On Reviewing Books: A Gift For Your Favorite Author

Michael K. Rose blogged here on 5 Ways to Help Authors Without Spending a Dime. He suggests using Tags and other tools on Amazon.com, as well as Facebook shares and Twitter ReTweets to “boost the signal” for your favorite author’s books. I think this is all very well, using the system of referral algorithms (“Readers who liked this book, also liked that other book”) to direct potential buyers.

Catherine Mintz pointed out that a thoughtful review is even more effective. Depending on where the review gets posted, that can be the equivalent of “word of mouth,” which is a good thing. But it leads — for me, anyway, and I suspect for far too many other readers — to daunting prospect of actually writing such a review.

Between them, high school book review assignments and professional reviewers had done a disservice to the greater mass of readers (my husband subscribes to the New York Times Review of Books, which always comes to my mind as an example of reviews that look to be as demanding to write as the books themselves!) Although I may appreciate the exercise in comparative literature, historical perspective, and contemporary social values — these are not the reviews I want to write, or can write with any degree of facility.

For a long time, I felt guilty because I couldn’t bring myself to write such detailed and well-researched analyses. That guilt turned into a major obstacle to my writing any reviews at all. With time and professional confidence, I reached the point of being able to chuck the old expectations. It’s not that I lack opinions on what I read, but rather that for the most part, I read subjectively and for my own pleasure. Therefore, my experience of a book is highly colored by the specific environment — inner and outer — in which I read it. Here’s my second revelation: Personal, subjective reviews are as interesting and valuable as scholarly dissertations.

I think it’s valid to talk about books that rescued us from despair, entertained us during illness, comforted us like companions, or transformed our worlds. I love hearing those stories from others. So why shouldn’t I tell my own versions — as reviews? Maybe review is a poor vessel to hold both such idiosyncratic, emotional responses but it’s what we’ve got.

I’m trying to make a habit of writing a few lines about every book I finish (or fail to finish, and why). Sometimes I put them up on various review sites, including online bookstores, LibraryThing and Goodreads; other times, they end up in a blog or LiveJournal post. I encourage you to do the same, even if it’s just a few lines. You don’t have to repeat the plot (that’s one part I always hated, although — paradoxically and capriciously — I sometimes like that in a review if I want to know more about the book). How did the book strike you? Would you have enjoyed it more at a different time of your life? Did it remind you of other times, other places? How does it stand up to the book before that? Would you read this author’s next work? Would you recommend it to a friend and if so, which friend?

And also… would you like to see my own reviews here?

The painting is Young Man Reading by Matthias Stom (1600-1649). When I look at it, I wonder who he is, what he’s reading, and how it is changing his life. He looks a little sad, so I wonder if it’s poetry. Probably not The Lives of the Saints. What do you think?

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight, and short story “The Casket of Brass” are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe.

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On Reviewing Books: A Gift For Your Favorite Author — 12 Comments

  1. One drawback of the “rank” or “star” system is that thoughtful reviewers can balk at reviewing because they don’t know how to score a book.

    Everyone resolves this differently, but ever since I decided that I would totally ignored the ‘star’ thing over at Goodreads, I find myself free to discuss books. And isn’t that part of reviewing, really, the discussion?

    Academic analysis has its place. I love reading good ones after I have read the book, but when I am considering whether or not to try one, I do not want the plot, theme, and characters dissected. I want to know how the reader felt after putting it down, which is where reactions like yours appeal.

    (I also tend to like pros and cons; burbles and squee tend to make me look askance, like someone is trying to sell me something.)

  2. I’ve been doing this for a long time, though not about every book I read or movie or television series I watch. Periodically I’m reading so much and taking so many notes for the text I’m doing this research that I just go back later and write about the works that seem to me most striking.

    Since I’m an historian a lot of what I read isn’t written in a way that you’d want to read if you weren’t researching — academic language scholarship, still essential for the researcher. So I try to keep the books I write about online to those a general interest reader would enjoy, either for recreational reading or for information.

    We have a private e-mail list serve too. At the end of the year the subscribers and we write of the books we found most interesting to read this last year — not necessarily the best and certainly not necessarily published in that year.

    Both the list serve and my mentions always sell at least one copy, often more. Our billionaire patron bought copies of over 20 titles mentioned in that round up of what our list serve’s subscribers found worth mentioning in their reading for 2011.

    We also do it with musc.

    And the proof is that people buy those mentions, which makes me feel very good. Matchmaking!

    Love, C.

  3. @Sue –It’d such a relief to realize I’m not alone in this. More than that, I’m not stupid or lazy or inadequate because I don’t want to write reviews in a way that isn’t my natural bent…or my strength. We’re in great company!

    @Sherwood — I’m so glad other people write those detailed, knowledgeable reviews. There definitely is a place for all kinds!

    Your mention of the joys of meaty book discussions remind me of how long it’s been since I’ve been in a book group — but then, I have dinnertime conversations with Dave!

  4. I find the format at Goodreads very freeing. Review it or not; make your comments long or short — whatever! And there is a synergy, too — I urge us all to friend each other on Goodreads. Let’s work that connectivity thing!

  5. Temperamentally, I’d rather praise than damn. But sometimes (I just wrote a fairly scathing review of P.D. James’s Death at Pemberley) I am so boggled by what Real Reviewers have praised that I have to weigh in, more or less saying “Why didn’t I get to read the book they read?”

    And like Dorothy Parker, whose pans are much more fun to read than her praise, I have a harder time pinpointing what I love in a book than I do in noticing what I don’t. I don’t know if that’s bad early training, or just a character flaw. It’s about the only way I get to mention myself and Parker in the same sentence, though, so I go for it.

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  7. I think most writers will understand. They don’t expect reviews to be overly literary or of NYT standards. The most helpful reviews to writers are ones in which the reviewer can state what he or she liked and/or disliked about the writing, how the reader felt, and one doesn’t have to be overly pedantic to get this across in a handful of words.