Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Plucking out the heart of the mystery

When I started this blog, I wrote a fair amount of book reviews here. Partially, this is because it was a pretty easy way to generate content. I'm always reading, always thinking about books, so putting my thoughts into semi-coherent form and slapping them up on screen was a natural thing to do. But it's also because I like books, and I like helping people find new things to read.

I had a policy about book reviews, too: If I didn't like the book, I didn't review it. Not for any inimical reason - I wasn't afraid that a well-reasoned and articulate negative review would ruin my chances to find an agent or be published. Nor was I trying to spare the feelings of my writer-friends, or build up some kind of trade off, where they would feel obligated to review my stuff positively one day, since I had already done them that favor.

No, it was because life is short, and when I'm reading solely for pleasure, if I don't like a book, I don't finish it. And if I don't finish something, I don't believe I'm qualified to shout on the internet, or anywhere else, about how bad it is. This is a personal blog, not a book blog, so I wasn't going to make myself finish a book I wasn't enjoying just so I could then write a review to say how much I didn't enjoy it.

I don't do reviews as much here anymore, because generally, if I like a book, I can say so in 140 characters or less on Twitter, and since the purpose of the reviews I was writing was to tell people about books I liked, well, there are more of you hanging out over there, and that means I can tell more people about the books that I think are great.

So why, then, am I nattering on about all this now? Well, because I am reviewing in a more professional capacity over at Fantasy Matters. And because people have been wondering what a good review ought to do

I think it's a good discussion to have. I generally use reviews as tools to help me decide whether or not I'm going to buy a book. But also, I use them to see what the conversation is around a certain kind of literature, or to see what's new in the field, or to find new authors, or... hmmm. I seem to use them more than I thought I did.

But the place where I don't use reviews is thinking about the state of the field as a whole - what are the ideas with which we are engaging? how are we succeeding and failing? how can we push ourselves and each other as writers to be better? how can we make the stories that we tell mean more?

And maybe that isn't the kind of thing a review is designed to do. And it's hard to talk about the ways that a book that we love fails, because we don't want to give the impression that it was a bad book. It can be almost as hard to talk about the ways that books we dislike succeed, especially if we dislike them for reasons unrelated to quality of writing. (I'll be a coward, and use Heart of Darkness as an example - a book that I think is brilliantly written, should absolutely be read and taught, and yet I hate the experience of reading it.)

But I want my field to take itself seriously enough to examine its imperfections. As a writer, I would rather (as much as it may sting to read something other than OMG BEST THING I EVER READ EVAR!!1!) see a thoughtful review that truly engages with the flawed text I have written (and we all know that the book is never really done, the writing never perfect) than something that falsely proclaims genius in a surplus of glowing adjectives.

So I'm challenging myself to become a better reviewer - to really push on and examine my own reactions to the books I read and talk about, to ask myself the hard questions and to honestly articulate those answers.  And if you have examples of critics and reviewers you think I ought to read, I'd love it if you'd drop their names in the comments for me.


  1. Your relationship to "Heart of Darkness" is remarkably similar to my relationship to "A Streetcar Named Desire". I just wanted to say that.

    I read the review site Pure Imagination which reviews recent YA literature. I like how she uses the book's own description to start her reviews, tells what she thought in no particular order, and rates it on a scale of 1-5. I've read and liked things she liked, so I trust her.

  2. Thank you for the recommendation.

    And yes, Streetcar is another one for me as well.