The worst thing about book reviewing

…is a bad book by a good guy.

I mostly don’t donate free content to Amazon any more, and when I do, there’s usually a motive beyond the desire to share my opinion. There are many reasons why, from the basic dumbness of the rating system to Amazon’s whoring of the content to not donating work to for-profit enterprises. In the past I’ve talked about how not to solicit book reviews. That’s another reason why: most of the books whose authors wish me to review them, I don’t care to read. Either their book is in a genre I’ve never shown that I cared about, or they want me to review galleys or e-copies, or they write badly enough in the letter to make me decline. After you get one bite of a rotten egg, after all, do you keep eating?

Now and then, an author does it all right. I had such a situation just before we moved to Idaho. Author seemed mature, pleasant and sincere, pitched the review correctly. I really don’t like thriller stories that much, but I’ve reviewed enough Laurell K. Hamilton books that if he imagined I liked thriller/mystery, it only meant he’d done his homework. He offered a complimentary print review copy, as authors (or publishers’ reps) must. They simply must, for it’s the only compensation the reviewer gets in return for committing to read a book which may be agony to finish, donating hours of time to a tragic cause while looking wistfully at the pile titled ‘Books To Read Which I Know Are Much Better Than This.’ The only way he could have hit the ball harder was for the subject to just happen to line up more with my preferences; say, a travel biography. If there were a book I’d take a chance on, this author’s would be the one.

So I did. My custom is that when I’m sent a review copy, I drop any other unpaid work in its tracks and get to reading. The author deserves that courtesy. I let the author know the book (actually two) had arrived, grabbed a diet cola and sat down to read.

The ideal result for all is that I love the book. I don’t want to shamble through 300 pages of suffering. I also don’t want to write a review that leaves blisters. I don’t want to write a Gentleman’s C review (a three-star review given out of mercy to a one-star book). If the author is famous, or has committed offenses against historical writing, I don’t one bit mind hammering the stake, decapitating the corpse, sewing holy wafers into the fangy mouth, and chucking the head into a river. That sort of author will probably never see the review, and if he or she does, probably won’t care. S/he will probably do another line, say ‘those who can’t do, pan those who can do’ and tell Araceli to do a better job on the kitchen. To an aspiring author, though, a very articulate but harsh review is a serious problem.

Most people work more on the principle of suggestion than they like to admit. In this context, if Joe Reviewer highlights a dozen glaring weaknesses in a book, anyone who reads that review and then the book is likely to watch for those weaknesses. And to post ‘me too.’ The whole picture can unravel. One could always take the ‘tough luck, be a big boy/girl’ approach, write a brutally honest and balanced review, and let the chips fall. And if I took reviewing more seriously than is the case, I might. In fact, I really don’t even give a damn about Amazon reviews. Too many fools, too much gang-rating, and too many people with no taste. They are the worst metric going that does the most needless damage to good books and promotes bad books. Yes, the people have spoken, but the people are stupid. This is why McDonald’s is more popular than Fuddrucker’s, and why democracy breaks. It follows that, not wanting to suffer though a bad book, I try to avoid reviewing them. Now and then I get surprised in a bad way, as in the case under review.

I’d expected to yawn over the story but not the writing, yet it was the other way around. The author had a great story concept, but the presentation was pure tyro. If he engaged an editor, he or she needs to be fired. Typos, typesetting mistakes, bad character introductions, perspective all over the place, forgetting what the reader knows and does not, dialogue not very credible, passive voice everywhere, inconsistencies of tense. If I had been asked to edit it, the author would have paid what I charge for a complete rewrite. And yet the fundamental tale was excellent, with plenty of surprises and good discipline in pace of revelation. Even as I groaned over the flaws, it held my interest to the very last in a genre I barely like.

What do you do in that case? Hammer the stake? Deceive the public? Welsh on your commitment?

Sure, you have every moral right to post a completely honest review, and in the take-your-quarts big boy/girl school of professional writing (where being mean is a way some people like to show off their cred, and where being arrogant and smug is taken by so many as a sign of authorial coolness), you would. You’d also hurt a human being. Remember, I care minimally about my rep as an Amazon reviewer. Amazon and its reader base don’t pay me enough to care. The only pay I got was a copy of a book, and I’m not generally inclined to turn around and hurt people who paid me…if I can help it. I also would rather not leave behind me a trail of slain dreams. To get me to play Simon Cowell, they have to up their bid. A lot.

When I realized that an honest review would skewer the book, I wrote to the author and said so. I offered him three choices:

  1. The big boy/girl method, posted with no holds barred.
  2. Same review, but sent to him privately.
  3. A more informal yet candid critique, without the writing-for-public-consumption gloss.

What I did not tell him was that 3) would be far and away the most painless and helpful for both of us. Happily, that’s what he chose anyway. If I have to say it, I did not pitch my own services as a book mechanic. Now that would be sleazy: lurk for writers needing help, lure them in, beat down their will by panning their writing, then offer to save them for a fee. Marketing in disguise; the car dealership service department where you take your vehicle in for an oil change, and they ‘find’ $2000 worth of stuff to fix (that would cost $750 at a real mechanic’s shop, except the real mechanic would tell you that $250 would cover what you actually need). The HVAC company in Kennewick that came out to diagnose a minor noise, kept breaking my heater a little worse with each visit, then wanted to sell me a new one. I despise it and I’m not going to do it. I was approached as a reviewer, and should stick to that.

He took the critique well, considering I was telling him he couldn’t write. What he does with that is up to him. It’s the worst thing about book reviewing: trying to remain halfway considerate without sacrificing honesty. And it’s why I decline most requests for reviews. I am in this situation too often for my liking, I end up doing lots of extra work, and there’s always the chance I’ll be punished for it anyway (making me wish I’d just adopted the big boy/girl approach).

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4 thoughts on “The worst thing about book reviewing”

  1. JK, I don’t know you in person. We met online (on that ridiculous epinions website) years ago. But here’s the thing that stands out about you: I don’t need to meet you to understand that you are motivated more by integrity and compassion than anything else.

    It sounds like you ended up in a bit of a bind here–much like the bind Josh Olson details in his (in)famous essay: “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script.” But Olson lacks your compassion. (I suspect he also lacks your integrity, but maybe that’s just me stereotyping Hollywood writers.)

    I’m still grateful for your very prompt review of the book I sent your way. Your quick response time on these kinds of projects makes you a blessing from the gods for indie writers everywhere. Of course, that also opens you to abuse/exploitation by the very population you’re helping.

    I only have 2 things to say about the position you’re in.

    1: No good deed goes unpunished.
    2. The dedication/professionalism of your blog is definitely appreciated by some of your readers.

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    1. Thank you, Mike, for numerous kind words. I have vivid memories of Olson’s essay, and I admit that some aspects of it resonated with me. And you are right about good deeds, as I have so often learned. As I see it, I can’t gain anything from punching a harpoon through an indie writer’s dreams, and I believe only very small minds can get jollies that way. I’m always hoping, strongly, that the book will be great. But as you know, you can’t roll two dice without the possibility of throwing snake eyes. Occupational hazard, as I see it. I hope your promo work is going well and your work is getting the attention it should.

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  2. I respect your conscientious reaction to this situation. I’ve been there, albeit in an academic context, in which the bad review could potential injure a good person’s chances at tenure–and thereby, a career. It’s a hard position to be in and I respect you for how you handled it.

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    1. Thanks very much, Michael. The theory about academia is that it’s the ultimate big-boy/girl pants club where critique is merciless and devastating. At the other end of that continuum of sincerity (and compassion) of critique would be the inability to dare speak ill, for whatever reason: unwillingness to impair a career as you mentioned, fear of making enemies, and so on. I would guess that the reality is somewhere near the middle of that continuum, varying both directions depending on place and time.

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