Thursday, January 24, 2013

Say what you mean, don't say it mean -- writing reviews

When the rumblings went round about Amazon removing authors’ reviews from the website, I considered whether this move on their part was warranted. While this is not going to be a rant about why I think Amazon’s decision sucks, I am going to stick by my guns and say that authors (and editors) should be willing and able to share their opinion in reviews. After all, don’t scientists submit themselves to peer review? The same goes for authors.

But what goes into a review? And how should one approach writing a review?

One of my favourite pastimes is to look at the one-star reviews some of my favourite authors received. Here’s a good example for JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit quoted from Goodreads:

They weren't really movies, they were more like protracted masturbatory fantasies for stoner geeks and people who would otherwise be making b-horror film remakes. The Hobbit wasn't a part of the trilogy, and I can only assume that it got left it out because it wasn't as good as the other 3 books. Or 10. How many are written now? I can't keep track. My generation's contempt for franchises apparently only extends to Steven Segal movies.

While our friend Nathan is obviously enamoured with his own cleverness, he’s clearly only trolling. As a reader, I’m not being told anything useful other than the reviewer’s own opinion, which he’s clearly entitled to have, but I don’t necessarily agree with him. Yes, reviews like this make for amusing, if not somewhat unfortunate reading, but our friend’s missing the point.

Clarice (also on Goodreads) gives The Hobbit a 3-star rating, and actual reasons for her decision:

The Hobbit is thus the perfect book to read to your children before bedtime or even one of the first novels they might read themselves.
When evaluating the Hobbit as a prelude to Lord of the Rings, things look a little bit different. Currently reading Lord of the Rings, I am thankful to have followed the chronological path, as the Hobbit prepares the setting for Lord of the Rings, in which Tolkien has adapted his very scholarly writing style to an audience of grown ups.

She goes on to say that the plot does drag somewhat, but offers a detailed discussion of her likes and dislikes. In fact, I can quite imagine her sitting in a room, face to face with Tolkien himself.

And that’s the crux point. When I write reviews, I write them as if I’m sitting in the room *with* the author. My own work as an editor, where I’ve often written the dreaded “dear author” letter for a request for revisions, has given me a feel for how to word my opinion with regard to which aspects of a novel require strengthening. As an author, I also know that sinking sensation when a reviewer can’t get past their own personal prejudices. Complaining bitterly because a character is gay/uses drugs/isn’t faithful because *you* don’t agree with these things doesn’t necessarily make the book bad.

Hell, I sure as hell don’t have a taste for human flesh, but I still cheered for Hannibal Lecter. A good reviewer is able to set aside her personal preferences in order to judge whether a book is good.

So, what *do* you look at?

Can the author write? Seems like a self-evident question but ask yourself, is the writing clunky, uncomfortable to read? Are you picking up oodles of typos? Incorrect punctuation? Over-reliance on clichés? Lack of description? Too much description? Purple prose?

Are the characters three-dimensional? You don’t need to *like* them, but do they have depth? Are their actions supported by enough motivation? I mean, really, if a character is about to commit suicide, I need to be convinced he or she’s going to drink that poison cup. And oh hell no for the appearance of Mary Sues and Marty Stus. (if you don’t know what those are, go look ’em up. Google is your friend.)

While I’m no fan of plodding literary novels (and I’ll try to avoid them), I at least like to see a novel that has more than just a coat-hanger to the plot. Is it a murder mystery? A quest? Horror? A romance? Fantasy with a military theme? All these types of novels will set out to satisfy different aims. A quest novel where the characters spend the first half of the book packing their bags is not going to go down well with seasoned fans of that genre. Likewise, a romance novel where the happy couple don’t get their plans for True Lub™ thwarted at some point, won’t hit the mark with the romance market segment.

That being said, you can’t hold your copy of John Fowles’ The Magus next to Anne McCaffrey’s The White Dragon and say one is better than the other. They’re both excellent books, *within* their genre. Their purpose is primarily to entertain. It can be said that Fowles probably had an agenda, but WHO CARES? People read different books for different reasons. There are days when I want something challenging. Then The Magus is perfect. Other days I want to go play with dragons. So long as you remember that when you write your review, you’re gonna do okay.

Look at the book you’re reading. Is it derivative of another, more popular work? You think so? Go read up on release dates and point it out in your review. You're allowed to do that. You hated a book? Maybe you weren’t the target market. Consider that when you write your review. It’s perfectly okay to admit you weren’t the target market. Then say who you think might enjoy the book.

In closing, my suggestion is to try to balance the good with the bad when it comes to a book. Remember that someone (the author) thought there was a reason to write the story. Try to see what it was that got them all excited in the first place. And hey, when you sit down at your computer, flex your fingers and draw your breath before you start writing, pretend the author is sitting next to you. If you can’t say it to his or her face, you probably shouldn’t be saying it.


  1. I was with you until you said The Magus was a great book within its genre. I like anti-heroes, but Nicholas Urfe was a miserable person without a shred of what it takes to be a hero - anti or not. Squirming little toad. Where Fowles did succeed was in writing a character so ploddingly awful that I still loathe him ten years after forcing myself to read the entire awful monstrosity of a "novel". ;)

    You other points are well taken and I do most of them when I write a review. I think my best reviews are my 3 star ones because those are ones where I've found flaws but still think the book is worth the read. Those are the reviews I also read when I decide whether to buy a book. The one star reviews are great and hilarious to read when I want to laugh and waste time, but the 3 stars are where the meat of the book in review are found for me.

    1. Amy, I totally with you on those three-star reviews. For me if a novel gets just four- and five-star reviews, I'm automatically suspicious. But I find some of the most thoughtful feedback in the mid-range.

      That being said, each reviewer will associate something slightly different with a rating system (and some very rarely allocate more than three).

      Getting back to The Magus, I liked Nicholas precisely because he's such a drip. And I want to see him punished. Conchis finds him wanting, in a bad way.