Writing to be Read: Honest Book Reviews
I recently read several articles that discussed the value of reviews in today’s market place. These articles questioned the reliability of reviews, in a time when there are people being paid to write positive reviews and the difficulty in knowing which reviews to believe in a market saturated with positive reviews. I do book reviews here, on Writing to be Read, as well as on my Southern Colorado Literature Examiner page, so as a reviewer, I looked at my own work to determine the validity of their arguments.
According to Richard Brody in his article in The New Yorker, How to be a Critic, “Critics don’t need to be nice (programmatic niceness is itself another sort of self-falsification and self-punishment, and is at least as sanctimonious as self-justifying meanness), but they do need to know where they stand.” I see an obligation of the reviewer to the readers, to portray the books reviewed as honestly as possible. I feel a certain responsibility in knowing that someone may or may not chose to read a certain book, based on my opinion of it. Readers that concur with the opinions offered in my reviews are more likely to visit my sites again. However, I think that honest, unbiased opinions may also generate repeat readers, even if they don’t agree with the opinions expressed in my reviews.
I am not one of those reviewers that is paid to write positive reviews. Five star reviews that are bought and paid for cheat the reader, setting them up to be disappointed by a book that was not all it was portrayed to be. I don’t receive monetary compensation for my reviews, although I do receive ARC copies from the authors, which in no way influence my opinions of their book. According to David Streitfeld, in his New York Times article, The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy, part of the problem is that readers have no way to know if the review that they are reading is a paid review. In a market that is over-saturated with the rise of self-publishing and digital media, anyone can pay to have a five star review written for their book.
On the other hand, I do feel an obligation to the author, who has put his or her all into the work, to portray it in as positive a light as I can possibly shine on it and still be honest. As Brody puts it, “It takes months or years to make a film or write a book, a few hours or a few days to dash off a review…” As a reviewer, I hold in my hands the power to dash dreams with an unkind word or a negative opinion. It is a matter not to be taken lightly. Daryl Campbell explains it well in his the Millions essay, Is This Book Bad or Is It Just Me? Anatomy of Book Reviews,
“The decision to like or not like a book is where every book review
begins. This is what gives the genre its underlying suspense …
but also its frustrating sense of chaos, because no matter how
technically sound or philosophically sophisticated or beautiful
a book might be, something minor or tangential can turn off a
reviewer so much that he or she decides the book is not good.”
While in the Salon article, The Case for Positive Book Reviews, Laura Miller claims the necessity of more positive reviews,
“Everyone who has ever been disappointed by a book praised
in the press is prone to embracing the too-nice position; as a rule,
only authors worry that reviews are too mean… All too often,
people relish negative reviews with a free-floating glee that leaves
the reviewer, however justified, feeling a bit dirty afterward.”
I am compelled to be honest about my thoughts on a book, never shirking from expressing what I did not like about it, as well as what I did. Likewise, I try to relate things that I found to be likable about a book that did not appeal to me, even if they were few. Seldom have I picked up a book that I could not find something positive to say. It is a fine line that must be walked in order to achieve a balance between the positive and negative aspects, making the book review a literary work, in itself. Campbell goes as far as to claim that, “book reviewing is a genre with its own conventions, just as every murder mystery must start with a body, and every epic fantasy must feature elvish words with too many apostrophes.”
The idea of book reviews being a genre of their own lends credibility to my craft. Of course, book reviews are not the only thing I write, but I do pride myself just as much in them, as in anything else I write, and I put just as much thought and effort into them. Not only do I truly read every book that I review, I actually take notes to keep my thoughts about them in order, and I work hard to word my reviews so that are not too harsh, nor do they turn out to be gushing fountains of worthless praise.