When writers review…

It’s an on-going thing – should there be reviews that pan a book? Should reviewers concentrate on the books that they, you know, actually LIKE? What use is it to write a bad review, anyway?

And when you happen to be a writer in your own right, a writer who started writing reviews long before your own work ever saw print and simply continued to do so in the aftermath of publication, there are added complications. Justine Larbalestier recently mentioned a book-that-shall-remain-nameless in her blog – and explained, in just a couple of sentences, why the namelessness – when you are a writer who writes a less-than-complimentary review of another writer’s book you run the risk of one of two things. If the writer whom you are reviewing is more famous and more established and more successful than you (currently) are, your bad review might come off as sour grapes and whining. If the writer whom you are reviewing happens to be an up-and-comer who might be a rung or two lower on the publishing ladder than yourself, you run the risk of  of being seen as snotty and snobby and putting down the new blood (and who the hell do you think you are anyway, you think way too much of yourself…) By corollary, a glowing review of a book by the more-successful author reads like fawning; a glowing review of an up-and-comer (especially if others happen to violently disagree) draws questions of whether your good opinions were for “sale” in any way.

All of which boils down, apparently, to the inescapable conclusion that once you become a writer you are no longer permitted to have a critical opinion at all – because whatever you say is likely to be second-guessed by other writers in a side discipline to rejectomancy – let’s call it reviewmancy.

I started writing book reviews when I was in my early twenties, back in Cape Town, South Africa. I wrote them for the local newspaper (ah, the days when newspapers still had reviews…) and I wrote reviews for a wide variety of books, from tomes on science (I had a science background, after all) to coffee-table picture books, to travelogues, to novels of various ilks and genres. The one thing that I always took with me in this endeavour was complete and utter honesty. If I liked a book, I said so, and I said why. If I disliked it, *I said so*, and I said why. I’ve had people talk to me about this, back then, and tell me that I was perhaps the only “poison pen” reviewer in the Cape Town Argus stable – but that they trusted my opinions because I never “damned with faint praise” or called anything “nice” while meaning “omigod stay away from this, as far away as you can”. In my entire reviewing career at that newspaper I declined to review ONE book, one single book, because it was utterly appaling and complete and utter predictable drivel – but it was written by the wife of one of South Africa’s most pre-eminent novelists, which gave HER the status of an untouchable, particularly in the light of the fact that both husband and wife were friends with the editor of the paperand, um, I wanted to keep my reviewing slot (I hesitate to say ‘job’ since this was not a paid gig – I got to keep the book, is all). So I handed it back to the reviewing desk and said I’d prefer not to do it. Someone else did; and called it… um… ‘nice’. Did that do the reading public any favours? I didn’t think so.

But that was once.

I’ve since grown up, become a writer myself… and I’ve continued to review. My on-line reviews have appeared at www.sfsite.com for several years now, and that site has been witness to at least three reviews which might be called… less than complimentary. But what I did NOT do is simply go in there and flay the flesh from the literary bones. No – my method is to expose the bones themselves, to show why I thought they were not enough to carry the flesh grafted upon them. These are MY opinions. MY reviews. Other readers have always been free to take what they needed from them. But let me just say that the Amber review got me more mail than I’ve EVER received for any one single review I’ve ever written, before or since. And I don’t think a single one of those emails said anything vitriolic. My review was palpably not a simple “I hate this book therefore all ye readers shun it” screed; I did not like what the book was doing, and I explained why. Most people are capable of respecting that, in the end.

In some ways writers make the perfect reviewers, because we are capable of reading between the lines and figuring out just WHY a book fails. In other ways writers are the worst reviewers, like, EVER, because we cannot help reading a book with a writer’s eye once we’ve written one of our own and things that drive a writer nuts would probably be given a free pass by an average reader. So a writer-reviewer walks a fine line – that between being overly technical and overly simplistic, pitching the review at an educated reader rather than at fellow writers or at people who really don’t care about the fine points of anything so long as something blows up spectacularly by page 20.

So – readers – what do you want/need out of a review? Are you really interested in reading only “Oh, I LOVED this!” reviews? What do you think the value of a not-so-good review (if any) actually is? Is there space out there for a breadth of opinion? Is there a need for it? Should writers bow out of writing reviews the moment they sign their own first publishing contract, or do you think there is something of value in a writer’s reading of another writer’s work?

You tell me.

PS – some of my “I don’t like this book and here’s why” reviews – for the pleasure of your own dissection…




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  1. 1. Tom

    I think writers have as much right to review as anyone. But I personally don’t really care about reviews. Maybe if I was published it would be different, but as a reader I don’t care what a stranger thinks of a story.

    They only reviews I read, ever, are the ones on Amazon. I don’t care if they are good or bad, I just read to discern if the plot is something that I might find interesting. After all, I’ll read one review and they will love it for yada, yada, yada, and the next reviewer will hate it for the very same points.

    Just opinions.

  2. 2. JS Bangs

    I read all three of your negative reviews, and they were all the exact sort of think that I hope to see in a book review. Not nastiness, but clear writing that let me kow what was wrong with the book. And in one case, the negative description was still interesting enough to make me curious about reading the book itself, which is always telling.

    Anyway, don’t you think most people can tell the difference between a legitimate complaint in a review and baseless griping? Those quick with accusations of sour grapes or sucking up are probably not worth arguing with.

  3. 3. Adam Heine

    I kinda agree with Tom. I don’t usually care for reviews (movie reviews too), precisely because they are opinion.

    With regards to what I personally enjoy, the only opinion that matters is my own, and to a lesser extent those of friends who tend to share my opinions on what is entertaining.

  4. 4. S.C. Butler

    As a writer writing reviews, I don’t think you can win. My prime example? The NY Times Book Review section, in which writers review one another in a deadly spiral of fawning and secret handshakes. I just don’t trust them.

  5. 5. C.E. Aranaga

    Ha! I agree totally with your review of “Princess of Roumania.” I reviewed it in 2005 (http://www.scifidimensions.com/Oct05/roumania.htm). I’m not a novelist, nor do I have aspirations in that regard. But sure, when presented with a list of review copies from which to choose, I steer to titles I am likely to enjoy or authors I already know I like. That surely predisposes me to writing positive reviews, if (as is often the case) the book merits a better than passing grade. As with the Paul Park book though, I do not shy away from criticism when I find the work a let-down or a waste of time. The best a reviewer can do is offer an informed opinion, and turn on readers to a great book, or save readers the bother or tackling a less than satisfying work.

  6. 6. glenda larke

    I’ve always appreciated the honesty of your reviews, Alma. They are exactly the kind of reviews I hope to get for my books: thoughtful, with the kind of comments that a writer can learn from, i.e. what worked or what didn’t for the reviewer.

    I’ve always thought, though, that any author has to be careful about making too much of a good or a poor review (poor in the “I didn’t like it” sense), because in the end it is just one person’s opinion and there is no way on earth that any author is going to please everyone.

    In the end what I try to get out of a review of a book I haven’t read but am thinking of buying is the idea of whether I would like it, not whether the reviewer liked it. Pretty much what Tom said above.

  7. 7. green_knight

    I don’t do many reviews, and most of them under the heading of ‘The Writer Reads’ – where I look at novels and pick up one or more techniques that do or don’t work for me. I’m always interested in working out why a book works for people – and it must have worked for someone to go that far through the publishing process – but I also don’t believe that every book was created equal. I can admire books and writers I don’t much like (Jon Courtenay Grimwood comes to mind, whose prose it utterly *wonderful* and I still wasn’t moved to finish Stamping Butterflies because of the plot that didn’t work for me) and I equally used to love books that I can now see the flaws in, and have evolved to a point where the flaws distract me.

    I want honesty from a reviewer. I want them to be skilled enough to give reasons why they did or didn’t like a book, what worked for them and what didn’t, what the book’s strengths and weaknesses are. I don’t want hype or hyperbole, and I’d much rather see a writer say ‘this book was really not for me’ if they hated it than to mumble something about ‘decently written, interesting setting’ that might be taken at face value.

  8. 8. Liane Merciel

    For me, reviews serve three main purposes:

    (1) Helping me find books I might enjoy, or avoid books I might dislike. On Amazon, I read the synopsis, the editorial/professional review snippets, and the negative customer reviews. The positive ones tend to be more generic and therefore less helpful to me, although there are exceptions.

    (2) Helping me find things in the book, and appreciate deeper subtleties, that I would otherwise have missed. The better professional reviews do this. The less-good professional reviews come off as pretentious wankery.

    (3) Spurring fan discussion on message boards and the blogosphere. Reviews that stake out contrary or unusual opinions, and support them with citations to the text and well-reasoned arguments, do this. Superficial “I love it!!!” or “This book sux!!!” reactions do not.

    There is also a lesser purpose (4) Helping me see flaws and virtues that I might wish to avoid or try to achieve in my own work. Clearly there are limits to how much an analysis of someone else’s work can be relevant or helpful to your own, but it’s good to know what readers like and what techniques don’t work or what plot devices they reject. Reading with a writer’s eye, and then seeing how normal readers react to the same text, can be a useful reality check.

    I think that there is a great deal of value that a writer can say about another writer’s work, but when I do it — and it’s uncommon that I do, since I’m more a lurker than a talker — I usually veil my opinions behind a cloak of anonymity. The Internet makes that easy, and personally I think it’s more useful to let the message stand on its own, without whatever slant the reader might bring to it if the speaker were known.

    Of course there are potential abuses in that (Robert Stanek’s notorious misuse of Amazon’s review system, for one), but that’s the way it goes with everything.

  9. 9. Sam

    Any review needs to be honest to be useful, and to give reasons for the opinions stated, without reasons it’s not a review, just a statement of how much you enjoyed it, and why on earth would anyone who doesn’t personally know you care?

    Whether a reviewer liked or disliked the book (or film or anything else) is largely irrelevent to me, there’s many times when a well written review by someone saying they disliked something has been a reason for me to buy something, because the reasons they gave for disliking it made it clear (or led me to hope) that it would be something that I liked.

    Regarding writers reviewing other writers: I’m highly sceptical, it falls into the same category as the “best thing since lord of the rings!!!!” (or the sci-fi equivilent “the UK’s greatest living sci-fi author!!!”) cover-quotes by some random other best-selling author. Without knowing the neutrality of the person in question or what vested interests they have, I’m just inclined to dismiss it.

    That said, if reasons are given, or you’re familiar enough with the taste of the reviewing author in question, you can still glean useful information from one, or try to get a feel for the authenticity of the review (as opposed to it being “hey, say something nice about this other author” that gets dressed up as a review by the marketing department.)

    Also it quickly becomes obvious when some authors are either being fairly mercenary in their recommendations, or just have extremely low standards, because they tend to turn up on the cover of every single “next big thing” author for a year or two, absolutely regardless of quality.

  10. 10. Sam

    Oh, meant to say, as PS to my previous comment, that you’re on a bit of a roll for your articles here, this one and your previous (especially the previous) have been two of the more “stand-out” recent sfnovelists’ posts for a while for me.

    I’ve never actually bought or read one of your books, but you’ve made it onto my list of authors to investigate from the thoughtful tone of your writings here.

    That sounds like a less than enthusiastic response I know, and maybe a bit arrogant, but my point isn’t my deigning to take notice, it’s that posting interesting stuff here has made it happen, it’s good advertising. :)

  11. 11. Alma Alexander

    Sam, thank you for the kind words! Much appreciated! (And I look forward to welcoming you to my more literary worlds when your paths eventually take you there….)


  1. Rabia Gale » Blog Archive » about reviewing

Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.



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