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Booking Through Thursday- The Honest Review

November 20, 2008

bookthursday

I receive a lot of review books, but I have never once told lies about the book just because I got a free copy of it. However, some authors seem to feel that if they send you a copy of their book for free, you should give it a positive review.  Do you think reviewers are obligated to put up a good review of a book, even if they don’t like it? Have we come to a point where reviewers *need* to put up disclaimers to (hopefully) save themselves from being harassed by unhappy authors who get negative reviews?

It seems like this question is on a lot of people’s minds lately.  Mine, included.  And it’s a thorny subject.  The idea that, if you’ve been given a free book to review, you’d better make it worth the giver’s while by being super-nice about it seems disingenuous, or even dishonest.  But by the same token, I’ve never trashed a book in review.  (I’ve muttered snarky comments sometimes, to friends, but never spewed vitriol about a book.)

Aha- found the NY Times essay that must have inspired this week’s BTT.  Thanks to Alice Teh for posting the link.

The thing we all have to remember, authors, reviewers and publicists, is that books are subjective.  When I was a little kid, trying new foods for the first time, my mom kept a list on the fridge: what’s the food, and what exactly don’t you like about it? (From this, I have learned that aftertaste is my most frequent deal-breaker.  I’ll eat almost anything except asparagus, brussel sprouts and cauliflower.)  More important than teaching me that I liked liver, however, this example is one of the things I credit with making me understand what subjectivity actually means.  You may think something is yummy, even when I can’t stand that whole class of foods.  And we’re never going to convince each other.

I think I learned this from taking poetry workshops, too.  Because a poem is so personal, and risky for its author to reveal sometimes, it’s not something you want to dismiss as “bad.”  Instead, the formula I’ve seen in workshops is: “Praise two things, then offer one thing that needs work.”  It’s not what you say, but how you say it, when it’s subjective.

Before I started reviewing books, reading them with the understanding of writing something, there were a few books I gave up on, left unfinished without articulating what I didn’t like.  Becoming a book reviewer has made me more careful with the understanding that it’s not about “good” or “bad” but about matching something with its ideal reader, and pinpointing the qualities that will resonate with that reader, and the very specific details about a book or its craft that make me into something other than the ideal reader.

That said:

I do not care for David Sedaris, because I find his writing to be part of a darker world view than I enjoy reading.  I get that he is a good writer with many fans.  I’m not one of them.

As genres, I am not fond of typical chick lit or police procedurals.  I prefer examples of each to be atypical of their respective genres, in ways I’m still trying to articulate.

And this ties into a book I’m about to review: I’ve heard decidedly mixed, and negatively-skewed reviews of “Twilight” from many friends.  But it’s also garnered tons of rave reviews.  I’m picking it up from the library, and going to try to understand what I think about what’s done right, and what needs work.  And then I’m going to go eat a yummy, heaping plate of liver and onions.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2008 2:45 pm

    I totally agree with you — art is so subjective. That’s what makes it art, and that’s part of makes it great! And I touched on the “Twilight” issue, too. 🙂 For the record, I’m one of the fans. 🙂 Happy Thursday!

  2. November 20, 2008 4:39 pm

    Great answer, Elizabeth! Thanks for linking the article and the mention too. 😀

    I read TWILIGHT way before the hype and have since completed the entire series. The first book got me started on vampire tales and reignited my passion for passion (that’s in May last year). Before that I was all for non-fiction books. Strange things do happen. LOL.

    Happy BTT!

  3. November 20, 2008 7:18 pm

    I want to read that review after you write it! I have a copy of Twilight that I won but haven’t yet begun. I’ve heard good and bad. One day, I’ll read it, but meanwhile, it’d be good to read a honest review. Come see my answer.

  4. November 20, 2008 7:54 pm

    Hi Elizabeth actually I believe the question was inspired to something that happened to Trish over at Hey Lady Whatcha Reading?

    I went the First Amendment route.

    Honesty

  5. November 22, 2008 9:37 pm

    I’ve never subscribed to a philosophy that we must protect everyone’s feelings, whether a poet, an author, a singer or, dare I say it, a CHILD! There is something to be learned by hearing unadorned earnest criticism of your (the author’s) work. As a society we have become so scrupulously concerned with sparing people’s feelings that we make it a way of life to sidestep conflict and all we really are engaging in is a soft and fuzzy form of dishonesty. I would much prefer to read a reviewer who trashes the books that deserved to be trashed and praises the ones that deserve to be praised. You, Elizabeth, as a reviewer are, in effect, an artist in your own right, as a writer of these reviews. And one of the most basic tools of art is conflict. A story (or a review) without conflict runs the risk of being boring. Several in a row, and you must be an artist indeed to keep your readers engaged. Don’t worry about how the author feels if your critique is genuine, well articulated and educated. If they do read your review, they will benefit from your point of view as long as they are not so insecure as to not get past the fact that you didn’t like it, and by extension them. And if they are so insecure as to not be able to accept earnest criticism, they don’t deserve to like you anyway 😉

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