Authors, Readers, and Review Philosophies

As I sat down at the beginning of this week to decide what my review was going to be, I found myself floundering. I didn’t have anything in my to-read pile that seemed to fit, and nothing I’d read recently but hadn’t reviewed seemed adequate, either. As Friday approached and with it my self-imposed draft deadline, I realized I simply wasn’t going to have one.

While I tried to figure out what to do, I stumbled upon this little gem, a review at Books and Pals in which the author of the book reviewed, Jacqueline Howett, goes a little overboard in a series of posts in the comment thread. I recommend reading it, both for the humor and because it’s a good example of what to never, ever do as an author when confronted with a mediocre review. She first challenges the author of the review for only giving her book 3/5 stars, then posts several reviews from Amazon (some apparently from her family members) that give her book 5-star reviews. The thread devolves from there.

It got me thinking about the various things I’ve read from authors and reviewers regarding their policies about reviews. Malinda Lo, for example, has a personal policy of not reading post-publication reviews except in special circumstances. While this is certainly not the only position to take, it’s definitely a more professional decision than that of Jacqueline Howett at Books and Pals, who has undoubtedly tarnished her own name more than a book blogger could ever have done.

In truth, both authors and reviewers are wise to establish their plan for dealing with reviews in advance. Authors should accept that not everyone will like their book, that some people may choose to say so, and that they have little by way of recompense unless their name (rather than their work) has been taken to town. More popular authors, and those like Laurie Halse Anderson who have written books that have inspired huge amounts of criticism and challenges, will probably not be able to take Lo’s approach, but can and certainly do decide for themselves how to handle the situation.

As a reviewer, I realized long ago that I needed to establish a system for reviewing books, and for choosing books to review. As a blogger, I mostly reviewed young adult novels, which was for me a simpler genre to use for experimentation; titles tend to be inexpensive and accessing a plethora of material to review is simple. Adult and non-fiction books are somewhat harder to obtain, though, and writing for Persephone has required a re-evaluation of my selection criteria.

These don’t apply to everyone, by any means, but you’ll find my rules below:

I generally only review books I wanted to read on their own merits. If I’m offered an advanced copy, of course, I don’t often get a lot of information on the book before it arrives in my inbox, and in those cases I generally review them either way. But if I have to get hold of a copy myself, I’m not going to go to the effort for a book I expect to hate. I say this primarily because it’s really, really hard to think critically about and productively review a book that I hate, especially when I’m trying to adhere to rule number two, which is …

I write reviews with both pros and cons, no matter what. As a rule, I don’t finish a book if I can’t find anything positive about it. If I hate something, I simply don’t review it. I feel I have nothing constructive to add to the conversation about the work, and reviews like that are entirely unhelpful to authors. On the other extreme, if I find a book I adore, I do my best to find the likely points of criticism in it, even if they’re not necessarily things that personally bothered me.

I am more critical of a book if I’m reviewing an advanced copy. I only occasionally get these, but the mere fact that I didn’t buy or otherwise obtain the book myself means I feel the need to compensate for the fact that it’s in some sense a gift. The other aspect of this is that, in general, if I’m reading an advanced copy I assume it’s still in the late editing stages, and major errors may still hit the cutting room floor. I always post a disclaimer on books I’ve reviewed as ARCs, because the details I notice may change before final publication.

Writing style is fair game, not just content. This is a point on which some reviewers disagree, but if I find a book unreadable because of the language selection, sentence structure, and so on, I include that in my review. I don’t, however, review based on typographical errors or that sort of thing; those usually aren’t relevant to the book unless it’s so pervasive as to compromise the coherence of the content.

I review for readers, not authors. Though my policies about ARCs are intended to benefit the authors to a degree, I write reviews for my own readership, and I generally assume the authors are in the minority there. When I review a book for Persephone, I’m watching out for treatment of feminist themes, social justice issues, and the like, in addition to the usual analysis of whether I think it was a good book or not, and that’s the sort of thing I’m generally going to discuss.

All that said, my rules for reviewing are flexible. Any other reviewers out there want to toss out their own guidelines?

Post image “The Book” from Dave Heuts on flickr.

3 replies on “Authors, Readers, and Review Philosophies”

I don’t know about #2; sometimes a good, hard takedown review is kind of awesome. Michiko Kakutani at the NYT is one of the best at this: elegant, clear prose interlaced with snips of the book’s most egregious passages, even a hint of awe, on occasion, when the offending book goes beyond even her expectations of badness.

In one of my favorites, she refers to a book as “trite, implausible and decidedly unfunny,” then lays it all out. Classic. Sometimes I scan the Sunday book reviews just to find a good wallop.

Erm, perhaps this makes me a bitch.

The problem there is that I can’t usually be bothered to finish a book if I hate it that much! I’m not opposed to scathing reviews on principle, I just don’t have the time to sludge through a book that’s making me want to claw my eyes out.

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