Two things happened recently that caused me to think hard about this weird business I'm in of passing judgment on other people's creative work.
First, actress Viola Davis, unhappy with reviews of her performance in a show called "The First Lady," said this to the BBC: "Critics absolutely serve no purpose."
And about the same time, a well-known author took me to task on Facebook for writing what he considered to be an "angry" review of his book. He accused me of not actually reading his book, of deciding what I was going to say before I opened the cover, and of missing all of his humor.
My review wasn't meant to hurt or anger, but clearly it did both. So what was my review meant to do?
Critics serve as your eyes and ears; we're your first reader, so to speak. In a world swimming with entertainment options — books, movies, television shows, plays, concerts, comedy shows and albums — we help you make choices. Critics study these arts; we pay attention to them.
My life is devoted to books. I've been writing about books for newspapers and magazines for more than 30 years and have been the full-time books editor here for nearly 14 years.
I can't read every book that comes out, but I read about 100 books a year in full and parts of hundreds more.
Our job isn't to criticize or to hype; it's to assess a creative work and, in the process, help you decide what to spend your money, time and energy on. Is this one fun? Is that one good? Is that other one something you can probably skip?
And sometimes we have the great joy of pointing you toward things you might not otherwise have known about. That is the best.
In my job, I'm constantly looking for interesting books to highlight here. What's new and buzzy? Does it deserve the buzz? What's new and quiet? Should it have a wider audience? Which writers are coming to town, and should we write about their books? Which writers already live here, and should we write about their books?
We are critical, it's true, but not out of malice; I take no joy in pointing out flaws or weaknesses in a book. To me, the joy comes from loving a book and spreading the word. It is an enormous privilege.
We try to be honest but generous — if it's a first book by someone mostly unknown, we will only review it if it's good. But if it's a book by someone well-known, it's our responsibility to let you know if their newest book is worth reading or falls flat.
You sure don't have to agree with us, and I'm guessing that you don't, always. You might read a review and think, "What does she know? I'm buying this book!"
Whether a review is mostly praise or mostly criticism, I think the best possible outcome is for someone to go off and buy the book. Maybe you will like it more than I did. (But if not, don't say I didn't warn you.)
I have always admired John Updike's six points of reviewing. They all tend toward giving the author the benefit of the doubt, toward being generous. I like that attitude.
If a book seems deeply flawed, Updike says, "Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?" Good question. I ask myself that again and again.
Agree? Disagree? Send me an email and I'll write a follow-up column. Books@startribune.com.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. E-mail: email@example.com