Tuesday, December 21, 2010

For the Love of Librarians: On Book Reviewing

An interesting topic came up recently, which comes up every so often when folks start discussing book reviews. I'm a regular fiction reviewer for Library Journal, largely in the fiction section (mystery, horror, thriller, paranormal, etc.). I also occasionally review for such journals as Journal of Access Services, Journal of Web Librarianship, Choice and a few others.

A Philosophy of Reviewing: A Pleasure & a Service

I very much think of reviewing as both a pleasure and a service to the profession. Like most of us, my free time is precious, and I have a long backlist of personal need-to-reads in addition to the books I review for various publications. For reviews, I am often asked to read authors I haven't come across before in the genres I'm most familiar with. This is an exciting opportunity for me to hear fresh voices.

In terms of service, I review in the hopes that folks making purchasing decisions (either for their personal libraries or for their place of work) find the review helpful as they weigh what to add to their collections...what to spend those precious few dollars on.

The Bad Review

I mentioned on a Library Society of the World thread in Friendfeed that I recently panned a book Library Journal sent me to review. It's not the first (nor even the first this year), but it always leaves me feeling a bit roughed-up.

The comments in the thread essentially affirmed the value of a bad review. It's a signal to both authors and publishing houses to stop putting out "schlock", and it serves as notice that a review in a professional or trade publication is not simply a rubber stamp congratulating you for having written a book. (Yes, it is hard work. That doesn't, however, mean it is good work.)

I always feel slightly guilty when penning/typing a bad review. As a writer (outside of library topics), I know how terrible you feel when someone dislikes your work. I can only imagine how much worse that is if someone publishes that dislike, and in a magazine many librarians use to select (or not) materials.

But I am not the author's PR director. I am a reviewer, and my responsibility is not to the author, but to the reader. I firmly believe that if you are going to review a book, either in a short blurb in LJ or in a much longer professional review, the reviewer has an obligation to be honest. You are telling people whether, in your opinion, given what you know of the field or genre, that item is worth a portion of a library's budget, or a person's paycheck, or a person's time. With the newer LJ reviewer guidelines, you can't avoid judgment at all, as they've added a "VERDICT" section to the end of the review, which helps weed out mere descriptions and lukewarm praise.

It's Not You, It's Your Book

I know of some folks who will refuse to write a poor review, and instead write a lukewarm or vague piece, write a good review no matter their opinion, or refuse to review the piece at all, sending it back to be redistributed to another. Some think reviewing is an obligation to approve of the work and help make it financially viable. (I would argue that this is exactly the sort of review/blurb model that now leads me to ignore all reviews-by-famous-authors on book jackets.) Others consider it a quid-pro-quo: I give a good review, later I get a good review. Others are just lazy, finding it much easier to write a good review than a bad one. And some people are just flat-out uncomfortable writing a less-than-stellar review - it's relatively rare, so there are few good examples of it. I find all but the last reason unacceptable, and for those who aren't sure how to approach writing a review of a not-great book, you can always ask.

Some equate bad reviews with rudeness (likely thinking of newspaper columnists or snarky critics). I've never found it necessary to be rude or spiteful. Is the writing good? Does the plot follow? Are the characters believable? Is landscape and geography authentic, or at least consistent? If the reader likes this author, who else are they likely to have on their reading list? For professional reviews, do conclusions follow from the examination, data and assumptions? Are the thoughts coherently organized? Do they build upon established literature or findings? Does the work do something new, or rehash something that was better written in an older resource? What books would be good supplements? These are the same criteria we apply to student papers and other writing with no qualms. Why shouldn't we address it in a review?

Earlier this year I reviewed a book by an author with an established reputation and fan base who put out a thin slip of a novel where the (already-established series) characters were pretty thin, the plot was completely implausible, and the dialogue was stilted, with a mystery solution that rested wholly on a deus-ex-machina technique. If I recognized this (and I had read the author's other works), there was no way established fans (or even fans of the genre) wouldn't notice that. Writing a good review would have pretty much outed me as a fraud. Not that patrons or genre readers are poring through LJ for reviews...but my colleagues do. And I'd know it was out there under my name.

Last Thoughts

I approach each new book I'm reviewing with enthusiasm, in the hope I'll be able to give it a rave review and umpteen stars. I'm rooting for the authors to succeed. I enjoy reviewing because it's like a Christmas grab-bag - I never know what will come of it, but I have high hopes. Sometimes I get the KitchenAid mixer, sometimes I get the stretchy gloves. I was thrilled that a good review I gave a book ended up on the jacket of that book's sequel. I groaned when I turned in the unimpressed review this morning.

Do you want your stellar review blurb emblazoned on a dud of a book? Do you want the publishing houses to throw more tripe your way? If you review, or are considering it, I implore you: be fair, but be honest. Many of us use these reviews to make selection decisions.


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