I read an article by a reviewer on page 31 of Sunday’s New York Times Book Review section. It’s by Alice Gregory, a contributing editor at Times Style Magazine. For those of us who have at one time or another felt the lash of an invisible reviewer protected by the system from ever having to face the author he or she has just savaged, I’m grateful to Ms. Gregory for her insight and unusual apology. She leads off with, “I am saying, to the authors of books I’ve reviewed even just a few years ago, that I’m sorry.” She concludes by clarifying, “I don’t think I was unfair to those books, but I do think I was unfair to the people who wrote them. There is a difference, and I am inclined to acknowledge it in a way that I once, even quite recently, was not.”
A point Ms. Gregory makes is that she began reviewing when she was 23 and for the first few years “…labored under the delusion that it didn’t matter whether or not I knew anything at all.” She goes on to say that she critiqued nonfiction books on topics she didn’t know well and fiction books by authors she hadn’t read before. The line of reasoning leads her to conclude that in the early days she tended to deal with the book in her hand and pay too little attention to the fact that she was “engaging with the product of someone else’s time and effort and intellect.”
She makes no apology for not liking certain books, nor should she. But growing on the job has taught her that it’s one thing to not like someone’s book and quite another to abuse the person who worked in good faith to create it.
Naturally Alice Gregory doesn’t speak for all reviewers, but I appreciated her perspective and learned something about the business of reviewing that I’d only suspected before.