Hello there readers and friends!
On occasion, I like to chat about the books I've read. ("What?! OMG ME TOO!" said all of us.) I like to talk about books that make me think - yeah, I want to write that (or NEVER EVER like that.) And what better way to do this than with a review?
(Edit notice 10/16/20: After receiving some recommendations from a well-established author, I've made anonymous any references to the novel that I pseudo-reviewed for this essay. Thanks, Sam!)
I only recently started writing reviews; for the longest time, I just assumed no one cared what I thought. Just another American male with an opinion. But I also realized that writing a review provides my brain a minute to digest what what I've just read, especially if that book was good. Kind of like watching the bonus content after an awesome movie. Fast forward a few months, and I have this fancy website... maybe I should post some reviews on it?
So, I pulled up my keyboard and started writing, and I realized... I don't know how to write a review. I mean, I can click all the buttons to submit one, but can I do better? Don't I want this to help people find a treasure or dodge a bullet? I'm doing the work, after all. But how to write a quality review felt elusive.
(Pause. It sounds like I'm about to explain how I learned to write good reviews. This is a bit misleading. I'm still garbage at writing reviews, but stick with me and I'll tell you why it doesn't matter).
I've been writing reviews for months on Amazon or Goodreads, and I couldn't really put my finger on any emergent rules. I've read hundreds of book reviews before buying (or just because the reviewer is interesting), and they're all a little different depending on the genre, skill, perspective, and emotional bias of the reviewer. Some are incredibly helpful. Some are a waste of keystrokes. (I'm particularly entertained by reviews that are almost completely emotive - no filter, pure reaction, loaded with colloquialisms so thick that even a teenager would have trouble parsing the content. Maybe I just like puzzles.) So I thought, someone, somewhere on this great big Internet knows how to write an effective review.
Did you know - writing a review was once (still is to some) considered on par with the literary work itself? To incorrectly paraphrase a really smartypants article by Darryl Campbell in The Millions from a billion years ago (2012): Reviews aren't mean enough anymore, and that's why proper reviews are a dying form under the worn heel of Jane Goodreads. (If you want to understand how I reached that incredibly self-serving, horribly biased statement, just read the article).
Oh, are they not mean enough, Mr. Campbell? You should read my notes from the last YAPN/UF I read!
Wait. Maybe THAT'S the new formula! Kindle notes. Right, check this out.
DISCLAIMER: These are notes, not a review. I'm not going to identify the novel or author, though it is germane that the author is a USA Today Best-seller:
Note 1 (the lighter side of my commentary): Why does being an alpha mean you have to be a miserable, totalitarian asshole? I’ve encountered plenty of assertive, effective leaders that are neither salty nor territorial archetypes. More importantly, the best leaders (IRL) are often characterized by strong emotional intelligence and an ability to make people feel like a team. I find it hard to believe that a school of powerful leaders would find success honing characteristics of intensity, might, and fear. That’s not what it means to be an alpha. So if you want to read about a school that is 90% gruff, surly dicks (which some people enjoy reading about and I acknowledge is their prerogative), then this book is for you! But don’t expect to buy into the premise of this academic alpha environment; you’ll need to permanently suspend your disbelief on that front.
Note 2 (when I realized I probably wouldn’t finish): BULLSHIT! They should know a vampire’s weaknesses already! They don’t live in incubators. Parents of rival supernaturals would ABSOLUTELY tell their children what to watch out for. It’s just not plausible!
Note 3 (when I hit my limit): We know! We were there! You don’t have to explain every thought the protagonist has. Dialogue does some of the work, and we do the rest. Reality is not airbrushed. Readers (and I’ll raise you ALMOST ALL people) are at least GOOD at context clues. And processing a problem ourselves allows us to invest. It’s like allowing a child to make their own mistakes. If you keep doing things for them, they are never going to get the satisfaction of feeling something click, and they will routinely stop caring until the lesson becomes noise. Like this book. You know what? DNF. I’m off this train.
Now... What interests me is that [the book] was written to a very specific audience. I can't help but feel that [the author] knew EXACTLY what she was writing. Look at the evidence. Her copy-writing is a dead match to the description, a description that was meant to anchor readers that wanted a badass leading lady, a boatload of snark, and a bunch of tough alpha males that this alpha female could covert into her reverse-harem of badasses.
Some people want to read that. (And [the author] knows it - she's a USA-T best-selling author, and while that's not everything, it's not easy, either). Never mind what I perceive as a lack of nuance. She made a promise and went ALL IN. Maybe I'm just being rosy about this, but making good on your promises has integrity.
I begin to wonder, then, does this reliability from marketing promises to product outweigh the need for believable characters? Do some people mind not at all that situations are forcefully contrived to deliver on mood and emotional circumstance? For me, it feels cheap. The characters didn't earn those emotions. But then... I'm tuned a little differently.
People are different, and they approach content with different lenses with different requirements for complexity.
Any of the elders reading this may remember a little show called American Idol. Singers from around the country would show up at a theater or hotel or whatever and sing in front of music industry moguls and an army of cameras. The first episodes of each season are probably the most memorable because most of the people that make the episode were TERRIBLE. Just awful.
However, these singers often did not know they were terrible. The shock was apparent on their faces when Simon Cowell told them never to sing again. This is not just because they had a participation trophy handed to them by overindulgent family and friends averse to providing helpful criticism. It has more to do with neurons.
In a past life, I went to music school. I've completed hundreds of hours of ear training, logged years of pitch matching, and one semester, I clocked more time in the recording studios than any of my classmates because I was operating on both sides of the glass. (If I wasn't producing or engineering, I was the artist or performer). During that time, my brain was learning in overdrive, recruiting more and more neurons to do the job of assessing pitch and performance. Most singers on American Idol never had that opportunity. 'Poor' singers might have one neuron to help them hear pitch modulation, whereas 'good' singers might have ten. (I might have, like, five. And a half.)
As avid readers, haven't we spent hundreds of hours training to recognize a good book? Shouldn't we have the neurons required to make us excellent critics if not amazing writers? Yes! But also no. First off, writing uses completely different mental muscles than reading. It's not at all the same. Second, if you've only ever read shitty books, then you've only learned to recognize the best of your shitty books. Furthermore, you might not have the linguistic tools to explain WHY a book isn't working for you. There are structural elements in literature that require academic study to understand. To the horror of my mentor, it took me MONTHS of repeatedly reading examples of abstraction before I could properly identify them and extract them from my writing. (I might still be doing it wrong.)
But there is another way to understand abstraction. For me, it translates emotionally into feeling 'cheap', like the author is telling me how I should feel by telling me how a character feels. I say, no! I will not be force-fed feelings! Show me what the character says and does and I WILL DECIDE how the character feels. And if a character's words and actions align with social expectations and other context clues, those character feelings will be reinforced inside my experience. This is how I become invested emotionally in a story.
Seems like the ONLY way to write! Right?
Weeeeeeell... The more a work falls into the category of popular fiction, the more tolerant the readership becomes of force-fed feelings. Because there are trade-offs. When liberally leveraging abstraction, the author doesn't have to work as hard to craft nuance - there's less to process. Therefore there's less to process for the reader, and pages turn faster. Authors write faster, readers read faster. And if you, the reader, are there for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with emotional investment, (ex. you want a quick read; you want an interesting story; you are emotionally broken and true feelings make you question all of your life choices and the existence of God,) then these kinds of books can really work for you.
Or. You've only ever read shitty books. There are LOTS of shitty books. I've been looking for good books in the YA Urban Fantasy genre, and they are a TOUGH find. (Oh God... I hope my books aren't shitty). Romance is particularly fraught with cheap thrills and loads of abstraction. But again, they read fast, and a whole series feeds into the binge-watching culture. (Or is it the origin of that culture? Woo, I don't have time to unpack that right now).
But I LOVE ROMANCE BOOKS, too! They're fun and light and I DON'T get emotionally weighed-down. Isn't that kind of the point? And if an author is writing within the standard for the market and genre, are they really doing a bad job? Is it an author's fault that a reader who grew up on high fantasy or contemporary YA and has different standards for nuance and abstraction than are typically found in that author's genre? Is it really worth tearing apart a novel or author in a scathing review that bemoans the lack of relevance in contemporary society or a perpetuation of the patriarchy? (Actually, that last one is ALL of our responsibility - romance writers included).
Then why all of this talk about the death of critical reviews? Why does it matter? And why am I writing this long-ass post anyway? (And why are you still reading? If you think about it, this is your fault). Wait, what was the question? Oh.
Why did I write all this?
Because. Because the Internet has given us all a voice, not just those educated in the literary arts. And many of us (probably me, too) don't have the niche vocabulary required to articulate why a book made us feel a certain way. And why should that matter? Wouldn't we rather buy fiction based on how it makes us feel, rather than why?
Look, there's always going to be intellectual value in literature, and those thought-provoking analytical assessments seem pretty important on a high cultural level. But maybe we can embrace that most people read for the emotional value. Even if you don't think you're reading for an emotion, emotion is how [people] value EVERYTHING, so at the very least we should agree that sympathizing with a character isn't the only way to emotionally experience a book. And we should communicate our emotions about a book in our reviews, and THAT'S how people are going to find new books to try! (And in an age when we can watch many popular books on Netflix, we should remove barriers between books and readership.)
In summation, I think there IS a way to write a helpful review these days: Pour your heart into it! Gush about the parts you loved, throw your fist in the sky about the parts that you hated, or just be all 'It was okay. The end'. And don't worry about form or structure. That's certainly what I intend to do.
(This post is sponsored by authors that want you to write more reviews. Specifically me, Christian Andreo. Download my books and write reviews. So many reviews. Reviews help readers find we indie author and are SO CRITICAL to our work. Please and thank you.)