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First off, please keep in mind that the following rambling reflects only my internal dialogue, and as such, it is not meant to set down parameters for anyone else’s behaviour—just mine.

(If you wonder why on earth I bother to blog about it then, I’ll just say: ‘cause I like to hear myself talk, that’s why. And obviously, no one forces you to read 😀 )

Now that it seems I write reviews with a *cough* certain *cough* regularity, I have been pondering even more what reviews themselves mean, in terms of responsibility for me as reviewer.

As far as I am concerned, a review’s purpose is to provide information to other readers—information beyond the often inaccurate and occasionally spoiler-ridden back cover blurb, or the well chosen excerpt on the author’s or publisher’s sites—so that they, the readers, can make a more informed decision to buy, or pass on, a particular book.

To me as a reader, any review that consists exclusively of “great book! highly recommended!” is completely useless. Unless I know the so-called reviewer’s reading tastes really well, and how they mesh or differ from mine, I’m left with exactly the same frame of reference I had before reading that praise. And even if I do know that person’s tastes, I’m likely to ask a couple of pointed questions before buying the book. In my experience, blind words of praise are probably worse than nothing. (See Street Teams at Dear Author)

So a critical review is what I need. But what exactly does this mean? And how far should one go when dissecting a novel?

Most of us were subjected, to one degree or another, to the dreaded lit classes in which classics were dissected. Many, if not most, of us finished such courses with a marked distaste for both the classics and the soul sucking exercise of interpreting mores and subtext and what-have-you in a novel, because it often takes out any enjoyment of the written word from the equation.

But even without going that far, just how far is enough?

I guess that the first part is to keep in mind that, as much as the author’s soul may have been squeezed out of her and poured into her work, the two are separate and distinct from each other. I may like a person very much and yet not enjoy something she’s written. Perhaps even nothing she has written. And that is perfectly alright—as long as I make that distinction clear in my review as well.

As the amazingly wise Smart Bitches have said:

(Candy) “The distinction between author and book may feel artificial sometimes, because the author is the creator of the work, and any critique of the book is necessarily a critique of the author’s work, which in turn reflects on the author’s (perceived) abilities. But focusing on the text, interpretations, reader expectations and reader reactions is ultimately a much more fruitful enterprise (snip)”

Then, there is the matter of reviewing etiquette—or perhaps I should call it consideration towards other readers.

For example, I’m spoiler phobic. Seriously, spoilers give me the hives. I have been angry beyond what’s probably healthy at instances of asshats ruining my enjoyment of books or movies by casually and callously revealing an important and unexpected plot twist. (You really don’t want to know what happened when my dearest first born spilled the ending of The Sixth Sense. Since I couldn’t watch in theaters, I waited until I could get the DVD, avoiding all talk about the film in the intervening months—and the very moment I popped the disc on the player, the then-little cretin asks, “oh by the way, you know that…, right?” The screeching could be heard on both poles, I’m sure.)

But I digress…

Spoilers are a two edged sword. They do whet the appetites of those whose enjoyment is increased by knowing bits and pieces of the story in advance, and who then derive even more enjoyment by seeing how the pieces are put together within the whole thing. But for people like me, who would rather dive into a story without prior knowledge beyond the bare basics (horror or suspense? romance with a happy ending or one of those unrequited love stories? comedy or drama?), having spoilers peppered over a review—and most especially, without any warning whatsoever—just drives me insane.

Further, I’ve heard/read many an author complain about working hard to set up a particular scene or storyline so that it catches the reader unawares, oftentimes having the success of the story as a whole hinging on that one holy-what-the-hell! moment, only to have some idiot splash the information all over the place, ruining the experience for a sizable portion of the author’s audience. As a commenter said quite eloquently over at the Book Binge when the question was posed, a person can’t UN-spoil herself. Once we read or see or hear something, we cannot magically erase it from memory. It’s there, and it’s there to stay, and more, it’s there to screech gleefully in your mind’s ear as you are trying to forget your know it in order to enjoy the story as unspoiled as possible.

This makes writing a review a balancing act, between saying too much and saying too little—for most readers want to have a least a vague idea of the plot, and if (or rather, when) the blurb is inaccurate, a short correct summary is in order.

The most difficult part, though, is when the reading mojo (hat tip to Super Librarian) has taken a vacation, because it is extremely important to give each book as fair a shot as one can.

I know perfectly well that there are times when I am not in the mood for a particular type of story. Forcing myself to read such a story will only result in a more negative review than the same story would otherwise. Waiting a day—or a week—to read it will not change the essence of the work but it may very well allow me to be more impartial when weighing its merits. However, it just sucks, in the worst way, and makes you feel like the lowest form of slime, when you have committed yourself to have a review up by the release date, and you are still struggling to get into the book, and you know that it is not the writing (ergo, not the author either) but your own mood that is just not letting it happen.

Not a fun place to be, lemme tell ya.

The last part is to be fair while grading a book. Sometimes you like a book that you still know is not very well written—or vice versa. Your grade may be high simply because you love the book even while seeing its imperfections, but does that help those other readers for whom the review is intended? Um… not really. So while I may say, in the body of the review, that I liked this novel and why, I will also point out what may be not so good about it, and grade the book by weighing all of these factors.

In the end, like Karen, I’m no Harriet Klausner—only I’m likely to refrain from using outright curses in a review.

Image: Uderzo’s take on Rodin’s “The Thinker” (from Astèrix and the Laurel Wreath)


  • Thank you. Naomi and I are feeling a bit battered by a slew of bad reviews. They all boil down to “Sequel+BDSM: you’re doing it wrong.”

    Thank you for reminding us that mood and taste are factors.


  • Well said.

    And mood and taste definitely play a part in the reviewing process. I think that’s why I like having several books to review at any given time, in a variety of genres.

    I also get what you’re saying about the grade reflecting other things besides your personal opinion. A lot of my grades are personal opinions, but I am starting to notice things like writing style, and even though I don’t always pause to marvel at a well-constructed turn of phrase, I do notice it more lately.


  • As an author, I would rather have a well-balanced review that clearly states what the reviewer liked and disliked than a review that just says, “Hot, hot, hot!” Yes? And what does that mean? Perhaps the reviewer just skipped through the story from sex scene to sex scene?

    So I’ll go out on a limb and say that I value honesty in a review–whether my book is given a two or a ten–as long as the reviewer clearly tells me why. I try to learn from the review process. Without clarity, that isn’t possible.


  • I found what I thought was a great reader blog run by people whose names I actually recognized from other book’ish places online. I was so pleased and impressed with the blog…at first.

    Then I read a review. I was interested in the book after the first few paragraphs of the review, but then they went and told the main story points while about complaining something in the book.

    I don’t care if something ticked you off, maybe it was supposed to. But I do know I’ve read other reviewers reviews on stories they didn’t like very much, and they were able to be very vague about main story points while still expressing their displeasure.

    I am not an English or Literature teacher that’s grading your review to be certain you actually read the book! I wish they’d stop writing book reviews for their high school teachers!

    I’m someone that hasn’t read the book yet, and wants a little teaser review about general and vague things, and whether you liked it or not. Think of the back cover blurb, it’s a teaser, but doesn’t tell everything. Base your reviews on those teaser blurbs.

    Supposedly some people want spoiler reviews, or so say the reviewers that write spoiler reviews. If this is true, at least have the common decency to clearly say on the blog that *reviews at this blog may be considered as spoilers*, or use CSS to hide your spoilers if you can’t figure out how to review without spoiling.

    Is it true that some readers want to know most of the story points ahead of time, and how things turn out? Has anyone done a poll on this, cuz I’m not totally convinced.

    I’ve personally known some people that get off in an evil way by walking past a card game and announcing someone’s hand to everyone, or they’ll purposely spoil a movie half-way through just to be mean. I’d like to think the reviewers that write spoiler reviews don’t realize how much it ruins other people’s reading pleasure when we’re unlucky enough to stumble across their review. I’d like to think they think people actually want spoiler reviews, and haven’t figured out how to use CSS to hide spoiler text. Wishful thinking?

    (that got rambly early on, sorry, obviously a peeve 8^)


  • Shreela, I know for a fact that some people love spoilers–and in all areas. Readers’ forums, tv shows/movies forums. What is important, IMneverHO, is to keep in mind that not everyone has the same perspective or taste. In the case of spoilers, I appreciate the warning, so I can leave.

    Since too often there is no warning, I’ve learned to avoid some review sites until after I’ve read the book, and then it’s mainly to see whether I agree with the reviewer’s assessment or not.

    Yes, it is also one of my major peeves.


  • Hey AztecLady, I went to the Book Binge post you linked, and I did see that a lot of the comments there actually enjoy spoilers, and are skippers to the end. I guess I never met any before, so wasn’t sure they actually existed.

    But they do, so here’s to hoping we can all get along on the same review sites, with spoiler warnings LOL


  • As an author I love it when I get a long, thoughtful review. (Okay, a long, thoughtful, positive review. *g*) It’s exciting to see what kind of things the reader in question discovered in the book.

    However, it just sucks, in the worst way, and makes you feel like the lowest form of slime, when you have committed yourself to have a review up by the release date, and you are still struggling to get into the book, and you know that it is not the writing (ergo, not the author either) but your own mood that is just not letting it happen.

    You should cut yourself some slack. I guess we’re all aware that sometimes life just gets into the way of things, that sometimes the timing isn’t right, and that sometimes it takes a bit longer for a review to appear. 🙂

    Many, if not most, of us finished such courses with a marked distaste for both the classics and the soul sucking exercise of interpreting mores and subtext and what-have-you in a novel, because it often takes out any enjoyment of the written word from the equation.

    Obviously, you went to the wrong classes (sayz the English lit teacher who likes drawing bad cartoons on the blackboard *g*). One of the most exciting research books I’ve come across in the past few months is one on Tenniel, the illustrator of Carroll’s Alice books: ARTIST OF WONDERLAND by Frankie Morris. Among other things, Morris argues that a lot of Wonderland characters are based on figures from Christmas pantomimes and are, in fact, actors wearing enormous paper-maché heads and/or “skins”. This is quite obvious when you look at the Lion & the Unicorn: the Unicorn is very clearly a human wearing a unicorn head, while the Lion is a human in a lion skin (which is somewhat loose and baggy around his ankles). Imagine how much fun it must have been for a Victorian child reader to discover these characters in the Alice books!

    (Note to self: Send PhD thingie to AztecLady when finished so she can see how much fun literary analysis can be.) 🙂


  • Gail Dayton
    August 22
    2:53 pm

    As an author, I’m sure I’m not the only one who would say that–if you’re not in the mood for a particular story (and I do understand, being as I’m a “moody” reader as well)–Don’t Force Yourself. Even if you DID promise the review at a certain time. I promise, most authors would rather Wait to see it than have you read their book for review when you’re really not in the mood. Waiting is okay. Really.

    Gail (who does really short reviewlets on the Romance Readers Anonymous loop and Shelfari and sometimes GoodReads, and still gets complaints about spoilers even though I try to just put in stuff off the back cover or in the 1st chapter or so. If it’s in the 1st couple of chapters, I don’t really think that’s a spoiler…do you?)


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