So, it turns out that book reviews are a controversial subject. I wish I had known that when, at the age of nine I stood up in Mrs Valentine's class to deliver my ponderous, precocious opinions on "Nicholas Nickleby". Or when, at the age of fourteen I tried to be ironic by penning a review of Terry Pratchett's "Hogfather." Back then I gave it everything I had. I'd pick the elements I liked best and champion them to the high heavens. Then I'd find something that didn't work and explain why I didn't like it. But now, at the ripe old age of twenty nine and seven days, I have been given to understand that to write a balanced review is wrong. And I am baffled. I have seen a lot of blogs, comments and articles on the internet over the past week in which writers say that if they read something they do not like, they will not review it. I'll go into the rationale shortly, but I wanted to convey my astonishment at this black and white approach from a usually shades-of-grey community.
"I only review books I love, so other people will love them too." First things first, I'm a reviewer, not an advertiser/cheerleader. If I only pick out the things I think are great then people will fairly quickly learn to distrust my reviews. Where is the balance? Where is the honesty? Do people want to read a saccharine testimonial or an honest appraisal of each text? And just because I loved a book, does that really guarantee that others will like it too? Because I dislike something will everybody automatically dislike it? Opinions don't work that way. Allow me to illustrate. I didn't enjoy reading "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen. I disliked the plot, several of the characters, the pacing and the trite love story. And quite a few people discussed it with me. The love story, which I found contrived and shallow, was embraced by another person because they liked the "love at first sight" idea. One idea, two opinions. Both valid. We're all different, we all like different things. We debate, we discuss, we grow.
"I'm unpublished, so I am not qualified to comment on the worth of other writers' work." I'm not published. I may never be published. My literary output is in its infancy. It may never mature. But publication or non-publication is not what entitles one to an opinion. The ability to read is what entitles me to develop and share my opinion. I was disappointed with aspects of the second half of Rod Glenn's "Sinema: The Northumberland Massacre" but that doesn't make me any less impressed by his achievement in producing the finished piece of work. And although I disliked aspects of the novel I will tell anyone I meet to read it, because I haven't read any other book which has such scope of vision and ambition. The man's ideas are nothing short of genius. See where that "balanced opinion" thing comes in? Sure, published writers are published because someone likes their work, but that doesn't mean I can't say "Actually that character didn't work for me." Take "Water for Elephants" again. A hugely popular book with a successful film adaptation. Congratulations, Sara, you've done amazingly well, and I don't begrudge you that. But the love story between Jacob and Marlena fell flat for me, and if you care to discuss it with me, I can explain why.
"If you can't say something nice, don't say anything" Yes that worked when I was a child, when I dealt in absolutes and I either hated something or loved it. My Mum frequently quoted that phrase at me. But you know what? I grew up. I can discuss a work I don't like in a mature and constructive fashion. Take "Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro. I struggled to engage with the book. When I produced a review I didn't write "Dis buk is teh suckiest thing eva dont read it" I highlighted the aspects of the novel that didn't fit in with my own personal values of what makes a book praiseworthy. Anyone who reads my review can read the reasons behind my opinion, make their own mind up, and agree or disagree. I have spoken to one person who disagreed with my reading, and gave some strong evidence for their point of view. But I still disagreed with them. I don't mince my words but I'm never nasty, and I will always give a reason for what I believe, so people can decide for themselves.
"If you give a bad review you will hurt the writer's feelings" Yes, you're probably right. Rejection really hurts, and since we're writers it is something that sooner or later we all come across, and I know as well as anyone how difficult it can be to deal with it. But I think it is healthy to hear all forms of feedback. We can't all be Britney Spears, cocooned in a world where we only hear praise. How will we ever grow? It's extremely arrogant to say "well I didn't like it, but the poor lamb couldn't possibly cope with hearing it, so I'll just pretend I never read the book". Put it out there, but be reasonable, back up your opinions with examples, and don't be gratuitously nasty. We can't be wrapped in cotton wool. Honesty is important.
"If you write negatively about someone's writing then they will write negatively about yours." You know what? I really hope so. I hope that someone takes the time to read my work and give me considered feedback. It is the worst thing in the world to hear nothing. To stare at a screen devoid of reviews or feedback, thinking "what's wrong with my work?" Case in point. I have submitted short stories and received rejection letters. They are nicely worded and have clearly been written by people who subscribe to the opinions I have been deconstructing: They take a lot of care not to hurt my feelings, they don't say anything negative, they are just meaningless words of nothing. I would much rather someone wrote to me saying "you know what Emma? You had a really good idea, but you got bogged down in adjectives and the pacing of your story suffered." Or, "I like the way you wove in elements of The Tempest, but you need to work on making your characters distinct from one another". You know why? Because with the airy-fairy rejection letters I have received I'm no better than if I had thrown my work on the fire. With feedback of any sort, from anybody, I learn and grow.
"Writing about something I don't like is a waste of time I could spend in doing something else" OK that's the most arrogant argument of all. you're effectively saying "I didn't like it, it's no longer worth my time." Writing about something I don't like is the most challenging work I do. It forces me to think about why I don't like something and what caused me to react the way I did. It may be, as with "Never Let Me Go", that I missed the point. It may be, as with "Water for Elephants" that I was always going to compare it with the work of my favourite writer. And yet again it may be that the style or characterisation fell flat for me. Sometimes my reasons for not liking things are more to do with me than with the book, and in writing about it I learn from it. Hopefully I also show people that just because I didn't like something, it doesn't make it intrinsically bad. I didn't enjoy it, but you still might.
I am going to continue to review the books I read. I will review books I absolutely love, I will review books about which I feel mixed, and I will review books which really didn't work for me. I will always be honest, and I will be constructive. I will be balanced, finding what I admire and what I don't, and I will develop my own writing. People can engage with me, compare their readings and argue points with me in a mature fashion. And at the end we will each retain the right to walk away and say "I still disagree". I'm too clumsy and ungainly to be a cheerleader. What I can do is post my opinions about the books I read, openly, honestly and constructively, because relentless one-sided reviews breed insincerity and doublespeak.
I fully expect a lot of people to disagree with this post. And that's absolutely fine.