Writing honest book reviews

This weekend, one of the staff over at the New York Journal of Books shared this interesting article about book reviewing with all us reviewers. Apparently, an author was awarded a hefty sum for damages caused by a scathing book review.

The article is a very interesting read and if you have any interest at all in writing, or even reading, book reviews, I recommend you read it.

The piece got me to thinking. Since I write book reviews for both the New York Journal of Books and The Genre Traveler, I have a stake in the liability of book reviewers.

That said, I believe I’ll be O.K. I tend to be a reviewer who respects the humanity of those reviewed. Just because I didn’t find a moment of enjoyment in reading a book, just because reading each successive word felt like forcing my head through Jell-O, doesn’t mean I have to be nasty. It is quite possible that the book would be better suited to a different kind of reader. So, for my The Genre Traveler reviews, I always write from my own personal perspective and include things that both worked and did not work for me. I know that things I didn’t like about a book might be perfectly delightful for another reader.

However, the reviews I write fro the New York Journal of Books are a different story. For those reviews I am not allowed to use words like “me,” “myself, or “I.” I am supposed to write an “objective” review. Of course, this is silly … but I give it the good college try anyhow. Fortunately for me, I’ve been given only enjoyable books to review so far … most likely because they’ve passed some muster with a publisher.

I must admit that most of the books I haven’t liked so far have been self-published, with about one exception. Of course, this is not to say that all self-published books are swill. Indeed that couldn’t be further from the truth. It is just that many self-published books haven’t gone through an editing stage with a talented editor who can guide the writer to improve their work. I can’t stress enough the importance of having a substantive editor take a look at your work before you publish. A substantive editor takes a look at your content and helps you make sure it is well organized, that it makes sense, that your characters are developed nicely, etc.

If you are writing fiction and are planning to self publish, I implore you to find a decent substantive editor who enjoys the type of work you are attempting to produce. This person can help you polish the rough spots and bring out the brilliance that is your diamond in the rough. Don’t do this yourself and … heavens! … don’t have a close family member do this either! You want someone who will judge your work for what is written … not for how much they love you as a person.

So back to book reviewing. One thing that critics … of anything … seem to be known for is being the literary equivalent of an insult comic. Yes, sometimes they write glowing reviews, but when they don’t like something they can be cruel, mean and nasty. I hope I never become that kind of critic. I hope that those who read my reviews do so because they want an honest opinion that is respectful and open. I like to follow the Golden Rule … if you don’t like my work, you have the right to say so, but you can do that while being a decent human being. I intend on doing the same.

The interesting thing is, I’ve written less than glowing reviews of books and still been personally thanked by the author! I take this as evidence that I’m accomplishing what I’ve set out to do.

3 comments on “Writing honest book reviews”

  1. Pingback: The Genre Traveler » Podcast Episode 68: The Business of SF

  2. Steven Rose, Jr.

    It’s been kind of hard for me to decide whether I should have a separate editor look at my stories (outside of any writers critique group, that often tend to consist of your closer friends). I’ve always been given the impression that if writing is your main profession and if you graduated with a degree in it such as a B.A. in English or in Creative Writing or Journalism, etc. that you were responsible for your own editing. I have to agree though it does help a lot to get a second editor (besides yourself) to look over and comment on your work. Writing itself, as much as we love it, can be extremely hard enough, while editing alone is tough.

    • carmap

      True … you should always edit your work to the best of your ability. That is your responsibility. However, before you put it up for sale, you should have a third party take a look at it because at that point you are too close to the work to see it objectively. You don’t want to hand over copy to editors, whether you hired them or they are at a publisher, that is not representative of your best work. That would be at best lazy and at worst disrespectful.

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