The Right Way to Review

by syaffolee

I have many ambivalent feelings about reviewing books.  It used to not be this way.  When I first started reviewing books I’ve read on the blog, it was pretty straightforward: write about what the book was about without giving everything way, say whether or not I liked it, and why (maybe).  I’m not sure if anyone even read those reviews (aside from the occasional author who stumbled onto them), but that’s not even the point of why I wrote the reviews in the first place.  Writing reviews makes me feel productive–that I got something out of the hours I spent reading even if it was something negative.

And then I started reading about other people’s policies on writing reviews.  Some people only write reviews for books that they like because they think that negative reviews are counterproductive and mean.  Other people make it a policy to never write reviews because they’re authors and they fear backlash from other authors.  There are those who simply say if they liked a book or not.  And others who explicate a manuscript within an inch of its life.  Some people have rating systems.  And others don’t really have a review when they’re writing a review–rather, it’s just a summary.  All these different methods for reviewing books made me question if my own reviews were really doing the books justice.

In general, I don’t think I’m a very good reviewer.  This is, I suppose, where my insecurities come into play.  My background is science-oriented.  I haven’t had much training in critical literary analysis other than one elective class in 18th century literature that I took just for the hell of it when I was an undergrad.  Of course, after years of writing occasional reviews for the blog, I think I’ve improved somewhat.  But still, sometimes I wonder if anyone reading my opinion thinks it’s any more or less valid than someone who has a Ph.D. in English literature.

Insecurities aside, intellectually, I think every reader has a valid opinion even if it’s just something simple like “I loved it!” or “I hated it!”  Each reader brings in his or her own set of experiences and beliefs thus creating unique relationships with the books that they read.  The book itself may be a record of an author’s expression but the only thing that is really meaningful at the end of the day is how the individual reader interprets it.  While others might find the reader’s interpretation useful, this is mostly a side benefit.  The interpretation itself is intrinsically personal.  Whether or not it is articulated into so many words is not a requirement for that interpretation to be valid.  So when a book club personality from Salon voiced her dislike of certain types of reviews (via Quill & Quire), I had an immediate impulse to defend the succinct and supposedly lazy reviewer.

For the last fiction book I reviewed, I explicitly stated that I found the main protagonist “unlikeable”.  According to the book club personality, then, my descriptive shorthand is an indication that I’m just another bully in the literary playground who is simply being mean.  They believe that “unlikeable” is a code word for complaining to the author that their characterization is bad.  Literary critics, I think, read too much into the reviews of the ordinary reader.  In my case, “unlikeable” was a descriptor and not a complaint against the author.  In fact, I ended up liking the book even though the character was “unlikeable” because I saw a reason for why the character was written that way.  Another reader may have had an entirely different experience–perhaps he chucked the book out the window primarily because the character was unlikeable regardless of the rest of the plot.  But that doesn’t make that reader’s view illegitimate either.

People who make their living as book critics and reviewers have been regarded by the rest of society as the arbiters of literary taste.  They’ve been the ones who have set the gold standard for what makes a good book and by association how one should examine and opine about such books.  But with the advent of the internet, where anyone and his dog can post reviews online without the repercussion of an English teacher standing over them to rap them on the knuckles for not following proper form, the audience and respect that the critics have previously enjoyed are slowly eroding away to a more democratic platform for opinion and analysis.  It is no wonder, then, that there are those who cry foul when someone types out a one-line review just like every other empty-headed tweeting bird.