Monday, 2 December 2013

Why I Think Book Reviews Should Not Be Narrowly Defined

I was going to write a review, but then I wrote a very long response to someone on the goodreads version of my "Leaving Sorrowfully" that I thought I'd post instead. Someone came onto that comment thread and said that if you aren't writing straight-up book reviews, you should take your ball and go home. I obviously disagree, and was trying to articulate why. Here is what I wrote:

I'd say the vast majority of what you find here are still book reviews, but I'm delighted when people play with the form, and any time the enforcement arm of a community focuses on whimsy, I'd say you have a real problem. Taking a few extra seconds to have to scroll past a review you don't think focuses properly on the book is not a huge imposition on your time - and the real issue is that we'll disagree on what "properly" means, 9 times out of 10.

But here is where I ideologically differ from you, I think, on what book reviews are/should/could be. I see reading a book as a truly subjective experience. I read a book through the lens that is me, with all the experiences, knowledge, and biases that entails. Sometimes it might be the time of day I read it, if I was having a terrible time and a book lightened the load or made it more difficult. Sometimes it might be that I read a book too close to another book with the same theme, and that very act has influenced how both books sit in my memory. Sometimes my knowledge of the author has had an influence on how I interpreted that book.

And in time-honoured fashion, I attempt to write reviews that reflect all those things, as they seem relevant, so that my readers can tell that if I'm overly critical of a book because it compares badly to something else I just read, if perhaps it was just that two books came onto my radar at the wrong time, to one of their detriments, and can decide for themselves whether or not I'm overreacting. If I write about my father's death, as I do when it seems appropriate, it helps explain why books that affected me deeply (or enraged me in their treatment of cancer - I'm looking at you, The Help) did so, and people can gauge whether or not they think my reaction would be the same as their own.

Reading a book is a deeply personal act, in a way that writing a recipe is not (although I disagree with you there too - my favourite cookbooks include little anecdotes before each recipe - Food That Really Schmecks is a perfect example of this.) And so my reviews tend to be deliberately personal, and sometimes I'm inspired to go off on tangents - but that's one of the great joys of books too, the ideas they provoke that might not be directly related. And I love reading other people's thoughts and inspirations and funny parodies. Parodies, I think, are perfectly legitimate reviews, in that they are attempting to capture something about a book humourously and share it.

And, getting back to the first issue that sparked this debacle, if I am writing reviews through my own experience, and I am, if what I know about an author has influenced how I've read their book, I want to acknowledge that as well. It's part of the baggage I carry.

But the bottom line is, we are all going to fundamentally disagree on exactly what a review is, and the question is how wide the latitude you give is going to be. I am willing to read a wide variety of responses - and honestly, most of what my friends write are straight-up book reviews, and those few that are not are a lovely spice. I am particularly willing to do that when the alternative is that our words are being strictly policed to say when something is or is not a review. The lines are fuzzy, at best. To haul in my review of Gone Girl, again, is that an illegitimate review because I write about how reading the last few pages first changed my experience of the book? (Also, it's my most popular review ever, so even if you hate it as an example of a review - and I'm not saying you do! - lots of people disagree with you.)

The real trick to goodreads is to find those reviewers you like, and follow them. Then, when you look up books, those people whose opinions you trust will show up first, and you need not worry about the bulk of reviews below the cut.

Like we shouldn't police what books people read, neither should we police what people want to read in a review. My tolerance and expectations for such things is very wide. Yours may not be, but you can change your goodreads experience by only following people who stick strictly enough to your own expectations. But I would hope that neither of us wants to be in an atmosphere where people having fun and playing is something that needs to be threatened with deletion.

2 comments:

  1. Once again you hit the nail on the head Megan. If I just wanted a critics book reveiw I would never have looked twice at Goodreads or started following your reveiws. It only makes sense to find people who's reveiws ( and they are that ) are close to your own feelings about certain books and then explore the new world of books their reading experiance opens up for you. I hate getting half way through a book and then realizing that i really don't like it and may not finish it. Your reveiws help make this a much rarer occurance.
    Anyways I am very greatfull for the hard work and time you put into these. If there are times i disagree with your review It actually makes me smile because it reassures me that independent thought is alive and well.
    Thanks
    Dave

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  2. Thanks, David. I agree - so much depends on finding reviewers that you generally agree with, or at least find interesting. Looking for random reviews on a book is not going to be in any way as fruitful as looking for reviews by reviewers you get to know and trust.

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