Last night was the Mystery Writers of America – Mid-Atlantic Chapter’s monthly meeting. Held in the Embassy Suites Hotel just outside of DC, the topic of this month’s meeting was the art of reviewing. Moderated by Art Taylor, the event was a fun and informative evening. For those interested, here are some brief highlights.

The ballroom opened at 6:30 allowing for mingling and chatting with some of my friends in the crime fiction community. Dinner was served at 7:00 and my grilled chicken dish was actually quite good – not a guarantee when one attends a banquet event like this. By the time 8:00 rolled around and dessert had been served, the panel discussion was ready to begin.

Art Taylor, who does some reviewing of his own for The Washington Post, introduced the well-respected panelists for the evening. They were: Bethanne Patrick (creator of the #FridayReads meme and reviewer at LitHub and various other outlets); Maureen Corrigan (from National Pubic Radio’s Fresh Air); and Dennis Drabelle (editor at The Washington Post Book World).

Dennis gave the most interesting answer to the question of how he came to reviewing and to mystery, in particular. He said that growing up he was a fan of The Hardy Boys and that his mother was a huge fan of the mystery genre. Dennis also revealed that he is working on writing a mystery novel of his own.

Art then asked the panelists how they go about choosing the books they review. Dennis talked about how The Washington Post gets something like 150 books for review EVERY DAY and that while they are obviously not all mysteries, the Monday Mystery column only allows for 4-5 mystery reviews each month. Clearly competition for those slots is very tough.

Maureen talked about how she chooses books for a variety of reasons, one of which is personal preference. She did say that whenever she covers a mystery novel on Fresh Air she gets letters asking her why she is wasting precious on-air time on genre novels. This does not sway her choices. I think it is interesting that some in the public still consider genre to be a bad word.

Bethanne talked about her method as a bit of a triage process. The available books gets narrowed down via many methods but that she has found that some imprints are more reliable than others in producing books that are to her liking – here she named Pegasus Press and their author F. T. Tallis as a recent example of something she really enjoyed.

Not one to shy away from hard-hitting questions, Art then asked Dennis directly about how he accounted for the fact that in a recent Sisters in Crime study, The Washington Post did not increase their reviews of female authors as much as some other papers. Dennis said that he was surprised that they had not done better, but that it was something they were continuing to work on. He talked about their new cozy column as a way to help with those numbers.

Here Bethanne mentioned that not only do we need more diversity in our reviewing, but also in general people need more diversity in their reading. At one point she talked about how she did not think that the art of writing was in decline, but that she did fear the act of reading was experiencing a downward trend.

On the question of negative reviews, all the panelists agreed that they didn’t really enjoy writing most negative reviews, but that there was a sort of thrill when they could write negatively about a more well-known author. Dennis even said that he would opt to skip an assignment rather than write a wholly negative review of a first novel. They talked about how reviews are a type of “Consumer Report” for the public.

Which then brings us to the question that was of my interest to me personally, for obvious reasons. Art asked the panelists what they thought of the rise and role of online reviews in such locations as Amazon, Goodreads, and blogs. Now, in fairness, lumping all of these together made the answering more difficult for the panelists. For fear of misrepresenting what the individual panelists thought about this topic, I am not going to detail who said what, but I will say that to my ear, the responses where a bit more defensive than the question really warranted. To my mind, it is not really an either/or proposition. I consider myself blessed to live in a time when a variety of voices can be heard on all manner of topics, including book reviews. These panelists represent the highest quality of professional reviewers, but that does not mean that simply because one is professional, the quality of work reflects that standing, any more than just because a blogger is not a paid professional, their review is somehow less worthy. There are varying levels of proficiency in both areas.

As I have always said, I encourage readers to read widely in the reviewing arena until they find reviewers they can trust and reviews that are harmonious with – notice I am not saying that match – their own thoughts. In many ways, criticism is the great equalizer! Everyone has an opinion – and let us never forget that they are indeed only opinions – and all of them are valid.

All in all, this was a very informative evening and well worth the less than wonderful Baltimore to DC commute. MWA-MA is to be commended for seeing the value in addressing the topic of reviews and I am sure that many of the authors in attendance came away with a new respect for the field.