Books · reviews

Book reviews as discussion, not fact

This essay was originally written in application to a contributor position at Book Riot, but I never actually applied, and thought it would be a shame to go to waste. It’s also true of the reviews on this site, which I would like to be more well-rounded and balanced in the future. 

Sometimes I spend too much time talking about novels I don’t like. I, like many a folk, find it much easier to pinpoint things I dislike, than to accurately voice reasons for why I do like something. Many times my positive reviews end up being somewhat gushing confessions of how I connected to a character, or enjoyed the writing, but I can’t often think of tangible examples to demonstrate why this is so. This frustrates me to no end.

I feel like most people will relate to me on this. Because really, when you’re writing criticism, it’s so much easier to remember particular examples you disliked. I flag them, highlight them, and the words I dislike become so etched into my brain that they come to represent the whole of the text. In my mind, they embody everything that’s wrong with the novel. And, while it can be hard to write entirely positive reviews, it becomes even harder to write negative reviews with some positivity or a negative review that addresses deeper issues within the text.

How do you, as a reviewer, incorporate constructive criticism into your writing?

Unless I have a particular pet peeve I’d like to address in more depth (the best way to annoy me while reading is to portray abusive relationships as romantic ideals . . . this often spawns long, angry essays from me), I try to discuss positive attributes as well. Sometimes this decision makes me feel like I’m trying to please everyone. As someone who works in the publishing industry, I’m acutely aware of how much work goes into a novel (or any book). But that awareness isn’t enough.

Sometimes I take to my keyboard and all I want to do is tear something apart with my words. I want to tell people how stupid the dialogue is, how nonsensical the descriptions are, how poorly constructed the prose is, and sometimes I don’t want to bother backing it up. But I shouldn’t do this, and neither should you.

I think that all reviews should encourage discussion. Because reviews (especially fiction reviews) are inherently skewed by our own life experiences, education, family history, etc. it doesn’t help anyone to completely tear apart a book without concrete reasoning. To hate a book is fine. To love a book is an amazing experience. But if you’re going to write reviews, especially for books you feel so vehemently about, you need to explain why. To just say that something is really bad, or really good, doesn’t often open discussions. The why inspires discussion, and that’s what I believe a book community should be about.

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2 thoughts on “Book reviews as discussion, not fact

  1. This is a great post! My 12th grade English teacher had a saying about writing, that I can’t remamber now, unfortunately. It was something like, make a statement, make an inference and back it up. I try to do this, but most of time it’s just “OMG! This character is SO annoying”.

    1. I know, I try to as well. Sometimes all I want to do is vent… I usually have to wait until I’ve calmed down a day to write reviews in those cases… like when I reviewed A Discovery of Witches (ugh)

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