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Interview with Ron Kavanaugh of Mosaic Literary Magazine

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Launched in 1998, Mosaic Literary Magazine is a quarterly print publication exploring the literary landscapes of Black and Latino writers. Each issue contains an interesting blend of essays, profiles, and reviews. Its publisher, Ron Kavanaugh, is a former director of the Bronx Writers Center, of Marketing and Public Programs at Bronx Museum of the Arts, and founder of MosaicBooks.com, a site dedicated to African-American literature on the internet. Though Kavanaugh prefers to assign reviews, freelance reviews are also considered and writers are paid an honorarium and contributor copies. Visit the site for submission guidelines.

Thanks for being here today, Ron. What do you look for in a book review?

The review should summarize the book — characters, locations, et. al. — without giving away the plot. It should refer to pivotal touchstones on which the book may turn or rely. But honesty is paramount. The review should refer to critical points as writing style — did the writer hit his or her intended mark? — or literary influences that may have contributed to style or storyline. The review should be direct without being either overly harsh or gushing praise.

What are the most common mistakes amateur reviewers make?

Too much enthusiasm, to the point of the review seeming to be an advertisement. Also, assuming the reader of the review has prior knowledge of the book and not explaining the book well enough for the reader to care about the book and therefore the review.

Do you think there is much value in being unkind but truthful when a book really stinks?

Sure. Some authors should never be published and I think it's a reviewer's responsibility to critique to that extent. Assuming that everything: publisher, writer, reviewer, bookseller, and and reader are connected then not to review books honestly is to perpetuate a bad writer's career, lessening the chances that a decent writer may be published instead.

Do you take into consideration the feelings of an author when you review or do you refuse to be swayed by them?

The African-American literary community is quite small and incestuous so I often meet writers and explain that we aim for honesty above all else. Oddly, it's the bad writers that hold reviews in the highest esteem.

What style of reviews do you think have the most value? Do you think many independent reviewers on the web tend to give “facile praise” to books?

I do not put much weight in online reviewers who are not working for a larger entity, i.e., Salon.com. The reviews you read on Amazon.com raise serious questions as to whether these are reviews or savvy marketing placements. For the most part I think reviews should be assigned and when someone reviews a book of their choosing it casts a shadow of the autonomous process of reviewing.

Do you look on reviews as a critique or just your opinion of the work?

Art is so subjective to begin with, I call them reviews but they're basically opinions of the reader as reviewer.

Do you get feedback from readers?

Sometimes, not often. We're a small magazine.

Apart from celebrity reviewers who work for major publications like The New York Times, can a reviewer make any real money from writing reviews?

I'm not sure. Most publishers do not pay a great amount for reviews. We only started paying for reviews five years ago. The margins are small for literary-review publications.

What advice would you give to beginner reviewers who wish to make a career in this field?

I think reading reviews helps a lot. Because you're a writer doesn't mean you're a reviewer. And, many writers cannot separate themselves from the camaraderie of the writer's world, which often clouds judgment and effects honesty.

Do you consider/publish reviews by independent reviewers?

On occasion I do. If a get a sense of veracity from the reviewer I'll accept a review. I probably turn down 95% of the book review offers I receive, preferring to assign reviews.

Do you read reviews to select your reading material?

No, I don't. My personal reading comes from recommendations or browsing bookstores — reading the back covers.

Thanks for the interview, Ron!

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About Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Represented by Serendipity Literary.
  • http://beverlystowemcclure.blogspot.com Beverly McClure

    Another great interview, Mayra. I’m enjoying learning more about the reviewing process. And I agree that most reviews are the opinions of the readers, which is okay and the reason we see some reviewers love a book while it’s not another reviewers cup of tea. Thanks for your thoughts, Ron.

    Beverly

  • http://www.moonbridgebooks.com Linda Austin

    Ron is refreshingly blunt in his opinions. I write Amazon reviews, striving for objectivity, and will put Ron’s excellent thoughts and critique on what makes for a good review to practice. Thanks, Ron and Mayra!

  • http://afallon.bravehost.com/ A. F. Stewart

    A satisfying interview, with an interesting viewpoint. I think reviews should be guides to the quality of a book.

  • http://www.rooterandsnuffle.blogspot.com Shari Lyle-Soffe

    Good interview. He has an interesting point of view.

    Shari

  • http://www.maryannwrites.com Maryann Miller

    Very insightful interview and certainly clarifies why some reviews carry more weight than others. Like the surge in self-pubbed books, we have seen a surge in people who call themselves reviewers. Like Ron said, there is a huge difference between someone who can write a good review and someone who is an avid reader and thinks that qualifies them to be a reviewer.

  • http://www.cebilingualbooks.com Irene Tsai

    Thanks for the interview. I am learning a lot on the process of reviews and what it means to the sales of a book. Thanks!

  • http://www.christopherhoare.ca c hoare

    An interesting look at the other side of the coin. Not only food for thought, but perhaps we need regular reviews of reviewers.

    Chris H.

  • http://www.margotfinke.com Margot Finke

    Lordy, this Ron Kavanaugh is one tough cookie. I would be terrified for him to get within ten feet of my books. Yet, I do agree with most of what he said. Reviweres owe readers an honest evaluation of the books they review. But from a writer’s POV, it’s as if writing the darned thing, and then searching for exactly the right publisher, is not enough angst to survive – the review hurdle (into the flames of destruction) looms most deadly of all.

    I guess great reviewers are brave folks with no literary friends – and unlisted phone numbers!!
    Insightful interview Mayra.

  • http://zooprisepartyfiestazoorpresa.blogspot.com Joy Delgado

    Mayra,

    Another enlightening interview. I like Ron’s bluntness in resposne to your question “Do you think there is much value in being unkind but truthful when a book really stinks?”
    This series is wonderful. Thank you Mayra.

    Joy

  • http://www.jemiltd.bravejournal.com E. Joyce Moore

    I greatly appreciate Ron Kavanaugh’s candor and straightforward point of view. We need more of that as writers. I would be more inclined to trust his feedback as some reviewers are so nice that one is not sure of the validity, whereas others view themselves as literary Simon Cowells.

  • http://www.myspace.com/margay1122 Margay

    I have to tell you, I have tried my hand at reviewing a couple of times and I have to agree with Ron that it is hard for a writer to separate themselves from the “writing” personna in order to give an accurate review of a book. It is much more difficult than you might think it is to break down another person’s work and give an accurate summary of it and how it works – or doesn’t. Nice interview, Ron. And Mayra, I think this is a great series that you’re presenting. It really makes you stop and think, and respect the commitment and work of the people who read your books for the purpose of reviewing and/or recommending them.