Book reviews and honesty

I wasn’t going to write this, though I’ve wanted to write this for a long time. Still, I put it off, I don’t know why. Perhaps because I didn’t want to speak up and piss people off, or perhaps because I was afraid of unleashing a storm of negative criticism against me.

Yet, I feel it’s time to say something about book reviews. And honesty. And really, let’s be truthful here: Are the majority of those glowing reviews warranted by glowing books?

Last night as I was browsing Twitter, I came across a link to a writer’s book review. I was tired but wasn’t ready to go to bed so I thought, sure, I could use a quick read.

The site was a small review site but that didn’t put me off since some of the best reviews originate from small and selfconscious beginnings.

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The review, of course, was positive. In fact, it was so positive that it almost squeaked. I had my suspicions, though, because while it glowed it didn’t feel authentic. The writing felt forced, as if the reviewer were trying too hard.

Then I scanned down to the bottom of the page and read the book’s excerpt, and my heart sank.

It was sloppy and clunky. I hate to say that a piece of writing is sloppy but I counted over six typos, misspellings and grammatical mistakes in the first three paragraphs alone.

Because of the subject matter I at first thought, oh, this was written by a sweet little old lady and I felt a bit endeared as I imagined her sitting in an armchair wearing a frayed cardigan sweater and doggedly typing away.

Except it wasn’t written by a sweet old lady. It was (according to the author’s photo and bio) written by a 30-something woman who has wanted to write since childhood.

No sweat: We’ve all wanted to write since childhood.

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But there are no shortcuts. If writers expect readers to put down their hard-earned money for a book then writers need to produce quality products free of careless mistakes and clunky wording/pacing/character interaction.

I get that talent varies among writers. I work as an editor. I know that talent is not equal, that some are born with a seemingly innate writing voice while others have to struggle through every page.

Still, authors needn’t write a literary or even sophisticated fiction/nonfiction/poetry book. But they do need to take steps to ensure that they’re putting out a polished, finished product. If their grammar skills are weak, they need to hire a copy editor. Everyone, in my opinion, should hire a copy editor; there’s no excuse for not having professional eyes review a manuscript before releasing it out to the world. (In fact, I’m sure I’ve made my share of grammar mistakes in this post and if I were expecting people to pay money to read it, I’d hire a copy editor to skim it before I posted.)

I realize that there is no perfect book and mistakes happen and no matter how many eyes read through a piece, it’s inevitable that some mistakes will fall through the cracks. I don’t mind this. (In fact, I just came across a typo in a Margaret Atwood novel I’m reading and I felt a little bit endeared: Why, I thought, she’s just like me. Though of course she isn’t: She’s Margaret Atwood and I’m basically a nobody.)

More and more it seems that the online book review culture has evolved into a pat on the back for writers more than informative sources for readers. As an author, this bothers me. While I do want 5-star reviews (who wouldn’t?), I also want accurate and honest reviews that relay impartial and objective and yes, realistic, information on the quality of my work, its strengths and weakness, what works and what falls short. After all, isn’t that reviews are all about?

Another post on the same subject: I love this post Bad Reviews Suck, and Why I don’t Care by author Rachel Carsman Thompson in San Francisco Book Review. What I especially love is that she includes a section titled “Authors Behaving Badly,” (I think she stole this from my novel title, hee, hee). It’s something we as writers need to read, and remind ourselves: To act graciously when bad reviews happen and to also, when reviewing other’s work, treat both author and book with respect while still adhering to honest opinions. (Way to go, Rachel, you are my new writing crush.)

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9 thoughts on “Book reviews and honesty

  1. Right ON about copy editing. It’s insulting when people publish books that are poorly edited, or where they think having a friend read it is enough. There must be people who think it doesn’t matter anymore, that no one cares if your grammar is perfect. Trust me, we notice! I copy edit for a living, and I very happily shelled out a decent amount to have impartial eyes look at it.

    As for positive/negative reviews… as I get closer to having my own book out there, I’ve become hesitant to tear a book apart on Amazon. A couple of books have actually made me angry, but I shy away from saying how I really feel. Partly because I know it’s hard to write a book and I want to be supportive of other authors, but also because I’m afraid of payback.

    For a while, I only reviewed books that I loved, but worried that people looking at my body of Amazon reviews might suspect me of being disingenuous, because I only had good things to say.

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      1. Ha, ha, I love you Kari, because you love dogs and good grammar–is there anything else? But I know what you mean. The potential backlash keeps everyone “in line” in terms of Amazon reviews (remember what happened on Goodreads last year when an author complained about bad reviews and everyone backlashed her?), and it really, really makes me angry. At the same time as an author, I don’t want backlash, I don’t want people ganging up on me and slamming me with bad reviews, either. It’s a very thin line. I basically only review books of people I know or in my social media circles, people whose vision and voice I trust (P.S. What I’m saying here is that I’d love (love!) to review your own book when it comes out). Cheers, woof-woof and happy weekend.

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  2. Boy, it sure is a sticky wicket, eh? I’ve struggled recently with the moral dilemma of either not reviewing something I feel obligated to review or giving a less-than-frank opinion that overlooks big issues. I try not let myself get into that position, but sometimes it’s unavoidable.

    What’s pretty clear to me is that nowadays a three-star review is just about impossible to give without landing a blow to the author. A four-star review seems to be saying “careful!”, even though that can’t be the case all the time. Not all books — even very good ones — deserve five stars.

    Maybe one solution is to use the stars to judge the book overall and commentary in the review to point out editorial problems. I don’t know…

    Arrrgghhhh!

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  3. I know, Kevin! Whatever has happened to the world of writing and authors? I thought we were all supposed to have thick skin. A three-star review is good, in my opinion, and a five-star should only be reserved for masterpieces, which there are very, very few. Yet it seems the opposite: There are so very, very man masterpieces out there, masterpieces with poor plot lines and dangling participles, with horrid grammar and bad spelling, with insipid writing and haphazard character development (or no character development). I’d better shut up before I write another post, lol. Thanks for visiting my humble blog and have a great weekend, Kev.

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  4. What a great and refreshing post. That nagging feeling at the back of my mind, that has been evolving into a monster nag lately, about the truthfulness of some of the book reviews out there, Sad indeed, that it has become a favor some people ask for and offer later on, as opposed to keeping it real and deserved. Talent is a great gift and it should be rewarded as such.
    Thank you for this, Cinthia :-).

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    1. Thanks so much, Daniela. And please, nag on about the truthfulness of some of the book reviews out there. It is the only way things will ever change. And talent IS a gift and should be respected and rewarded–couldn’t have said it better myself. Cheers, take care and happy writing.

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  5. Unfortunately, bad reviews seem to be a side-effect of the “platform mentality,” where people rush, rush, rush to build up a following. This results in writers crowd-sourcing a lot of the feedback for their work, but trying to pass it off as though it is real rather than a favor. I’m all for social media and building your online presence, but I sometimes despair the lack of expertise that goes into vetting resources both online and off.

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