As someone who reviews books for love and not money, I’m always curious about the issues that flare up in social media and online groups about honesty in non-professional book reviews.
Quite a number of reviewers are of the opinion that if you can’t say anything nice you shouldn’t say anything at all, but then what is the point of the review?
I know that there are people who genuinely prefer to be kind rather than critical, but I suspect there are many who are also desperate writers creating “nice” reviews as a means of networking or gaining a lot of writer “friends” who, with luck, will be “nice” to them in return. Perhaps it works - I don’t know - I’ve never been any good at schmoozing and air-kissing or whatever the literary equivalent is.
Why are people so afraid to be objective? I much prefer evidence of careful reading and thoughtfulness in a review. As a writer I am too well aware that I must deal with criticism - it goes with the territory - but directness with respect is what I hope for.
I wouldn’t trust a Pollyanna reviewer who only does 5 star reviews any more than I would someone who repeatedly trashes writers and only does zero star ones. I’m more likely to take notice of a mid-range review that finds both the positives and negatives in a work and at least demonstrates the reviewer has given considered thought to it and doesn’t have some ulterior motive.
That said, I’ve certainly given some novels 5 stars, but usually on the basis of the book as a work of art, a complete production. Of course the quality of the writing, story and plot are what matters most, but the grammar, editing, research and general tone of a book are also important.
But ... there is way too much seriousness attached to this topic.
In recent times, there have been some high profile academic authors getting sprung with a practice known as “sock puppeting” in which they either praise their own work under an alias or slag off some other writer of whom they are jealous. It’s pretty pathetic that such clever, articulate and successful people are so insecure that they feel they have to do this.
Whenever a writer – or a reviewer – starts to get their knickers in a twist, I’d recommend taking a bit of time out with the fantastic Ron Charles. He’s the irrepressible fiction critic at The Washington Post and quite a number of the videos that he and his wife have produced about the world of book reviewing are available on YouTube. The link goes to my favourite on essential phrases for book reviewers!
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