The Dubious Art of Book Reviewing

I don’t write reviews often; it takes time and effort to come up with a meaningful retrospection. When I do write them, I have different rules for different types of books, and this customized approach is most apparent within two major publishing categories–indie books and traditionally published books.

Photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash

Sometimes I’m so moved with a book that I feel inspired to put down my impressions. It usually happens when I really like it and want to share my excitement (or recommend it) or, less frequently, when I’m frustrated or disappointed. The second scenario–a pissed-off review–usually occurs with a work of fiction unjustifiably praised, in my opinion, for qualities it doesn’t possess.

There are no consequences for the author as I don’t have any influence outside my limited blog space. Even if I did, such authors are fair game: they’ve been paid for their books, marketed, publicized, and promoted by their publishers. They can take some heat.

You can find both examples in my old posts: the first being the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik and Adelle by Leila Smilani, the latest.

Independently published authors are a different story. Here I follow Thumper’s advice: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”

This is what I think: If someone writes a book, invests (most of the time irrevocably) a bunch of money into editing, proofreading, cover design, formatting, promotion… the last thing they need is someone like me pointing out the flaws in their story; inevitable errors, plot holes and the subjective characters’ shortcomings.

To self-publish a book is a huge undertaking, and whenever I can, I like to acknowledge and celebrate it. Do I like every book I review? No, of course not. It might not be my cup of tea–the style or the characters might not correspond with my inner reader–but it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t give it a good review and plenty of stars. I try not to emphasize my personal preferences unless they measure up against some literary values. In other words, I like to believe that, having some knowledge about literature (I studied it) and being an avid reader for many decades, I’m able to go beyond what I like and dislike in stories and dig out substantial qualities.

(Not always, of course. These days, thanks to self-publishing opportunities, anyone can be an author. There are numerous written products–I deliberately avoid calling them books–that are simply below any professional standards and are therefore not worth suffering through and reviewing them.)

What kind of reviews do I not care about? After what I’d mentioned above, I don’t think it’s difficult to guess: I dislike reviews that are based solely on personal taste, without any contextual explanation. They mean nothing–if they’re positive, there is no harm done (“I really liked this book.”); if they are not, they can be damaging and hurtful (“This is the worst book ever written.”) But in both cases, they don’t help. If someone says that a story is great and lovely, or boring and dull without explaining why, they are just expressing their personal tastes or reading preferences which nobody asked for or cares about.

The other type of reviews I often frown upon are those long, detailed, and often hard-to-understand tractates about books, full of long and verbose sentences. I like a well-written analysis, but it seems that sometimes reviewers don’t know the difference between the two, especially when it comes to length.

I wrote a series of reviews in December, as a sort of thank you to my fellow bloggers and authors. They illustrate my reviewing “philosophy” well. If I didn’t know the authors, I likely wouldn’t have come across their books. I don’t read a lot of romance fiction although I absolutely adore some romance authors. This is my genre as a writer, after all. Generally speaking, I don’t like dystopian fiction, particularly the novels about totalitarian societies. Such stories can never have happy endings, and I’m a sucker for happy endings. I’m obsessed with Ancient Egypt, but I do not fanatically read everything about it. I like gritty, urban noir fantasies with kick-ass female leads, but there are so many of them, and some are quite good, written by well-known novelists. I could say that my encounter with JP McLean’s novel wouldn’t have naturally happened if I didn’t know the author.

Yet, I truly enjoy the festive, warm and romantic atmosphere of Christmas in Silver Creek. I was in awe of the dark, consuming, and breathtaking force of one of my most challenging reads ever, Dog Meat. I was sucked into the ancient/modern Egypt vortex created in She Who Returns that I could only admire the authors ability to recreate such a vivid and believable world; I was beating my nails and rooting for the protagonists in Ghost Marks.

In the end, I believe I found what was the best in these books and brought it to light. I think that was all I needed to write those reviews. If I couldn’t find it, I would say nothing at all.

Do you like writing reviews? What are your criteria when it comes to book reviewing? Do you think it’s helpful that everybody can write a review, regardless their knowledge, understanding, insights? Do you agree that, sometimes, reviews could do more harm than good?

P.S. I stopped receiving any notifications about the blogs I follow. I might try to unfollow you all and then follow you again, to see if this going to do the trick (Thanks, Priscilla, for the tip!)


About jfkaufmann

Not unlike my characters, I lead a double life: by day I'm a mother, a friend, a colleague, and the queen of my kitchen. When the moon rises, however, I shift into my other self and, as Queen of the Night, I reign the magical world of my imagination.
This entry was posted in Home and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to The Dubious Art of Book Reviewing

  1. This is a topic I’ve thought about a good deal, Jasna. I write some sort of review for every book I read, except those I abandon early, for whatever reason. I think the star ratings are problematic. Sometimes I look at the ratings I’ve slapped onto the books I read and question some of them. I understand your thoughts on reviews for traditionally published “best sellers” versus self-published books by indies. Reviewing books by authors I know as people can be tricky. Sometimes it seems easier not to review at all, rather than engage in hypocrisy. But then there’s the fact that we indies lament how few reviews are posted for our books! I don’t think there’s an easy answer.
    I intend to write at least one post on my blog exploring these issues, but to start, I would like to reblog this post. I hope that’s OK with you!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Thank you for the kind words about Dog Meat!

    I do like writing reviews. My criteria are that I’ve read the book, and it’s above two-stars. If it’s a terrible book (hate-filled or truly grammatically unreadable), I’ll DNF it and not bring any attention at all to it by leaving a review. If it’s a review request and it’s terrible, I’ll contact the author privately rather than leaving a 1- or 2-star review.

    I do think it’s helpful that anybody can leave a review, regardless of their knowledge/understanding. An awkwardly written review that complains about an indecisive main character is still helpful. A verbose, convoluted review usually has a good point or two. The only reviews that irk me are “Waste of money, 1 star” or “Loved it, 5 stars” (totally unhelpful!).

    Yes, I think reviews can do more harm than good. That’s why if I’m between stars, I always bump it up, giving the author the benefit of the doubt. I may not like a certain genre, but it’s not the author’s fault. Or I may not “get” the story, and it could be my own brain’s fault.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jfkaufmann says:

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. You’re a great reviewer, Priscilla; I’ve noticed that. You’re able to say a lot in just a few sentences emphasizing the most interesting aspects of the book.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I read this post with a great deal of interest. Because reviews take me so much time and effort, I only review indie books (self-published or small press). I enjoy supporting other indie authors and recommending books I think the online communities I belong to would enjoy. I also think it’s very important to approach the book being reviewed on its own terms. That said, if I read a book that is so seriously flawed I can’t recommend it, I won’t review it.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Reblogged this on Audrey Driscoll's Blog and commented:
    I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole book reviewing thing lately, so was happy to see this post by JF Kaufmann, which opens up some significant issues about indie authors and book reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. equipsblog says:

    Love some of the titles mentioned and applaud your review integrity criteria

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for this interesting post which I came across via Audrey’s reblog. I will occasionally review books. However, I find it extremely time consuming as it takes me away from my own writing and my full time job. Having said that, I do try to leave the occasional review for books I have enjoyed, particularly those that have been published independently. When I see a book with a very bad review I’m sometimes intrigued to read the work in question. This is especially the case where I get a gut instinct that the reviewer is being unfair to the book in question. I strongly dislike reviews where the author (rather than the content of the book) comes in for criticism. Even where a given author may not come across as particularly likeable due to things know about his/her personal life, they may still produce a great work of literature and it is the quality of their work that matters. Best wishes, Kevin

    Liked by 1 person

    • jfkaufmann says:

      Thank you, Kevin, for sharing your thoughts. Reviewing indeed takes time, but it can also be rewarding. You’re right, sometimes reviewers seem to be focused–for the lack of a better word–on the author rather than the book.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Marina Costa says:

    I do not like writing reviews, but I try my best, especially for national writers (some international books too, but less often). Reviews are important, and some books are worth being known by more readers!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Anonymole says:

    A topic I’ve spent some time contemplating.
    Ultimately, the decision to read a novel (eat a certain candy bar, watch a movie, drink a brand of beer, buy a car or house or bicycle) is a binary choice. Do it or don’t.
    In my opinion, grading systems should reflect this fact. Yes? No?
    Star / rating systems that gives a user a non-choice, a 3 in a 1-5 scale, provides exactly zero information. “I gave that restaurant a 3 out of 5” is exactly the same as a non-vote.
    “Should I eat there or not? This is not a gray area. I have a binary choice here.”
    The only amendment to such a 0|1 system is that say you have a bunch of “yes”s. A set of movies or books or candy bars or burger choices — all good ones. Now what?
    Well, you need to rank them now.
    You’ve been convinced to read that novel. But should you read it first? Or tenth? Or last?
    Here’s where a global ranking system fits in. Ranking requires comparison. It requires context. YES! Read that novel. But if you haven’t read The Girl With All The Gifts, then read MRCarey’s story first. But if you have, then read this one before you read Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.

    Reviews? Bah. Give me a genre & synopsis of the story, a Yes or No, and if Yes, a context for ranking.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. My ‘reviews’ are called Recommended Reading. If it doesn’t catch me, I don’t post about it. My posts are short, and give the flavour of a book. It seems to work well for my readers. Great Discussion:-)

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s