As I sat down to research and write this blog about book reviewing, I caught myself thinking, “Ugh, I don’t really care about this.” I haven’t written a book review since middle school (Shade’s Children by Garth Nix, for the library bulletin board). I dived in anyway, read 20-odd articles on the subject, and got told 20-odd times why I-- and you-- need to care.
Reviewing books is about entering into a conversation, about contributing to the literary world. By giving a book 5 stars and writing a paragraph or two in praise of its strong points on Amazon, you are informing readers with similar tastes that this book is worth their time and money, as well as helping to support authors. Positive reviews are literally a win-win-win. More lengthy reviews, posted on blogs or printed in newspapers and magazines, are even better.
Negative reviews are a little trickier. I’m blessed with the capability to enjoy almost anything I pick up to read, so I don’t have to worry about this so much. But on the rare occasion when I don’t like something, or for those who are a little pickier, should negative reviews be put out into the world? It’s hard for writers when we consider that the author, his/her agent, or others involved might actually be people we know or could meet. It’s also a little scary when you hear horror stories like this one, in which an author decided to sic her Facebook fans on reviewers who wrote negatively about her book. Negative reviews are always going to be a little contentious, and I won’t pretend that I like the idea of writing one or that I could even see myself doing so. But I do think that they serve a purpose, especially if they are thoughtful and charitable.
I hope that all avid readers will write reviews. Even if you’re not a writer, you’re a part of this community. Here are a few tips gleaned from the articles I read and my own experience:
1. Include some plot summary in your review. Your audience should get a clear sense of the book (not just plot and characters, but tone). In this way, your review becomes interactive: the reader can evaluate this summary and see if it sounds better to him or her than maybe it does to you. If so, great! Just because you didn’t like it doesn’t mean someone else won’t, and vice versa.
2. “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” -- John Updike (for more of his rules for reviewing, read this). The funniest examples of this can be found on LeastHelpful.com. A funny site in general, they catalog the worst reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, and the like. Once you read reviews in which people are disappointed because Dracula is nothing like Twilight, you will either want to write your own semi-intelligent reviews or just curl up and die.
3. Avoid owl criticism. This is Charles Baxter’s way of saying, similar to Updike, that you need to take books as they are, not blame them for what they aren’t. For example, if you read a book about owls and don’t like it because you think owls are stupid, that is not a good reason to give it one star and say it sucks. (Now, if the book is called “The Wonderful World of Cats” and you just LOVE kitties and you buy the book, open it up, and the first page says, “Just kidding! Owls!”, THEN you’re entitled to hate it for that reason).
|Don't like owls? Then why did you pick up a book with a big owl on the cover?|
4. Just give your review some substance, for crying out loud. I don’t know how many Amazon reviews I scroll past and ignore because they’re one line long. In order to be fair to the book, the author, and your audience, you need to provide not just an opinion, but reasons for that opinion (preferably with concrete examples from the text itself).
Review books because you love books. Sure, you’re not going to love them all, and it’s up to you to decide which to review. But reviewing books is an art in itself, one that should not be taken lightly, especially by people who are dedicated to reading and writing. This is our community, and if we don’t take care of it, who will?