Gabino Iglesias is one of the most prolific reviewers around and I asked him about the state of literature as well as his approach to the nitty gritty of reviewing. “This is the golden age of indie lit,” Iglesias said. “There are a lot of outstanding presses publishing work from a plethora of ridiculously talented writers. It’s good time to be a writer and even better time to be a reader. The big stuff is what it’s always been: a load of crap with an occasional gem hidden somewhere in the monstrous pile. In any case, there’s also a lot of writing, cooperation and discussion around the lit world now.”
Reviews can be a laborious endeavor, and I wanted to know the specifics of his process; copious notes, or feelings and instincts to express a mood? Multiple reads, or one thorough delve? Iglesias stated: “It’s weird because I can’t predict how I’ll end up approaching a book. For some narratives, I write down one or two notes or scribble the number of a page I want to pull a quote from and that’s it. For others, however, I fill up four of five pages of notes that are like mental hyperlinks to everything from the author’s previous work and comparable texts to my own feelings/ideas/reactions and cohesive elements that emerge from the text and I know will eventually lead me to Foucaultian discourse analysis.”
There are a lot of too-kind reviews out there, but they often strike me as lazy. Whenever I read “this is the best” whatever or see the words tour-de-force in review, I know the reviewer is phoning it in.
Reviews seem to exist in different states depending on the magazines and editors that curate them. Iglesias, who has reviewed books for venues like Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and The Collagist, found there are many approaches to critical analysis: “You have outstanding editors at lit magazines that will only publish the smartest, most analytical reviews from reviewers who can WRITE.” There are also “places where the quality of the review has to meet certain standards regardless of the way the reviewer feels about a book. On the other hand, you have individuals with a Goodreads account who call themselves reviewers and unscrupulous authors buying Amazon reviews from companies that should not exist. It’s a weird time for analytical lit, but I think readers are smart and they look for agenda-free quality when consuming book reviews. There are a lot of too-kind reviews out there, but they often strike me as lazy. Whenever I read “this is the best” whatever or see the words tour-de-force in review, I know the reviewer is phoning it in. You can be very happy with what you read, but that will only translate into an honest, solid review if you put in the time to explain what makes a narrative great. On the other hand, you have scathing reviews coming from authors who are basing their reviews on how much they dislike a person instead on the merits of their book. When a book is really bad, a review should be honest about it and not strive to be nice, but it also shouldn’t be about trying to destroy a writer’s career.”
My stacks grow much faster than I can read. Hopefully one day I’ll find a way to make some money doing this and then I’ll read a few more hours per day and things will balance out…right?
As a reviewer, I was curious how he approached books he didn’t like, especially as he’s juggling 15-30 review requests any given month. “A couple of years ago, I would email editors that had assigned me a book and explain that I had nothing good to say about a particular book and that I thought nothing would be gained by publishing a very negative piece. Then I learned that honesty is the only thing we have in this business (we can’t even claim objectivity!), so I started writing negative reviews. This year I read three or four books that I profoundly disliked. Since sitting down and writing a review as soon as the last page had been turned would have undoubtedly lead to scornful reviews, I took a few days off and allowed my brain to cool down a bit. After that, the reviews were still negative, but I no longer felt that the awful narrative and the time I invested reading it were attacks I had to retaliate against. I wrote honest reviews and none of my editors had a problem with that. Honesty is the only way to handle books we don’t like, so that’s what how I deal with them.”
Honesty is always a good policy and part of the reason Iglesias’s reviews resonate so much.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Gutmouth and Zero Saints (coming summer 2015 from Broken River Books). You can find his reviews in Verbicide, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, The Lazy Fascist Review, and other print and online venues. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias