Friday, 2 May 2014

Some honest thoughts about reviewing

Example 1: Late last year I read a much-anticipated book by an author I'd read before and loved. I didn't really think it was that great. However, I'd received a review copy from the publisher... and the author followed me on Twitter. I felt under pressure to be positive about the book, and I gave it a rating and review that - looking back - didn't reflect what I really felt about it, particularly in comparison to the author's previous work.

Example 2: Recently I've been having a problem that's almost the opposite. I've recently read three books I absolutely adored - the forthcoming Her by Harriet Lane, and two novels by Siri Hustvedt: her most recent, The Blazing World followed by her debut, The Blindfold. It's now quite some time since I read these books - months, in the case of Her - but stiill, I've barely written a word about them and will soon come to the point where I can't remember enough, or have read too many other books in the time since, to write an effective review.

There are some reviews that are just very hard to write. I don't generally find wholly negative reviews to be among these - if I think a book is truly awful or offensive, I don't usually have any qualms about saying so. Reviews that contain both positive and negative elements are often the easiest to write - there's more to say, an argument to balance, a conclusion to find. Rave reviews are more difficult: when I really love a book I just want to babble incoherently about how great it is, not set out a reasoned explanation of why it's good. Another problem is linked to the issues I wrote about in this post about book blogging: if I have some reason to feel I 'should' be positive about the book, it can be a struggle to deviate from that. It's harder if there's some personal connection - if I have had any communication with the author themselves, or have received a review copy from a specific publicist instead of, say, getting access to the book through more generic means, such as a site like NetGalley.

Negative reviews came under fire during the recent controversy over Goodreads' change to its review policy. Then there was the story about Buzzfeed's new books editor saying they would only ever publish positive reviews, which prompted various thinkpieces about 'the death of the hatchet job' and such. Not so long ago I came across a self-published author on Goodreads who, rather threateningly, stated on their profile that one of their ambitions was 'to meet the next person that gives me a two star review or less'. I've seen a much more successful author tearing into a negative reviewer on Twitter and deriding them for 'only' having 150 followers, as if this had any bearing on the validity of their opinion (this really put me off the author, incidentally, even though I enjoyed the book that the reviewer had criticised). There seems to be a plethora of reasons why you shouldn't write a negative review, and a surprising (to me) number of people who argue against them existing at all. I've always thought they're an important part of the conversation surrounding books or any other media. If I hate a book I want to tell people, but that doesn't mean they have to listen any more than they have to agree with me about a book I adore. The great thing about online reviews is the variety of viewpoints available in terms of interpretation and analysis, the fact that they allow every segment of the audience to have their say - whether they have 15 followers, or 150, or 15,000.

I value honesty in reviews a lot, so it can be hard to reconcile that the pressure to be nice about everything. However, there are reviews I now regret because I feel they were too positive about mediocre books - and I think that's unfair on, and detrimental to, the books I actually really liked, but gave a similar rating or review. The more I think about it, the more I feel bowing to this pressure renders my opinions about every book I review, not just those I was too complimentary about, invalid.

It will be difficult, but I've resolved not to do this anymore. Not that I've ever lied about what I thought of a book, but I've definitely been guilty of putting a certain spin on things that, deep down, didn't reflect my true thoughts. As for those problems with writing up positive reviews... They're harder to solve. I guess I should just bite the bullet and either write 'OMG READ THIS' 20 times in 72px bold lettering, or become one of those people who reviews books with a series of awed-facial-expression gifs.

On another note, I've been going through something of a personal slump recently and I've struggled to summon up the motivation to write 'proper' (ie, lengthy and analytical) reviews, which is part of the reason why this blog has been so quiet of late. Combine that with moving house and a busy schedule, and it unfortunately hasn't been one of my top priorities. Reviews to come soon, hopefully, if and when I get my writing mojo back.

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  1. I want to write a deep and thoughtful comment, but really can't think of anything except 'I agree' and 'I feel ye' and a bit of rehashing of what you've said. I'm not a reviewer, but occasionally I write notes, and there was an instance or two where I've glossed over some parts or given the book a 'preppier' review simply because I've been contacted by the author's team or downloaded the book for free. I decided that this stops. In the end, reviews that aren't honest (I'm not implying that yours aren't, but you get what I mean, yes, yes?..) hurt the author as much as they do the reader -- and the reviewer.

    And yep. Gushing reviews of anything are harder to write. Gifs have been on my mind a lot.

  2. I've been following your blog since it began and think it's great. I was an avid book reader up until I was about 24 and then as work got busier, I found myself becoming someone who says they don't have time to read. My younger self would be disgusted! I also think the amount of books we have access to at the moment is wonderful but stupefying. So your blog is one of a couple that I use to decide what to read. This is just to illustrate that I value your decision to be more open about what you think.

    As a side-note I think the 'no negative' review policy is nonsensical. I'm aware anonymous reviews are to be taken with a grain of salt. I prefer to get reviews from friends, critics, bloggers I'm familiar with so even if they don't like the book/movie/etc, I can tell from their review that I would like it.