I hear a lot about bad writing these days. Bad writing is what the surge in self-publishing has created. Without gatekeepers, anyone can be a published author; anyone can throw his hat in the ring alongside Hemingway and Virginia Woolf. Anyone can publish. I won’t get into the trouble that self-publishing can cause really serious, hard-working writers – not that these terms are in any way mutually exclusive – because if you’ve been writing and publishing and pushing yourself out there in order to gain a modest (or large) readership, you know what I mean. What I’d rather talk about is what comes with this open-door policy of publishing – that anyone can now write and post a review, usually on Amazon and Goodreads, though these two enormous entities are now one and the same.
Reviewing a book is hard. And what makes it hard? Being fair, being aware of what an author is trying to do artistically and looking candidly at her successes or failures in that regard. Comparing the book intelligently to others of its kind. Giving a prospective reader a good reason to see for himself, or to walk away.
Because the guidelines to posting a review are so loose, books are often the victims of idiotic assessments:
“This isn’t what I expected.”
“I don’t like the characters because they swear a lot.”
“I don’t understand why the father has to drink so much. And why is the mother so mean?”
“I don’t really read a lot of short stories, so I can’t really say if this is good or not.”
This last is a close paraphrase of a review I got on my first story collection, All The Roads That Lead From Home. To be sure, there are insightful reviewers who pay attention to thematic elements, voice, pacing, and imagery. They go far beyond whether or not they “liked” the book. And believe me, I’m incredibly grateful for these folks.
Authors want their work to be judged on its merits, not by whether or not a character has a drinking problem or says mean things.
If I sound cranky, it’s because I am cranky. I’ve never liked stupidity. And I really don’t like stupid, shallow reviews, either. Get with it, readers. Put your thinking caps on and step out of your comfort zone. Consider that a book could be important, or valuable, even if you don’t like it, yourself. Try to see the bigger picture. And then post your review.