Sunday, October 08, 2006

Negative vs. Positive Reviews

What with getting ready to leave town, leaving town, and getting back into town, I appear to have missed a discussion on reviewing books. Since I so often seem to dislike a great deal of what I read and say so, I think I ought to give this matter some thought. And, of course, if I think about it, I have to talk about it.

Some Internet reviewers believe in only reviewing books they like. Some reviewers are fortunate in that they tend to enjoy most of what they read. Some only seek out books they believe they'll enjoy.

I try to be balanced when I review a book I don't like. I try to be clear that other reviewers have felt differently about the book. And if I truly can't think of a single positive thing to say about a particular book, I won't mention its name. I have no desire to try to prove how witty and biting I can be by ripping apart someone else's work. If I'm going to be witty and biting, I'll do it in a manuscript and try to get paid for it.

But I don't ignore the bad books and write only about the good because I think real, thoughtful, balanced criticism is extremely important. As a young writer, I learned a great deal from reading book reviews, far more than I did from any book I've ever found on writing. That was only possible because I was reading the work of people who knew writing, who understood fiction, who could express all kinds of thoughts about it. I can't believe I would have learned anywhere near as much if all the reviews I was reading had nothing but good things to say. Mainly because I can't believe that every book is good.

Unlike other reviewers, I don't read entirely for pleasure. I read to keep up with what is happening in my field. That's why from time to time I dip into graphic novels and magical realism, for instance. That's why I read The A-List, The Clique, and The Gossip Girl. I try to analyze works like these, to understand what the existence of these types of books has to say about what's going on in children's and YA literature right now. I'm not just looking for a good read. A good read is great. But it's important for me to read things I don't care for, too. And my response to those books I don't care for becomes grist for my mill.

One thing to keep in mind regarding this issue is that just because a book review is "negative" does not mean that the reviewer is necessarily turning readers away from the book. The fact that the book was reviewed at all and brought to readers' attention is hugely important. For many readers, a book's subject matter is more important than the reviewer's opinion. But they would never know about the book's subject matter if the reviewer hadn't reviewed it in the first place.

Another thing to keep in mind is that if all reviews are positive, they eventually lose any meaning, significance, validity. A librarian recently told me that she had cancelled her subscription to a particular review journal because "they never read a book they didn't like." She no longer trusted what she read there.

And a third thing to keep in mind is that a review is just an opinion. I respect my readers enough to know that they recognize that. Readers may very well disagree with me when I have something negative to say about a book. But here's the thing--they may disagree with me when I have something good to say, too.


Lee said...

You make some excellent points here, and have clarified a few things for me about how I want to approach the whole issue myself.

Gail Gauthier said...

Sigh. I live for the day when my family members will say something like that to me.

Lee said...

Gail, we often have differences of opinion over writing and books, I suspect, but I respect your opinions - and enjoy reading them.

And I'm much less of a nice person than you - I'm perfectly happy to be biting when I feel the call. But I am trying to restrain myself!