Tag Archives: negative reviews

Judgement of the Moon and Stars

The Impression

Recently, I was communicating with an author when he happened to reference the “judgment” contained in book reviews.   And that’s when it dawned on me that I don’t see reviews as necessarily being judgmental; instead, I see them as impressions.   A review reflects the way in which a reader-reviewer perceives the book at a particular point in time in his/her life.   As with everything in life, this is subject to change.   It may be, for example, that a novel that a reviewer could not get into while battling an illness would be highly enjoyable at another time.   Many of us have had the experience of reading a particular book years ago and labeling it as a favorite, only to be surprised when we return to that book and find it flat and dull.   Did the book change in any way in the interim?   No, our life – the reader’s life – changed in such a way as to change our perspective of the book.

Let’s think about this in terms of a physical landmark.   Let’s say that I view the Golden Gate Bridge on four occasions – firstly in the middle of the afternoon on a warm and sunny day, next during a rainstorm, then while the bridge is bathed in fog, and lastly on a moonlit night.   Each time the bridge will appear to be different, and I would likely describe the bridge in different terms if I were writing about it.   The bridge itself never changes, but my view of it – my impression – will change based on external factors.

So, one thing to keep in mind while reading a review is that it’s a point-in-time statement.   It’s also something that’s subject to revision.   The reviewer who slammed a book with a negative review might find, to his surprise, that he enjoys it when he looks at it months later.   And the reviewer who loved a book and added it to her personal collection might wonder a year or two later why she loved it – something she’ll ponder while putting it on the giveaway stack.

What does this mean for an author?   Simply that both positive and negative reviews can be discounted.   The book that one reviewer perceived as a flop may be a hit later, and vice versa.   Life changes and so do impressions.

The Choice

The author of a recent survey book noted something interesting about how film and book reviewers are perceived.   According to a study referenced in the book, the authors of generally negative reviews are viewed as more intelligent than reviewers who almost always draft positive reviews.   This is due to the perception that “anyone can say nice things,” while the negative reviewer is seen as a person who must have an extensive in-depth background – otherwise, how would he/she know what to nitpick and criticize?   This does not mean, however, that the average person prefers to read the reviews of a generally negative reviewer.

When given a choice between reading mostly negative or positive reviews, the typical person will more often select the positive ones.   And when asked about the people who write the reviews, most people will select the positive one as the nicer person – the nicer person is, therefore, the one whose reviews are read more.   So this leads to a choice among limited options for the book reviewer.   Do you want to be perceived as smart and well-read, or as the less smart writer whose reviews are more often read?

The appropriate response may be to write a mix of positive and not so positive reviews, so that one is viewed as both smart and nice, if not both at the same time.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured – The Other Life: A Novel by Ellen Meister ($24.95, 320 pages) which will be released by Putnam Adult Books on February 17, 2011.

Note:  After writing this article, I happened to come across the following statement from Robert Christgau, music critic for the Village Voice:  “I don’t usually fluctuate wildly with what I initially thought about an album because I wait to write the review until I know what I think…  My first judgment is solid and secure.   But records do tend to either gain or lose aura as decades pass.”

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Empty Pages

Sometimes, but fortunately not too often, I receive an e-mail from an author or publicist that says, in effect, “Why haven’t you reviewed the book that was sent to you?”   In thinking about this, there are probably a lot more reasons for a book to fall off of the TBR (to be read/reviewed) stack than are readily apparent to the average person.   I’ll go over some of them here.

Please Mr. Postman

Some books get lost in the mail, or mistakes are made in the mail room.   On occasion, I’ve received a book that looks like it shouldn’t have been sent to me but it’s usually from a publisher I know.   That leads me to think that another reviewer has been sent the book that I was interested in.   I’m sure it happens.

Obviously, since the people staffing publishers’ mail rooms are human, mistakes can and do happen.   There was a particular book that I had slotted to read at a specific time and it never arrived.   I brought this to someone’s attention and was told that another copy was going out that evening.   What I wound up receiving was a very nice package with nothing inside of it – no book and no papers.   Good intentions, but no luck.

Oh, and mail is certainly delivered to the wrong place these days.   I now know which of our neighbors receives ESPN Magazine or Sports Illustrated or Power Tools Today based on the mailman dropping them in my box.   It’s not too hard to figure that some of the books intended for me wind up as a free gift enjoyed by a close or distant neighbor.

Time is Tight

When I request a particular book – weeks before a review will appear – I have no way of knowing what other similar books will be released at the same time.   And on this site we deliberately try to review a wide variety of books, not just one of a kind.   So if I request a legal thriller and it shows up when I thought it would, and at a time when I’ve just finished a family novel and a children’s book, I will go ahead and read/review it as earlier planned.   But let’s say that I’ve just read two legal thrillers, and my wife has finished one, when your legal thriller arrives.   It’s going to be put aside because, unfortunately, it arrived at the wrong time.   We don’t want to be known as Legal Thriller Review.   (The same story gets played out for many genres, unfortunately.)

There’s also the fact that books arrive either earlier than expected or later.   Publication dates also change.   I have instances where I’m reading a book for a review to appear shortly, only to find that the publication date has been moved back a few months.   That leads me to close the book.   Contra, I may plan to read a forthcoming, not yet released book by a particular author, only to go to Borders and find out – yes, this did recently happen to me – that it’s been released for sale earlier than expected.   Again, the apple cart gets upset.

I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party

Every now and then, for a sense of variety, I agree to take part in a book blog tour.   What this usually means is that I’m sent a forthcoming book and asked to select a date, within a particular window (usually a period of 2 or 3 weeks), when my review will appear.   I usually try to pick one of the final dates available.   If I start reading the book and love it, and everyone whose review appears prior to mine loves it, everything is fine.   But now and then I’m reading a blog tour book that I just do not like.   If I see that everyone else has written a glowing review and mine is going to be the one extremely negative one, I will tell the publicist that I’m pulling out of the tour.   I will still post my own review but on my own schedule.   I have no need to rile things up on the blook tour party.

I’m Down

As I’ve said before, there are some books that I receive and read but I refrain from writing reviews about them.   Why?   It’s generally not that they are bad, just not unique enough to make for an interesting review.   Let’s say, for example, that I’m reading one of five new Paul McCartney bios that are out this year.   I finish it and find that it’s full of the same stories told in 10 prior McCartney-related books.   Do I really want to write a rather boring review stating, “This book is a rehash of the same old stories…”?   OK, sometimes I will write that but only if I think I can say it in an interesting way.   Often, though, the same old thing is just not worth writing about.

Joseph Arellano

To be continued…

Pictured:  The Neighbors are Watching: A Novel by Debra Ginsberg, which will be released by Crown on Tuesday, November 16, 2010 (and which will be reviewed on this site on that date or earlier).

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Watching the Wheels

On Book Reviewing and Reading

During his unfortunately short lifetime, John Lennon had to deal with a lot of guilt.   Some of it was due to the break-up of his personal and working relationship with Paul McCartney.   But for a time, the public viewed his relationship with Yoko Ono as the likely cause of the Beatles’ dissolution (in retrospect, there were other factors involved).   It finally arrived at the point where John felt compelled to sing, “I don’t believe in Beatles/ I just believe in me/ Yoko and me/ and that’s reality.”

It may seem odd, but a book reviewer is sometimes affected with guilt.   This is especially true after spending hours and days reading a novel, a memoir, a nonfiction account or a survey book and finding it a disappointment.   You might not think so, but most reviewers would love to just write positive reviews.   Except that in the real world, writing exclusively positive reviews just would not reflect reality.

So the books that don’t meet the reviewer’s high expectations must be documented with a dreaded negative review.   And here is where the guilt comes in…  As the reviewer begins to draft a not-so-positive review, he/she begins to wonder if he/she did something wrong or miss the point?   Is it somehow my fault that I didn’t like it?   It’s an odd question but it’s one that I find me asking myself.   Other reviewers that I talk to ask themselves the same question.   Regardless, it’s a thought that must quickly be put aside.

Each of us, after all, is providing only one perspective, one that each review reader (and author) is free to accept or reject.   Talk to four or more people about the Beatles, for example, and you’re likely to hear all of the following:  “John was my favorite.”   “I was always a Paul fan.”   “I always loved George.”   “Ringo was my guy.”   If you were a Paul McCartney fan, you didn’t wonder if it was somehow your fault that John wasn’t your cup of tea.

When I talk to people about music, I get a sense of honest straight forwardness about one’s opinions.   You may know that I love Van Morrison but have no problem in telling me that he is not someone you listen to.   Why should it be different with literature, with books, with popular fiction?   I think it’s because many of us grew up seeing academic standards applied to literature that were not applied to modern music.   There was a sense that opinions about books were more formal, more standardized; therefore, there should be a consensus as to whether a particular book was “good” or “bad.”

Of course, all that has changed with the advent of the internet and with the more traditional style reviews (especially those printed on paper) moving into the background.   We’re entering the new world where, it might be said, we’re all “free to be you and me.”   So your opinion about a book is just as good, as valuable, as mine and vice-versa.   We’ve entered a zone where everything in life is, as one New York City newspaper observed, both large and small all at once.

So when, for a moment, the feeling of guilt crops up because you love something that other people don’t – or fail to admire a book that others may – it’s time to move past that moment and accept that you simply feel what you feel.   You think what you think and this is fine.   You get to judge what you want and need to judge, and don’t ever believe those who tell you that you “shouldn’t judge things.”   Everyone judges everything in life almost every minute of the day, but only some admit to it.   Book reviewers, by necessity and by role, must admit to it.

And John Lennon offered us some valuable advice – in the song “Watching the Wheels” – as to what to do once we’ve boarded the merry-go-round of guilt…  Get off of it.   “I just had to let it go.”   We just need to let it go.

Joseph Arellano

One in a continuing series of articles.   Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy by author-musician Ken Sharp was published by MTV Books.

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Second Hand News

On Book Reviewing – Plausibility is the Thing

One of the key items that a book reviewer of a novel needs to consider is plausibility.   Does the basis of the tale told in the book ring true?   Are the characters like people one would encounter in real life, or are they either too perfect, too flawed or strange?   Sad to say but if the story’s premise and/or its characters are not plausible then reading the novel becomes an exercise in futility.   Oh, the story may have some positive features but lacking plausibility, it’s like saying that someone’s done a good job of putting lipstick on a pig.   Great makeup job but it’s still a pig.

What does the reviewer do when in this situation?   Focus on the writing itself while reminding the potential reader that this may be a talented writer but he/she has not met his/her potential this time around.   In other words, offer hope for the future.

Now here’s the funny thing…   If a reviewer questions the plausibility of a novel the author is never going to concur with this finding.   Never, ever, ever.   His or her response will be something like, “I based this on something that actually happened and I know (or knew) people like the characters in this book!”   Fine but that’s the author’s perspective not the reviewer’s view.   What it translates into is a case where a plausible story – supposedly based on real-life – was botched in the writing.

A U.S. Supreme Court justice once said about pornography, “I cannot define it but I know it when I see it.”   The same is and should be true for a reviewer – either he or she “sees” the plausibility in a fictional setting or he/she doesn’t.   Either way, it is critical for the reviewer’s credibility to call it as he sees it.   Play it as it lays.

There’s another famous quote, one attributed to an actor, “Once you’ve learned to fake sincerity, you can fake anything.”   But a writer of a fictional work can’t fake plausibility – its either on the written page (“on all fours,” as law professors say) or it’s absent.   And if a reviewer makes the call that it’s absent the writer should remember that it’s nothing personal – your next book may become one of the reviewer’s favorites.

Joseph Arellano

This article is one in a continuing series.   Pictured: The False Friend: A Novel by Mya Goldberg (author of Bee Season) which will be released by Doubleday on October 5, 2010.   This is one of those books that we look forward to reading and reviewing.

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Average is Not Good Enough

“You’ve got to shake your fists at lightning now/ You’ve got to roar like forest fire…”   Joni Mitchell (“Judgement of the Moon and Stars: Ludwig’s Tune”)

You don’t see many book reviews concluding that the book being reviewed is average.   Yet, in truth, many books are simply average and this can present a problem for a reviewer.   Think, for example, about the book reviews you’ve read recently that you remember.   I would guess that they were either extremely positive or negative; either praising or damning.

These “A” or “F” reviews almost write themselves as the reviewer is honestly answering a single question:  Why did I love – or hate – this book?   But it is a much harder task to write a review of a book that doesn’t either soar or plummet  – the “C” book that represents the much-dreaded and highly feared word in this country, average.

Sometimes this comes down to the process of editing.   Ideally, an editor should perform two tasks at once when reviewing a manuscript.   He or she should review the grammatical accuracy and, just as importantly, determine if the work has a narrative structure that is attractive and holds the reader’s interest.   There are perfectly edited books – with no typos or errors of punctuation – that merely glide down the runway but never take off, for lack of style.

I had an experience with this recently.   I received a copy of a semi-fictional novel from a first-time author.   There were no obvious errors in spelling or punctuation in the galley but the entire story read as if it were written by a newspaper reporter:  “First, I did this, then that.   Then I graduated from high school, then got married, then went into the military, then went to college.”   You’ve heard of the phrase, “Dialing it in?”

I lost all interest in the book after a few dozen pages.   I had almost no idea what to say about it so I decided not to write a review.   I am not a fan of assigning either grades or stars to books (the latter seems so trite and childish) but in this case I almost wished that I could simply say, “An average story told without style.   C-.”   Oh, well.

But there’s a lesson here, I think, for the first-time writer.   After you finish the manuscript for the Great American Novel or the Fantastic Nonfiction Survey Book, look for an editor who will apply the style test to your work.   This will, hopefully, not be a friend or family member.   Supplying this editor with the first chapter of your work should suffice.   Ask him or her one basic question, “After reading this sample chapter, did you want to read more?”   If the answer is “no,” take it as constructive criticism and work on finding your voice.

It is not sufficient in today’s highly competitive literary market to just bang out a story.   C-level books are not good enough.   If you’re going to be a true writer, an artist, you need to come up with a work that is so individual, so full of your spirit and unique voice that reviewers will either love it or hate it.

Go for the “A” or “F” and get noticed!   And by all means, avoid the cloak of invisibility that’s inevitably attached to average work.

One in a continuing series.   Pictured:  Reading Like a Writer – A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose (Harper Perennial Trade Paperback, $13.95).

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Finding the Balance

Finding the Balance in Book Reviewing

A book reviewer needs to find a fine balance in approaching a new work of fiction, although the reviewer is not always going to deliver the product that each reader is seeking.   A review should perform a service by answering the question, “Is this book worth my money or – even more importantly – my time?”   Still, there are other considerations.

Just a Synopsis

First, there’s the knowledge that some readers simply want a synopsis of the story.   Although they could look this up at Google Books or Amazon or elsewhere, they want to know the plot and what the book’s about.   And some reviewers, often newspaper-based, just deliver this skeletal information.   But it’s about as helpful as one of those new car write-ups in which the test driver/journalist tells you everything about the car (price, features, and available options) except whether or not it’s fun to drive.   So a review needs to be more than just a summary.

Is it the Singer or the Song?

The first thing to be analyzed about a new novel is whether the magic lies in the story or in the telling.   Is it the song (story) or the singer (writer)?   If the strength is in the story, then the plot should be laid out in the review, stopping short of revealing the conclusion.   Some authors who are not necessarily the most skilled writers make their living off of great plots, great set-ups.   This being said, many new authors write debuts that start off strong but lose their focus half or two-thirds of the way though.   Good to great ideas are not always sustainable over 300-plus pages.

If the story is not much, but the writing is impressive, then that’s what the reviewer should focus on.   Audrey Niffenegger, for example, does not come up with the most complicated plots…   Her Fearful Symmetry is a ghost story.   So much for the plot, except that she writes the heck out of it; which is why she makes millions per novel.   Hand another 100 writers the same plot, and it’s doubtful that any one of them would write a tale that’s in the same league.   And that’s reality, as John Lennon would say.

Negative Reviews

Once a decision is made as to whether the book has a strong plot or rests on technique, the direction of the review should be clear.   Some novels, sadly, are not going to be excellent in either category.   This may result in what’s called a “negative” review, which may bother some readers of reviews.   It bothers the review writer, also.   Reviewers would love to love everything they devote their time to reading but, in the end, reviewers must have a commitment to truth as they see it…   And if you don’t like the reviewer’s opinion, keep in mind that it’s just that.  

What is, and should be, the reviewer’s obligation is to explain how he or she arrived at his opinion; building the case for the opinion.   You do not have to agree, but you should be able to examine the thought process that a reviewer went through in arriving at a positive or negative opinion.

Opinions

About opinions – sometimes they’re everything in life, sometimes they’re nothing.   Brian Epstein’s guess that the Beatles were a pretty good band was a pretty good opinion.   The opinion of the guy at Decca Records in London who passed on signing them (“The days of guitar bands has passed.”) was nothing.   But he may have been the guy who signed the Rolling Stones to the label.   Such is life.

A Final Issue

Should a reviewer read other reviews of the same book before writing his or her own?   It is probably best avoided until after the review is written, so that the reviewer is not influenced by the opinion of others.   Reviewing is not – and should not be – about finding consensus or mirroring public opinion.   It can, however, be helpful for a reviewer to scan other reviews in order to spot unique literary devices.   For example, earlier, I read a review in a newspaper in which the reviewer compared the novel’s story line to a bit of poetry.   I really liked that, so the very next time I read a novel, I searched for a line of poetry that seemed relevant for the review and I included it.

A nice idea and, hey, I don’t think anyone has a copyright on dead poets!

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review and San Francisco Book Review.   First in a series.

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