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!

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There are 11 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. King Rat

    I keep seeing this attitude pop up a lot lately. As if the reviews are for the benefit of the authors. Uh uh. After that comes readers. Way down the line somewhere are the authors.

    If you don’t want people who don’t like your book reviewing it (for whatever reason, including that they don’t like the genre) don’t publish it. Reviewers are readers who have a keyboard.

  2. 2. Mike Brotherton

    At the risk of being non-subtlety subtle, and trying to demonstrate my point:

    You’re a moron! An 8th grader is more astute than you!

    How do you like that “review” of what you wrote? Do you think anyone will actually benefit from reading it? How about if I actually addressed the content of your comment, in a way that would let people know why I have a negative opinion?

    I’m not complaining about people not liking my book. I’m complaining, in what I hope is a constructive way, about “reviewing” that isn’t, and doesn’t actually help a reader make a decision about whether or not to read a book.

    As a writer, I’m going to complain less about a gushing but content-free review. They’re not helpful either, but they don’t spread animosity.

    If you’re seeing complaints about this becoming more common, perhaps it’s because the internet gives everyone a voice and a potentially large audience, and there are a lot of people who don’t know how to carry themselves professionally. Writers have thick skins, but we’re human, too. So, your last point doesn’t make sense. Only people who LIKE getting trashed publicly should write books?

  3. 3. steve davidson

    Mike,

    I’ve recently begun reviewing for publication again – after a 25+ year long hiatus.

    Not having read any of your books, I haven’t reviewed any of them (I think that’s a guideline you forgot to mention, lol).

    I’ll be happy to forward links to reviews that are up on the web so you can judge my adherence to your rules for yourself. I’m an old-school reviewer. Beginning, middle, end, context, no spoilers and a reasoned opinion based on the material at hand.

    I’d like to see that kind of thing from everyone doing a review, just as you would. However, I think you missed a paradigm shift somewhere. The word ‘review’ no longer means review. These days on the internet, ‘review’ actually means ‘opinion’.

    Like anatomical features that everyone has. Some more than others.

    Your previous commentor hit the nail on the head, at least from within the sensibilities of the new paradigm. You’re “just” a content provider. The content users and opinionaters are the folks that really matter – or so they wish to believe.

    I think if you break the reviews down into real reviews versus opinion reviews, you’ll be better able to weather the storm. Don’t trade blows with those guys, they’re ‘opinion’ is just as valid as yours, but you’ve got the moral high ground. All they can do is type. You write.

    I think you’d

  4. 4. Mike Brotherton

    Steve, you’re probably right about that paradigm shift. In academics we’ve seen ethics slip as students feel they have every right to use anything they find on the internet without worrying about copyright or citation.

    I’ll still fight it when, where I can.

    And this is an issue I’ve had for a long time. Back in the 1990s, I used to review for Tangent. I recall having a long go-round with the editor (Dave Treusdale, whom I respect even when I disagree with him) about a review of story he ran that was grossly unprofessional in my opinion (“This could have been written by an 8th grader!” or very similar words). There’s a professional and constructive way to express that opinion, and then there’s what the reviewer wrote.

    Well, these are just my opinions but I’m going to make a case for them and maybe things will improve, a little, in some parts of the world.

  5. 5. Sam

    All reviews are statements of opinion. Some, however, are qualified statements of opinion. Unless you’re intimately acquainted with the tastes of the reviewer, only the latter are useful; because what people want a review for is to see how it corresponds with their tastes.

    “I didn’t like story X because it had big space battles.” is a useful review because I can look at it and see “the story has big space battles, I hate those too, I won’t buy it”, or sometimes “the story has big space battles, I love those, maybe I’ll buy it even though the review was negative”.

    If the reviewer simply says “I didn’t like story X”, then, well, uh, why do I care what they thought? Plenty of people out there don’t like the books I read, plenty do, I know that already. :)

    I don’t tend to believe that reviews need to be constructive however, “this could have been written by an 8th grader!” is a perfectly valid opinion that tells you what they objected to – the quality of the writing and the maturity. It certainly isn’t constructive, but constructive feedback is what your editorial team and first readers are for, not reviewers, their job is to let the potential readers know what they liked or disliked about the book.

    Of course “this could have been written by an 8th grader”, might not actually be an objection to the quality of the writing but just an insult, without context it’s hard to tell. :)

  6. 6. King Rat

    Hah! Takes way more than being called an 8th grader to insult me! I’ve had worse commeents about my reviews. Well, at least I think I have. They got made and deleted in the comments on an author’s response in his blog to one of my somewhat negative reviews. I kind of wish he’d left them up for me to see.

    But no, I am not suggesting that only folks with thick skins should write. I am suggesting that thin-skinned writers should expect to be upset a lot.

    Anyhoo, as you write, it’s a whole different world out there these days. Reviewing (imagine that in quotes if you want) is no longer the province of english professors and wine-sippin’ books editors in the newspaper. It’s Joe six-pack. It’s Geeky McGeekerson. It’s the Mom reading between soccer games. All over the web. And at all levels of quality. All of them still have some measure of usefulness. It’s a slice of “word of mouth” that I get, and it’s much wider than only getting it from my friends in person.

    I, for one, am quite glad reviewing has been democratized and unprofessionalized. Sure, it’s gotta suck some for the authors cause everything isn’t genteel anymore. But I prefer the visceral reaction to the hoity-toity NYTBR wanna be stuff that I was stuck with in the early 1990s.

  7. 7. Marie Brennan

    King Rat,

    In all fairness, I don’t think Mike’s asking for all reviews to be genteel, hoity-toity NYTBR stuff. What he’s describing isn’t a question of whether the reviewer liked a book or not, who the reviewer is, etc. His guidelines are about making reviews useful to other readers.

    I have no problem with Jennie Random posting on her Myspace page “omg this book was awesome!!!!” That serves to tell people that she liked it, and maybe her friends who know her tastes will also pick up the book. What Mike seems to be after is a set of principles that will help make a review useful to a broader audience. In that regard, I agree with him. “I didn’t like Old Man’s War because John Scalzi’s a jerk who taped bacon to his cat” is a less useful comment than one that follows guideline four, at least for the purposes of figuring out what you, the prospective reader, might think of OMW. (Equally unhelpful is “Old Man’s War is great, because the author’s this guy who taped bacon to his cat.”)

    I say, power to the Internet; I’m all in favor of reviewing not being entirely in the hands of a limited set of gatekeepers. But some reviews are better uses of a reader’s time than others.

  8. 8. sandrar

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

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Mike Brotherton

Professional astronomer, science fiction novelist (Star Dragon, Spider Star). Visit site.

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