Can we talk?
I’ve been sitting on this story for a bit, but an interesting conversation on Twitter has made me think – ‘It’s time to tell it.’
So, let’s talk book reviews. There are lots of points within this topic and they all deserve attention, to some degree or another. Obviously, I can’t address them all in one post. So this post is going to focus on an experience I had that has influenced my process for reviewing books.
Here’s the story.
Once upon a time, before COVID, I was asked to review a book. This was one of my first book reviews since, well, pre-1980. I was excited. Added to that I was determined to do a ‘good job’.
You see the mistake already, right?
I failed to take into account that my definition of ‘a good job’ and the author’s definition of ‘a good job’ might not be the same. The consequences of that oversight will be made clear. But before I go running into the swamp, allow me to tell you what I did before things went all pear-shaped.
As I said, I wanted to do a ‘good job’. So, being a nerd, I researched what the publishing industry considers to be the features found in a good book review.
I even made a list so I could be thorough.
I assembled my materials. A notepad to take down impressions as I went. Made sure my pen had ink, pencils sharpened. A nice cuppa and two cats.
Then, book in hand I sat down and started to read.
I didn’t make it through the first page before I reached for my pen and paper. And, not in a good way. Oi.
But, you know. Typo. They happen. Even to the best. I was prepared to let it go. I was not going to be my father who read the NYT with an editor’s blue pencil. What he did to the local paper was just cruel… anyway moving on.
So, back to the book in hand. Long story short, it was an ugly formatting mess. Even now I can see the first paragraph of a chapter that was all in HEADING FONT. There was a wonderful assortment of errors, from simple typos, (many many simple typos), to instances of – wait a minute – weren’t we just in his head, and now we are in hers – to lacking paragraph breaks, to, too, two… oi.
Well, I ploughed my way through the formatting, cause ‘hey, maybe I just got given some pre-formatted version. I’m sure the author wouldn’t let it go out like this.’
But, then I found myself ploughing my way through the story. I was really disappointed. I had heard so many great things about this book – albeit from the author – that I was really planning to like it. No, I was planning to love it.
Before I even started to write anything review-ish I had a brief conversation with the author. I let them know of the technical errors I had run-across (waded-through[?]) And I was met with the assertion that I was wrong.
Yes, I was wrong because the author assured me the person who had done the novel’s formatting had done ‘a terriffic job’. It didn’t matter that the version I had was indeed the one that was available to other reviewers.
The embarrassing part – I actually tried to make myself believe it. For a couple of minutes. I mean what if there was some really elevated literary purpose that I just didn’t recognize?
What if I was too dense to realize that intentionally reorganizing the pages was a literary device?
Yeah, that’s about the point I realized just how far I was going to rearrange my world view on the author’s behalf. But, still, technical difficulties aside, there was a story to look at, and to think about, and to write a good solid review about.
I grabbed my list of things to include and I sat down to write my review. I ignored all the technical problems. I didn’t mention them, I figured the author was just unaware and that they would fix the copy. That was not my problem.
My problem was I just didn’t connect with the characters. While the lead male had potential, I found the lead female, shrill, self-contradictory without any idea of her own motivations. Then the story was overblown and at points just nonsensical. On top of that there (their, they’re) were the speedbumps. Periodically, the flow of mythology was interrupted with modern scientific precepts, with no explanation for why. The discontinuity would jolt me out of the story Every Time.
And, still – I was trying to like this book. I was bending over backward to be ‘nice’ to the author. They were adamant that this novel was ‘gold’ because it had been edited three times.
Well, it was certainly ‘gold plate’ over something.
So, I wrote my review. And, because there was a rating system, I gave it four-stars. I was REALLY trying to be nice and give the story the benefit of the doubt.
The result – the author was livid and accused me of attempting to sabotage the sale of their work by giving it less than five stars.
Because – five stars was required. That’s what drove sales. That’s what made people want to put down their (they’re, there) money for the product.
They demanded I give the book 5 stars.
So here’s the crux of this post. For me doing a ‘good job’ was writing a truthful review of my impressions of the strong points and the weak points of said novel.
For them – me doing a ‘good job’ was giving them 5 stars. Boosting sales. Driving traffic.
You see the disconnect, right?
For me, the question out of all of this was – “What type of reviewer do I want to be? Popular, honest, an author’s friend?”
I firmly believe it is not impossible to be all three. But, there are times when you have to prioritize, what is most important in your review?
For me, the answer is ‘to be balanced’. To mention the highs and the lows. To give praise where it is deserved and to point out places that need to be refined or strengthened. And, I try to do that with a bit of humor and some literary merit of my own along the way.
Oh… And I never, ever, ever give out stars.
You want to know what I think about a book… you gotta read the review, because I am not going to contribute to any algorithm that can be played. Because, while a book can be edited three times, and while it can have scores of 5-star entries, that doesn’t mean that the characters are engaging, or that the story is worth the time.
Seriously, do yourself a favor. Go, read the reviews. Particularly the reviews from established or well-respected reviewers.
5 stars – sounds impressive, but remember you can ‘gold plate’ almost anything.