My editor describes writing a book as an act of faith. We writers spend years crafting our prose. We hope someone will publish it. We hope someone will read it.
And then we spend a whole lotta time gritting their teeth over the reviews.
Not because we fear being panned or praised, but because most reviews come waaaaaaaay out of left field and don't have a whole lot to do with the book being reviewed.
More often than not (there are some fine exceptions) the reviewer will criticize an author for not writing the book that reviewer wanted him/her to write. And, too, reviews almost always contain factual errors that distort the content of the book.
Both have happened with the reviews of my new book, Ambitious Brew. Here's one example.
Don's a nice guy, a good human being, and an excellent writer. But in this review, he's annoyed that I "dissed" Philadelphia and its colonial brewing heritage.
Never mind that I offered readers an explanation as to why I opened the story in Milwaukee in 1844 rather than, say, Philadelphia in 1744. (Never mind that I explained that to Don in person!) He's annoyed that I didn't write a history of ale in colonial Philadelphia.
Those are shaky grounds for critique. If Don wants to read a book about ale in colonial Philadelphia, fine! But it's hardly fair for him to criticize me for not writing that book for him.
But that's part of the deal. Writers write what they want, and reviewers are entitled to be as accurate, inaccurate, snarky, or adulatory as they please.
And I'm entitled to ignore them. It's not my job to correct their errors. Not my job to criticize their views of my book. (Except to point out the chronic illogic of the average reviewer and his/her work.)
I'm more amazed, however, when the review BECOMES the book. When people conflate the author, the book, the reviewer, and the review.
A case in point concerns the review of Ambitious Brew written by Doug Brown (whom I've never met and don't know) and posted here at Powells.com. You can read the review and the commentary on it here.
Like most reviews, it contains a number of errors (misspelled words, mis-readings of the book's content, etc.). Those are Brown's errors, not mine. And it's his review, not mine, so I'm not going to correct the mistakes.
But nowadays, and thanks to the Internet, people who read reviews often post their own comments about it.
Sure enough, almost as soon as Brown's review appeared, so did (mostly disparaging) comments written by people who had read the review.
What's interesting, however, is that the people who commented on the review had not read my book. That didn't stop them from conflating the book and its author (me) with the review and the reviewer (Doug Brown): the commentators assumed that HIS errors were MY errors, and that his review represented an accurate portrayal of the contents of my book.
A few days later, Brown's review and those comments showed up at other websites and forums, where others added their own disparaging comments.
The conflation of book, author, and reviewer continued. One commentator assumed that Maureen Ogle had written the review of Brown's book. Another commentator believed that I had written the review of my own book.
In short, some people have no qualms about commenting on books they've never read, and others have a tough time distinguishing the difference between a book's content and a review of that content.
Why does this happen?
Here's one theory: Over the past fifteen or so years, American teachers have devoted considerable classroom time to building "self-esteem" in their students. They do so not by asking students to establish and accomplish goals, but by encouraging them to express their opinions.
As near as I can tell, however, kids aren't being taught to construct a reasoned argument before they spout off. They're simply encouraged to speak up and thereby feel better about themselves.
So there's at least a generation and a half of people who can't tell the difference between a reasoned argument and a random, illogical opinion. Not because they're stupid, but because no one ever taught them the difference (to say nothing of how to read carefully).
So I'm not surprised when people confuse a reviewer with a review, or that they feel entitled to criticize the content of a book even if they haven't read it.
Getting back to the comments posted about Doug Brown's review, you'll notice that eventually I posted my own statement.
Why? Because one of the commentators impugned my professional integrity. He accused me (as have several reviewers) of being a shill for the Big Brewers.
Now, that got my attention. Nothing, and I mean nothing, matters more to me than my personal and professional integrity.
But I also realize that people who challenge my credibility don't understand what historians do. I suspect that many of the commentators who weighed in on the review believed that the contents of my book are my opinion, rather than the result of several years of research and careful documentation.
History is not fiction. History is based on facts, evidence, and documentation.
But because most people don't read history or care about it, and because "opinions" have become routes to self-esteem, some readers assume I'm expressing a random opinion spun out of thin air rather than an argument that rests on fact and evidence.
And, too, we live in a world where memoirists fictionalize their lives; where biographers concoct conversations with their subjects; where journalists fabricate stories ? and where, in recent years, several high-profile historians have plagiarized or fictionalized the contents of their books.
No wonder readers can't tell the difference between a book review and the book itself!
No wonder people can't tell the difference between an argument based solely on opinion, and one based on evidence, reason, and fact.
But I'll keep trying to persuade people that history is both fun AND factual. Why? Because as I said yesterday: I'm an American and I'm eternally optimistic!