Thursday, December 1, 2011

Why I Won't Write a Bad Review

Someone asked me the other day if I LOVE every book I read. They noticed that all of the book reviews I do are so gushingly positive. Yes, that’s true. But what I haven’t been mentioning is that for every book I blog about, there are a good four or five others that I don’t review. I read a lot of books. And sadly, most of what I read isn’t that great. These unreviewed books seem to fall into two categories, each kind of depressing to me as an aspiring writer.

1. Simply bad. These are the ones that I question how in the world they ever got published. They’re over-written and/or poorly written. The characters are stereotypical, cardboard cutouts. The plots are plots I’ve seen before. Predictable. Boring. The English major in me has an extremely hard time closing a book without finishing it. But this year I have done that several times, ignoring the accompanying twinges of guilt.

2. Decent but “meh.” Somehow these books depress me even more than the badly written ones. There’s nothing wrong with them. They just lack something. Heart, maybe. I heard an editor talk about this once at a conference. She said she could work with an author who had issues with plot or characterization or even grammatical problems. But if the “heart” wasn’t in the book, there was nothing she could do to save it. Heart is one of those elements that’s hard to explain, but you know it when you feel it. A character’s voice that immediately resonates with you. Maybe the story meanders or nothing much happens but somehow you want to keep reading anyway. Finish a book like that and it’s still tugging at you. Meh books disappear the second you put them down. I feel sad about those books. Somebody worked on them. Somebody loved them. And yet my only reaction in the end is: Yeah. Whatever.

I used to review books for a regional magazine. The editor made it clear that my job was to promote authors from that region. This meant no bad reviews. If I truly didn’t like the book, he said, I could simply write up a summary of it. That was fine with me. Until I came to a book that was so terrible I could barely plow through it. I don’t want to get into a big discussion here about self-published books, but this one took the stereotypical self-published prize. I read the whole damn thing out of some sense of obligation. (The magazine didn’t pay me for writing reviews. The payment was a copy of the book.) I tried to write up a summary. I really did. But every sentence veered into snarky territory and then I started worrying about my name being on top of that review. What if someone bought the book because of me? I just couldn’t go through with it.

When the owner of the children’s bookstore Cover to Cover asked me to review advanced copies of young adult books for her, remembering that previous experience, I made the deal that I would send her a short review of every book she gave me but only blog about the ones I really liked. I have nothing against literary critics. I appreciate their analyses of books—both the positive and negative. You’re not going to get better if you don’t have someone pointing out areas of weakness or plot holes or whatever. But being a writer, I understand what goes into creating a book, and I’m not going to spend my time or energy crafting a negative response to someone’s precious manuscript, no matter how crappy I think it is.

So for whatever it’s worth, if I review a book on this site, you can rest assured that it’s pretty darned good. (just my opinion, of course) I’m not getting paid. I don’t know any of the writers. And I have no reason to plug them. Except that something about the book stood out to me and I hope it might appeal to you as well.

1 comment:

  1. I love your policy. I'm being asked to review traditional and self-published books and it sometimes breaks my heart to print what I really think, so I gild my honest opinion. Your approach allows for a margin of space in which to make the call. Great idea!