The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Book Reviews

I review books, and have a few hundred posted in the public domain. Writers constantly request me to write reviews of their books. Of late, I have resorted to writing reviews only of the books I like and politely turn away many that I don’t, author notwithstanding. Why? Because reviews sell books, I’m told. But what I have experienced is that while good reviews do not necessarily sell books, a bad review by a respected reviewer can stop a book in its tracks.  And I do not want to hurt anyone’s career, unless they are established writers now resorting to writing junk and riding on their fame, and who are direly in need of a wake-up call. Therefore, I decided to explore the practice of review writing that I began as a way of reminding myself of the books I had read; a practice in which there was once only a few trusted adherents, but which today has become a flood with no barriers to entry or quality of content, it seems.

It is important to understand the reviewer’s background and agenda before submitting a book for review. We all have limited experiences, and our backgrounds colour our views on the world and how we respond to literature. Different reviewers from different backgrounds and with different levels and types of education may review the same book differently.

Why do we write reviews? Like me, to remember what we have read so we can refer back to our review in conversation? To enter the literary debate and provoke discussion? To make a name for ourselves, particularly in this social media universe where we have to publish frequently in order to stay relevant? To take a power trip and destroy writers that have made it through sheer luck and influence while our own literary ambitions have languished due to a different combination of luck and influence?  To have followers and admirers who pick their books based on our comments? For money, even though there isn’t much there anymore? To extend the maxim of “those who cannot do, teach” – thus, “those who cannot create, criticize”? Perhaps it’s due to a combination of all of the above.

Once a book is in the public domain it is impossible to control who says what about it, and many camps could be at play: clever publicists who gather a raft of supporters to write nothing but glowing reviews (the sameness shows after awhile and can be a turn-off); the popular writer who has a stable of sycophantic fans who cannot say anything bad and can quickly flood a Goodreads or Amazon posting with nothing but plaudits, making a critical review look out of place – another turn-off; the revengeful reviewer, planted by an enemy, who says nasty things with no means of backing it up but who serves to create confusion in the minds of neutral readers looking for a good read; that erudite power tripper I described earlier out to make a name for himself at the author’s expense. Some authors even create alter-ego reviewers to review their books and post the most spellbinding reviews of their own work – it has a neutralizing effect on all those bad reviewers, and may place a “cease and desist” order on those considering posting a “not bad, but not terribly good” review. This all leads one to the question: “Can I trust book reviews?”

I read somewhere that a book is an argument between a writer and a reader that the latter can never hope to win. And a review is the opposite; the writer cannot win, especially when faced with a negative review. I have often believed that it is better to have one’s book read widely than to have it reviewed widely, for the wider you cast the net, the easier it is to catch one of those reviewer types I have described above and face the issue of reader trust (or the lack of it) and suffer the opposite consequences to what was being sought in the first place. And yet, the current trend is to try and gather as many reviews as possible because the number of reviews seems to correlate with the number of reads. And while that wisdom may hold true in some cases, I wanted to provide these counter-points that authors may want to consider as they go on a tear trying to gather as many reviews as they can to promote their work.

Book Reviews

I started writing book reviews this year – of every book I read. And I began publishing them on any site that accepted a review, with the author’s permission where necessary. An easy way to commit my impressions of a particular book to written memory in case I was asked a question about it sometime in the future, I thought, and a cheap way of making a name at someone else’s expense (the poor author of that book). Every marketing guru will tell you that you need to put your name and website address next to anything you write online. I’ve realized that my website hit count has gone up since. I no longer have to visit my site each day and hit it a dozen times before the metrics tracking bar rises marginally above the base line.

And then I realized the heavy obligation placed upon, but not often assumed, by the book reviewer. This was not about the reviewer – this was all about the book and its author. A bad review can sink a writer and a good one does not necessarily sell more books. And if reading is all about taste, don’t we all have different tastes? Isn’t one person’s poison, another’s honey? Isn’t the whole book industry all about tastes? Isn’t that why it got segmented into genres with their own unique sub•cultures, so that the literary fiction aficionado would not go ripping up the crime fiction book and saying, “the characters stink and move like cardboard cut•outs,” and the crime fiction buff would not toss out the lit•fic tome, screaming that it put him to sleep every time he opened it?

What right did I have to destroy these writers with my reviews of their work? So I narrowed my area of reviewing to the books I like to read: mainstream and literary fiction. And I tried to focus on the parts that left positive impressions on me, dropping hints of the not•so•nice elements, and hoping like hell that that writer (if he or she is still alive) would do something about it the next time. And when I read a poorly written book (in my opinion only) I send the author, or his agent, my comments separately as sincere developmental feedback; and in this instance, I do not post a review. Not that I am the world’s greatest writer, but as a frequent reader one picks up flat notes pretty damn quick.

Reviewing is a tough business, I have come to appreciate. Why do I do it? Because I have now learned, that more than the cheap fame factor, dissecting another’s work is a great way to hone one’s own craft and learn to write great sentences that resonate, and a way to avoid the black holes that some writers sink into. What we do with the dissected pieces and how we distribute them around is what calls for sensitivity, tact, and plain common sense. And the day I am not able to exercise such a balance is when I will give up writing book reviews.