Monday, March 12, 2007

The Reviewers' Plight

The other day I received a call from a fellow writer/reviewer stating some concerns about books he was scheduled to review.

"I have two books," he tells me with a sigh. "One was really good, but the author totally cheated at the end and it really pissed me off. The other one was okay, the writing wasn't too great, but it was good enough that I can review it."

My reaction was he can review the first one and state his frustrations about the ending, or just not review it at all. As for the other one, why did he keep reading? If I'm not liking a book, I put it down. Life's too short to read bad books. But he told me he had three books on his stack and was afraid he wouldn't like any of them and couldn't go to his editor empty handed.

In a perfect world, reviewers would love everything that comes across their desks. Unfortunately, that's not the case. We have to make judgement calls and tough decisions about what to review and how to review it. Most of it depends on the publication. Crimespree doesn't publish bad reviews (with all the ARCs they get, they don't need to waste time reading bad books) while Time Out Chicago wants brutal honesty. Truthfully, when I read a book like my friend did, where the author cheats at the end, every part of me wants to vent and tear the book apart. But most of the time, it's refreshing to read what you want and not be pressured to get through a book that you seriously dislike.

But most books aren't so clean cut. There are books that I love and books that I hate, but most fall somewhere in between. Most books are well written but have plot problems. They have interesting characters but not enough suspense. So, what to do? Generally, if the author kept my interest for 300 pages, they're doing something right. If I made it to the end, it's getting reviewed. But what if there were significant problems with the plot, or a character, believability, etc.? I give credit where credit is due, writing about the good things and dropping no more than a line about the bad. The reader can take it or leave it. Fact of the matter is, we all have different tastes. I'm more into character driven novels, but someone else may enjoy the high-concept novels with less character development. I did not particularly care for The Da Vinci Code, but I can think of thousands of people who did. Something that I may view as a weakness, someone else may see as a strength.

As with blurbing authors, reviewers run the risk of losing credibility. Write too many good reviews of bad books and you will surely lose your audience. Write too many bad reviews and authors will hiss at you at writers conferences. Be honest and you'll maintain your credibility. Yes, I write a lot of positive reviews, but that's because the bad books don't get reviewed. It's hard enough for authors to sell books without some critic writing about how bad it is. Like my mother taught me: if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.

I can't speak for every reviewer, but most of us got into this business because we love books. We're not disgruntled authors who could never get anything published so we decided to degrade the work of others. We love reading, love a good story and love discovering new authors. We sometimes have to read books we don't want to, or write reviews that aren't stellar, but in the end, the hope of finding a book we adore makes the whole process worth it.


Ronni said...

Great post! Your honesty about the business is refreshing and heartening.

David J. Montgomery said...

Good stuff.

For me, the hardest books to review are the ones in the middle. They're okay, but they're not particularly interesting or unique. They're entertaining enough, but ultimately forgettable. But sometimes you have to review them anyway, and it can be like pulling out your hair trying to think of things to say.

It's so much easier when a book moves you, one way or the other. Those reviews almost write themselves.