So what about reviews?

18 Aug

First off, please keep in mind that the following rambling reflects only my internal dialogue, and as such, it is not meant to set down parameters for anyone else’s behaviour—just mine.

(If you wonder why on earth I bother to blog about it then, I’ll just say: ‘cause I like to hear myself talk, that’s why. And obviously, no one forces you to read 😀 )

Now that it seems I write reviews with a *cough* certain *cough* regularity, I have been pondering even more what reviews themselves mean, in terms of responsibility for me as reviewer.

As far as I am concerned, a review’s purpose is to provide information to other readers—information beyond the often inaccurate and occasionally spoiler-ridden back cover blurb, or the well chosen excerpt on the author’s or publisher’s sites—so that they, the readers, can make a more informed decision to buy, or pass on, a particular book.

To me as a reader, any review that consists exclusively of “great book! highly recommended!” is completely useless. Unless I know the so-called reviewer’s reading tastes really well, and how they mesh or differ from mine, I’m left with exactly the same frame of reference I had before reading that praise. And even if I do know that person’s tastes, I’m likely to ask a couple of pointed questions before buying the book. In my experience, blind words of praise are probably worse than nothing. (See Street Teams at Dear Author)

So a critical review is what I need. But what exactly does this mean? And how far should one go when dissecting a novel?

Most of us were subjected, to one degree or another, to the dreaded lit classes in which classics were dissected. Many, if not most, of us finished such courses with a marked distaste for both the classics and the soul sucking exercise of interpreting mores and subtext and what-have-you in a novel, because it often takes out any enjoyment of the written word from the equation.

But even without going that far, just how far is enough?

I guess that the first part is to keep in mind that, as much as the author’s soul may have been squeezed out of her and poured into her work, the two are separate and distinct from each other. I may like a person very much and yet not enjoy something she’s written. Perhaps even nothing she has written. And that is perfectly alright—as long as I make that distinction clear in my review as well.

As the amazingly wise Smart Bitches have said:

(Candy) “The distinction between author and book may feel artificial sometimes, because the author is the creator of the work, and any critique of the book is necessarily a critique of the author’s work, which in turn reflects on the author’s (perceived) abilities. But focusing on the text, interpretations, reader expectations and reader reactions is ultimately a much more fruitful enterprise (snip)”

Then, there is the matter of reviewing etiquette—or perhaps I should call it consideration towards other readers.

For example, I’m spoiler phobic. Seriously, spoilers give me the hives. I have been angry beyond what’s probably healthy at instances of asshats ruining my enjoyment of books or movies by casually and callously revealing an important and unexpected plot twist. (You really don’t want to know what happened when my dearest first born spilled the ending of The Sixth Sense. Since I couldn’t watch in theaters, I waited until I could get the DVD, avoiding all talk about the film in the intervening months—and the very moment I popped the disc on the player, the then-little cretin asks, “oh by the way, you know that…, right?” The screeching could be heard on both poles, I’m sure.)

But I digress…

Spoilers are a two edged sword. They do whet the appetites of those whose enjoyment is increased by knowing bits and pieces of the story in advance, and who then derive even more enjoyment by seeing how the pieces are put together within the whole thing. But for people like me, who would rather dive into a story without prior knowledge beyond the bare basics (horror or suspense? romance with a happy ending or one of those unrequited love stories? comedy or drama?), having spoilers peppered over a review—and most especially, without any warning whatsoever—just drives me insane.

Further, I’ve heard/read many an author complain about working hard to set up a particular scene or storyline so that it catches the reader unawares, oftentimes having the success of the story as a whole hinging on that one holy-what-the-hell! moment, only to have some idiot splash the information all over the place, ruining the experience for a sizable portion of the author’s audience. As a commenter said quite eloquently over at the Book Binge when the question was posed, a person can’t UN-spoil herself. Once we read or see or hear something, we cannot magically erase it from memory. It’s there, and it’s there to stay, and more, it’s there to screech gleefully in your mind’s ear as you are trying to forget your know it in order to enjoy the story as unspoiled as possible.

This makes writing a review a balancing act, between saying too much and saying too little—for most readers want to have a least a vague idea of the plot, and if (or rather, when) the blurb is inaccurate, a short correct summary is in order.

The most difficult part, though, is when the reading mojo (hat tip to Super Librarian) has taken a vacation, because it is extremely important to give each book as fair a shot as one can.

I know perfectly well that there are times when I am not in the mood for a particular type of story. Forcing myself to read such a story will only result in a more negative review than the same story would otherwise. Waiting a day—or a week—to read it will not change the essence of the work but it may very well allow me to be more impartial when weighing its merits. However, it just sucks, in the worst way, and makes you feel like the lowest form of slime, when you have committed yourself to have a review up by the release date, and you are still struggling to get into the book, and you know that it is not the writing (ergo, not the author either) but your own mood that is just not letting it happen.

Not a fun place to be, lemme tell ya.

The last part is to be fair while grading a book. Sometimes you like a book that you still know is not very well written—or vice versa. Your grade may be high simply because you love the book even while seeing its imperfections, but does that help those other readers for whom the review is intended? Um… not really. So while I may say, in the body of the review, that I liked this novel and why, I will also point out what may be not so good about it, and grade the book by weighing all of these factors.

In the end, like Karen, I’m no Harriet Klausner—only I’m likely to refrain from using outright curses in a review.

Image: Uderzo’s take on Rodin’s “The Thinker” (from Astèrix and the Laurel Wreath)

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One Response to “So what about reviews?”

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  1. Thinking time – why I blog, why I review | Her Hands, My Hands - 03/01/2015

    […] different times since 2008, when I first started reviewing, I have written my thoughts on what reviews mean and who they are written for. Like many other bloggers, I’ve struggled with whether or not to […]

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