The saying "do unto others..." is apt in many aspects of life, especially in terms of the book review, or really any kind of review of someone's art. As an artist, it's a sensitive thing to share your work, period. And once it's acquired by only an agent but a publisher, let alone a literary journal or on your blog or in a forum, there's a certain anxiety--as I've been told--about it being out in the much larger world. Yes, publication and exposure is the dream and ultimate goal for most artists, but once it's about to happen it can be a nerve-wracking experience.
No longer is your work within the boundaries of those you trust in a critique group, or with family, or whomever you may share your work with. It is now going out into the world. Freaking. Terrifying.
From the reader's perspective, when you read a book you want to be enthralled by it and sucked into the world and people the writer created or is reporting on. And when you are disappointed by a book you were excited about reading or that was highly recommended does not meet your expectations you may get upset. You may want to rant. And as we all know the internet allows people, in anonymity or not, to just shout out things that may or may not be kind.
I know I've ranted about award-winning books that I did not like. Not thinking about what I was saying but just saying it, at length.
Well, as an artist and as someone who has met with and is friends with published authors that method of review has changed a bit. I am more cautious when writing reviews, mainly sticking to a simple rating system (stars, half stars, what-have-you) and limited explanation.
What struck me about being more cautious about my reviews was in going on residency with authors who've had best-sellers and being in conferences with them as well. Befriending them outside of the conferences, residencies, and learning their own concerns and insecurities whether they've written a few dozen books or won an award or were on the New York Times best-seller list.
First off, authors do read reviews. Not all, and not every review. But authors do tend to read them. They go to Amazon. They go to Goodreads. They read the magazines and journals. They may even Google themselves. We've heard about high-profile authors such as Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyers going crazy when getting negative reviews of their work. Cursing people out in the case of Rice and just ceasing to share their work in the case of Meyers. So yeah, authors read reviews, not just the good ones forwarded onto them. And even with millions in the bank or many copies sold not everyone loves any one book. Not everyone loves The Hunger Games series or Harry Potter or Gone Girl or The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao. But we should be respectful of the fact that these pieces of art exist. And while we should be able to say how we feel. It's free speech after all! Going out to just ridicule the author for the sake of ridicule is not cool.
I've sat with authors who have been bummed that someone thought their non-fiction piece was contrived and strongly disliked the narrator (albeit the writer). I've met authors who had people cut them a new one in reviews online pulling down a rating for a book they worked very hard on just because they "didn't get it" or there wasn't a "happy ending." I've talked with authors who have said that a reviewer said she wanted to "kill herself" after reading her work because it was so depressing. And while this doesn't stop them from writing, it does hit a chord. It is surprising to them that someone would say something so mean, so bluntly, and so rudely about their work and by extension they felt them as people. No one seeks to create bad work. They want to write and create something for a larger audience and hope it reaches that audience. We seek to find a bond between artist and viewer.Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. But in the review it should be clearly defined and tactfully done.
Even something as highly sought as the NYT book review can be a bit acidic in tone. Roxane Gay writes reviews on Goodreads and keeps it short, sweet, and succinct feeling more filling than a long diatribe by someone who hated a book. So, yes, it can be done.
For me, I wrote some vitriolic reviews and went back to edit those down. Yes, they read well and are interesting and if someone agrees with you can acquire a lot of 'likes.' But in the end if the author read it, if it were about you, how would you feel? Since meeting with these authors I've toned down my vitriol. Do I like everything I read? Of course not. And as of late have gone through a bit of a slump in books of not being in love with anything I've read for over a month, sadly. But I take a step back and either simply give it a low rating with no explanation or explain in as short a away as possible like "didn't connect with the characters" or "plot seemed contrived" and leave it at that or additionally note that I enjoyed something else that the author did in the work or am a fan of the author themselves.
Am I saying all reviews should be watered down? No, because that would limit the variety of reviews and also the voice of reviewers. I'm saying that what I have learned in my reviews is not to be antagonist or rude or hateful for the sake of saying it, but that I can clearly state my reasons for disliking a book in a specific way that actually would help a potential reader understand my perspective and maybe affect their own. This is why reviews exist, to help people make a decision. I'm much more likely to read a book from a person whose reviews I enjoy and opinion I trust than someone who just went on a rant. (Though I do enjoy some of those reviews in gif form.)
And with that, go forth and read, peeps!