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May 4, 2001

Last week, a Letter to the Editor appeared beside this column expressing dismay about a book review in particular and the Mail’s book reviewer in general.

The letter went on and on with a flawed argument, but it did prompt me to reflect upon book reviews.

First, though, there is some irony in the letter’s author, David Wright, demanding “legitimacy” and professional credentials in order for a reviewer to appear in print.

Mr. Wright is a prolific writer of letters to the editor about local politics, often straying into ad hominem attacks similar to his venting against the Mail’s Pat Windolph. The Mail continues to publish his opinions without addressing his credentials to the reading public.

Book reviews are similar to letters. There is never any question but that a review is one writer’s opinion.

Literary reviews are problematic. Let’s visit the real world. First, Pat Windolph is a good, thoughtful writer and well-read to boot. This puts her firmly on book reviewer turf. In fact, when Mr. Wright first read the review, nothing about it made him think that Pat was anything but “a critic with at least some critiquing credentials.” He was correct.

After reading his long letter, I can’t say what constitutes “critiquing credentials.” I don’t think he can, either. “Professional” critics are among the most negative reviewers around. His appeal to “experts” is almost funny in the context of his presumption to speak authoritatively about matters of local government and politics.

I believe he has every right to do so, and doing so is reasonable. And without question, it is Pat’s right to review a book, or maybe one of Wright’s videos, as she sees fit, and it is reasonable for the Mail to print it.

When I read the review in question, about Christine Smith’s tribute to John Denver, “A mountain in the wind: an exploration of the spirituality of John Denver,” I figured that Christine and other Denver fans would be upset, but I read nothing in the review that wasn’t reasonable.

Of course, someone else might have written a more positive review and been equally reasonable. You can check the book out from the library and decide for yourself.

If Mr. Wright had countered Pat’s review with a substantial argument of his own, he would have done far more toward righting the perceived “wrong” than he has done with his letter. He might have argued that since someone somewhere would have reviewed the book positively, then the Mail might make a policy of finding such a person to review a particular book.

This would have been more legitimate than any of his arguments, personal attacks, and veiled threats about what he might do if an insufficiently credentialed person gave his work a poor review.

The problem of positive versus negative reviews is continually discussed in the book world. I have reviewed books for the journal “Colorado Libraries” and know that other publications have similar policies: If you can not review a book positively, then return it and they’ll find someone who can, or absent such a person, they will skip it. I have returned one book.

Not all publications have such a policy, and with good reason. Many librarians and booksellers bemoan the ubiquitous positive review. Such reviews are suspect. A good negative review tells one much more than a bad Pollyanna one. A forced smile does nobody any good.

Mr. Wright seemed more concerned with his own self-righteous indignation than with the presumed effects of the negative review of the John Denver tribute. In his letter, he admits that the book is translated into five languages and is “selling hot and heavy on an international level.”

Surely he is not proposing that mere success should influence a review. No, Mr. Wright was merely peeved. But Christine Smith does not need him to stand up for her or her work. Apparently, she is doing quite well on her own.

It would be a sad and bland world here if we were to insist on a press that merely plays cheerleader.

A final note: I just reviewed a book for “Colorado Libraries” entitled “Introduction to indexing and abstracting,” and the author quoted a John Denver song in the text. I had to laugh.


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