Unbiased Book Reviews

“Reviews should be an occasion, not for tears or vendettas or shoe licking, but for dialogues.”
~ Heidi Julavits

I’m tracking online conversations about a recently published novel by a Portuguese-North American author and I’m befuddled.  There are glowing reviews and ecstatic blog posts and jacket blurbs by writers big and small but nobody mentions the elephant in the room: the book could have used a good editor.  And judging by the vagueness of the compliments, I have to wonder how many people actually read the book. I enjoyed the story and admired the ambition of this talented new writer, but it wasn’t all that. Hush now, you say, don’t knock a book by one of our own!

Unbiased book reviews are rarer than ever. In an essay published in The Believer way back in 2003, editor and novelist Heidi Julavits wrote:

“A writer/reviewer would sooner toss himself off the Brooklyn Bridge before he’d give a fair or truthful assessment of a colleague’s book, for fear said colleague will be in a position to ding him from Yaddo next summer or stand between him and his Guggenheim. I don’t deny there’s truth to this. I don’t deny that writers have all become a little bit too greedy about praise, that the manner in which writers assess other writers has suffered from a sort of grade inflation, until everyone’s got an impressive if meaningless 4.0 average on our career transcripts, the hacks and the quasi-hacks alike.”

However much I believe in supporting the development of our own literature, I’d hate to see us (members of the Portuguese-North American writing and publishing community) turn a blind eye to mediocrity. We’re not traitors to the movement when we critique a book nor should we feel an obligation to recommend a book solely on the basis of the author’s ethnicity.

Having said that, here’s one book I highly recommend: Julian Silva’s Move Over, Scopes and Other Writings.

8 thoughts on “Unbiased Book Reviews

  1. Fernanda,
    Thanks for sharing the essay by Heidi Julavits. I found it very useful to read. I am also happy to learn that Home is an Island is now available. I don’t think I had even ever heard of Tagus Press but thanks to you I will be visiting their website for more information on Portuguese American writers.

  2. Wow, thank you for saying this. This is really important. We’re not going to get anywhere without high standards. I recently bought a travel book on a whim based on its glowing blurbs and a great premise, and was then appalled by it. Hate when that happens.

  3. Hi Oona,
    I was a little hesitant about voicing my thoughts on this subject but I felt it needed to be said. Although I’m thrilled to see so many North Americans of Portuguese ancestry writing about their “roots” and immigrant experience I’ve come across too many books (some self-published) that leave me feeling disappointed and ashamed. Books like these reflect poorly on our community. I believe Portuguese North American writing is only as strong as its weakest writers and given the relatively small number of Portuguese North American authors, EVERY book published by a writer who identifies (in marketing blurbs, reviews, etc.) as a Portuguese American or Portuguese Canadian contributes to the overall perception of Portuguese North American literature. Whether they want it or not, these writers become the spokesmen for and social chroniclers of our ethnic communities. Is it too much to ask that they eschew shortcuts (Hello Lulu!) and work on developing their skills as writers?

    On another note, I admire Professor Frank Sousa’s dedication to publishing great writing. There are so many very good books coming out of Tagus Press.

    • Fernanda,
      Your comments are painful to read only because they are an honest and true observation of the reality. In your opinion, are there current North American Portuguese identified writers who represent our community well in the literary world? Can you recommend those who you consider worth reading?

      • Hi Emanuel,
        There aren’t that many North American Portuguese writers period much less writers whose books I’d recommend. I can count my favourites on one hand. However, I have a feeling this will change within the next five years judging by some of the pieces I’ve come across in Luso-American Literature, an anthology of writings published last summer. There’s a new book by a first-time author, Anthony Barcellos, coming out this summer: The Land of Milk and Money. If you’re interested, download the sample chapters off the website.

  4. Yes, as a community we need writers, editors, and critics who are free and able to cover both the positive and negative (about the work, and about their experiences too). We also need some more avenues and opportunities for developing writers and the next generation of literary people, and for making the artistic community larger. I’m so glad you started this conversation, Fernanda—it’s a crucial one.

Comments are closed.