Sunday, 3 January 2010

Reviews - The Cruel, The Bland and Everything in between.

To a large extent my central purpose as a blogger is to review. It's a tricky thing to do, to write my subjective thoughts down about another's blood, sweat and tears. I do admit to it becoming easier in reviewing somewhat diplomatically though my friendships have made it more difficult in other ways. To be honest in your thoughts on a book is also to leave your prejudices bare. People can tell what kind of reader you are and how insightful or technically minded you are. They can also interpret your sense of humour, how jaded you are and worse, how cruel you can be.

Honestly, a reviewer shouldn't be cruel. Ever. Even if the work is a complete mess beyond redemption. But we all have bad days and sometimes that badly written title has the misfortune of being read on one of those days. It's happened to me once and the review is short because I couldn't stand talking about the book at any length. It's not my finest moment.

I don't read many bloggers reviews. There are only a small number that I will make the time to check out. Why? My tastes in book reviews are just as select as my YA preferences. I like a detailed (but not necessarily long) review with exploration of characterisation, plot and pacing. I like a reviewer that has a way with words, an interesting voice, appropriate humour and honesty. I want a critical review. If the book is outstanding or atrocious, I want to know why. The why is so important and many reviewers forget this, or their why is largely 'fun', 'cool' or 'awesome' which doesn't cut the mustard with me. (Though everyone who reads this blog knows that I love the word awesome.) Most importantly, I don't want to read spoilers in the contents of the review. It's a big no no, don't do it.

Bad reviews have a horrible affect on a person's self esteem. You may receive ninety nine glowing reviews but it's the scathing one that you learn line for line and carry around in your heart. Sometimes they are justified, sometimes not. But it's the tone of the review that separates cruel from negative. Negative reviews with justification are a part of being creative that people need to be able to respond to civilly (or not at all). It's not fun but it's part of the job. However, no one should have to deal with reviews that attack the creator with outright cruelty, it's these reviews that speak so much more about the reviewer than the creator.

That being said, nice reviews are problematic too. A reviewer that likes everything isn't reviewing all that much. Choosing to be nice, over being honest, is a less than admirable reviewing trait. It lessens the strength of your opinion - I don't read some blogger's reviews as I never feel like I know what they genuinely feel about the book. You can give good reviews without being blandly nice, try pointing out specifics of the book that were fantastic and why. Be detailed in your thoughts. If you've found yourself writing the same sentence about a multitude of other books, then you're not looking at it critically enough. All books aren't the same and neither should your reviews be.

I want to leave you with an example of how a cruel review can be beyond hurtful. Having recently seen and fallen in love with Jane Campion's film, Bright Star, I went immediately into a John Keats fact finding mission. I have always responded to his poetry, I thought he was enormously talented and have taught his work to my students in the past. He died at twenty-five thinking he was a failure. This was due in large part to the unfavourable reviews his work received.

It's terribly sad that a man of such beautiful sentiment, died thinking his work was rubbish.

Reviews like this didn't help...

"To witness the disease of any human understanding, however feeble, is distressing; but the spectacle of an able mind reduced to a state of insanity is of course ten times more afflicting. It is with such sorrow as this that we have contemplated the case of Mr John Keats. ... He was bound apprentice some years ago to a worthy apothecary in town. But all has been undone by a sudden attack of the malady. ... For some time we were in hopes, that he might get off with a violent fit or two; but of late the symptoms are terrible. The phrenzy of the "Poems" was bad enough in its way; but it did not alarm us half so seriously as the calm, settled, imperturbable drivelling idiocy of Endymion.[...] Back to the [apothecary] shop Mr John, back to ‘plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.’"

It's a particular nasty derivative of don't give up your day job.

Something to think about when you're writing your next review.


Lauren said...

Interesting post here. I've just made my blog resolutions for 2010, and one of them is to write reviews of the books I didn't enjoy - in the interests of balance. I like to feel inspired when I write my reviews, and I really feel that my strongest reviews are the ones where I've been inspired because the book itself is amazing in some way.

So, getting in the mood to write a negative review is really hard. I don't want to end up just bitching. In fact, I don't think I even know how to write a 'good' negative review. I've wracked my brains and all I can come up with is to keep it brief, try to just state what isn't good instead of being scathing about it, and point out any positives. It's not easy.

Hagelrat said...

Good post, I try not to be unkind in a negative review. I find it much easier to explain what I don't like in a book than what I do like though so my negative reviews are often better thought out.

Becky said...

I think to write a good negative review you need to have passionate reasons for disliking the book. You need to be clear, concise and fair. It is difficult but I'd rather be an honest and trusted blogger than a kind to all books one. Undue rudeness and nastiness is unacceptable but honest explaination is fine. I've really only written one really negative review and I'm sure it made more people read the book. They wanted to know if my points were vaild.

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

I like your thoughts here. I write all my reviews honestly and therefore try to be careful what I agree to read. You are right, no matter what we think of a book it gives us no right to be cruel. I only have had a couple that I just really didn't like, but I reviewed them fairly, pointed out why I didn't enjoy the book but offered my readers to look for other opinions on the book before making a decision.

The Story Siren said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Story Siren said...

This is why I love you Adele. There aren't many blogs that I read period, not just reviews. But I never fail to find something insightful and well written on your blog. You are someone I strive to be like.

I hate writing negative reviews. It's something that I dread doing. I know of bloggers that take a particular fondness in writing a negative review, but there is nothing that I enjoy about it.

I've written a negative review, several times in fact. They are most often my best written reviews. Which says something about myself.... I think. It's easier for me to explain why I don't like something because I know why I don't. When it comes to the flip side... why I do like something, I have a hard time coming up with why. I just do, that's why!

But I think as a reviewer you owe it to your readers to be honest. And you owe it to yourself even more. I think a review or even your blog in this instance, is a direct reflection on you as a person.

I have a hard time giving an insightful and detailed review, something that I'm hoping to improve on in this new year. I wish I had the eloquence to compose myself in the way that you do. You are one of those people that have a way with words, and in that I am envious!

And now I'm just rambling and taking up your comment space. Not to mention I've completely lost my train of thought.... But know that in this vast ocean of blogs, yours is one that I truly enjoy.

Steph Su said...

All excellent and true points, Adele. Right now, it takes a lot to stand out in the YA blogosphere, just like it takes a lot to stand out anywhere else. I don't read many blogger reviews either on account of the blandness factor. And yet I can't help thinking about how one of 2008-09's most prolific bloggers was comparatively cruel/harsh with her reviews. Different things work for different people, I guess. Thank you for writing this, and hopefully more people see this post!

Rhiannon Hart said...

You're so right about bland reviews. There are very few blogs whose reviews I actually read every word of--several of them commented here, actually! They take the time to explain their feelings and they can be personal as well as objective. I really struggle over negative reviews...but as you know gender issues/portrayal of heroines is something that makes me explode in a rant! Also I have to consider the review karma I'm shoring up for myself as a soon-to-be-maybe-published author, and whether it's ethical for me to be reviewing books at all. But I decided that I am entitled to keep reviewing, mostly because I love doing it. Though I think I'm presenting my negative reviews in a more subjective way, rather than pronouncing a book is empirically bad.

Daisy Whitney said...

Well-said. On my book blog, BookChick, I made a decision to ONLY recommend books. So I don't consider myself a book reviewer. But I also make that very clear on the blog -- it's not a place for reviews, but for recommendations. That's why I don't post every day -- I only post when I really like a book and can heartily recommend it to someone else. And I strive to articulate why, such as what the author did with language, character, emotion, etc. It's tough to explain why we like things sometimes and it can be easier to rip something apart. But either way, I think the key is to explain what works or doesn't work, as you, Story SIren, Steph and other fine bloggers do in their reviews.

Michelle Magill said...

I accept what you're saying Adele and can't disagree with it. I would only point out that we all are products of our environment/ experience and therefore do as we need.

When I first started my blog I soon discovered that I suck at negative reviews. Leaves me in a funk I can't shake for days. So after revising my reasons for starting the blog I could see that I did it to share books I liked, admired or loved. I have no problem reviewing a book that I think is a 'good' book regardless of whether I enjoyed it. If I truly hated a book or couldn't finish it then I don't review it.

That may make me a chicken in some people's eyes but we all have to do what is healthy for our mental state. The blog has helped me through a stressful time of life and I want to continue enjoying the experience. So for now, I won't be including negative reviews on my blog.

I like what you said about the type of review you like. I write the type of reviews I like to read also. I myself don't like them long.. too impatient. I like a short outline of story (no spoilers) and how the reader felt about the book. Short and sweet.

We may all review differently but despite being the 'mixed grill' that we are, our love of books links us all.

I hope you can keep your blog going while you are away Adele - Persnickery Snark would leave a large hole in the Aussie book blogging world should it go. Not all of us has the courage to review like you do and I'd be sorry to see you go.

One more sleep isn't it.. good luck. :-)