On Reviewing Books
I’ve been thinking about book reviews lately for a number of reasons. Until recently (historically speaking) the vast majority of book reviews were—for lack of a better term—professional reviews. Meaning the critic (frequently a professional journalist herself) had extensive knowledge of not only the author’s previous work but of much of the other works in the genre, and could place the work in question within a broader context, both artistic and historical.
Now the field is more democratic, ranging from the weekly NYTBR to the grumpy bastard on Amazon who gives your book one star because it arrived with a bent cover. And everything in between.
Much of “everything in between” includes reviews written for blogs, book-based websites, and sometimes pieces generated by retailers who wish to give their customers the value-added experience of booksellers, longtime book bloggers, etc. (These can also be in audio or video form—podcasts, FB, YouTube, Insta, BookTok, etc.) And these are often written by book lovers for book lovers.
All to the good. And far be it from me to say what someone can or cannot do. As I always say, you do you.
But somewhere along the way, a disconnect seems to have occurred between the writers of some reviews* and the purpose of the review.
[*Full disclosure: I don’t review books in public. For one, an author reviewing books is like a restaurant owner penning the food column for the local paper… there’s a potential conflict there. For another, I’m too aware of how incredibly hard it is to write even a “bad” novel to stand up in the public square and pontificate about what I think might be “wrong” with one. I occasionally mention recent reads on social—with a brief description of what I liked about them—but I only post about books I feel are worth recommending.]
One common disconnect is some people seem to think a book review is simply a point-by-point re-hashing of the plot, like a book report from a third grader who wants to—understandably—bang out their homework so they can go outside and play. Not even really getting into the actual story itself (separate from the plot in that it concerns the character’s journey), let alone any discussion of the themes contained within. To say nothing the emotional impact the work had on the reviewer. (Which, in the end, is what really matters, right?)
Another fairly recent phenomenon is people using reviews to point out what wasn’t in the book but “should have been.” They’re essentially reading with the book in one hand and a checklist in the other, making sure the book covers all the right issues (in the opinion of the reviewer, of course) and mentions none of the wrong issues. In other words, they’re not reading the book for the story itself, but for any agenda contained within (or missing from) the book. And they’ll be sure to highlight these in their “review” of said work. (As Roger Sutton once said—you need to review the book in front of you, not the one you wish the author had written.) It’s sad that we’ve come to that level of divisiveness, but… well, here we are. All I can say is there are plenty of books expressly on political issues and current policy for those people—on both sides of the aisle—to pontificate upon, instead of turning the act of reviewing a novel into a diatribe on the reviewer’s personal views. (Not to say that politics aren’t necessarily germane to novels… they certainly can be. Just not your politics.)
A close cousin of this is people reviewing books based strictly on their own personal likes and dislikes, with zero consideration as to whether or not the book succeeded as a work within its intended genre and audience. (IOW, the statement, “This book had vampires and I don’t like vampires—one star!” is a content-free proclamation whereby the “reviewer” is just showing his ass.)
[*This is related to the phenomenon of people conflating “I like it” with “it’s good,” and “I don’t like it” with “it’s bad.” See the final point of this post. I try—not always successfully—to keep these things separate in my mind.]
Then there are those who somehow feel the overarching goal of a review is simply to find “problems.”
The job of reviewer is not that of a teacher, grading someone’s homework. The fallacy here is that within a school setting the teacher typically has expertise in the subject they’re teaching, and can tell the students what they did “wrong” (a word that doesn’t really belong in any discussion around art, regardless). But when reviewers apply this reasoning to novels written by experienced, professional authors, there is an implied instructor/student hierarchy at play which rings false. (I could review a concert by The Rolling Stones, but if I listed the places where I thought Steve Jordan’s drumming could have been better, I might need to check my head.)
Along with this we have the “claw sharpeners”… those who seem to exhibit the attitude that finding a problem with someone’s work is equal to creating the work itself. (Pro tip—it’s not.)
And finally, a review of a current or recent book absolutely shouldn’t contain major spoilers. This should go without saying—and you might think it’d be limited to user reviews on Amazon—but I saw this just today on a supposedly legit book blog. It’s hard to say how long a book needs to be available before we can safely assume most people who want to read it have read it, but unless it’s a well-discussed classic, you’re doing any potential readers a disservice by giving away major plot twists. (Duh… but again, apparently some people didn’t get the memo.)
When you boil it all down, the overall question you want to answer in a reader’s mind is: Would I enjoy reading this book? Not: Did the reviewer enjoy it? Because if that’s the only question, you can simply say “Liked it!” or “Didn’t like it!” in your review, and you’re free to go play outside. But it doesn’t help the potential reader make up her mind about whether or not to give the book a try. So we need at least a medium dive into why the reviewer found the book enjoyable, so the reader can decide if those same aspects apply to her, which helps her decide if she might also like the book.
Life is short and there’s probably enough negativity floating around already. If you have a choice between reviewing a book you didn’t care for and one you found enjoyable/valuable/insightful, it might serve your readers better to discuss those books you think might actually be worth their time.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.