Monday, August 19, 2013

A REVIEWER'S CONFESSION

Almost twenty years ago I read a horrible review of a rather mediocre book.  Though I agreed with most of the nasty comments the reviewer wrote, I felt uncomfortable with his mocking tone. There were good things too, he might have mentioned.  Imagine my surprise when the book soared to record-breaking sales in the ensuing weeks in spite of, or because of, the snide review.  I concluded it's more important to get reviewed than whether or not the review is positive. 

A few years later I accepted the job of reviewing fiction for Meridian magazine. My journalism training had qualified me as a critic, but since I was writing fiction by that time myself and knew how badly nasty comments concerning my writing could hurt, I vowed to be kinder than some of the critics I knew and simply not review books I thought didn't deserve any free publicity, point out flaws honestly but charitably, and never ridicule a writer .  Over the many years I've been critiquing books I've pretty much stuck to that philosophy, but have broadened it.  I still don't review books I seriously dislike, but that's not the only reason I decline to review some books. Because I review LDS books, I generally don't review books that are doctrinally questionable or negative toward the Church, I try not to review several consecutive books in the same genre or by the same author, I rarely review YA books, and sometimes my "to read" stack is so tall, there's no way I can review every book in the pile.  There are times too when a book doesn't strike me as terrible, but it isn't anything special either, and since I usually have plenty of books to review I go for the ones that make the biggest impact on me, present something new and interesting, are memorable, or present a fresh way of looking at an old problem. Sometimes I just get tired of reviewing books in series. Occasionally I play catch-up and review a book on my blog instead of for the magazine.   

I have little patience with ridiculing an author's work.  Even books I consider boring or trivial represent a great deal of work and effort. Finishing a book and getting it published is a huge achievement and I applaud the effort. 

I don't play the stars rating game on my review column or my blog, though sometimes I do and sometimes I don't, on Good Reads.  Often I forget to even make note there of books I've read. Only once did I give a book a one star rating and that was because the language was filthy and the author hadn't researched LDS policy. (The author came unglued over my rating!) Rarely do I post a comment or review on Good Reads.  When I do it's because the book made an impression, but I probably won't be reviewing it.  Unfortunately I managed to hurt an author's feelings recently because I made a brief comment (It wasn't negative), then didn't review the book. I feel badly about this reaction because the book has some very good passages, they just aren't linked well and the middle drags down an excellent beginning and end, but the author shows real promise and I would hate to be responsible for discouraging a writer through "faint praise." 

Over the years I've noticed that I'm often the toughest on some of the writers I admire most.  I've also noticed that the most truly professional writers never try to defend themselves, but fix what was wrong in their next book or decide it's not worth getting upset over and ignore a critic's fault finding.  I've received some great thank you notes over the years, one memorable one from an author whose book I came down kind of heavy on, and I've watched many authors move from promising to favorites.  When I first started writing fiction I could count the number of LDS fiction writers on one hand, and now there are so many I can't even name them all.  When I began reviewing, it sometimes became difficult because the other writers had all become personal friends. I have to admit those early writers were great to accept my criticism and give me the freedom to write about their work with honesty. 

In all my years as a journalist, the assignment I hated most was writing obituaries, so when I write a review I keep in mind an old atheist friend of my father's.  He often proclaimed that when he died he wanted a Mormon funeral so someone would say something nice about him.  I don't want my reviews to be any book's obituary and honesty won't let me say wonderful things about a book I don't think is wonderful.  So I'll go right on telling others what I think is great while acknowledging there might be flaws.  Remember what I learned a long time ago--just getting reviewed means you did something right.

5 comments:

Krista said...

It was great to get this perspective from you, Jenny. Thank you!

Krista said...

Oops, Jennie! Please don't review my spelling. ;)

Th. said...

.

I know what book you're talking about when you mention the one-star book. It might interest you to know that I did my due diligence and the only detail I was skeptical of (the letter of excommunication) was accurate. In fact, the author had found one through a friend of a friend and copied it almost verbatim. So I know what you say when you admit that sometimes reviewers completely misjudge works. It does happen.

Moriah Jovan said...

Yes. Yes, I did come unglued at your review. Because you lied.

http://moriahjovan.com/mojo/jennie-hansen-is-a-liar

Anonymous said...

Jennie:

After your admission, above, how are we to believe that you really DID read all those books for which you wrote (and published) reviews?

Dishonest, hmmm?