Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Reviews and commentaries

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One of the best and worst things about having a new book out is waiting for, and then reading, reviews. No matter how phlegmatic a writer is, I suspect they end up bouncing between despair and elation, not to mention all the prior nail-biting anticipation ... and mind-numbing terror that nobody will say anything.

It is interesting therefore to see things from the reviewer's point of view, such as this post at NextRead or here at Speculative Horizons. The comments are also worth looking at if the topic interests you.

From a reader's point of view, I like a review that tells me only very briefly what the book is about (quite different from telling me what the story is); I like it to tell me why it worked for the reviewer - or why it didn't. Remarks like "The beginning was a slog" mean nothing until they are followed by "because..."

As a writer I try to learn from well-conceived not-so-good reviews, as well as the good reviews. The reviews I really, really hate are the ones that dislike a book for what it sets out to be. There can be no more pointless review than that!

What do I mean?

A SF writer friend once received a snide, sarcastic review from a book reviewer in a national newspaper. The whole review was just a let's-poke-fun-at-fantasy- to-make-us-literary-types-feel-better review (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) . That's probably the most extreme version of what I mean. But there are lesser kinds of irritating that have the same fundamental silliness.

Don't criticize a paranormal romance for containing romance because all you're interested in is vampires. Don't attack volume 1 of an epic fantasy of 800 pages for being long, having too many characters and an unresolved ending. Don't attack a SF novel for containing some scientific explanation. Don't attack a writer with a reputation for writing blood and gore when he does exactly that in his next book.

What did you expect, for crying out loud?

If the romance is badly managed, if the epic storyline is dull, if the science is ridiculously wrong or poorly explained or dealt with in massive info-dumps, if the blood and gore is tediously repetitive - and you discuss that, or give examples, then you are writing a proper review.

As a writer, one of the nicest comments are the unexpected ones out of the blue from fellow writers - especially when it's a writer like Alma Alexander whose writing I admire and whose books I love.

So, readers and writers out there: what kind of reviews and reviewers do you like or hate? And for those of you who don't read reviews, why not?
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10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I review books for ASiF and I think the thing to keep in mind (as Karen Miller once so wisely pointed out) is that reviewers just want to read a fantastic story and we get disappointed when it doesn't live up to our high expectations of what we believe you're capable of. I'm talking in general terms here and not aiming this specifically at any writer, especially since I am a writer myself and other peoples bad comments once used to hurt me badly. But I was just a little writer then and I have a much tougher skin now.

Skaldi

jmkirk said...

As a reader I look at the reviews on Amazon to see if it's worth purchasing. I look at the negative reviews first but I'm only swayed if it's a well written review. The ones that just say 'this is crap, don't buy it!' I usually just ignore. Even if it is a particularly literate review I still take into account what they didn't like about it. Just because they didn't like it doesn't mean I wouldn't!
On the other hand, the positive reviews that just gush about the book tend to put me off a bit too! I read the reviews but tend to make up my own mind about it. I've bought books that have had no reviews and enjoyed them! : )

Marina said...

I've been stung a few times, buying books on the recommendation of "literary" reviewers, only to discover the book has little actual plot, however beautifully written. (So much so that I now ignore certain reviewers.)

I like a review that tells me enough about the book to whet my appetite, but doesn't give away any major plot points (though I'll still read a "spoiled" book if it sounds interesting). I like the reviewer to tell me why they liked or didn't like the book, so I can make my own judgement on whether the book would interest me.

Like you, I dislike the reviews that complain the book isn't the book the reviewer wanted to read, or would have written him/herself. Just review the book that's there, please, not the one in your head!

Jo said...

I don't read reviews generally - I read the blurb on the sleeve (or wherever it is) to decide if a story interests me. In my very long experience, what other people say doesn't give me any indication of whether or not I will enjoy a book, only I can decide that. Often I choose an author, but if an unknown then its the blurb that decides me.

Peter said...

When reading reviews I rule out the gushing positives as well as the total negatives. I also rule out fellow author reviews that I consider to be mutual backscratching.

I look for constructive praise or criticism and if more than one reviewer has similar views then I can start to get a feel for the book.

In the end, the only review that counts is the one the reader has after finishing the book.

glenda larke said...

Yeah, I reckon what you've all been saying sums up the way I feel about reviews. I do like to read reviews before buying - even Amazon ones, although I rarely buy from Amazon.

Like jm, I often look at the negative ones first. If they mention the kind of things I hate, then I start wondering if the book is for me.

The problem is when you get reviews which say diametrically opposed things: "wonderful characterization, couldn't put it down" versus "dull characters I couldn't get interested in and I didn't get past p100."

That's why I go along with Peter and his "if more than one reviewer has similar views..." as being important; it gives you more of an idea.

Jo, you do know that authors don't usually write the blurb? I can think of 2 blurbs that were brilliant: The Left Hand of God (and the book didn't live up to the blurb) and The Name of the Wind, where none of the events mentioned on the cover actually happened in the book (one assumes they will be in book 2 ...or 3...or...) However, the book was still a great read.

Skaldi is right - it pays to have a thick skin as a writer. I still feel frustrated by the occasional review of one of my books where I think the reviewer is completely whacko and yet their opinion is out there for everyone to read. And it is a very unwise thing for a writer to go and contradict a posted opinion. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, after all!

What a writer must always bear in mind is that there is absolutely NO way ANY writer will write a book that everyone likes. It just doesn't happen. And thank goodness for that.

glenda larke said...

Oh, another thing: when I find a reviewer whose opinions regularly seem similar to mine, I am overjoyed. I know if they like a book, then the probability is that I will too.

Imagine me said...

As an occasional reviewer I try to be honest and give reasons for what I like and dislike. Obviously I find it easier to review a book I like than one I dislike but it's a rare book that doesn't have something to comment favourably on even if, for example, the writing is uneven or the plot familiar.

At the same time if I truly hated a book I'd not review it because I'd feel it was unfair to the author.

On the other hand, as a reader I am rarely influenced by reviews unless they are by someone whose taste I know is similar to mine. There are several reviewers on whose recommendations I would certainly go out and by a book but many I would not take the chnace on - but then my method of book selection is very different to others. Whenever I feel I am getting stuck in a rut I go to section of the library (usually) or bookshop (occasionally) that I normally wouldn't go to and just take books randomly from the shelf. I read a snippet to see if the writing appeals and, if it does, I get it. I've acquired some really good books this way and surprisingly few poor ones.

Imagine me said...

And I really should have checked my spelling before I posted that piece, shouldn't I.

glenda larke said...

I thought most reviewers actually find it easier to review a book they disliked?

And it's much easier to be witty about books you dislike, too?