Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Reviewer Confessions

     I have about ten very long and involved posts in my Microsoft Word "blogpost" folder, most of which have been languishing in there for years. One of these is this post, which I've finally polished up enough for public consumption.

     I've been reviewing books online since I was sixteen years old, and honestly, sometimes I wonder if I've learned anything in the past six years. Sometimes I feel just as conflicted and confused about proper procedure and reviewer etiquette as I did when I first began. When I started out, I wanted to be the type of reviewer that I, as a reader, appreciated. At the time, I wasn't yet getting books straight from the publishers for review purposes, and buying books was a bit of a luxury, usually saved for Christmases and birthdays. That meant if there was a book I was interested in, I read four or five reviews (at least) before committing to buying it.

As a teenage reader, I mainly wanted to know:

1) If the reviewer enjoyed the book (duh)
2) If the plot was actually like the book blurb described
3) whether or not the book had content I might find objectionable or offensive
4) whether or not it was well written in general

     I didn't like reviews that went too deep into the book or summarized it, but I did like detailed reviews that labeled the reader's likes or dislikes with it. Often, even "bad" reviews could convince me to read a particular novel, because I knew that everything that the reviewer said they disliked either wasn't a big deal to me, or actually made me want to read it more because of differing tastes. As I said, I certainly didn't have anything against reviewers who didn't mention anything about the moral or Christian level of content, but I really did appreciate a heads up from reviewers who thought a certain book wasn't clean enough for a "Christian fiction" label. As a teenager (and honestly, still as a twenty-something) I especially didn't want to run unexpectedly into sex scenes or obscene swearing, which meant that I was always trying to find good Christian reviews of mainstream titles.

     However, as I became involved more in the reviewing world, I found out that there are some who believe that reviewers should only focus on the actual writing of books, not on whether or not you find the content offensive. I find this slightly ridiculous: how a writer portrays/handles these topics is an aspect of their writing as a whole. And yes, maybe it is personal preference in regards to the reviewer, but so is nearly everything about a book, including its writing style and plot. In such reviews, I freely begin with a disclaimer explaining why I didn’t like the book so that others can disregard my opinion if they wish. Honestly, this might actually make other people want to read it. As I said, I know that sometimes I read one-star reviews and discover that the very reason the reader didn’t like it would be the very reason I would like it. (Also, talk about morality and content is not something specific to Christian reviewers; secular ones do it all the time—we just tend to be offended/bothered by different things. There are literally secular websites dedicated to rating books on whether or not they are feministic enough.)

     I’ve also heard many writers telling other writers that when they write reviews, they should "be nice or don’t talk at all.” I believe this is because they want to develop an encouraging, supportive environment not based on competition or spite- which I completely understand. However, interestingly enough, I’ve also heard people say that reviews by anyone should do this. However, if anyone only ever wrote good things about books, what would be the use of reviews in the first place? As a writer, only good reviews seem great. As a reader, I think this is a terrible idea.

     Not to say that I always write reviews: I will refrain from writing one on occasion. Usually this is when book has a bunch of cliché problems that I’ve already complained about a hundred times before in other reviews of other books- or if I’ve already seen enough reviews on that particular novel complaining about the same things that I noticed. However, as a reviewer who is obligated to write about the books she receives from publishers, this isn’t always possible. And what’s more, if I have a problem about a book, I have to mention it. In fact, I’ve written reviews before, leaving out certain problems that bugged me because it made me feel unkind, and then went back and changed it because I felt like I was lying. When it comes to book reviews, I have compulsive honesty. This is why I avoid reviewing books from authors I actually know. If I’ve read the book and like it, I'll certainly praise it to the skies and help a fellow author out, but if I don’t, I do usually keep my mouth shut and don’t say anything at all. Good grief, even in books I honestly like I almost always mention at least one thing that could have been done better. But I never do reviews if I personally know the author and I disliked their book. I value these relationships more than writing a review, but I also refuse to lie. Therefore, I usually avoid accepting books specifically for review when I am acquainted with the author. (There are exceptions, as when I’m very familiar with the author’s work and know beforehand I’m going to enjoy it. But generally I bow out of book review tours in such cases) Thankfully, I've only been in this conundrum maybe once or twice (and not recently, either).

     The other times I don't write reviews are on books that I didn't read very much of. I will review Did-Not-Finish (DNF) books, but I usually try to make it at least 50% through for shorter books and 30% for longer ones. (This varies a little, depending on the book, but I do try to give books a legitimate chance). I feel like you can't totally judge a book by its first or second chapter, and so usually I'll only quit books that early if they're just too obscene or badly written for me to get through, and those don't usually warrant a review from me. Also, I do make a habit of reading the last chapter or two of DNF books, just to get a better picture of their overall message and cohesiveness before I write a review.

     Of course, since becoming more involved in the writing side of the internet, I have gotten less overtly critical in my reviews in general. My loyalties are somewhat conflicting: I have a duty to the reader, who I think should be informed, and yet also to the author, who I think should be encouraged and treated respectfully. However, over the past couple of years I do think I've learned a few guidelines that I try to follow when writing a book review.

1) I always try to find at least one praise-worthy thing in every book, even in those that I downright hated (luckily there haven’t been many that I’ve legitimately hated. And for those that I have, the authors are usually already dead and thus cannot be hurt or offended by my scathing review). I’m a lot better than I used to be; partly because I’ve gotten to know a lot of other writers, and as my own work has gotten published I realize how hard it is to release your book out into the world for the wolves to devour. I have gotten one-star reviews before, and they're not fun. I just remind myself that I've written one-star reviews as well, and I shouldn't dish it out if I can't take it.

2) You can dislike a book and still be kind in your review. There's no reason to be nasty. I've read some reviews where it seems the reviewer has a personal grudge or vendetta against the author. Usually other readers can spot that a mile away, and it's one of the quickest ways for me to disregard a review, because the reviewer just seems bitter or jealous, and more focused on tearing up the author than the actual book.

3) Never personally attack or make assumptions about the author. Focus on the novel and the writing, not the real person behind the book that you don't even know. See lesson #2. I know some authors who won’t even read reviews for their own books, which is probably smart. I wish I could be like that, but honestly I have too much curiosity. However, even if the author doesn't read their reviews, attacking the author personally is unkind. It's like an ad hominem argument in a debate. Don't do it.

     I mentioned that a lot of the time 3 or 4 star reviews are usually more informative than 5 star ones. But this is not to say that you can’t write 5-star reviews. I'll insert a writer plea here: please, please, please do.

     They are far from useless. As a writer, they are extremely encouraging and they encourage other readers to buy the book. If you honestly loved a book, PLEASE write a quick five-star review with all the things you loved. And I’m not just saying this from an author’s perspective: 5-stars are good from a reader’s viewpoint as well. I’m sure a lot more likely to read a book that consistently gets five stars than one that’s full of three, two, and even four-star reviews. An abundance of praise-filled reviews is a huge sign that this book is probably worth buying.

     But-and I'm speaking as both a reader and a writer now-If everyone only wrote five-star reviews, then they would be meaningless. Not all books are equal, and pretending they are out of misguided kindness doesn't help anybody. Hopefully by saying this I won't get completely attacked by fifty million 1-star reviews on my books (*hides*) but it is something that I truly believe. If you don't- that's totally fine. Some people just don't feel right writing reviews about books they didn't like. If it makes you uncomfortable and you aren't obligated to write a review for that book, then don't. It's okay. I'm not judging you or telling you that you have to. I'm just explaining, as a reviewer, why I occasionally write a 1 or 2 star review. I'm not trying to be mean; I'm trying to be honest. And that can be a tricky balance- one I know I have failed regularly at.
     I've gotten confused and frustrated about ratings and will probably never fully grasp their meanings for other people. (This book objectively seems like a four-star, yet I didn't enjoy it as much as this other book I only rated three stars! Or, this book has its problems, but I still really loved it. Is it worth five stars? Why did I rate this rather typical piece of Christian fiction the same as David Copperfield? THIS JUST SEEMS WRONG ON SOME LEVEL.) I've been both too critical and too lenient. Some of my reviews are just uninformative, and some simply too short or too long. I am far, far from a perfect book reviewer, just as I am far, far from a perfect novel writer. That being said...

      Reviewing books can be hard, but remember: writing a review is no where near as difficult as writing a novel. And authors at least deserve some respect for accomplishing that.


Phoebe said...

By the way, I tagged you over at my blog! I do hope you will participate! :D I love reading your blog, btw. :)
Here's the tag:

Suzannah said...

I so agree with everything you say here, Hayden! Especially that I have to make moral judgements on a book. As you point out, there's no way to get out of making moral judgements, even if you're eg, a secular feminist!

Hayden said...

Phoebe: Thank you! I'll go check it out!

Suzannah: Thanks! I can't see how one can really neglect a book's moral stance in their review (especially if it's problematic) but it's amazing how many people think that aspect of a book is untouchable. Strange.

Natalie said...

I loved this post! Not only did you give me some food for thought, I agreed with a lot of what you said. One thing that stuck out to me was that you like reviewers who point out any objectionable content. I have always appreciated that so much, and get frustrated when researching a book and can't find any reviews that mention if there's any content. So, yes. I agree! :D

As a quick side note, I recently read your story "For Elise" and loved it! I wrote a short review on Goodreads, and well, I gave you five stars, so I thought you'd like to know that. ;) I REALLY enjoyed it!!

Hayden said...

Natalie: Thanks! I've actually seen some people make fun of reviewers who do that, which I think is sad. I, for one, certainly appreciate content warnings!

And I'm glad you liked For Elise! I can't deny that 5 star reviews make me feel all happy and giggly inside, haha :)

Natalie said...

That is sad, indeed. People just aren't very understanding or gracious sometimes. :(

Yes, I did! I'm always happy to RATE a book five stars, so I can imagine getting five stars on your own book must be pretty amazing. :D

Hamlette said...

Such an interesting post, Hayden! You're making me think about the ways I review books, and what I say in my reviews. Sometimes I forget to say what a book is actually about because I have so many other things to say, and then I read them later and think, "Did anyone wish I'd talked about the actual plot?" Other times, I think I spend too much time detailing the story, and then it's like, "Well, this isn't a review, it's just a recap."

But I agree with you on wanting to know what the content level is. I hate reading a book and really enjoying it, and then suddenly everyone's naked, or someone comes in and swears so much sailors run away.

And yeah, I don't review every book I read, either. Sometimes I just can't think of anything to say. Sometimes I don't care enough about it to want to share it with others. Sometimes I simply don't have time. And sometimes, especially if I read then on my phone's Kindle app, I forget!

Anyway, great post :-) I'm slowly but surely catching up on all the posts I've missed over the past couple months!

English Lady said...

Very interesting and infortative post. I confess, book reviews can be hard, and I have had some flak from fans for being critical of books they love- but on the other hand, I have had people thank me for flagging up content that nobody else did in reviews.

I always try to be polite and not be personal in reviews, but I do sometimes compare authors. For instance, I far prefer Julie Klassen's Regencies to those by other American authors, as they are far more authentic in my opinion.

Also, as a Brit I do have a different perspective on some books, or tend to notice things other people would not. I don't know if that makes me seem obscure, pedantic or controversial, but its my way.

Hayden said...

Hamlette: So good to see you're comment! I've been somewhat absent from the blogosphere for the last few weeks, but I'm glad you like the post! :D

English Lady: It is a difficult balance, but I enjoy reading reviews from people from other countries for that specific reason- you might have a totally different point of view, and that's fascinating- especially when one lives in the country the novel is set in. (One of my regrets is that I never got beta feedback from British readers for my first novel. I know it's woefully full of Americanisms!)

Olivia K. Fisher said...

Review etiquette is something I've struggled to understand as of late, but I love how your reviews are so clearly and kindly stated. Thank you for this post, Hayden! :)

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