Reviewing Reviews

My, here I had been anticipating review and interview/guest days and had someone every month until now, when we actually have one of those days set!
I have lost my list of potential guests and the past month has been even busier than usual here. The fact that we have had more snow in the last couple of weeks than we have had in the last dozen years combined hasn’t helped! I simply haven’t had the time or peace of mind to approach an author and make up questions.
So, here I was this week, preparing for another big storm when I got a frantic call from my grandson’s middle school to help with their book fair for a few days as they were very shorthanded. Then I had to deal with the actual storm … and I found myself with less than a day to go without a post or a clue.
I haven’t had a chance to finish any books very recently; I have too many started and little free time. Ones that I have read recently are those of people who have been discussed here and have already been guests. Some have been those of my fellow bloggers and I don’t feel like I can, with my limited time, read all of everyone’s works. And it simply would not be fair to everyone to bring up those that I have read as reviews here.
Then there are the books that I have read, (often given to me), that frankly, have not impressed me. The Founding Fox, Jillian Chantal, impressed upon me the importance of keeping one’s honor when doing reviews. You put your name and reputation on the line with each one posted and you cannot destroy your credibility by giving a bad book a good review. It simply isn’t fair not only to those who rely on reviews to choose where to spend their limited money, but it really isn’t fair to the writer, either. It especially isn’t fair to truly good writers or truly good works.
That having been said, there are quite a few writers who may say they want an honest review, but get upset with being given anything less than five stars. That is akin to giving a standing ovation for every performance! Let’s face it; no one bats a thousand every time in every story and we all have our own tastes and opinions, to which we are entitled.
A few months ago a popular advice columnist was asked about this very topic. A person wrote  that a friend self-published a very poor book. It had been a weak story, poorly told and it lacked editing, but the friend was pushing her for a good review. The columnist said to say that it was “a real page turner” because, technically, the person had to turn pages to read it. I was among many who gave the columnist an earful to set her straight on the topic.
I will admit that when I was first asked to give reviews, I did do some double-speak. Between those for a family member and for a few friends, I used phraseology like “brave”, (brave to have put out such books!). If you read between the lines of a few of the reviews, you will see that I didn’t really say anything that said the books were good. I am not proud of those, and I think they cost me a position as a reviewer for a publishing company…and that is my own fault.
I have asked for reviews of my works and I have often been praised beyond what I knew I deserved. I did not feel that it helped me at all. Other times, I felt I was over-criticized, out of jealousy or because some people are just plain unsupportive.  Then there are times when someone criticized my work but I knew that it was due to  their taste and opinion, and so I stuck by my guns. Once a work of mine that was criticized on many levels was published with next to no editing in a national publication. I knew the venue and readership better than the writer I had asked to critique the work. It hadn’t been fair to the person whose opinion I had asked, which I guess is why, if you are delving into more than one venue or genre, (as I do), you need a base of partners who are familiar with where you are going with your work. You can’t ask a writer of technical manuals to help you with a dramatic play, nor can you expect a person who reads only historical novels to help you with your modern children’s storybook.
And you can’t give a decent review to a book when you are not familiar with the genre. If you never read sweet romance, you don’t know if you are reading a good example. If you are familiar with  a genre, even if the story does not exactly rock your world, you can discern if it is a good representation of the type and give it a good review. If you can’t stand historical novels, no matter how well done one may be, no matter how it may stand out above the others, you won’t be able to judge it well. If you never read poetry, you probably won’t get what the writer is trying to say, or if, indeed, she said it well.
If you have strong religious beliefs and the principal characters in a book are of a creed that seems opposed to your faith, even if the book is well done you may not be able to get past your feelings and appreciate the craft the writer put into his work. In these cases, it is best to just leave the stories alone.
In the above instances, I think it is just to leave the reviewing to others. But if you are a reader of and appreciate the genre of a book or work, I think an honest review, a decent review, even a less than stellar review, is a gift not only to the writer, but to the reading world in general.
Not every deep novel is going to read like a Leo Tolstoy, not every adventure like one by Robert Louis Stephenson; not every book of poetry will remind you of H.W. Longfellow, not every mystery will send you after red herrings like Agatha Christie’s can and  not every book of humor will amuse you like a Mark Twain.

But, if after reading them the characters remain with you, you felt like you had been along on an adventure, you continue to wonder how you missed the clues or when a stanza haunts you, those works deserve high praise.
Do you agree with me? Do you disagree? Can you add anything that I missed? Would you care to share any experience here, especially if you are a writer?

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About Tonette Joyce

Tonette was a once-fledgling lyricists-bookkeeper, turned cook/baker/restaurateur and is now exploring different writing venues,(with a stage play recently completed). She has had poetry and nonfiction articles published in the last few years. Tonette has been married to her only serious boyfriend for more than thirty years and she is, as one person described her, family-oriented almost to a fault. Never mind how others have described her, she is,(shall we say), a sometime traditionalist of eclectic tastes.She has another blog : "Tonette Joyce:Food,Friends,Family" here at WordPress.She and guests share tips and recipes for easy entertaining and helps people to be ready for almost anything.
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6 Responses to Reviewing Reviews

  1. jeff7salter says:

    What I’m about to say may sound strange, but bear with me.
    Sometimes I think of reviews (whether of a book, a movie, or a live performance of some sort) as I did about my time in human resources and administration in a good-sized outfit.
    I stopped counting applicant interviews at around 1200 — it was extremely important to be as objective as possible. No potential supervisor wants to be deceived by inflated assessments of a candidate.
    I regularly had to write periodic performance evaluations for employees already hired. These were difficult for many reasons, including that you hated to “hurt anybody’s feelings” but if the employee was not made aware of his/her strong areas and weak areas, they had no way of making things better.
    And, of course, I was frequently asked for “letters of reference”. There were times I had to say, no, I couldn’t write one. Usually the person would accept that response, but sometimes they pressed for reasons. Those were difficult conversations.
    And there were times, in reference letters where you can discern more by what I did NOT say than by what I did say. [This resonates with something Tonette said above].
    All this is to say, I pretty much feel the same way about reviewing (assessing) books.
    I want and need to be honest, but there’s never a need to be brutal.
    If I lie or wheedle, I’m not doing a favor to the author or her/his potential readers.
    If it’s a genre I don’t particularly care for, I try to mention I’m not widely read in that area, but found this example to be [whatever I thought of it].
    It’s all a tricky business.
    We all want good reviews, high praise. But we can’t improve if we prefer deceit/flattery over honest feedback.

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    • Absolutely, Jeff, well said. There is never a reason to be unkind or make person attacks in a review; it’s the work, not the person, who is being reviewed.Thanks for being up that point. Ugliness in a review is the sign of a jealous mind, as far as I am concerned, or certainly that of a weak character.

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  2. Patricia Kiyono says:

    I guess when I read a book I expect to give it five stars, but each problem (editing, plot holes, unrealistic situations, weak characters) brings it down a bit. I don’t try to review books in genres I don’t understand – because it bothers me when reviewers who except long-winded books with lots of spice don’t understand my sweet novellas.
    I recently read a book written by someone in my local writing group, and I felt it had wooden characters and poor editing. I mentioned those problems in my review, but before I posted it my daughter convinced me to just give the low rating and tell her personally what I felt the problems were. As she reminded me, posting the review for the world to see could reflect poorly on me as it could be seen as a disgruntled rival. So I wrote a bunch of non-committal stuff, and put more specific criticisms in a personal email. I’m not sure if she appreciated that or not, but I feel better without those negative comments out there.

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    • One doesn’t have to be too critical,but it IS a problem when one is a friend or relative. You can go ‘non-committal’, but they have to understand when you can’t give it 5 stars…however, often, the don’t.

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  3. I try to review every book I read (it does not always happen) but when I get a book that is not normally something I would read I have said in reviews that it is not something I would normally read, it was not something that I personally enjoyed but that the plot was well thought out, the characters were well developed and it was written exceptionally well. I try not to allow my personal preferences interfere with a review, I try to go on how the story was written.
    With all of this the only rule(guideline) I think anyone should keep in mind when writing a review is to be honest. It does not matter if it is something you normally read or not, you have to honestly tell what you thought of the book.

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  4. I have read many out of my usual taste, Angie.In fact, I used to usually say that I read almost everything except ‘romance’! I never let my preferences dictate whether I gave the writing, (or writer), a good review. There are a lot of lousy people who are talented writers…unfortunately, there are a number of good people who are not so great, but the personalities of the writers should never reflect on a review…that reflects very badly on the reviewER.

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