Recently, fellow book blogger Shannon of Giraffe Days wrote a post called “On Writing Reviews, Or Whatever You Want to Call Them.” Apparently, there’s been renewed debate in the blogosphere on the topic of “‘bad’ book blogger/reviewer and author behaviour, and whether book bloggers/online reviewers actually write ‘real’ reviews at all.” I’ve heard of this issue before, and I’ve seen a few stories online about author responses to negative thoughts on their books, but I had no idea this had all been sparked again.
First, please have a read of Shannon’s post to get up to speed. The following will make more sense then. (She helpfully includes links to other posts and describes what’s been happening.)
Now. I’ll start off with a little disclaimer here. I’m about to talk about the ideal review, and that is not to say I believe I’m the ideal reviewer. I’m hoping I don’t sound like a contemptible prig in this post. I’m not perfect, of course, and I often wonder if I’m a fraud or justified in tacking on “A Review” on my post titles. But I do try my damndest to reflect in my reviews my own values and opinions of what constitutes a good review. I hope I succeed at least a little.
What follows may sound somewhat harsh, and that’s because I’m frustrated. One reason is this: of course this issue of what constitutes a “real” review and reviewer (in which is couched potentially “bad behaviour”) will never be resolved as long as readers write crap and authors get pissed and everyone becomes entangled in definitions and defensiveness. But I do think it all bears addressing: there is clearly an issue of validation regarding book bloggers. And perhaps more importantly, something needs to be said because there is actually a valid reason for authors to become upset. That’s not to say how they respond shouldn’t also be mature, but we are bloggers, and that’s what we’ll stay concerned with.
Here’s what I’ve always believed: Whether or not we consciously do it, we teach others how to treat and perceive us. If our reviews and status as book bloggers are being invalidated and questioned, we may want to start looking for the reason on our own turf.
So what makes a good review? Well, even if authors are truly writing garbage, the fair (I dare say even proper) way to convey this is not to add to the trash but to say why it’s garbage. And fair means to both our readers and the author. This also means in as intelligent a way as we can muster — not, for example, using our ignorance, poor reading skills, and prejudices as the reasons we dislike a story, as shown by the feedback in this article (yes, it’s about a film rather than a book, but the two are related, since the film did follow the book’s descriptions).
Also, and this is important, ego has no place in a review. I’ve read snarky negative reviews by both bloggers and newspaper and magazine writers. What these pieces often convey to me is a profound love of one’s own voice and a superiority and smugness that smacks of arrogance and lacks respect and consideration. And these are professionals (which may actually be the problem in some cases). Recently, I read three reviews for a manuscript I was working on that was already published in the UK last year but which a Canadian publisher is putting out in May. The reviews, all online and for prominent newspapers, were pretty much copies of each other, but more than that, worse, they all contained the same disgustingly self-satisfied, condescending tone with which they criticized the author, barely covered the book, and betrayed, to me, a gross ineptitude in being able to see the literature for what it is and put it in its context. Instead, they couldn’t wait to sound so fucking clever. I discredited these pieces not because I disagreed with them, though I did for the most part, but because ultimately there was little value to them.
There is nothing wrong with negative reviews by dissatisfied readers, of course. I totally get it. I become pretty indignant myself if I feel an author’s wasting my time and money. But if a person wants to write a negative review, it had better be for the right reasons and actually give me something to go on, perhaps especially if I’m the author. Otherwise, it too is wasting my time. A good reviewer doesn’t say, as Shannon mentioned, “I hate this book, it sucked and isn’t worth your time,” or “this was boring and not really about anything,” and end there. That is indeed not a review, as Stiefvater suggested. Like a good positive review that tells us why a book is worth reading, a good negative review tells us why, in the right context (that is, recognizing a book’s purpose and evaluating it on those terms), a book fails to deliver. A good reviewer says everything with tact and respect, not in a tone that feels triumphant at the last word.
Of course, this applies to all reviewers, not just bloggers. Yes, it’s less likely you’ll encounter a deficient review in the NYT. But the assumption going around that book bloggers in particular, and in general, aren’t real reviewers is a bit of a problem. We need to understand that this debate is not, or should not, be geared toward what group of people is doing the reviewing — or not reviewing, as the case may be. The real issue at hand, as I’ve mentioned, is the calibre of output, whether by book bloggers or newspaper or magazine writers.
Real reviews are not only New York Times Book Review-type pieces. You don’t need me to tell you that. It is only one kind of review. There are many different kinds of readers, and not all of them appreciate or desire a review of the academic sort. That’s where the book blogger comes in. Our point is to not be writing stuff like that included in the NYT, but rather to be infusing our conscientious considerations of what we’ve read with a little emotional feedback as well. That’s what separates us. That can even be what makes us great. We’re not writing theses, or literary criticism à la Harold Bloom—and on purpose; what we’re doing while backing up what we think of the book is also relating our experience reading it. We get our readers to relate. We get them emotionally involved. This is what many book buyers, particularly blog readers, want. In short, bloggers add a more personal touch, which is just as much desired by an author as a fair analysis.
Frankly, if an author prefers to have his or her book treated only by the NYT type of reviewer, it’s their prerogative. Who knows: that might be saying something about their own view of their work. But to discredit book bloggers as not really reviewers is an unfair assessment based on unfortunate generalization. Where this perception may come from is important, and addressed above — that is, from our shoddy reviewing. If we bloggers want to be taken seriously, if we want our treatments of books to be called reviews, we need to up the quality of what we put out. That doesn’t mean mini essays. But it doesn’t mean ranting rundowns, either. It simply means, as I said, being thoughtful and fair. Think of it this way: if the author wasted your time and you’re ticked about it, why would you do the same to your readers?
A while ago, Toronto author David Penhale read my review of Half-Blood Blues and emailed me to say I was writing in the spirit of John Updike’s guidelines for reviews. I’d never seen these guidelines before, so I followed the link and read them. There are only six. They are simple and right on the money. All we need do—if we want to be taken seriously, if we want to be counted as valuable, if we want to say our posts and articles are reviews—is follow them.