Sunday, March 05, 2006

Reviewing and Compassion

It seems to me that the major newspaper and magazine book reviewers check their compassion at the door - they might be excited about a book, and that comes out in the review, but what they're not is concerned about the author's feelings.

I'm a very compassionate person. I hate the idea of hurting anyone. But in the case of a recent review I wrote, I had to force myself not think of the author at all, or I wouldn't have been able to write the review. I know that if my review had been written by someone else about a book I had written, I'd be upset. I don't know if I'd be able to see beyond criticism and understand that what I was reading was advice I needed. If it sounds like I'm trying to convince myself of something here, well, yeah, kinda. I really want to give this reviewing thing a try. I've been reading reviews and thinking about what a good one says. I love to read and I love to write, so it seems like a good match. I have a lot to learn - and I'm going to do some additional studying - but meanwhile I want to keep writing reviews.

Let me explain a bit further. This is a POD published book I reviewed for the POD People blog that a fellow AW member has started. I think this is a good concept - I know there are little gems of books out there in POD land and I'd like to think I'll get the opportunity to read some of them.

The book I read was a modern political thriller. The book's idea was good and the writer seemed to have a strong background in the subject. But as a thriller it wasn't thrilling - many of the characters were just too 'evil' and opportunities to make the protagonist much more engaging and sympathetic were missed. The conspiracy part of the plot stretched my credulity too far. Lastly, I haven't read a thriller that I can recall that didn't end with some kind of vindication for the protagonist - which I think this one could have done, but didn't. So I was disappointed to have invested in the lead character when the book ended as it did. Now, that's personal so I didn't put it in the review. Should I have?

I read the entire book out of obligation to the committment I'd made to read and review it. If I'd bought it at a bookstore, I wouldn't have been able to finish it - and it would be one of the rare few books that I could ever say that about.

Now I'm not sure I'm that good of a reviewer or that what I wrote was any good either. I would like to know and improve. Please feel free to read the review I wrote and drop me an email - be as critical as needed - like I said above, please check your compassion at the door - it will make me a better writer and help me help others. Rest assured, I'll feel better in the long run about my work if I think it has some redeeming value to the writer - so you can too if your criticism helps me.

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Frank Baron said...

Dawno, I dunno about reviewers checking their compassion at the door as much as they (at least TRY) to check their subjectivity at the door.

Reviews aren't written for the writer; they're written for the prospective buyer/reader.

I think your close identification with writers hurts you as a reviewer.

For instance: I learned what I wanted to know about that book from your blog post - that if you haven't felt compelled to review it, you wouldn't have finished it. So I was biased by the time I read the review. (Actually, I skimmed the review. My eyes glazed over, at least partly because I already knew you didn't like it. I shoulda read it first, before continuing with the blog entry.)

Anyway, reviewing POD books has got to be like being a lemon taster. You just hope that sooner or later, one of them tastes less sour - almost sweet in comparison to the rest.

What you really seem to be wrestling with is how to deliver a critique - which is something most writers should have endured well before (and during) the publication process.

You've a good heart though, which is why so many of us love you. But if you want to hone your reviewing chops, I'd suggest you stick with commercially published books. You might be less inclined to fret about hurting an author's feelings and more apt to consider whether a reader should plunk down some hard-earned money.

Heather said...

I agree with the first commentor's thoughts on the matter. Reviews are for the reader; critiques are for the author. In the latter you need to be concerned about being constructive (which isn't the same as not saying what you don't like, of course--it just means you're trying to keep your criticism helpful and useful rather than mean and vicious).

Reviews, while they should be as objective and balanced as possible, *need* to point out the flaws in a work so that readers will know whether or not they want to buy a book. And yes, personal information about the sorts of things you liked and didn't like, even if it's a matter of taste, is useful as long as you explain the preferences behind your judgment--it still helps others make decisions based on what you tell them.

AstonWest said...

Thank God my book wasn't a thriller (at least I hope not)...

Dawno said...

Frank, thanks. I get what you're saying and it'll stick with me, too. I understand what you mean about sticking to commercially printed books - nice gig if you can get it. :-)

By the way, it was sweet of you to say that people love me. Have I told you lately you're great?

Heather, thank you, too. I'm still a reader first - the mantle of writer still doesn't sit comfortably on my shoulders - so I'll certainly be making sure that I serve the readers first. Next time around I'll see how I can include the more personal opinions appropriately.

Aston, tell Hunter that I've been very neglectful in reading what he sent and I'm so abashed and ashamed. I got a couple chapters in and then got all distracted by the PodPeople assignment, and a certain PA book that will go unmentioned in case 'you know who' googles his name again, plus the day job - I promise that I'll correct that by this weekend and send him my thoughts.

Fahim said...

It's sometimes easier to be objective when you have no ties at all to a work - whether by acquaintanceship or obligation :p I find that I tend to be harsher with works that I read out of a sense of obligation rather than a simple desire to read. Then, I'd probably go back and try to tone it down so as to be more objective and in the middle of that whole juggling act, objectivity flies out the window somewhere :p