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!