Writing and Reading Reviews

I’ve been reviewing books for online and print magazines for a while now. Close on ten years. It’s an interesting business as I don’t consider myself qualified to give really critical reviews. I don’t have a college degree stating I am educated in the art of reading and reviewing. But, like most dedicated readers, I read a lot of books. Aside from what appeals to me, personally, I have an idea of what works and what doesn’t.

Characters don’t always need to be appealing. I’ve read to the end of a book featuring characters that drew very little sympathy from me as a reader. But they still worked because they felt real. Either they were bastards or weirdly bland or just distasteful people, but well written enough that I had an opinion. I still cared about the character and the story, even if I didn’t care for them.

I could read a book that simply followed the development of a character. A slice of life or a coming of age type thing. But most books have a plot. It’s a sort of necessary kind of feature. I can come up with a hundred analogies for why a story needs a plot, but as I mentioned before, I’m not highly educated. So, bear with me as I describe a plot as a clothesline. It’s somewhere to hang the clothes.

Not going to embellish that one, just going to move on.

I’m also not going to examine plots, or describe the elements required to make a good one. That’s not the point of this ramble. I just wanted to put down the couple of things necessary for a book to be engaging. Sounds simple, but apparently it isn’t.

As a reviewer, I see a lot of really poorly executed books. They often have great ideas, but there is no actual plot, or it’s not evident or clear or sensible. Or, the characters are lacking. They all sound the same, so that I’m not sure if it was Luke or Mark who just died and I’m certainly not reaching for the tissues because I didn’t have a good feel for who the poor bugger was. Just another voice in the dialogue.

When I write reviews, I try to come across as a reader, one who has certain expectations—particularly when I’m reading a favourite or well-known author—and one who has definite preferences. I like to point out what I really enjoyed, and if a book didn’t work for me, I try to figure out, and communicate, why. Not because I think the author will read it, but more to explain why I tossed the book or gave it five stars.

Or, simply because I though the book was amazing and I want to tell all my friends about it. Or, I was horribly disappointed and want to share that opinion.

With so many people getting their hands on ARCs, there are a lot more non-critical reviews floating around the internet. These reviews are stirring up trouble (Goodreads and their author protection policy) and sometimes they feel less objective than might seem necessary. But, the point of having a personal blog is to express your opinion, isn’t it? Being invited to leave a review offers an invitation for exactly that, too. An opinion.

I think both can be done with respect—for the material and the people responsible for publishing it.

I don’t like writing bad reviews. Regardless, I do write them. I call them unfavourable reviews and I try to avoid stating: This is the worst book I’ve ever read. First off, I probably tossed the worst book. Life’s too short to read books that don’t appeal. Secondly, even before I had a book out there, flapping innocently in the breeze of critical readership, I didn’t like telling people they couldn’t write. Everyone can write. Not everyone can write well. Even then, though, most books need editing and some editors are better than others.

So, what’s the point of this ramble? Aside from explaining how I review books (which I also talk about on my reviewing page), I wanted to share my experience of being reviewed.

It hasn’t been as harrowing as I might have imagined. I haven’t had a terrible review yet, so that helps. But the first rating I got on Goodreads was two stars, which translates to: It was okay. It stung to imagine someone thought my book was merely okay, but I didn’t beat myself up over it because I expected my story wouldn’t appeal to every reader. Of course it wouldn’t. Just like everyone doesn’t like anchovies on their pizza. We all have individual tastes.

I did wonder what it was about my story that didn’t appeal, but the reviewer did not elaborate. Probably a good thing, eh? But, if she had, I’d have read it and accepted the judgment. I wrote a book and I put it out there. I expected—wanted—people to share their opinion of it.

Should an author ever respond to a review? This is a tricky one. I know that as a reviewer, I’ve been delighted when an author has contacted me to thank me for a nice review.  I like seeing that little ‘like’ button on Goodreads light up (figuratively, of course) with their click. I hope my opinion of their book makes them feel good. As a writer and a recently published author, I understand what goes in to every book. They deserve the kudos, in my opinion, particularly if it was a good book!

I think when an author responds to a poor review (one that picks the story apart rather than explains simply and respectfully why the reader didn’t like it), then they are losing perspective. They’re forgetting that not everyone likes anchovies on their pizza.

What if a review slips into slanderous territory, or becomes a personal attack? Ignore it. I’m sure it’s hard, but there’s a reason for that old adage. Things that are ignored often do just go way.

I think the thing to remember—and what I try to keep in mind—is to be respectful, no matter which side of the review you’re on.

If you made it this far, thanks for listening. I welcome your comments. Oh, and as for my own book, I’ve received some really lovely reviews. It’s been a joy to read them and nice to click that little ‘like’ button.

2 thoughts on “Writing and Reading Reviews

  1. Jenn Burke November 1, 2013 / 1:24 pm

    I think the key element to keep in mind when reviewing or being reviewed is what you said, that not every book will appeal to every reader. It’s the nature of humanity. I think the real difficulty comes into play when you feel really, really strongly one way or another about a book. Like, I want EVERYONE to read yours, but I’m holding myself back on spamming the hell out of Facebook and Twitter and whatnot. 🙂

    • sisimka November 1, 2013 / 1:34 pm

      I want everyone to read my book, too! Waiting for your article on what/what not to do on social media, btw. 😀

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