I have a complicated relationship with book reviews. It used to be that way with emails responding to my submissions. I can still remember a couple of personal rejections from the early days; I went on to sell those stories elsewhere, and the publications that rejected them have since folded. So I guess it’s true – success really is the best revenge. But by and large, after making somewhere in excess of 700 submissions over the years, I can handle a rejection email without flinching.
Book reviews, though…they still have the power to elate or destroy me. Unlike rejection emails, which are like a private communication between two individuals, the book review is a matter of public record, open to view to anyone who cares to go looking. Once, the book reviewer could (usually) be depended upon to be someone of a certain level of literary expertise. Now, thanks to the Internet, blogs, Amazon and Goodreads et al, anybody can be a reviewer. And that’s the scary part.
Egalitarians will say that this is a good thing. It’s all part of the digital revolution, whereby the control over books and publishing is being wrested from a select few and given to the masses. Power to the people and all that. Problem is, there seem to be wildly varying ideas as to what constitutes a good review.
I’ve recently read two interesting posts on the subject of book reviews, one an excellent How-To on writing reviews by author Anne R. Allen. It’s so good that I believe it should replace the current scanty guidelines on review writing on Amazon. The other post on C.W. LaSart’s blog postulated that anyone who wrote a review giving more detailed information than “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” was a pretentious asshole. Who cares, C.W. says, about typos or passive voice or clichéd characters? Most readers don’t notice and don’t care.
Suspecting that I was one of those pretentious assholes, I apologised (we women are programmed to apologise a lot, apparently). But now that I’ve had a chance to think about it for a while, I disagree (umm…sorry, C.W.). If you have a story full of typos, misspellings and incorrect punctuation, passive voice, adverbial pile-ups, clichéd characters and plot inconsistencies, then what are you left with? It’s a bit like listening to a campfire storyteller – doesn’t matter how good the story is, if the delivery is muffled and monotone, the listeners are going to wander off to their sleeping bags long before the end.
As for the reviewer thinking himself or herself superior because they’ve used a few big words, I think the opposite is true. If a reviewer uses some technical terminology with which you are unfamiliar, he or she is crediting you with either sufficient education to know what it means, or sufficient resources and curiosity to find out.
And just to head off on a tangent, we haven’t even scratched the surface of the occasionally dubious validity of Amazon reviews. Skulduggery abounds, from the relatively benign practice of asking family and friends to review your books, to creating hundreds of fake profiles to post favourable reviews, to paying people to write bad reviews for your competition. People are threatening to sue, actually suing, and counter-suing over adverse reviews.
So where was I? Nowhere near a definitive answer on the perfect book review, it seems. Perhaps, before putting your fingers to the keyboard to write a review, you should consider the words of William Butler Yeats –
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.