Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What the Hale? (Or, An Open Letter to My BFF)

(This letter was written in response to a post on Shannon Hale's blog about book blogging. Check it out, then come on back and tell me what you think of my brilliant comments. Hee hee.)

Dear Shannon,

May I call you Shannon? I know we've never met, but I've read two of your books and I peek at your blog occasionally, so I feel as if we know each other already. Practically BFFs, you know? Okay, if you really want to see me gush, go here and here. See what I mean? I'm a fan. Anyway, since we're such pals, I'm not embarrassed to ask why you, an author who has been praised to high heaven all over the blogosphere, feel the need to shake things up by questioning time-honored book blogging practices. It's the tiniest bit ... insulting. You're a very nice lady, so I'm sure you don't mean it that way. I know you're only trying start a discussion. A conversation. Between friends. So, since you asked, I'm going to give you my opinion (us being so close and all).

I'm going to start with the last question first: What do you feel is your role as a reviewer?

Easy - it's to tell the truth. When I'm buying a book, or any product really, I don't necessarily trust the publisher/manufacturer's descriptions. Since its only aim is to sell the product, publishers will spin a book's flaws any way it wants. Thus, a sex-heavy tome becomes "provocative" instead of just vulgar; a plodding storyline's sold as "gently flowing;" a cookie-cutter action book's marketed as "in the tradition of James Patterson" instead of as the uninventive copycat it really is. Think about it - who do you trust more? The publisher, who promises "Thrilling!" "Luminous!" "Captivating!" or your neighbor, who cuts the crap and tells it like it is: "I was asleep by the second page," or "It's just like every other vampire book out there" or "Yes, it really is as good as everyone says it is." I'll choose my neighbor every time. Because I know my neighbor, I know her tastes, her prejudices, so I take her opinions with a grain of salt, but still ... I'm much more likely to pick up a book recommended by an unbiased friend than by a money-hungry publisher.

So, what's my role? I'm your neighbor. I'm the one who's going to tell you whether a book's really worth your time. Because you know I'm a prudish Mormon, you know I don't like novels with excessive profanity or sex; because I'm politically conservative, you know books about certain issues anger me; because you know that cozy mysteries aren't really my thing, you realize I'm not necessarily going to give your favorite cozy writer high marks. Considering all of this, you read my review, think about it, and buy the book if you think it's something you will like - whether I've praised it or slammed it. I'm not going to lie. I'm your neighbor - I'm going to tell it like it is. After all, that's why you like me so much :)

Now, because I'm not only a reviewer, but also a passionate booklover, I feel that part of my role includes promoting the art of reading. I recommend compelling books, I champion exciting new authors, I invite discussion about plot, characters, themes, etc. Books are my passion, my obsession, and my greatest desire is to share that with the world.

Lastly, I think my role as a reviewer is the same as any writer's - to engage my intended audience. I hate a stuffy book review as much as anyone. If I wanted to read dry, endless diatribes on plot construction, symbolism, and thematic development, I'd pull out my old English papers (not that I have them hanging around or anything). Instead, I write the type of reviews I'd like to read, which isn't to say that I don't occasionally get long-winded. Still, my goal is always to keep a reader's attention until I can make my point.

You asked: Do you find that the anticipation of reviewing the book has changed your reading experience?

I do, actually. Knowing I'm going to be reviewing a book makes me read it more actively. I consciously watch for phrases that speak to me, characters that appeal, and plots that suck me in. I examine how a writer accomplishes these feats. If a book has the opposite effect on me, I look for reasons why - has the author resorted to stereotypes instead of unique characters? Has he settled for re-telling a familiar story in a way that's only slightly his own? Or is it simply poor editing that's driving me nuts? It makes me do more than just decide if I like a book or not - it forces me to examine why. Because of this, I can no longer read a book without a notebook and pen handy. Sometimes this makes me sad, but mostly I think it makes me a better, more active reader.

You query: Are you rating the book even as you read? Or do you wait until the end to sum it all up?

I'm your neighbor, remember, so I'm not going to lie: I usually have a "grade" in my head by the time I reach a book's second chapter. By that time I can tell whether a book engages me or not, whether I care about the characters or not, and whether it deserves a general A B C D or F grade. Still, I would never determine a final grade without reading a book through to the end. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised. Sometimes I'm not. But just like a teacher wouldn't grade an essay based solely on the first paragraph, I won't judge a book until I have a complete picture of its merits and flaws.

Your inquiring mind wants to know: Does knowing you'll be reviewing it (or rating it) publicly affect which books you pick up in the first place?

Yes and no. If I'm reading purely for pleasure, I experience no guilt over putting down a book I don't care for. If I don't like it, I won't finish it and therefore, won't review it. However, I read lots of books at the request of authors, publishers and publicists. Because I don't get off on hurting people's feelings or dissing authors simply for my own pleasure, and because I don't want to waste my own time, I try to choose books I think I will enjoy. If, for instance, I know a certain author pens profanity-filled novels about violent crimes, I'll probably deny his request for a review. If I find that I can't evaulate a review book fairly, I always let the author/publisher/publicist know. My aim is never to vilify an author, but I will always be honest. If a book sucks, I'm going to let people know.

Critiquing books on the Internet, I think, is a lot different from doing so in a newspaper or magazine. The Web allows authors and their fans to snap right back at reviewers who snipe and harp. Because of this, I think book bloggers are more gentle, more thoughtful, and more careful about what they write. Does it influece me when I know an author's going to be reading what I write about his/her book? Yes and no, but that's a discussion for another day ... (Give me a call, BFF, we'll dish.)

You ask: Does the process of writing the review itself change how you felt about the book?

Occasionally, but not often. In general, I have my review written in my head before I sit down at the computer. Sometimes, as I'm hammering out my ideas on the keyboard, I come to new understandings and conclusions, but that doesn't happen very often.

The thing that can change my view on a book is the discussions that grow out of my reviews. For instance, when I reviewed Kay Lynn Mangum's YA novel about a girl dealing with her brother's alcoholism, I criticized it for wrapping up too neatly, because my family's experience with the same issue was markedly different. When Kay Lynn explained that she based the character on the real-life experience of someone she knew, I realized that maybe my own experience wasn't the only one that was "real." Readers bring their own baggage, their own religion, politics, morals and life experience, to each book they read. It absolutely affects how they judge a book - like I said in a recent post, the best I can do is acknowledge those prejudices, be open to others' views, and re-evaluate a book if necessary. That's what's so wonderful about book discussion.

You query: What is your motivation to assign a rating to a book and declare it to the world?

I started "grading" books only recently. Why? For two reasons: to clarify my thoughts in my own mind and to make my opinions crystal clear to my readers. Like lots of book lovers, I read hundreds of reviews a week on blogs and websites, as well as in newspapers, magazines and trade publications. How many of them do I read word-for-word? Very few. Mostly, I skim to get to the pertinent information - Is this book worth my time? Will it entertain/teach/move/excite me? If I have to slog through a long, dull, overly-analytical discussion that ends with, "Well, I kind of liked this book. I mean, the characters were boring, the plot was sort of exciting, but pretty far-fetched, and my 4th grade daughter could have written more colorful dialogue. On the other hand, that one part kind of made up for the sappy ending, but I don't know if it's really for everyone ..." then I'm not going to be very happy. So, again, I try to give my readers the kind of review I would want to read. I don't mind analysis, but I want it to be clear, interesting, and end with a rock-solid opinion. Ambivalent about the book? It happens. Just say so and get on with it. For those who do enjoy stuffy, long-winded analyses, I've got some English papers for you ...

In general, a reader wants to know one thing: Will I like this book? So, I cut the wimpy, wishy-washy crap and tell it like it is. My readers appreciate my honesty. I also understand that my audience may not have time to read through my occasionally wordy reviews, so I boil my opinion down to a letter grade. If pressed for time, readers can scroll to the bottom of my post and easily find my "at-a-glance" conclusion.

A grade is always subjective. Readers are smart - they know that. I can't count the number of times people have said, "I know you gave this book a D, but it sounds like something I might like" or "How could you give that novel an A? It's the dullest, most appalling piece of tripe I've ever had the misfortune of reading." My grade = my opinion. Everyone understands that.

You say: So, I wonder if book evaluation is trumping self-evaluation. I wonder if we get so caught up in gushing or bashing, shining up those stars or taking them away, that the reading experience is weighed too heavily on the side of the book itself and not enough on the reader. After all, reader is more important than book. Reader is the one who changes from reading, not the book. Reader is the one who lives the magic of storytelling.

First of all, the magic has to be there in order for a reader to live it. I don't care how classic a book is, if I'm yawning through the first chapter, I'm unlikely to enjoy it. Does the fact that I'm bored with a text have to do with me as the reader or you as the author? An interesting question. I blame you. No, not really. Well, at least not totally. I think the author's responsibility is to provide solid entertainment, which doesn't mean an action-packed plot or over-the-top characters or heart-pounding cliffhangers. It means telling a story in a way that is engaging. Because I'm paying for this entertainment in cash and hours, I expect it to be worth my time. So, I better get some interesting characters, a compelling plot and a story that twists my heart in some way. As a reader, my job is to be open - intellectually as well as emotionally - to the experience. As a reviewer, however, my task is to evaluate whether or not a writer has done his/her job. That's book evaluation. It's based on things like logic and mechanics - Does the plot make sense? Would this type of character really talk that way, act that way, make that kind of decision? Would stricter editing have made the text more powerful? Of course, reviewers are also readers, so the emotional connection comes into play, maybe more than it should. I don't care how well-edited a book is, if it doesn't move me emotionally, I'm not going to recommend it. Truly and honestly, though, I don't think readers care how well-written a book is, they only care if it's going to speak to them. If I want an opinion on how well a book is structured or what kind of symbolism is being used, I'll ask an English professor; if I want to know if it's going to touch my heart, I'll ask a book blogger.

I know that doesn't really answer the question, so here's my opinion in a nutshell: The bulk of the responsibility lies with the author. Readers are paying for your books in hard-earned money and precious hours. Your job is to make those sacrifices worth it. Book reviewers are here to advocate for readers, to stop them from paying for shoddy work, and to encourage them to expend their energies where they will be most fruitful. Are we biased? Do we judge books based on emotion stemming from our own prejudices, politics, morals and experience? Do we sometimes get too carried away in our criticism? Absolutely. Do we need to 'fess up when our bias precludes fair judgment? Definitely. Authors should extend the same courtesy - I've had writers tell me, "You're right, I published that sappy story because I knew it would be an easy sell" or "I realize my first book lacks authenticity. It took me awhile to find my voice." A writer's honesty only makes me respect them more.

All in all, book bloggers are a responsible lot - we try our best to be honest, to give authors the benefit of the doubt, and to extol the virtues of the books we love. We often don't get the credit we deserve, but we keep on truckin' anyway. We love our books, we love the people who write them, and we love having a voice. Ask most bloggers why they write and the answer will be because expressing an opinion starts a conversation. Sometimes the talk is calm, sometimes it's angry, sometimes it's unfair, but it's a discussion none of us would be having if it wasn't for this crazy old blogosphere. The beauty of it for an author is that you can talk back to the critics - and they'll only love you more for it.

You insist: I'm very curious about all this and hope you feel free to speak freely (and kindly and respectfully, of course) even if you disagree with me.

Just by bringing up this subject, you've shown that you care. I didn't think it was possible for book bloggers to love you more than they already do, but I have a feeling your popularity around here is about to skyrocket. Just remember who you're real BFF is, you hear?

Sincerely,

Susan

9 comments:

  1. So, tell us what you really think! :-) Just kidding, Susan! These are really great answers, and you obviously feel very strongly about them. I especially liked your answer about opinions being altered by discussion which can help you see a book in a different light. That happens to me all the time!

    Great post!
    Lezlie

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  2. Susan,
    You are my FAVE book blogger. :D I almost NEVER don't add your good reviews to my TBR, because we have similar tastes, and because your blog is so convincing. I don't know what I would do without you! lol :D
    Mari

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  3. Susan, I am a new fan of your blog. Since I have read almost all of Shannon Hale's books (I love her descriptive writing style), I also follow her blog and saw this conversation about reviews on her site. J. Scott Savage also recently had a nice couple of postings on reviews and his thoughts really got me thinking.

    Since I have a book coming out in March, the subject is of great interest to me. I have done a few reviews myself and am still trying to figure out how to be consistent, fair, and honest (that's a given) on Goodreads or my own blog because I have started to associate with these people and I really like them. Authors are better than rock stars in my opinion. But I don't want to be known for giving light-handed reviews just because I might know them. Yet, like you, I would never want to be snarky in a review. Does that make sense?

    At any rate, I have yet to decide if I want to continue to give ratings on my reviews for the reason that they might be misinterpreted. I still have some thinking to do on this one!

    Thank you for your insights!

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  4. Well thought out response! I wish I'd saved my thoughts and just linked to your post. Love how you are so honest about it.

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  5. I agree with so much of what you said, it's scary! :) Love your blog.

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  6. My ratings started as a thing for lending out my books to friends and family. Say if it's a 3 or lower, they aren't going to get it. I think it's just an easy way for people to sort out good books from bad. I mean not everything can be a five and some aren't meant to be.

    I think rating books is fine. Just because us bloggers do it, doesn't mean we are trying to infringe our opinions on others.

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  7. Lezlie - You know I will :)

    Mari - Thanks! You're so sweet.

    Daron - We all have different opinions on rating/grading books - you just have to do what feels right to you. Even the bloggers that do rate all do it differently.

    I try really hard not to be influenced by the fact that I know an author or that I know he/she is going to be reading my review. That's a toughie. As much as I want to be "nice," I also have to be honest. That's difficult sometimes. Not all authors take criticism well.

    Melissa & Tricia - Great minds and all that ... LOL

    Julie - I totally agree. How interesting that your rating system started out as a loaning thing. Never heard that before.

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  8. Susan--if you get to meet Shannon, you have to let me tag along. Promise!

    Daron--I've read a lot of comments from established authors who reviewed books in the past and regretted it. Sometimes giving your honest opinion on something has to take a back seat to professional advancement. Just as smart employees don't openly criticize their superiors, it's a good idea to avoid offending those who could someday help your writing career. If you are compelled to review books, may I suggest a super-secret pseudonym?

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  9. Great letter! I hope she saw it! :)

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