The value of reviews

The publishing industry has hit the skids now that Kirkus will review anything that shows up with a $500 check.

Kirkus gave my less-than-best-selling novel, ON THE LIP, a favorable review, but I wonder if they would have liked it twice as much for $1,000. Perhaps the review writer – as best I can tell, a barista at the Starbucks on Union Square - might have seen two fistfuls of sticky pennies in the tip jar instead of one.

"SURPRISINGLY GOOD!"  That's the backhanded compliment you would expect from a non-employee reviewer who lacks authority to say whether a novel is good or just better than what Kirkus’ paying customers typically inflict on these migrant workers of the literary world.  Such faint praise turned out badly for a missionary who pronounced his host's sacred tribal dish "surprisingly good" after the chieftain insisted he take a big, juicy bite of what translated to "braised testicle of musk ox."  Unlike the missionary, the barista who reviewed ON THE LIP did not end up being anyone's main course, mostly because Kirkus doesn't name names.

Kirkus gets what it pays for from its "permalancers."  Even an out-of-work Dewey LaBoef associate could follow their formula.

Rule No. 1: Mention three major plot points.  That’s easy because the reviewer is only expected to get two of them right.  In ON THE LIP, after a lead character reluctantly trades his comfortable West Coast life of surf’n’sex’n’suds’n’sex’n’smokes’n’sex for brutal days in an East Coast Internet startup, he tries to kill himself.  The permalancer got the timing backward, and a correction required a five-week hassle.  The "review fee" (it would be rude to call it a “bribe”) apparently doesn't include having a real editor read the review, read the book OR make sure the reviewer actually read it.  The mistake was obvious to anyone who got to page four, but I admit it is hard to hold a book open with one hand and whip up a grande peppermint mocha frappuccino with the other.

Rule No. 2: Find kinky sex.  It's for the author's own good, and (s)he will thank you later.  Nothing sells nowadays better than hard-core bondage porn that appears to have been written by a precocious, but seriously disturbed, third-grader.  If there's nothing THAT kinky in the story, just call it "imagery," so it needs only to be in your head instead of in the book.

Kirkus' review of ON THE LIP speaks admiringly of an "undercurrent of homoerotic imagery."  Anybody who manipulates his fraternity brother into 20 years in the penitentiary would have to imagine how this might completely re-orient the Lothario’s sex life – from top to bottom, you might say – but is that “erotic”?  Hemingway benefited when readers saw what they wanted to see between his lines, so perhaps I should take this as a sign my Nobel is in the works.

Rule No. 3 is my favorite.  Find SOMEthing nice to say so the wannabe author won't ask for his money back.  With only a little elliptical juxtaposition of the review posted at, Kirkus said ON THE LIP "exposes a scandalous world of sex and secrets … with lively descriptions that carry personality and a reliable touch of humor."  The novel also is plotted "well enough that readers will eagerly anticipate each new chapter."  It seems "eager anticipation" qualifies for "well enough," but not for "well." 

These turds in the punchbowl drove me, in the middle of a sunny Manhattan afternoon, into a dive Irish bar on Lexington.  As I puzzled over the barista’s words, the guy on the next barstool noticed the Kirkus header and took pity.  In one of those "only in New York" moments, he turned out to be, like me, a lawyer, journalist and author of a business-oriented novel.  His book sold tens of thousands of copies, but one amateur reviewer described his work of staggering genius as "not entirely awful."

This experience offers three lessons for wannabe fiction writers.  First, bone-headed reviews come with the territory – they’re free, like the air wafting off a garbage truck.  Second, there are some things no self-respecting man should ever have to pay for, especially if he is in the Secret Service or an aspiring author.  The third is crucial.  George Garrett, my creative writing professor at Princeton, told me years ago.  "KEEP WRITING." 

How's that for a "brief slip into sentimentality near the end"?  Oh, by the way, barista, make mine a tall, skinny latte - and hold the homoerotic undercurrent this time, wouldja please?

Guest post by Jerry Cox, author of On the Lip


  1. What a shame that she charged you to write a review! That's crazy!

  2. One not really not charge for writing reviews atleast.


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