When writers review
Written by
Alma Alexander
October 2009
Written by
Alma Alexander
October 2009
If you are a writer who does a less-than-complimentary review of another writer's book, you run the risk of one of two things. 1) If the writer whom you are reviewing is more famous than you, your bad review might come off as sour grapes. 2) If the writer is a rung or two lower on the publishing ladder, you run the risk of of being seen as snotty and snobby 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 to coffee-table picture books, from travelogues to novels. The one thing that I always took with me in this endeavor 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 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. 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 because we cannot help reading a book with a writer's eye 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. 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.

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  • The question is what is a "bad" book? I thought The Da Vinci Code for instance was a terrible book nor did I like Water for Elephants. I didn't like these popular books because the characterizations felt like cartoon characters to me instead of real in depth portraits of believable people. But clearly mine was a minority opinion. I've had readers who didn't like my books because they are so "sad" or "dark" . .  . given the people I base my characters on, they are just realistic albeit magical realist. I think any book that is grammatically sound can be anything from a terrible book to a great book depending on the viewpoint of the reader. Oh, one thing, I had forgotten my first (and last) review in a major newspaper: The Denver Post. The reviewer did not like my first novel, The Nun, because she said it had a "dreamlike quality that will turn off many readers" and a friend of mine who read the review said, that she loved books that had a dreamlike quality so . .  .the negative review maybe did me some good because she pinpointed a quality about which readers might disagree.  I am always honest in giving my personal opinion of a book but if my personal opinion is that I really dislike it, I figure, somebody else probably will. Opinion is always arguable. And come to think of it maybe that it is the way to draw attention to books by unknown authors: argue about them. I do know that it is not automatic that quality will always be recognized. I've been working too long now to promote classic works by truly great authors who deserve to be either discovered or some cases, REdiscovered. Look what happened to J.R. Salamanca. I remember talking to a woman who had never heard of him (she said) but in fact his second novel, Lilith, was one of her favorite novels.  Well interesting subject. I think I might rethink my policy on not reviewing books I don't like. 

  • Alma Alexander

    Sandra - I appreciate your point - but I myself honestly don't see any point in NOT giving an honest review of any book at all and it doesn't matter what kind of shield you use, fame or "poor unknown author struggling to make his or her name". In all honesty, if the unknown is GOOD ENOUGH it will shine through. If the book is not up to scratch and I have solid reasons for saying so, then I will say so (I NEVER give a review that says "I hated this" and then walk away - if I hated it I give reasons why, and if those reasons are something that another reader can live with then that's fine...) When you read a review that I wrote and I gave a book a glowing recommendation you can be sure it comes for good reasons, too. I suppose a good place for bad books is the oubliette of oblivion (which is what you are advocating, in a way) but if a book is published it no longer belongs to its author. It belongs to its readers. And its readers have a right to an outside opinion which is unafilliated with the book and its prospects - and they are entitled to take that second opinion as they wish, even to ignore it if that is their preference. You would want a second opinion if a doctor diagonised you with something serious - why not offer ALL books the same chance?

  • I have recently started reviewing. I can see the point of publishing a less than positive review about famous books that readers are standing in line to buy because of a lot of expensive hype (if they still do the bricks and mortar thing): it is somewhat like calling the Emperor naked. But I really don't see the point of publishing a negative review of lesser known authors. I feel like there is an audience for every kind of book and as the old latin phrase goes: in matters of taste there is no dispute. So I have posted comments on amazon for instance that say: "if you liked ______, then you will like______'" about books that I myself did not like but figured some people out there would. When I really do admire a book, I am happy to say so and to say why.  And if I discover I really don't like a book I thought I would, I let the author or PR person know that I can't in all sincerity post a positive review and therefore will not be reviewing it.  You are more experienced at this so, what do you think?  Any advice?

  • Alma Alexander

    Kate - it's precisely what I try to do with my own reviews. I don't
    do educational reviews, so I don't have to give a synop of the
    contents - but I try to let the reader of the review know about the
    reasons behind my "like it" or "don't like it" reviews as opposed to
    just gushing or snarling. I have - and this has sharpened since I have
    started writing and publishing novels myself - always read with a sort
    of critical edge, and if I don't like a book it's usually for sound
    (to me) reasons - and I will explain them in the review.

    I don't believe anyone is served by the writing and publishing of ONLY
    good reviews. I think that it's a question of a balanced review,
    pointing out what good and what not so good aspects exist in a book,
    and then trusting the reader to make their own decisions on the
    matter. Reviews are not sales pitches - they are there to advise, they
    are opinions by people other than yourself, and then it becomes a
    matter of your own choice whether to trust their opinion or exercise
    your right to form your own.

  • Kate O\'Mara

    Readers read reviews for different reasons. When I read a review in the newspaper, it's for general information, I many not know much or anything about a particular book. When I read a review in a journal, it's for the expertise of the reviewer.
    I review with EHO.org & eclectichomeschool.org - my readers need to make buying decisions for their children's education, so I try describe the material within the book rather than "like it" or "don't like it".