Tuesday, September 26, 2006

book reviewing, schmook reviewing

The current issue of The Edge of the Forest took me to a discussion of book reviewing, in which several people comment suggesting that "first, do no harm" should apply to book reviewing as well as to the medical profession.

I'm flabbergasted by that as a suggested book reviewing philosophy. The idea that your first concern when approaching a book should be to spare the feelings of its author makes the whole concept of reviewing utterly ridiculous. How can you review without honesty? Whether you believe the purpose of a review is to help maximize limited resources--a library wasting money on a worthless book, I call that harm--or whether you believe the purpose is to enlighten readers, neither can be accomplished by failing to consider the material itself first.

How about this as a book reviewing philosophy: "first, tell the truth"? "The truth," about any book being, of course, quite subjective--but that's all the more reason for your truth, as a book reviewer, to come from a genuine place of passion, insight or knowledge. It is your truth... make it mean something. Make it real.

I folowed a link in that discussion to this amazing bookreview/critique of book reviewing and found this terrific insight in its comments:

"What's missing from reviews on the internet is the idea that reviews themselves are forms of creative writing- that in order to convey the heart of a book you review you need to actually write about it, and write about it like you would write a short story or a novel.... A review that is well written requires thought and work- it requires every element of writing in its purest form- transformed into a text that reflects what a book means.

We don't really want to know whether a book is good or bad when we read a review, nor do we want to know the plot or anything else, or it's failings as a work. We want to know how a book tastes, how a book feels. We want to stick our feet in and wiggle around a bit. A good review does that- it doesn't sell us a book or bores us- it gives us a little feeling for how the book works, by examining it in interesting and creative ways."

I'm sorry to read that this commentor thinks those reviews are absent on the internet, because--on a really good day--that's exactly what I try to do with my reviews. The fact that most of the time I fail has to do with my own limitations--time, energy, been doing this way too long--but also something to do with the limitation of the source material. The book that inspires a truly meaningful review is a rare and beautiful thing. (Perhaps one of the reasons that people write very scathing reviews is that it is the only way to access their passion and their creativity when faced with lackluster material to review?)

So I think of that kind of review as an ideal to aspire to, but rarely to achieve. On a day to day basis, I usually settle for telling the truth--or if you prefer, my truth. And though I am never out to hurt anyone, sometimes the truth aint pretty.


Blogger MotherReader bligged...

I agree with you about the practice of reviewing, it's gotta be honest. I remember many bloggers saying how they just write reviews about the books that they liked, and they quietly leave off the ones they don't like. And I guess that's one approach to the issue. Make your blog just about suggestions. But I think then it doesn't address the people who are sent ARC's to review. Or those who use their blogs as a reading diary, good or bad. Or those who want to let others know about a potential problem with a book. How would it be if we had only let the positive reviews go out about the Tulane book, but no one felt comfortable knocking it? Wouldn't be an accurate picture about the responses to that book, would it?

9/28/2006 5:08 PM  
Blogger Michele bligged...

Initially I only reviewed books that I liked on my Blog - but I've been getting books for review in the last few months and so have been reviewing books with which I am less than impressed - and now I'm not hesitating to say so. I don't like writing negative reviews, and I do try to put a positive spin on a negative review, but I'm no longer afraid to say I didn't enjoy book X for whatever reason - with the understanding that it may well appeal to others in ways it didn't appeal to me.

I don't see any value in a personal attack on an author, but I'm quite prepared to say when they did not do something very well - whether it's creating a character, or developing a secondary world, or whatever.

10/05/2006 9:27 AM  
Blogger Colleen bligged...

I want to make sure that you didn't think I was suggesting that author's feelings must be spared when it comes to reviewing - that "first do no harm" statment you made after a link to my blog (Chasing Ray) suggests that. I just have no interest in reading a book I do not like to the end and then writing about it. I don't have the time to put into doing that and I would much rather write about books I do like. As for my reviewing for Booklist (and thus for libraries which I think you were alluding to) I have refused to review several books because after reading them I decided they were not books that could be recommended. When doing this I have to write an explanation of my refusal for my Booklist editor and then she and I discuss the book and make a decision based on that. I have reviewed books for Booklist that I did not like but I thought other readers would, or I thought were by writers who had written good books in the past and thus libraries would wonder about their latest - they would need my review to help them decide whether they should order it.

Derrick Jensen's latest environmental book is an example of a title that I explained in my review was a great disappointment.

I have no problem with some readers or reviewers writing negative comments about a book - that's their choice. I just choose not to. Please don't take from my post that I am advocating only positive things should be written about books so writers won't be upset. I don't mean that or support that and would not say that.

Honestly, I think you might have take an exchange between Laura and I in the comments to my post (where she said "first do no harm") and thought we meant one thing when we were discussing a whole other. We were talking at that point specifically about reviewers who seem committed to negative reviewing (or wrongly comparing a book to another it has nothing in common with)and not reviewers in general. Please don't misunderstand what we were saying, or think that as a reviewer for Bookslut or Booklist I would ever write a positive review for a book even when that was not honest.

10/05/2006 6:01 PM  
Blogger web bligged...

I was certainly not accusing you of dishonesty! But I still think the whole idea of applying that principle to reviewing is--to use the technical term--whack. Probably the person who originally suggested it didn't mean it to be taken so literally or seriously, but it still set my brain on fire.

10/05/2006 6:11 PM  
Blogger Colleen bligged...

You're right - Laura didn't mean it to be taken as such a big deal. We were basically having a conversation in the comments and so she was writing to me about a review of her recent book that was so lame (why would any reviewer start off with "well, it will never be an Oprah pick..." wtf?) My pet peeve is that sometimes people seem to think a positive review is inherently a dishonest one, and that was knee jerk reaction to your post.

Glad it's all cleared up!

PS - I also chose Anastasia Krupnik!

10/06/2006 7:26 PM  
Blogger Little Willow bligged...

I am always honest in my reviews. I am not employed as a book reviewer, however; my full-time job, although book-related, is not in the publishing field. My reviews and the like are freelance. I try to keep my blog all-ages, family-friendly, and positive, like my life. There are plenty of books I've read this year that were a 5 on a scale of 10. I'd rather post only about great books at my blog, but that doesn't mean I don't write true reviews; I've posted 1-star or 2-star reviews on Amazon or in publications when I felt something was lacking.

10/07/2006 11:17 AM  
Blogger Liz B bligged...

The way I read "first do no harm" is that a review can be critical -- can be negative -- but doesn't have to be mean; and that a reviewer, especially when being negative, should try to separate out subjective from objective. The broadest example being if you hate fantasy in general, all reviews of fantasy books will be negative; but of course, often its more subtle than that. I recently spoke with someone who hated King Dork because they disagreed with what the main character said about certain bands. (He's nuts that so and so was number x.) That's not a review of the book; that's getting into individual music taste.

10/07/2006 2:23 PM  
Blogger Bkbuds bligged...

If you can't occasionally slam a lousy book, you're missing some real fun. I hear the name "Madonna" and just go nuts. Her books suck, and I enjoy saying so.

But I go easier on mere mortals who don't carry Madonna's clout to ram through a half-baked manuscript.

I also follow guidelines I learned for movie reviewing in grad school: judge the work by its ambitions. A well-executed chicklit romp may be a better way to spend an idle afternoon than an overreaching Oprah selection.

When I review for the LA Times, they often give me 2 or 3 books and insist I review only the ONE that I like. With their shrinking news hole, they don't have the space to review less-than-stellar books. When they do toss me a Big Name, it's with the admonition, "does the author do her job?" and not "do no harm."

But space isn't a problem on blogs; it's more likely to be a shortage of time, or the sheer tonnage of free reading matter.

So like everyone else, I gravitate to the stuff that grabs me. If it's less than terrific, I'll say so. But do I massage the text a bit, smoothing over the rough edges, hedging or hesitating before I lash out?

You bet. It's called "editing".

10/07/2006 10:59 PM  

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