April 11th 2008
A Guide to Reviewing a Book: A Writer’s Perspective
My second novel Spider Star was released last month and the reviews have been rolling in, both from pro venues and more causal discussions on various forums I’ve noticed. I justify the obsessive googling as the result of trying to make sure I spot reviews for publicity, but it’s more realistically a combination of nerves and vanity in equal measures. I keep track of the reviews and excerpt and/or link to them on my website.
Now, this is supposed to be a more general post than just about my new book, but I will start there. The reviews have been mixed from more general outlets like Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, and much more positive from science fiction specialists like scifi.com and Locus.
That makes some sense. We at sfnovelists.com have discussed amongst ourselves how Kirkus rarely seems to like genre fiction. Personally, that would be my first guideline both as a writer and as a reader:
Guideline 1: Reviewers should stick to reviewing the kinds of books they like.
Look, I think nearly every book published is a good book. Editors and publishers aren’t stupid. There are certainly a lot of books published I think are crap, but some of them have audiences. Large audiences. People LOVE some of the books I HATE. I shouldn’t review those. I’m not the target audience.
And that’s okay.
It’s infuriating as a writer to see someone leave a comment somewhere, or, worse, a complete review, about how much your book sucked when it is clear that they don’t like the kind of book you’re writing. I had this happen with Spider Star. Someone wrote how awful the sample chapters were on a forum, and, when pressed (guilty), admitted that they read like Jack McDevitt and that they didn’t care for McDevitt. Personally, I do. So…
Guideline 2: Reviews should describe what the book is like, and not just represent a visceral reaction of the reviewer.
I’ve noticed an interesting dichotomy in the positive reviews, which seems to result from this being a second novel. People have gone out of their way to say whether or not they like this one better or worse than my first one, and there are people in both camps. I think that’s fine as long as they justify those positions, and the reviewers have, for the most part. Few have said this is better than that one, or worse, without explanation.
Guideline 3: Putting a book in context relative to other work by the author is great, as long as there is clarity in doing so.
Something I think is amusing, although it would probably only amuse other writers, is how some think I’ve grown because of changes in approach in the second book, and how some think I’ve regressed. From my perspective, I was simply writing a different story that needed different elements, for theme or balance or plot complexity (or to lessen it). One reviewer criticized me for doing something for one reason, but I was doing it for completely different reasons than they surmised. That’s probably par for the course.
Finally, I’d like to make one final guideline that all writers will appreciate:
Guideline 4: Review the book, not the author.
Most writers learn to write through workshops, at least at some stage, and this is a cardinal rule of critiquing. Any response to words on the page is fair. No reaction to the author as a person is appropriate (e.g., that apparently “racist story” might just be an attempt to understand a particular type of unsavory person, something that writers need to do effectively from time to time, rather than an expression of racism).
So, before summarizing, let me present a caricature of the bad amateur review:
“This book was crap, like it was written by an 8th grader. I can’t believe anyone published it. Science fiction is stupid. The words were all jargon, too hard to follow. People get paid for this?”
The good review summarizes the book, succinctly. Whether or not the reviewer liked the book, it describes what the book is like well enough that fans of that type of book can identify it, and those who don’t like it can avoid it. Criticisms are restricted to the book and don’t extend to imaginative flights of fancy about the author and their shortcomings. Comparisons to other work by the author can be useful, especially if the new book represents a change in direction, voice, or attitude from previous work.
Anyone willing to point to extremely good or extremely bad reviews of their work?
Harriet Klausner doesn’t count!
Professional astronomer, science fiction novelist (Star Dragon, Spider Star). Visit site.
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