105 Ways to Give a Book

I Got Your Reviews Right Here

I hate being left out.

While I was busy writing about the National Book Festival — and then busy recovering from writing so damned much about the National Book Festival — other bloggers were writing about positive and negative book reviews and the quality of review writing.

I had thought about this issue weeks ago when a reader asked Esme (on her blog called... umm, Ask Esme) why she only gave positive reviews. I read her “Ask Esme” answer, and while some of it was true to me, not all of it was. Finding Wonderland did a post on it, and I responded in the comments there as to why the choice to post only positive reviews might work for her, but not for others. I was all ready to post about the concept myself, and then... I just didn’t feel like it.

But gosh, now I’ve seen a similar vein picked up in Chasing Ray, then Blog from The Windowsill, then Jen Robinson, Original Content, Fuse#8, Big A, little a, A Chair..., and then back to Chasing Ray and back to Blog from the Windowsill. Holy cow! I’ve commented here and there along the way, and now finally feel compelled to put down some thoughts here.

Especially because it seems that I am going against the grain in being in favor of negative reviews. Where do I think the negativity comes from?

First of all, while some bloggers read many books and choose which ones to put forward, some reviewers are given books to review. If the reviewer doesn’t like it, that is a fair assessment. That explains many of the bloggers who have been given ARCs specifically to review.

Second of all, when you focus on younger books and you’ve hated one, it is easier to wave away the ten minutes of your life you’ll never get back. But many reviewers read teen books and older elementary books — and when you’ve spent three hours reading a book, you might need to say something about it, even if it’s not good.

Third of all, you can choose to run a site that is just suggestions, but other bloggers use their sites to chronicle what they are reading. And if the book turns out to be less than good... well, that is what we might choose to share.

And lastly, while some people say that readers don’t need to know what not to read, I disagree. People who buy books for themselves or for their libraries may want to know if a book isn’t all that. If they can buy one new going-to-school book, should they buy this new hot title or not? Sometimes the answer is “or not.” And that’s okay.

I think all of the above situations describe me. If I am sent a book to review, I’ll review it — good or bad. If I spent three hours reading a book, you can bet someone is going to hear about it. Great if it is a recommendation, and great if I can give someone else a heads-ups about a possible loser. And that “possible loser” is the most important part of my review. Because if I am panning a book, then the reader of the review needs to know why, so she can make her own decision about the book. I do use this blog to chronicle my reading, and I do appreciate knowing which books to skip.

Most relevant to me by far is the purpose of your blog as a whole. If you choose to have a blog of recommendations, then that’s great. If you choose to have a blog about mostly crap — funny crap — with the occasional gem, do that. Some bloggers review what they have requested from publishers. Some bloggers review the things they come across along the way. Some bloggers chronicle what they are reading and what they thought about it. Some bloggers fall into more then one of these categories.

For me, I want to read what I feel like reading, and write about it. I write more when I have strong feelings either way, love or hate. I haven’t written about half of the books I’ve read this year because I didn’t feel inspired to write about them. Actually, my reviews are more like written booktalks then anything else. By stopping by, you are asking, “Whatcha reading lately?” I’m saying, “Dude, I just read the best book. Let me tell you about it,” or sometimes, “Man, I just wasted so much time on this stupid book.”

Now in the second round of this conversation, Blog from the Windowsill posted that she thought the conversation went off track from where she thought it would go. Hey, I hear dat. I, for example, thought the comments on my National Book Festival would all be about how well written the pieces were and how very lovely I am in the photo. Actually, maybe that’s not what you meant by going off on a tangent. Anyway, she wished there was more conversation about the art of the review. Seeing the review as creative writing.

I keep up this blog to exercise my creative writing and maybe some of that seeps into my reviews. Some reviews more than others. I know that there are reviews that are splendid in their own right. Fuse#8 writes consistently incredible reviews. Other bloggers write more scholarly reviews, like... umm, Scholar’s Blog. Personally, I shy away from those type of reviews because I don’t want that kind of depth in my reviews. I just want to know whether to give the book a shot or not, and so much of that relies on how much I agree with the blogger’s choices in general. I’d read anything Fuse#8 recommends, because I think we have the same taste. I love Bookshelves of Doom and I go there every day to see what she’s reading, but we don’t always have the same taste and I’ll skip her vampire suggestions. Know your fellow blogger.

One more thing and then I’ll stop. It’s easier to make negative stuff funny. Jay Leno’s monologue isn’t about heaping praise, and we know Jon Stewart takes people to task. What’s the blog that everyone loves? Miss Snark, who tears apart the hapless letters of aspiring writers. I don’t go all negative on a book for the point of being funny, but I do think of it as a nice little bonus.

7 comments:

Kelly Fineman said...

The way I look at it, it's your blog and you can review what you want to. A well-written negative review is a delight to read, although I decided a while back not to write them based on outmoded notions of karma. Still, some of my favorite reviews that I've read have been the less-than-glowing kind.

Liz B said...

What I find helpful about this discussion is looking at the hows & whys of online reviews. It depends on a number of different things; for myself, I began blogging for selfish reasons (wanting to talk about what I read), combined with limited time (I would love to be able to blog at work, but alas, so far its not permitted at all), and not really thinking out a "mission statement." As I read & ponder this, I know that even tho it's still about what I like & what I want to say, I do take into account other factors, such as what grade would this work for? I do think at times I include objective things like that in my reviews.

Two things touched a sore spot, that made me think:
First, am I doing a disservice to readers by omitting when I dislike a book? And given the split responses, there is no clear answer there, but I may be mentioning books I disliked yet omitting full reviews. (Making this troublesome is that I know sometimes I dislike a book for personal, subjective reasons, which say more about me than the book.)

Second, the idea that somehow blogging positively meant blogging dishonestly; that the positive reviews themselves were not honest reviews. I have never blogged something that wasn't a true reaction. Do I revise and edit? Do I discuss? Do I examine what I'm going to say to see what is objective or subjective and decide what to include or exclude? Do I reread passages and books? Yes; but do I say something positive about a book that I don't like? No.

Nancy said...

I appreciate the negative reviews. I'm often overwhelmed by all the choices when I look for new books, and it's helpful for me to know that X got a rave and Y got a pan.

Library Lady said...

How can you know which books are good and which are bad without negative reviews? Golly gee, I'll just go to the bookstore and buy ANYTHING because they're all good. And I guess I didn't have to go into debt in grad school getting that MLS. All I have to do is go eenn-meeny-miny-mo and buy that stuff for the library.

This has really pissed me--think I'm going to have to blog about it!

Joner aka MsMac said...

I want to hear both sides, especially if everyone LOVES a book but someone else has a different view. I want to know that different view. It helps me in making my decisions for purchasing in the library with limited funds. Being a k-5 librarian, I am always in search of books for my fifth graders who feel they have read "EVERYTHING" in the library(you know, all 12,000 copies). I have written a few reviews that weren't s positive. I hate when the text and pictures do not match in picture books. I also need to make sure that I select books for a collection that reflects diversity and not just "MsMac's" personal favorites. What a great discussion this has been.

Lady S. said...

Another potentially useful reason for negative reviews is that it helps give a better picture of the similarity of the reviewer's reading tastes. What's reviewed positively goes some way to doing that, but adding in the books you found boring, distasteful or throw against the wall in disgust really gives a much fuller picture.

In my own blog I'm mostly talking with a small number of friends (though some of those have become friends through the blogging!) and there's generally no reason to hold back. I'm sure I'm not alone in finding the varying reactions of friends to books I've read endlessly fascinating. That's a completely different value of booktalk to the recommendations, I think.

gail said...

Having read many of the posts on this subject at various blogs (and having posted myself on it), I have to say I think people may be making too much of the word "negative." To try to do a balanced...response...to a book in which you discuss what you see as weaknesses in writing technique, logic, what have you, just isn't seiously "negative." Reviewing, criticism just shouldn't be a love her or hate her thing. It's not a "if you're not with us, you're against us" situation.

Think about writers' groups. Writers groups in which the criticism is all "positive" are useless.

So called "negative" material in reviews just should be phrased in a respectful way, the way it would be phrased in a writing group.