Reviewing and me.
Another review, another disgruntled author. Recently, since I’ve been reviewing relatively regularly on the SiN site, I seem to have been making one enemy after another. This time, after I drafted and redrafted my review in order to say what I had to say in the most gentle way possible, I’ve been accused of being damned rude. Previously I’ve been accused of deliberately looking out for things to hate, with the implication that I am a mean spirited harpy who enjoys badmouthing the work of others.
This makes me sad. In so far as I know myself and my own motives, I can tell you that it isn’t true. But the perception seems to linger, and as I can’t promise to give only glowing reviews from now on, I thought I’d do a little post about how I approach reviews to explain where I’m coming from and why calling me rude or malicious is not going to change my mind about an author’s book.
When I review a book, I give my opinion about the book, together with the reasons for my opinion, hopefully supported by examples from the text. But I wouldn’t dream of saying that my reviews represent some kind of objective truth. They are one person’s opinion, and they can only be one person’s opinion. Other readers and reviewers may disagree with me about a particular book or about various things in general. Nevertheless, all I can give is my own opinion because that’s the only thing I have.
First and foremost:
I am not reviewing for the author. As a reviewer I am not (I believe) in the business of providing constructive criticism, ego boost, encouragement or writing tips for the author. That is the business of the author’s writing partners, beta readers, family, friends and editors. The author has put this book out there for people to buy. Therefore they must be satisfied that it is ready to be judged on its own merits, and that’s what I’ll do.
I am reviewing as a reader, for other readers. Ultimately the question I’m asking myself is “if I paid good money for this, would I feel it was worth it or not?” As a reader, I feel my job is to ask myself “did I like this book? If so, why? If not, why not? If it doesn’t appeal to me, would it appeal to someone who had different tastes? Is it a good example of a kind of book I don’t like, but others might? Or is it just rubbish (in my opinion) which nobody would enjoy?
What I hope for when I open the first page:
I don’t go into a book looking for flaws. About five years ago now I first opened a book by Patrick O’Brian, and within the first three paragraphs my heart was aglow, my eyes were shining and I was filled with the inexpressible joy of having found an author who could give me a whole new world. Delights I had never experienced before. New words, new frontiers, new cultures, new jokes, shiny and golden and full of juice.
That’s what I would love to find every time I open a new book. Before you rush in and say “no wonder you’re always disappointed”, I should clarify that the PoB possibility is always there in the back of my mind, but my expectations are somewhat lower. In practice I hope to find a competent writing style, an interesting plot and likable characters. When it’s a historical, as it is on the SiN list, I hope to find a setting which convinces me that it could really have been like that, and characters who convince me that they belong in that setting. I would also hope to be emotionally involved with the characters – for the author to make me care about them, so that by the end of the book I could share in their happy ending.
My overall standard:
The standard I apply to all these things is this; If I picked this book off the shelf of a bookshop like Borders or Waterstones and bought it, would I feel that I had been cheated of my hard earned cash? I’m holding m/m romance to the same standards as I would hold any genre novel bought in a book shop. Is it as well written as the average mystery/SF/Fantasy novel? If not, I am disappointed, and I try to analyse what is letting the book down, and whether it’s worth reading nevertheless.
There are plenty of authors in this genre who can write to at least that standard (plenty who can write much better). So I don’t see why readers should have to put up with worse than that. Poor characterisation, rubbish plots, terrible writing style, anachronisms by the bucketload, dull as ditchwater, can’t string a sentence together? The presence of gay sex doesn’t automatically make all these other things OK. If we want to see this genre become mainstream – become an expected presence on bookshop shelves, that cannot happen unless the standards are high enough to compete with other books on those shelves.
When I buy a new book, I am full of excitement. I bring it home and gloat over it and nestle down on the sofa, crack it open and hope that for the next four or five hours the author will sweep me up and take me somewhere interesting. If I open it and I want to hurl it at the wall in the first five pages, I feel bitterly disappointed and robbed. I spent good money on this?! What a rip off! I need to warn others so that they don’t suffer the same fate.
Does that make me a mean spirited bitch?
Well, naturally, I don’t think so. I try quite hard to think of something positive that I can say about a book. I worry about the author’s hurt feelings, and I tone my language down until “my God, this is a pile of crap” becomes “I can’t recommend this book.” But there’s no real way to sweeten “this book is the worst thing I’ve read this year.”
Does that mean I shouldn’t review it at all? I know some reviewers prefer to do it that way, and more power to them. But that’s not the way that SIN operates. We review everything that comes along, and give the readers our honest opinion. Unfortunately, that sometimes means saying “I didn’t like this book and here are the reasons why.” It doesn’t make us very popular with our fellow authors. But, after all, reviews are for the reader and the reader has a right to be forewarned.