reviewing books

Zeke the Cat sleeping on pond bench,

“Boring!”

A cat would rather sleep than read a book.* So would many readers, if the book they’re reading is boring.

This is the ultimate condemnation of a piece of writing. It’s OK (sort of) for a book to be gross, disgusting, crude and even lame (well, lame isn’t so good), but to be labelled boring means a book is a dead duck. Review sites are full of comments like, “If you can’t sleep, take this book,” or, “The only time the story moved along was when I threw the book at the wall.” Accompanied by single stars.

So, authors — don’t write boring! Easy peasy.

But…

What is boring, anyway?  “Boring,” like “fun,” “profound,” or “disgusting,” is a judgment, not an absolute.

Words and phrases often seen in reviews along with “boring” include: slow, too much description, too complicated, doesn’t go anywhere.

So, to many readers, “boring” = slow, wordy, confusing, pointless. But some readers describe slow-paced books as engrossing, with vivid descriptions, complex characters and intricate plots. Questions, puzzles or mysteries engage readers and make them eager to go on the journey created by the author, even if it’s 700 pages long.

For examples of diverging reader opinions, have a look at Goodreads reviews of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

The deciding element seems to be purpose — slow or fast, wordy or terse, simple or complex, if a story doesn’t present a destination, however distant, many readers are not willing to put in the time and effort to read it. To put it crudely, there has to be a payoff.

July 2, 2012

Where?

A book must offer something worth the reader’s time, a path with promise. If the path heads into a dismal swamp or an arid wasteland, instead of climbing to gorgeous views and dramatic heights, the reader will turn around and go home.

Beautiful prose alone isn’t enough reason to keep reading. A plot full of twists and turns won’t keep the reader’s interest if it wanders around aimlessly without a resolution. Fulsome descriptions, extensive backstory, and philosophizing by the narrator put demands on readers’ patience, but they are willing to do the work and put in the time if there is a question to be answered, a mystery to be solved, a revelation to be revealed. The author must acknowledge this and keep the story moving, even if it’s slow and complicated.

Some readers appreciate books that require a bit of intellectual effort. Others demand pure escapism, effortlessly absorbed. The cover image and book description should accurately signal the book’s genre and tone, but, like body language at a cocktail party, there may be room for misinterpretation. If a book’s exterior says “I’m a thriller,” but the story inside is actually romance or another genre, readers feel deceived.

Once annoyed with a book, readers may detach from the story and start to notice things they wouldn’t otherwise: overused phrases or reminders of character quirks; writing that calls attention to itself  (“Hey, check out my strong verbs!”); potentially confusing complications such as chronological and p.o.v. jumps. And, of course, typos, misspellings and grammatical errors.

At this point, the reader closes the book never to open it again. Or maybe throws it at the wall and writes a one-star, one-word review: “Boring.”

Finally, “boring” may be short for “It wasn’t my kind of book.” Reading, after all, is a two-way process. Just as publishing has become easier, so has reviewing and commenting on books. Not all reviews and comments are thoughtful and eloquently expressed.

Authors, be aware of the expectations your book creates, and make sure it delivers what is promised.

Readers, if you think a book is boring, try to figure out why, and put those thoughts into your review. They might help the author write a better book.

* Of course, cats would rather sleep than do just about anything.

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Dancing in a Minefield: Writers Reviewing Each Other

Book reviews have been on my mind lately — more than usual, that is, because book reviews are always a preoccupation of us indie authors. I’ve been thinking about reviews and reviewing because most of the books at the top of my TBR pile are actually TBR&R, meaning “to be read and reviewed.” I’ve decided this year to give priority to books by authors from my local area, which narrows the field considerably. Even so, the pile keeps growing.

It occurred to me a while ago that I rarely read books just for fun, with no intention to review or even rate them. I think that’s an occupational hazard for us authors, now more than ever.

In the Olden Days (the previous millennium), books were reviewed by special people called literary critics. Back then, writers wrote and readers read. They might talk about books with friends and recommend ones they thought particularly good, but that was just talk.

Then came ebooks, self-publishing and social media. Now everyone can be a critic of sorts. For indie authors, this has created a perilous situation. First, of course, there are Too Many Books. Then there’s the fact that some of them are by fellow writers — people we know from critique groups, writing courses, writers’ conferences or the blogosphere. People we trade jokes with, whose posts we “like” and comment on. How many of us have obtained books from these online colleagues in exchange for “an honest review?”

So what do you do when you read one of these books and can’t write an honestly positive review?

Many just don’t write the review. Some contact the writer privately to express their concerns. Others grit their teeth and try to walk the tightrope, carefully making a case for their less-than-positive comments. Critical remarks may not be too damaging, but throwing a three-or-fewer-stars rating onto a pile of four and five stars, thus lowering a book’s overall score, is guaranteed to make its author unhappy.

No one wants to be a party-pooper, but I, for one, refuse to modify my honest opinion of a piece of writing just because the writer is known to me. That kind of thing perpetuates the negative views some people still have about self-published books and their authors. It may also be why Amazon has decided to remove reviews that appear to be written by people who know the author. This is a rather crude approach, but behind it is the principle that reviews should reflect readers’ true impressions of a piece of writing, unmodified by considerations such as, “Well, it’s not the best, but hey, the author is a nice guy and writes those funny blog posts, so how about 4 stars instead of 3.”

There is a huge difference between a thoughtful critical review and a mean-spirited condemnation of a book accompanied by a one-star rating. We writers can be of help to one another by carefully reading each other’s books and writing sincere (honest) reviews, both positive and negative.

One thing that’s hard to avoid (and I’m as guilty of it as anyone) is to slip into the role of editor-after-the-fact, suggesting that the author should have deleted this scene or that character, or written more description, or less. I think this kind of thing comes from participating in critique groups or being a beta reader. In those situations we are dealing with works in progress, where such suggestions are welcomed. Reviews, on the other hand, must deal with a book as published and complete.

We writers owe it to one another to hold ourselves to a high standard when we write reviews. We know both sides of the page, as it were: we both create and consume writing. We are insiders and as such must play the reviewer’s role consciously and with care.

Book “Reviews”

I spent my blogging time today writing a book “review” on Goodreads. You can see it in the sidebar, along with others I’ve written.

Why the quotation marks? Because I don’t think my comments on Goodreads, or most people’s “reviews” there or on Amazon, are really book reviews. Real reviews take effort to write. The reviewer should know something about the author and their other works, should systematically cover all aspects of the book they’re reviewing — characters, setting, plot, writing style — in context.

Who has time for that? Much easier to dash off a few impressions and descriptions of one’s emotional reaction to reading a book. And maybe that’s all a prospective reader needs. It may be that the literary book review is strictly the province of the literary world, not the realm of consumer fiction. After all, no one writes literary reviews of blenders, pantyhose or lawn mowers.

Call me old school, but it still feels funny to call those comments “reviews.”