Tag Archives: opinions

Nobody Told Me

On Book Reviewer-Author Relationships

“Everybody’s talking, and no one says a word.”   John Lennon (“Nobody Told Me”)

Here’s an experience that I’ve had multiple times, four times to be exact.   I’m involved in an e-mail conversation with a writer who is new to me, and communication is taking place naturally.   Then, all of a sudden, comes this message – as if taken from a new author’s handbook, “My publicist/editor/publisher (someone, in other words) has told me that I’m not supposed to become friendly with book reviewers.”   Naturally, my response to this is to type “Why?”

I don’t think I’ve ever received a very specific answer other than the statement that it would make the author-writer appear to be currying favor, or angling for a positive review.   This explanation may well make sense to others, but not to me.   I say this because I’m about to go on to read this author’s book – about which I virtually never have a pre-impression – and write a review of this product; I have no interest in writing about the author’s personality.

I also doubt that there’s much connection between how much I know and like the author as a person and my review, or reviews written by other reviewers.   Let me provide an example.   One author is someone I’ve known for decades.   He is a friend and yet when I wrote my review of one of his novels I think I wrote about its positives and negatives in the same way I would have with anyone else, known or unknown to me.   So my friendship with this good gentleman did not result in my insisting that everyone go out and purchase his book!   Even more curious, my wife read a different novel from this author.   She has never met him, e-mailed him or spoken with him.   Her review of his more recent novel was effusive and glowing, thus showing the lack of a direct connection between friendship and an honest review.

There’s also the fact that I know authors who have written both very, very good and average books.   If I read the very, very good book first and the average one later, I never decide that I’ve had it with this writer.   No, I think, “He/she has it in him/her to write an outstanding book, so he/she will probably do so the next time around.”   Maybe this is just me, but I disconnect the product from the person, and I keep hope alive for the next time around.

I pray this is the same with my reviews and my readers.   If I write several good reviews and then one that you find is sloppy, I hope you won’t say, “I will never read another one of his reviews again!”   Hey, we all have off days, weeks, months, and/or years – sometimes lifetimes.   But as I have stated in Our Fairness Policy, if I write a review you disagree with, feel free to write your own review (of about the same length) with a different perspective.   I will post it.

A few readers have taken me up on this offer, and I have very much enjoyed – literally enjoyed – reading their views.   Why?   Because I don’t think they’re judging me, they’re simply offering more information.   And this is why I’ve posted multiple reviews of some books.   Information is good, not just for readers but also for the authors who happened to have written the books in question.   If some information is good, more information – more perspectives – should be better for their own writing futures.   (If I write that I loved the first half of a novel but not the second half, and you feel the opposite and we both explain our views in writing, does this not help the author  to identify his/her strengths and weaknesses?   I think so, I honestly do.)

I was taught, as a one-time debater and as a law student, that all information has value.   Sure, some pieces of information and some perspectives may have more intrinsic value than other pieces and perspectives, but how do we know that without testing them in the real world?   This is what I hope we’re doing with books and book reviews…  Reading them, making some honest assumptions or conclusions about their values, and asking others to do the same.   In this way, I think we writers and reviewers are assisting each other.

We’re helping each other through open and honest dialogue while avoiding unnecessary division and rancor.   As I’ve written before, the book review/opinion process should not be a debate; there’s no true right or wrong.   There are no definitive reviews, at least in my opinion.   If I looked up all of the reviews on the internet of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or of Richard Ford’s Independence Day, could I find one of each that I would point to and say, “That’s the one!   No one should ever dare write another word because that was a perfect review of a near-perfect book!”   I hardly think so.

Our dialogue should continue to be open and honest and friendly.   And perhaps one day authors and reviewers will live in harmony…  Until then, write on my friend.   Let’s talk a few months after the book comes out and reviews are over and done.  

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing by Roger Rosenblatt, which will be released on January 2, 2011 by Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers.

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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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You Never Give Me Your Money

The Reviewer’s Voice

I have people say to me that writing book reviews is hard.   I would generally agree.   After you’ve spent hours, days, maybe even a week or two reading someone else’s words, organized in their own fashion, it can feel difficult to organize one’s own thoughts and reactions.   Plus, there’s always a sense of self-doubt…  You may have written 80 reviews but there’s the back-of-the-mind thought that you will not be able to put the words together that are needed to finish review number 81.

Sometimes we may need to pretend in order to lessen the self-perceived stress.   There’s a nice story about the Beatles that proves this point.   After the death of John Lennon, Yoko One found two cassette tapes with unfinished song bits (ideas) that John had recorded.   She gave these tapes to Paul, George and Ringo and asked if they might consider working on the bits, to complete the songs.   Paul, for one, responded that he didn’t think he could do this; it would involve too much pressure in a time of grief.

Yoko thought about this and returned with a novel approach.   She said to the three remaining band members, “Why don’t you put aside the fact that you’re doing this because John is dead.   How about if you just pretend that he left for a nice vacation?   He mailed you these tapes, noting that he didn’t have time to finish the songs before leaving.   He’s asked if you lads would help him do so.”   This mind-set changed everything, especially for Paul McCartney.   With the able assistance of Jeff Lynne, two new Beatles songs (“Free As a Bird” and “Real Love”) were released to the world and went to number one.

When I finish a book, I start a review with a game of pretension.   I pretend that an avid reader good friend has sent me an e-mail:  “I am really interested in the new book by John Jones.   One of our friends told me that you’ve just read it.   What do you think?”   My first draft is, in my mind, an e-mail response that’s written quickly and informally.   Yes, I will do some subsequent re-writing and rely on an editor or two to reorganize or touch up my thoughts, but simply getting the thoughts out there – putting them on the screen – helps me to remember that I can do this.

To me, the hesitation of the book reviewer (wasn’t it Jackie De Shannon who wrote the song, “Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe”?) is due to the notion that somewhere in the Universe there exists an ideal book reviewer voice.   But we all have different ideas of what that voice should sound like:  authoritative, bitchy, humble, folksy, friendly, obnoxious, learned/professorial, artsy, formal, positive or chirpy cheerleader, chippy, negative nay sayer or doomsday crier.   And none of these are the real voice of the helpful reviewer.   That reviewer speaks in your voice or my voice – a voice that expresses an honest opinion that the reader of the review is free to either accept or reject.   But the highest honor a review reader may pass on is to say, “Yours was an honest voice.”

Sometimes it may even arrive in the form of an e-mail message, “I didn’t agree with your conclusions about this book, but I know that you spoke (and wrote) honestly.”   High praise, indeed!   Enough to get us ready to write review number 81, 82 or 182.

Joseph Arellano

This is one article in a continuing series.   Pictured:  You Never Give Me Your Money – The Beatles After the Breakup by Peter Doggett, released by HarperStudio on June 8, 2010.   “Peter Doggett’s book about the Beatles’ split is a real page-turner.”   Annie Lennox

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Federal Trade Commission Disclaimer

The FTC issued new rules that went into effect on December 1, 2009.   These rules state that blogger product reviewers must disclose whether they receive review products for free or receive monetary payment for such reviews.   The books reviewed on this site, except where noted, are Advance Review Copies (ARCs) sent to us by publishers – a common practice in the industry.   Payment is never accepted in exchange for a review or book mention.

The receipt of ARCs in no way influences or has an impact on the opinions expressed in the book reviews  posted on this site.  

This disclaimer will be posted periodically.    Pictured:  Adam and Eve: A Novel by Sena Jeter Naslund, which will be released by William Morrow on September 28, 2010.   

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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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