|How to Write a Book Review (No, Really).
||[Jul. 30th, 2013|12:44 am]
There has been a lot in the blogosphere about the ethics of reviewing books lately, and I’ve been paying a lot more attention to this kind of thing than I used to. There’s a lot out there, so it’s likely I’ve missed something important; indeed, it’s possible someone has already written something similar to what I want to say here. But being both an author with a new book out as well as a publisher (the publisher), I’ve had cause to think about ways in which even reviewers with the best of intentions may sometimes be sabotaging books that they otherwise like very much and want you to read. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list (exhausting, perhaps, but not exhaustive), but I do want to point out a few things that reviewers seem to be resistant to thinking about.
The first question you need to ask yourself is very basic: whether you would recommend the book or not. I’ve heard it said that reviews exist in order to sell books. I tend to agree, and if you do too, then here’s the next logical thought: book reviews are not journalism (more on that in a moment). In today’s overcrowded book market, simply declining to comment on a book whose death you’d like to hasten is sufficient. However, if you have mixed feelings, or if you feel that some readers may like the book but others are certain not to, it’s also fair to point this out. What about straight-up eviscerations, then? IMnsHO, sometimes they are warranted. If a book is poorly edited or crassly conceived, or if the writer just can’t write, then why not say so? I have done this before and feel no need to apologize for it. But to come back to where I started, if you’re ultimately going to recommend a book—even if you’re not sure when you start writing your review—then you ought to go back over what you’ve written. Ask yourself whether what you’ve written serves your actual purpose or whether anything in it might be undermining what you’re really trying to say.
If you’re using Goodreads or another site that doesn’t mandate a star rating, consider not giving it one if you dislike it or are conflicted. Is it even fair to give a star rating to a book you didn’t finish? (I used to do that. I no longer do.) What about half-points? What if you’d like to award half a star? Sometimes star ratings can work against you as a reviewer. My new novel Bitter Orange got a one-star review from a reader who gave one and two stars to the likes of John Irving, Donna Tartt (The Secret History, not her unreadable second book), and David Mitchell. Once I’d seen that, I was flattered. The books he’d given four and five stars to... let’s just say they appeared to be a step above the ones with hand-drawn cartoon covers, but only one step, and then we can move on to the next paragraph.
In Western cultures, we learn to sandwich criticism between positives. What we tend not to learn is how to avoid inserting weasel words or raising red flags that may deter potential readers. I think this happens because of a journalistic impulse to provide balance. However, if you accept my premise that book reviews are not journalism, and if your ultimate goal is to recommend the book strongly enough (without gushing, of course) to inspire someone to read it, then you need to choose your words carefully. For example, saying you didn’t like the characters in a book you’re otherwise praising to the heavens, and would never want to hang out with them, is not going to entice anyone to pick it up. Unsympathetic characters are inevitable and desirable in literature, and they can be described in ways that still keep the tone positive. Unless you have very serious reservations about some dimension of a story, perhaps read and reread what you’ve written before posting or publishing it. I’m not advocating dishonesty, just discretion.
Lest it seem as if I’m bashing journalism, let me set the record straight: I’m not. However, the urge to balance a piece of writing sometimes shows that the writer is breathtakingly unaware of the bigger picture. As a gay man, my favorite example of this concerns mainstream news coverage of any legal advance for LGBT civil rights. Whenever a new anti-discrimination or marriage-equality law is passed, journalists inevitably weigh the last couple of column inches down with gibberish from idiot homophobes about how the world is going to slide into perdition if it suddenly becomes illegal to fire gay people from their jobs or legal for us to get married. There are times when the opposing side’s point of view is not meaningful. While I am not equating pointing out flaws in a book to wasting newsprint on bullshit from hicks, I don’t like it when reviewers sabotage books that they have basically liked.
Then there are the clichés. The ending was too rushed. What does this mean, exactly? Are the plot threads not tied up? Have questions been left unanswered? Pacing is important, but is it necessary or even desirable for the pace to be the same throughout the book? If the pace of the book speeds up, and you’re blasting through the pages like a Shinkansen train through the Japanese countryside by the time you reach the end, why use the too intensifier? Saying an ending is too rushed implies that the author was in a hurry to finish, which may be the opposite of the truth. Another one I dislike is the use of the phrasal verb fall apart when describing plot resolution. Again, what does this mean? Was something illogical or unconvincing? How does the plot fall apart? What does that look like? I seem to see these two a lot, but there are other review clichés out there. Read up on them, see what you find, and see whether any of them make their way into what you write about books.
Jumping to conclusions about the author is another really bad idea that perhaps more than anything else opens the door for a public take-down. You deserve no sympathy if you go down this road. Even though it’s supposedly Not Done for an author to confront a reviewer about a sloppy review, I’m in favor of it, and I think writers should stand up for our work. I once found a scathing review of The Concrete Sky on a blog. The reader (who was quite young and could perhaps be forgiven for her inappropriateness) hadn’t just stopped at her criticisms of the story (which were valid in the sense that she was entitled to her opinion, even if her lack of world knowledge disqualified her from commenting with authority on what was realistic and what wasn’t); she and someone else had gone quite far in their speculation about my personal issues and family relationships. The comments turned into a Marshall-bashing session. Amusingly enough, she had done this on Livejournal, which is where my own blog is located, so I could leave a comment too. I will go on record as stating that I did not drop the F-bomb. However, she crossed a line and I said so. Hate on the book all you want. But unless the book is a memoir or an autobiography, leave me and my family out of it. There is no circumstance under which this is okay.
I understand that sometimes there’s not a clear line between the author and his or her work. Stephen King made that clear in On Writing. In this day and age, the personal life of any public figure (even one as low on the cultural totem pole as a writer) is likely to turn up as Internet fodder. What I suppose it boils down to is whether or not you as a reviewer seem to know the difference between fiction and nonfiction. If you’re reviewing books, please attempt—for the sake of your own credibility—to sort out which one is which.
An extension of this admonition involves simply getting your facts straight. Are you familiar with the writer’s body of work? How about the genre in which he or she is working? Sweeping statements about the author’s failings can fall embarrassingly short when they lack context or just plain get the facts wrong.
My next-to-last point concerns language. As an editor (and as a friend with decent editing chops), I’ve worked with several writers of far greater stature. A surprising number of them really don’t grasp the whole punctuation thing, and sentence structure... not so much. I also think that there are a lot of editors in the Big Six who are, to put it kindly, in need of a couple of decades and maybe a master’s in linguistics. If you’re going to comment on the writer’s use of language, please (a) attempt to know what you’re talking about and (b) bear in mind that it is the editor’s job to clean that shit up. Yes, the writer should use language well; that’s a given. However, there are very talented writers whose manuscripts only turn into good books after a lot of editorial heavy lifting. (Others seem to pass through the editorial process unscathed, untouched, and unreadable.) Again, before you pull the trigger on a negative review of a book in which you criticize the writer’s use of language, give some thought to whose failing it really was. Really, check yourself here. Is your own writing good enough that you can credibly call professionals out on account of their perceived shortcomings?
To wrap this up, I didn’t mean for this to be an all-encompassing thesis on the failings of book reviews (mine in particular). I’m pretty sure I’ve made some if not all of these mistakes before. Full disclosure: at the beginning of my writing career (such as it is), I reviewed books for a couple of publications. That was about 15 years ago. I would prefer not to reread some of those. Somewhere along the way, I realized I didn’t know what I was doing and needed to shut up. I do reviews now, on Goodreads and occasionally elsewhere. I’m not Michiko Kakutani, but I also don’t want to be. When I don’t like some aspect of a book, I attempt to be as specific about it as possible. If I can’t help the book to sell, I can help the writer avoid making what I think are the same mistakes. I’m not an editor/writer/publisher/critic with decades under my belt, but I do have the chops to offer informed comment. Sometimes that means knowing what not to say. There is plenty of criticism—constructive and otherwise—you can offer without compromising your integrity and credibility. Ask yourself what your own limitations are. And what are your strengths? Play to those. You’ll be doing yourself—and the authors—a favor.