Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Writing, Reviews, and Writing Reviews

An interesting question over at fictiongroupie that speaks to those of us who share our reading experiences online--when you read a book that just didn't cut it for you, do you share that out there in webberworld? As the discussion emphasized, books are not babies (no matter the work a writer put into them, different rules apply.) I fall on the side that, while you wouldn't call your friend's baby ugly (and yes, saying "That's a really cute outfit you put it in. Especially since that bonnet covers its face" counts as calling your friend's baby ugly), there are ways you can say a book wasn't good.

For those of us whose blogs are focused on book reviews, it's expected and in fact vital that the review be honest and balanced. Readers trust book bloggers to share the highs and lows of new releases, to help us select what's worth our time. When we find bloggers who share our tastes--bingo, we've got book recs from someone we trust as much as a friend or family member. Maybe more.

However, for those of us who also write, it's a trickier question. Do you post unabashedly, share what worked and what didn't, rip into poor choices the author made--or do you stay quiet, knowing that a reputation is made online? Sarah J Maas at Let the Words Flow had a great post on how a reputation can be made or broken by what an aspiring author does online. Words for the wise for anyone, really. One point--don't be a drama queen, which could include tearing into a badly written book.

So what to do?

So here's the scenario. (I made it up.) You write seafaring historical lit. Being a responsible writer, you read quite a bit of seafaring historical lit to keep up with the genre. You read a new author's debut work and...it's awful. It's terribly underdone, the characters fall flatter than flapjacks, and historical errors abound. (Bad ones--the writer said India was a Yugoslavian colony in 1800 and put pull-chain motors on the tallships.) Do you post your review on your blog or not? I would say, first, if you've not made it a practice up to now to post book reviews, I would skip it. Your regular readers will be surprised by it, it will probably seem a bit more vitriolic because of its singularity, and anyone sniffing around your page to get a better sense of you won't find a collection of reviews that seems balanced. S/he will instead find one seemingly angry diatribe.

If you do regularly post reviews, however, I wouldn't shy away from posting this one. I would, however, make it as balanced as you can. If you write, you already know how difficult the process is--how long the author worked (ok, maybe not long enough in your opinion, but clearly it still took some time), how much they poured into drafting, revising, editing, pushing toward publication. At the same time, it would be irresponsible to pour puppies, kittens, and rainbows all over a bad book--your readers trust your judgement. So I would look for the things you did like (there was something, right?) and use very balanced language. "I felt that" or "Didn't work for me" or "Would have preferred" all indicate that this is subjective--which it is, of course--and keep it in a reader's perspective rather than indicting the author.

My modus operadi, for now, is to be completely honest, provided I have something balanced to say. I have seldom found a book I disliked so completely that I did not finish it and find some redeeming things to say about the writing, characters, or plot. Heck, even the cover. (Usually more than just the cover.) I've promised myself, however, that if I read something truly, utterly, terrible, something I cannot find anything nice to say about--well, I will follow the old maxim and simply not say anything at all.

What do you think? If you're a writer, do you share your thoughts on books or keep mum to avoid rocking the boat? If you're a reader, do you turn to book blogs to get the real skinny? What do you think of bloggers who post scathing reviews--are you thankful for their honest, or appalled by their lack of restraint?


GentlewomanThief said...

Very thought-provoking, this.

I try not to say anything I wouldn't want someone else to say about my work. That isn't to say I don't criticise, but I try to make sure I do it in a constructive, helpful way. I suppose I take my lead from my uni courses and writing group, especially in the use of the critique sandwich.

One of the most important things for me when writing a review is that I try to ensure the beginning and end reflect my overall view of the novel, so even if I give focus to the not-so-good things about a book I generally enjoyed, the review-reader is still (hopefully) encouraged to read it. Similarly, if i thought a book was only so-so, I try to explain why I felt that and suggest what about it might appeal to a different kind of reader - 'I didn't like it, but if you like Agatha Christie, then you might.'

As for an overall bad review - I haven't done one yet. To be honest, I don't tend to finish reading a book if I think it's that terrible - these days, I don't have enough reading time to waste it on a terrible book!

Rowenna said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Gentlewoman :) I agree that being constructive is important--even if the writer never reads it, I think it helps others understand what you didn't care for, and helps you grow as a reader and a writer.