If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

ThumperThumper’s words from Bambi still rattle around my brain whenever I write reviews. As I’ve commented elsewhere, I choose what I review and generally choose what I think I will like to read and am usually a pretty good judge. The one book I can think of for which this was not true was one for which I was asked to write an anonymous review before publication. Despite the thrashing I and two other anonymous reviewers gave the book, it saw the light of day.

I’m also conscious of the work it took to produce the book I’m reading — work I’ve not done — and want to recognize this effort. So, most of the reviews I post on this blog tend to be fairly positive about the book in question. i will admit that I have to overcome Thumper’s counsel when I write something critical.

So it was with interest that I read an article forwarded by a friend titled “Book Reviewing’s Grunt Squads” that describe’s the writer’s time as a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews and some of the negative reviews he wrote and the comments he made about books. At the time he was doing this, Kirkus employed a team of freelance reviewers paid by the review (he made $50 to $70 a review) to produce 325 word reviews of any book they were sent. Kirkus at this time published reviews of all newly published works. The article was occasioned by a negative review he received via the reorganized Kirkus Media. In addition to exposing the “grunt work” of the reviewing world where most reviewers would struggle to even pay the rent on what they write, he also teases out the fundamental challenge of reviewing–the challenge of fairly representing a work and one’s own reaction to that work without engaging in excessive self-indulgence or sterile (and impossible) objectivity.

He particularly explores the challenge authors face in receiving negative, and particularly unfair reviews that do not represent the book they actually wrote. He observes that authors who try to rebut such reviews almost invariably come off badly. And the truth is that there are a lot of bad books out there (even more with self-publishing) and reviewers who are assigned such books probably are doing a public service to expose them. The only authors, he observes, who come off at all well are those who have powerful friends.

So, what is the bearing of all this on a blogger who reviews mostly to remember what he read, and to share his love of good books with others? Reviewing as a volunteer activity means I have choice, which paid reviewers often don’t have. Since I am not getting paid, apart from the occasional free book, for what I do, I’m less likely to end up reading books that I’d give a scathingly negative review. Will I ever do it? Yes, perhaps in the case of a book that I think is being misrepresented as the greatest thing since sliced bread, when it is moldy bread at best — particularly if the book was misrepresented to me.

The article talks mostly of authors and reviewers. There is another group I have to consider as well. That is readers who might borrow or buy the book. For one thing, I will sometimes engage points of disagreement between myself and the author so that readers, particularly those who might know me, will not be misled as to the point of view of a book which I’ve reviewed. I read things I disagree with but not all people like to do this. This is a place where who I am as a reader and reviewer intrudes, but I hope it does so helpfully for my reader. Blog reviewing is an interactive media and so discussion and even pushback seem to be part of the nature of this media.

I probably have two main things I will criticize, beyond writing that is simply bad or excessively violent or sexual. One is when an author is unnecessarily obscure, or writes over the heads of his or her intended audience. I realize I have to be careful with this when reviewing academic books. If it is written strictly for an academic audience, I will accept a denser style and more “in group” language than I would for a book by an academic intended for a broader audience. The other thing, and I admit this is more subjective, that I will critique is when authors pursue implausible plot turns, which I consider those that are inauthentic to the development of the characters and story line.

All this said, there are still Thumper’s words rattling about in my head. “If you can’t say something nice…” For me, this means in my reading and reviewing that I want to read sympathetically, to meet authors on their own terms, to recognize what is of value, and what I think will be helpful to my readers.

4 thoughts on “If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

  1. I think about this often. This is mostly because I have read some very mediocre books that have only received glowing reviews. (Lauren Winner’s Still comes to mind.) I find this phenomenon pretty frustrating. So many reviews and most back cover endorsements feel pretty meaningless to me now because it just seems like every author has a circle of writer friends (the “in crowd”, if you will) who just happily write positive reviews when called upon and who can then trust that their own books will be glowingly reviewed when the time comes. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. The whole thing seems so much more driven by selling books than by anyone honestly assessing quality. Have I gotten too cynical?

    This is why I appreciate independent reviewers like you who don’t have forthcoming books (as far as I know.)

    • No forthcoming books…thanks for your comments! The book blurb phenomenon seems pretty sick. The more there are, the less likely I am to read the book. They do give you an idea of the intended audience of the book however!

  2. Pingback: Forgetful Reading | Bob on Books

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