lovely sense of wisdom, humor and comfort -- exactly what the reviewer does not have”.
As one letter says: “The Times should have assigned this book to someone prepared to evaluate a historian’s attempt to interpret Hellman both as a creature and defier of her world."
The author of the novel Miss Fuller,” April Bernard, says of another Times review: “The reviewer’s assertion ... is belied by Fuller’s sentiments in her actual letters ... That the reviewer could mischaracterize these urgent personal and political matters ... amazes and confounds."
To which I would add that an author could trust even everyday book readers with the ability to make a sensible evaluation better than some mainstream critics.