Monday, September 18, 2006
Now that we’ve looked at reviews from the marketing side, how should we view them as consumers/readers? As some of you BGs have said—a review is only one person’s opinion. Absolutely true.
And while we’re on the subject, this whole post on reviews is only one person’s opinion—mine. Of course, mine is by far the most insightful, intellectual and basically right-on view you will ever find. But you know that, or you wouldn’t be taking the time to read this blog.
Back to reviewers’ opinions. They spring from very different bases of knowledge in the craft of fiction. Some reviewers are merely readers. They love books, read a lot, and have found the Internet as a great way to get their opinions out there and get a lot of free books in the process. They may know little to nothing about the craft, and rarely have any sort of deep insights into the writing. I find it interesting, by the way, that this kind of reviewer gains a level of recognition merely because of the number of books he/she reviews—and the publishing houses end up sending these folks free books. I guess just because, well, he/she is reviewing everybody else, so let’s be sure so-and-so author’s latest book gets reviewed too, or we’ll look like the only person not invited to the party.
(I should explain here that an author doesn’t know what reviewers are on this list for galleys or ARCs (advanced readers copies) from the publisher unless that author asks to see the list and say “yay” or “nay” to the names. Even then, the publicity department would have to be willing to listen to the author’s wishes. A core “review” list is developed by the publisher/publicist and typically used again and again, from one novel to another. This is different from the influencer list, which is often driven by the author.)
Other reviewers have more knowledge of the craft. They may be readers of fiction as well as aspiring novelists. Or they may be professional reviewers, hired by newspapers or magazines. Nevertheless, whether we’re talking about the “regular joe” reader who does reviews or a professional reviewer, the review is still one person’s opinion. As readers, we all come to a book with our own unique set of experiences and biases. We are going to react to a novel based on those experiences. So when we read a review we totally agree with—does that mean the reviewer is top notch? We tend to think so, because the person is brilliant enough to agree with us. But all it really means is—that person shares your opinion. Feel validated if you want to, but keep reading enough reviews about that same book, and sure as you’re living, you’ll find a totally opposite opinion somewhere. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a positive professional review of some book that I just didn’t like at all. Or how many times I’ve read some negative statement in a review and thought, “If that’s not the dumbest thing.”
I find it’s more helpful to look at reviews in total. Look for common themes in the negatives and positives. Overall, you might get a picture of the quality of the work. Our local newspaper has a nice feature in its movie review section. It lists the bottom line of reviews from about ten various papers and magazines across the country, using a three-point scale of “good,” “mixed bag,” and “skip it.” A majority of papers telling me a movie’s good can convince me that the movie’s worth seeing. I see a majority of “skip its”—I don’t go.
On the flip side, you might find over time that you almost always agree with a certain reviewer’s perceptions. Over the years I’ve found a high level of agreement with the movie reviewer in our local paper. I give his reviews more weight, because experience has taught me that he and I tend to see eye-to-eye. I think that’s valid. (It helps that the guy is so incredibly brilliant and insightful.)
Two things book reviewers do that totally drive me up the wall. The first is give away too much of the story. This is so prominent that I completely skip over the synopsis part of any review I read. For the life of me, I don’t understand why reviewers do this. The reviewer gets to read the book with fresh eyes. He/she gets to be surprised. Why should any surprises be spoiled for the reader? I know the reviewer’s job is to leave the reader with an impression of whether or not he/she will want to buy the book. But I think a reviewer can impart that impression without giving away the story. If there is word count to be filled—sure, easiest thing to do is give a big synopsis. And maybe reviewers have so many books to review, they can’t take that much time writing each one. I do think it takes more time and thought to state the book’s premise and not much more, then use the synopsis part of the word count to talk in more general and insightful ways about the story. To impart to the reader the aura or tone of the book, the drive of the story, the overall feel of the thing.
I have to tell you, as a writer of suspense who works particularly hard to keep them on their toes from the beginning—every time I hear a new review of some novel of mine is posted somewhere, my heart sinks. I’m not afraid of what the reviewer will say about my writing; I’m afraid of how much story they’re going to give away—and thereby rob my readers of the full experience of that story that I’d intended for them to enjoy. The reviewers out there who know me are aware of this. And, God love 'em, they work hard not to give my plots away. It’s the reviewers I don’t know who petrify me.
On to the second thing book reviewers do that really irks me. I see it over and over—in reviews of my own books and of others. I can look at the reviewers’ side and see why they do it. I think they think it’s only fair for the author. But I find the result exactly the opposite—totally unfair.
I’ll explain myself tomorrow. With more utter brilliance, naturally.
Read Part 5