Reviewing a book is an inexact science. In many ways, reviews are idiosyncratic and they reflect the reviewer's personality and his/her take on reading. While some might argue that reviews are a take 'em or leave 'em affair, many have commented on what they call a "bad" review. When I say a "bad" review, I am not talking about whether or not a book was well-written or not, but rather whether or not the work being reviewed ever really was "reviewed."
One thing that I do before I set out to write a review of any book is to do a search for other reviews of the book (especially for those that have been out for years). This is due in large part to my background in history, where I had to demonstrate an awareness of other reviews and if needed, to refer to these different interpretations when I did a review of another historian's work. In a sense, I am reading and occasionally "reviewing" the other reviews before I ever begin writing a single word of my own review.
Being aware of others' takes and the reasons why they wrote the review and what they wanted to address helps me (and hopefully, others) to focus my attention a bit. But yet sometimes, I discover reviews that do not seem to address the book at all, but instead comes across as being a plug-in template consisting of A) Plot Summary, B) Liked it/Disliked it, C) Short Wrap-up, with nary a citation for those opinions. Earlier this week, I did a search for reviews of the New Sun books. Among many fine ones (Peter Wright's review being an outstanding example, although I disagree with some of his conclusions, which I'll address at the end of my New Sun reviews) that used textual evidence to support their assertations, I came across one (no, I will not link to it, as there are many of this type out there) that gave opinion without ever citing anything from the book to support this reviewer's opinion that the work was devoid of character development.
While I certainly could provide citations to the contrary (namely, focusing on the lacunae that hints at the narrator's unreliability, the shift in style that indicates another presence within the character of Severian, etc.), that is not the point of this post. When I read the review, it was as though there was nothing there that I could readily identify as being related to that book; it was too generic. In a day and age where "spoilers" are abhorred more than ever, have we gone too far and have decided that most anything cited from a text to support the reviewer's stance on its worthiness/unworthiness constitutes "spoilers" and thus ought to be avoided?
I have caught myself falling into this trap on occasion myself. I am one who is more interested in theme than in plot (because a book with interesting themes is more likely to be re-read by me than a book with a linear plot, for example), but yet I too have found myself not tackling the books at hand vigorously enough. While there are certainly many readers (perhaps you are one, yourself) who claim that they want nothing more than just a "well, did you like it?" from a reviewer, I believe that giving an opinion without supporting that opinion with evidence is doing a disservice to the reader, not to mention to the book being reviewed.
Before I began writing this post, I did a search for tips on how to write a good fiction review. Linked here is an article that I believe contains some valuable suggestions. In particular, I want to focus on the tips at the bottom of it:
- Do not attempt to write the review unless you have read the book carefully and completely.
- Do not make general statements about the book without supporting them with specific examples or quotations.
- Ask a friend to read the review. A fresh eye can often catch problems with the review that you might have missed.
But I am not guiltless here. I too have, on occasion, failed to present the book, instead falling back on a few truisms and general statements without ever really treating the book being reviewed as sui generis. But I shall at least endeavor to do better and to approach the level of reviewing that I had to do a decade ago. A story, good or bad alike, deserves no better than to be presented on its own terms and not as a shoehorned product.