Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Reading a book for review vs. reading for pleasure

The first major review for The TAKER came out today. It didn’t say the book is bad, didn’t say it is good. I’m not here to quibble with what the reviewer wrote, but it did start me thinking about this next phase in my booklife, which is the reviewing process.

People in the business will easily guess which source I’m talking about but for everyone else: the review source is somewhat infamous in book publishing. It prints very short reviews that are assigned to freelancers and posted anonymously. People who have worked as freelancers for this source have spoken about how there is no specialization; it’s a bit of a crapshoot. You review whichever book the editor tosses your way. The reviews are designed for librarians and bookstore buyers who want a judgment on whether or not to order the book, and are generally the first reviews to come out.

So… decades ago I worked briefly as a music critic. I wrote columns for a couple smallish newspapers and magazines. Was I qualified to be a music critic? Probably not, though I had years of musical training. Most of my pieces were more topical, not critical, but every once in a while I did bon a fide reviews. Why was I given these gigs? Because I was willing to do the work, accepted the low pay, and had minimal qualifications. However, my pieces were not anonymous: each one carried my byline and I got a few letters that were critical of my opinions.

These intervening decades, I have worked as an analyst. Being an analyst is different from being a critic; an analyst is faced with a problem and figures out how to determine the answer. Typically it means really understanding the nature of the problem at hand. When I decided to get back into writing, I took an analytic approach to learning the craft of writing. All writers must learn to analyze books as they read them, to break down the craft and see how the author used craft to express their ideas. It’s part of the learning experience for writers. The first consideration should be whether the author was successful at what they tried to achieve. Did the story, the way it was told, successfully convey the author’s intent? That is the heart of it: a work must be judged on the author’s intent.

That is what seems to be lacking, I think, in this slapdash reviews. Just as a bad editor is one who must rewrite each piece to reflect how he would’ve written it and obliterate the original author’s unique style in the process, a bad reviewer judges a book against how he would’ve written it – if he had the wherewithal to conceive of such a story in the first place. What is the reviewer trying to say? Whether the book was good or bad? Good or bad is subjective; you need something more concrete and less slippery to aim for. In essence, such a review is nothing more than ‘I liked it/I didn’t like it’ and that’s not a critical review, that’s an opinion.

This review, and other reviews from the same source, remind me of the treatment one gets in a grad writing program critique class. The students quickly get to where they’re just looking to find something ‘wrong,’ something they didn’t like, something to criticize. It’s the opinion of someone who picks up the book with the mindset that they’re not going to enjoy it. They’re not going to try to go along with the author’s intent; if anything, they’re going to try to resist it. They’re going to try to wrestle it into what they’d prefer to read and this book isn’t it, dammit, so woe to this book.

Whereas readers pick up a book with the hope of liking it, the hope of being transported, not with the expectation of being disappointed. So it’s a bit wrong to use reviews like these to try to figure out what books readers might want to buy or check out of the library. In that respect, I prefer reading what book bloggers have to say. These are people who read for pleasure, who know what they like and are only looking for more of it. Luckily, one doesn’t have to go far to find a book blogger with tastes similar to one’s own.


  1. Well, speaking as a book blogger, I read a LOT, and I'm always swamped with reviews. I'm booked about 3 months out right now, and that's doing at least 1 a day. But, I cherry-pick what I want to review, and I pick books I'm pretty sure I will like. I read because I love to, and even if I wasn't doing the book blog, I would still be reading, so I want to read what I will enjoy!

    Michelle V

  2. Hi Michelle and thanks for commenting. I would add that I haven't met a book blogger yet who wasn't upfront about the fact that they're writing about their preferences. As a bookstore owners, that's what I would want to know: will my customers want to buy this book.

  3. I've always read but have recently (in the last year) started blogging about what I read and enjoy. The one thing I decided right at the start of blogging was that I wasn't going to read books that I wouldn't have picked up to read prior to becoming a blogger. I read for pleasure first and foremost. I started reading blogs to help me determine the path my reading would take. I've seldom been steered seriously in the wrong direction by bloggers and have read many books that I probably would not have picked up on my own. I do tend to be series and author loyal. The main draw back I've found to blogging is that I spend too much time reading blogs,looking for that next great book, rather than reading what I have on hand. My book shelfs have grown from a couple of hundred potential reads to a few thousand, all of which I plan to read.


    alterlisa AT yahoo DOT com

  4. Hi Lisa! Thanks for the comments. I admire your determination to read all those books. My TBR pile is growing dangerously high but no where near those numbers. I love following bloggers, because you can get a sense of their likes & dislikes, and get a better sense of whether a book will be good for you.

  5. Jumping in here with my a.d.d-like comments:
    1)It kind of sucks that music, books, art etal are reviewed after only one hearing, reading, viewing because I think people don't see the hidden gems that make the work stay with you . And that's what's important to me.

    2) As a musician, it's been my experience that critics read the program notes, and copy them verbatim. My choir's program note writer will throw in some obscure word and EVERYTIME that word makes the review. I hope the book reviewers aren't just reading the book jacket ;-)