Directly out of the chute, let me say this is coming from myself as both a writer and a reader. One compelling reason (among others) that I became an author, was due to my disappointment in the offerings of a certain genre. I wanted to write books *I* would want to read. I launched myself into this vocation with little knowledge of what that decision would bring. I had no way of knowing the degree of vulnerability that publishing my writing would entail.
Publishing a book is very much like being naked in public. So it’s difficult not to take it personally, when someone makes a comment on it. I try to take my own advice; I’ve said,
“It’s not so much that you need a thick skin, it’s that you have to realize it’s NOT your skin.”
One of those things easier said than done.
One thing that makes that challenge more formidable is the free-for-all that is the book review. It’s unfortunate that so many book reviewers don’t seem to understand what a review’s purpose is. In simplistic terms, a book review is meant to inform a potential reader of the merits (and sometimes, demerits) of a book, so that they can make an informed decision about whether or not to read it. A review is NOT a soapbox, a torture-chamber, nor an opportunity to elevate yourself above someone who does something you have never done yourself. Also, if you are not reading in a genre you like to begin with, you have no business doing a review.
In an odd offshoot of this, I once had a reviewer who bashed one of my books because she bought the WRONG BOOK in a genre she did not like, and proceeded to list everything she hated about it. That’s neither fair to the writer, nor fair to the potential reader. The book was clearly described on the information page, the title was similar to the book the reviewer sought, yet NOT THE SAME TITLE, which was intentional, yet it was obvious the genre to which it belonged was ignored, and the blurb wasn’t read at all before the purchase.
I notice when I’m doing any marketing for my books, that there are excerpts I want to share because I feel they are particularly interesting, even out of context, or are examples of the tone of the book, or create tension in the reader, making them want more, or it reveals a character that might be engaging. The problem is, the scenes that I feel are best at any of those things, usually involve a spoiler. I can’t share them, because it would give away some twist that I worked so hard to develop in the process of composing the book.
Readers who do book reviews, are charged with the same sensibility. Would you go up to someone and say, “Let me tell you this hysterical punch-line..and then, I’m sure you will want to hear the whole joke.” Or would you say, “I just saw this wonderful movie where the bad guy dies by being impaled with a swordfish, and the main character is really Sally, the other character, but she has two personalities, and her mother really isn’t her mother, but her sister, and this is how she finds out such-and-such….”
I hope you would answer NO. I would not do that. If you didn’t give that answer, then please, I beg of you, don’t review my books. I spend a good deal of time on the plot, and the twists in that plot, and I always try to do something with it that is unexpected and clever. When you blab all that to other readers, then why would they want to read the book, when they already know all the surprises? Some writers are trying to make a living with their work, just like you are. How would you like it if someone came to your job and told everyone something that kept you from getting paid?
There are plenty of bad writers out there, that much is true. But if you can’t find something nice to say, don’t do a review. As the saying goes, everyone’s a critic. I have always admired this quote, for those reasons.
“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
~Theodore Roosevelt, “Citizenship in a Republic,” Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910
A conscientious writer’s face is always marred by sweat and dirt and blood, but it’s because they are actually DOING SOMETHING. It’s really easy to slam a book, but then, you have made it about YOU and not the book, and that’s not what reviews are for. The bad writers don’t develop much of a following except among readers who are easily pleased, or uneducated enough to require very little in their entertainment; good writers tend to get more reviews, and reviews, in turn, sell books. Whether fair or not, there’s either a readership for a certain book, or there is not, regardless of the intellect of those readers. So bashing an author or a book serves no purpose other than to make the reviewer feel better. If you didn’t like a book, just stop buying that author’s work. Simple as that. No need to inflict injury.
Don’t attack the author. You don’t know the author, and whether or not she was trying to illustrate a deeper point; and unless you are highly educated and shrewd, that point may have been lost on you, or you might have missed important details that are indeed handled well, but simply overlooked by you. (For more in this area, see Stranger Fiction, Reviews & Truthiness. )
As I mentioned above, Don’t be a spoiler. Good authors spend a lot of energy and time on constructing a plot and providing surprises to keep the reader engaged and entertained– when you come along and tell those twists and turns and outcomes, you have just spoiled it for anyone else–which is why it’s called a SPOILER. This is one time when you should be vague.
Thus, when you are writing a review, dear reader, don’t give away plot twists, surprises, nor the ending of a book. Have you ever seen a movie trailer or the blurb on the back of the DVD for a movie? Did you notice that they entice you, but don’t tell you what happens? Think of it like that. It’s a teaser, not an unveiling.
Accordingly, don’t simply give a summary of the events in a book. You’re not in Junior High School doing a report. You are sharing what you liked about the book, not just paraphrasing the story the author tells. Telling the story is the author’s job; yours, as a reviewer, is to tell how you felt about that story, not to give an alternate or paraphrased synopsis of the plot.
Pretend you are telling a friend about the book, with the objective of enticing them to read it. You wouldn’t want to give anything away, but you want to convince them it’s worth reading.
You can do this in your reviews by providing such things as:
Your opinion on the characters. Are the characters interesting? Do you care about them? Are they authentic? Do they remind you of anyone you know, or other characters from other books?
How does this book compare to others that you’ve read in this genre? Is something done differently or particularly well?
What other authors does this author remind you of?
What was the narrative voice like in the book? First person? Third person omniscient, third person limited, or a combination of any of them? Did this point of view work well for the story?
What was the writer’s style? Dry? Witty? Colorful? Picturesque?
Who was your favorite character and why?
Were there unexpected twists and turns, if so, mention them, but do not give details. For instance, instead of saying “The story is about a professor who drugs and rapes his students” say, “The main character has a dark secret, and he intends to keep it that way.”
Did the story engage your senses? Were you immersed in the story, and did it make you want to keep reading?
Was the book realistic? Did the author demonstrate a command of the subject-matter, or did it seem contrived, implausible, trite, and one-dimensional?
What was the pacing like? Did it read fast or slow? Did it keep you turning the page?
What was the author good at? Dialogue? Description? Characterization? Plotting? Inciting emotion in you?
What emotions did you feel while reading the book? Excitement? Dread? Happiness? Suspense? Nostalgia? Fear & Loathing? (whether in Las Vegas or not.)
What were some quotes or excerpts from the book you enjoyed most? Quote them in your review.
Did the ending satisfy you? Why? (again, don’t give anything away, just comment in general terms, ala, The ending made perfect sense, but was totally unexpected. I closed the book feeling very satisfied.)
It’s perfectly fine to also mention what didn’t work for you in the book, and why, but not merely as an excuse to bash the author. If the book was too violent for your taste, you may say so, either directly, or with a warning to readers (Warning: this book does include some disturbing scenes of violence or Caution: This book has sexual content, though tastefully done). If the book you are reviewing deals with a difficult subject you don’t enjoy or tolerate,, say that too (without spoilers).
But remember that we writers can’t please everyone, we can only write the stories we feel compelled to write, and hope there are those who are interested in reading them. And more importantly, writing well is hard work; we pour ourselves into the job, and we have feelings, just like you do.