When bad reviews happen to good people

I’ve been reviewing cookbooks for some 12 years now.  Every once in a while, I write a critical review.  It doesn’t happen terribly often – maybe 2 or 3 times a year, a small fraction of the total.   There’s a reason bad reviews are infrequent: if a book looks really unpromising, my editor and I generally just don’t consider it for review.   It’s of no service to anyone for me to waste the paper’s column space trashing a lousy book, when there are so many good ones waiting for coverage.

I test most books for a good week.  I might test up to 15 or 16 recipes if I’ve had a chance to dip into the book for non-work-related purposes, but I never test fewer than about 8.

I often give a recipe the benefit of the doubt:  say I sloshed a bit when I was pouring soy sauce into my measuring spoon, or my oven thermometer battery died and I didn’t notice.  Suppose I eyeballed 1/3 cup of chopped nuts instead of measuring them.  My eye is pretty good at this point, but I’m human.  If I have any doubt that I didn’t follow the recipe to the letter, I disclose it in the review, or I give the recipe some leeway – for example, if it’s too salty from the sloshed soy, I know not to blame the author.  If I “fix” a recipe that’s going wrong, as we all do sometimes, I say so.

When the testing’s going downhill on a book, my heart sinks with it.  I know that when the review is published, someone – probably someone really nice – is going to have a bad day.  On the other hand, I think of the readers who rush out to buy the book, swept up in the 4-week wave of publicity that carries cookbooks out to the world.  I have a responsibility, I tell myself, to share what I know.  And cookbooks in particular are hard to judge when you’re standing in a bookstore, trying to guess which recipes will work.

That’s why, when I write a critical review, I pretty much stick to the facts.  As Pete Wells so entertainingly demonstrated in his famous takedown of Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant, a hatchet job can be a kind of prose holiday – you can take stylistic liberties that normally wouldn’t be on the menu.   But I don’t think I’ve penned a rant since my very earliest days reporting (and when I did, my editor had the wisdom to tone it down), because I can’t help thinking about how the author will feel.  I know how I’d feel.

In fact, every time I write a story, whether it’s a review or some other kind of feature, there’s comments and feedback.  Most of it’s helpful, and some of it is downright pleasant.  But every once in a while, someone goes ballistic, and I’m reminded that a tough skin doesn’t usually come with the package for those of us born writers.

On those occasions, I sometimes find it helpful to imagine my own critics as tiny figures on the floor, shouting through miniature megaphones, yet still inaudible.  “What’s that you say?” I reply. “I’m sorry, can you speak a little louder?  I just can’t hear you!”

So, if you’re a cookbook author, you might consider doing the same.  If I’ve reviewed your book unfavorably, imagine me as a very, very small T. Susan Chang, in a grimy apron, brandishing a tiny wooden spoon.  After all, in the scope of things, a cookbook reviewer is just a small cog in a great wheel.  You won’t be far off from the truth, and it might make you feel a whole lot better.

This post originally appeared on my blog, Cookbooks for Dinner, 02/02/13.

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One Comment

  • RaySadler  on  February 5, 2013

    If you are doing your reviews honestly, you have nothing to fear from authors going ballistic! I occasionally add a short comment on Amazon on some purchase, usually after a week's study; I evaluate on how useful they are to me, not necessarily in the kitchen, where I venture with permission only, but also for my interest in coooking generally, from other lands and other times, and also with one eye on price – full price cookery books are getting rather expensive today, and some of the most expensive don't offer the most.


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