Originally published in Women Writers, Women’s Books, March 28, 2015
We all know how much the world of publishing has changed in the last few years. The gatekeepers have been swept away by self-publishing. Anyone can write a book, and offer it for sale on Amazon. And anyone can write a review and post it. So much democracy! So much freedom! Is this a good thing? The only honest answer I can give is “yes, and no.”
As writers, all we want is for people to love our work. Well, hefty royalties are nice, too, but if you can’t have both, then devoted readers are surely splendid. The really good ones see things in your work you weren’t even aware of, as if they’re connecting the dots for you, deconstructing you in a way that makes complete sense. You can learn a lot from these top notch folks, and that can be terribly satisfying.
But what do you do about the reviews that really set your teeth on edge? Well, nothing, actually. You must decide if it has merit or not. If it does, that’s better than the ones with little merit.
The sort of review that you can pretty much dismiss right off might say something like, “The book bothered me because it wasn’t what I expected.” I had one reviewer give me a one star rating because the children in my linked story collection, Our Love Could Light The World, swore a lot. This made her uncomfortable. She felt it shouldn’t be allowed. I wanted to sit her down and remind her that these are fictional characters, but that flesh and blood children swear sometimes, too. She had nothing to say about the quality of the story-telling, which irked me no end.
Even more frustrating are reviews where your reader is smart enough to see what you were trying to do artistically, and then get totally subjective in their interpretation. “This didn’t work for me,” is a line you could see over and over. Why didn’t it work, if you knew what I was trying to do? Because this particular reader has certain expectations and tastes that she was simply unable to set aside when she sat down to assess your book.
So, how do you write a decent review? First, take yourself out of the picture. Be objective. Be analytical. Unless the book you’re reading falls down on the basics of story-telling – if the plot is wobbly and the characters wooden, for instance – then assume that everything you see on the page is there on purpose. Take it all at face value and see if you can figure out what the author is really driving at. Delve into the subtext, the story behind the story, if you will. If you have a clear picture about what’s going on, then the book is pretty good. If you don’t, the author missed the mark and it’s okay for you to say so.
Next, put yourself back in, but be honest. Say flat out that you normally don’t like books like the ones you’re reviewing and say why. Say, “I prefer a straight-forward plot to a tricky one, but that’s just me.” Everyone’s entitled to an opinion, but be fair and say that yours is just an opinion, not an ultimate truth.
Compare the book to others like it. If you’re a reviewer worth your salt, you’re widely read, and should be able to put this work in a general field of similar titles. It’s very unlikely that the book won’t remind you of any others. Tell your reader what she can expect by naming these associated titles.
Make sure you tell your reader what the author does well. Even a dull book has some strong moments in it. Avoid language that trashes the work. Never come out and say the book stinks. Itemize things that were “of concern,” or “perhaps less successful.” Be firm, but fair, in other words.
And writers, the best way to take any review, good, bad, or blah is with a grain of salt. Even if you’ve been writing for decades, you need to remember that it’s your work that’s being assessed, not you personally. Something else to keep in mind is that serious reviewers and book bloggers are building their own reputations and their own body of work. Mutual respect is called for, and when obtained, can make for an excellent partnership with those readers who liked your first book and are eager for the next one.