Smuggler Specialties Smugglers Ponderings

Smugglers’ Ponderings: I, Reviewer

Last week I read an interesting article on Romancing the Blog written by Deb Werksman the romance fiction editor for Sourcebooks on the subject of credibility in fiction. She begins by listing the criteria she follows in order to recommend a book to be published and they are:

*a heroine the reader can relate to
*a hero she can fall in love with
*a world gets created
*I can sell it in 2-3 sentences

But in addition to this criteria she also thinks about poet Philip Larkin’s criteria for the Booker Prize – Larkin asked himself:

*can I read it?
*if I can read it, can I believe it?
*if I can believe it, do I care?
*if I care, what is the depth of that caring and how long will it last?

She goes on to talk about credibility and the article is very interesting .

But the part that I focused on and couldn’t stop thinking about was Philips Larkin’s criteria and the way it is applicable to reviewing books. Lately, I have been thinking quite a lot about the way I review books and what is important to me when I sit down to write a review. I noticed that I have become more critical than I was before, and as the months go by and the more I read and the more I read what I consider to be REALLY GOOD books, the more I find myself to be extremely analytical which leads me to judging a book more severely.

As I wrote the paragraph above, I realise that I used a word that may come across as harsh and perhaps even a bit self-righteous: “judge”. But ultimately isn’t this exactly what I have been doing these past 14 months since we began The Book Smugglers? We have been passing judgement on books and the more readers we get, the more subscribers we have, the more I feel I need to be conscious of things I never had to worry about. I need to be conscious about HOW I read and WHY I feel the way I feel about a given book.

The exercise of writing articles about how one reviews is not a new endeavour of bloggers. Recently John Ottinger III from Grasping for the Wing posted his latest Inside the Blogsphere we he poses the question : What is your Reviewing Process to several bloggers and the result is really interesting. Jessica from Racy Romance Reviews wrote one reflecting if A Book Review is Just One Person’s Opinion .

The line that separates a reader from a reviewer is a fine one and we do proclaim ourselves as “readers” first and foremost but a reviewer has the not so easy mission of explaining what as a reader, we felt about a book. So, I tend to think YES – a review is one’s person opinion. A book reviewer is a reader and therefore subject to their own likes and dislikes which ultimately makes book reviewing a subjective art.

HOWEVER, this subjectivity does not preclude the attempt at being objective when putting one’s thought down to the paper – being subjective does not preclude procedure.

Going back to Philip Larkin’s criteria, I realise how close his points are to the way I look at the books I read and review :

1) can I read it?

I would definitely list this as first point I look for: good writing, good flow of sentences, good dialogue. If a book has BEAUTIFUL prose I can guarantee that the book will fall in my good graces

2) if I can read it, can I believe it?

If I find the writing compelling then the next step is definitely to determine if I am buying it. A book can easily fall from grace if the story take turns that ruin what the prose has accomplished. A good example is my review of The Price of Desire.

3) if I can believe it, do I care?

About what happens to the characters, about what happens in the story , about what happens to the world. A book can have good writing, I can believe in what I read…and still I may not care about it – usually it happens because the characters are underdeveloped or because there this something that I can’t quite name missing.

4) if I care, what is the depth of that caring and how long will it last?

THAT is the point isn’t it? What determines the final grade : is the book a keeper? Can I recommend a book wholeheartedly? Can I still think about it as a good book after a few days, few weeks, few months or even years? I try as much as I can to let books sink in before I write a review. The latest case was when I read The Name of the Wind and as soon as I finished that book I had a clear feeling that it was the best book I read in the past year. It had all the factors above: beautifully written , extremely well built world and characters I believed in and cared about. I waited three weeks to write my review and the feeling did not subside at all.

Although the criteria above provide good pointers where to depart from, I think one’s relationship with a book and afterwards, reviewing is not as straight forward as this. It may well be that against all odds, you will end up caring about characters or a world you do not believe in and I believe this is where suspension of disbelief comes into play. Similarly it seems to not take into consideration the “fun” factor or the “escapism” factor: what can one say about books (or movies) that are silly and preposterous and yet you can’t seem NOT to like it? Where all of your brain cells are screaming against it and yet you love it with all the fiber of your being?

And let’s not forget that what one considers readable, believable and loveable is largely based on the personal experience or personal likes and dislikes and there we have it , we are back to the subjectivity problem. I guess no matter from what angle you look at, the Subjective Problem remains.

I believe it is a good thing and it provides as many diverse opinions as there are books. My grandmother used to say: what would happen to ”blue” if everybody like the “yellow” – I ALSO take that into consideration when I am writing a review (“I don’t like it very much, but do I think other readers might? “)

As you can probably surmise this post is merely the ramblings of a mind preoccupied with what she is doing here and it is a work in progress. The questioning continues and I wonder: if you are a reviewer, do you have a process? If you read a review, what do you look for?

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23 Comments

  • pidute
    May 11, 2009 at 2:28 am

    I try to review some books but i find that too hard!

    But when i read a review (in a blog) ,i like to know what the book about but ultimately it’s the voice of the reviewer i want to hear.
    Not every one can review books (IMO) you have to explain to me why you like or dislike a book ,i take a certain talent to do that.
    Unfortunately there is too many people in the blogosphere who can not do it properly and you end up with a lot of junk.

  • Tumperkin
    May 11, 2009 at 6:09 am

    I struggle with this question on and off but keep coming back to the feeling that when I review I want to try and just get across as honestly as I can what my admittedly subjective reaction to that book was (whilst explaining that so far as possible with reference to objective things I can point to). I started blogging primarily to share my feelings about books and I suppose I try to stick to that so far as possible.

    I think that’s why I like the Larkin criteria you quoted so much – those criteria are absolutely rooted in unapologetic subjectivity.

  • Gerd Duerner
    May 11, 2009 at 6:49 am

    From a review I expect several things:
    Structure; If all I see is wall of words with no spaces I’m unlikely to bother read it at all.
    Accessibility; can the reviewer put forth his point in a concise manner or is he a narcissistic word-smith that will get caught up in his own sentences?

    Secondly, what I look for is respect. If I get the feeling that a reviewer lacks proper respect I won’t measure any weight on his opinion. I guess the point where you can tell a good reviewer from a bad one most easily is with the way they treat what they didn’t like. Especially with today’s blog culture the latter has become a real issue, IMO; it can be fun to read a tirade at times but most of them will not tell me much about a particular work, only about the reviewer.

    But I do want to see the reviewer in the review, because I don’t believe that it is possible to be impartial unless you write a review of a textbook, so it is important for me to see where the reviewer comes from in terms of likes and dislikes.

    Finally the review should give me a idea of what to expect from a book in context to its genre.

  • Diana Peterfreund
    May 11, 2009 at 7:46 am

    I think a writer often has the same professional setbacks as a reviewer when it comes to reading books — it’s hard to turn off the analysis.

    So I find that the books i truly love are the ones that allow me to turn off my professional writer’s mind and just enjoy the ride. And sometimes they are completely unbelievable but I buy it anyway. I can’t put my finger on it — it’s just something that calls to me on a visceral level.

    So I’d say that “I care” counts for way more than “I believe it.”

  • Heather (errantdreams)
    May 11, 2009 at 8:19 am

    For me, the most important question when reviewing is, “why?” If I can tell someone WHY I loved/didn’t love the hero/heroine, or believed/didn’t believe in the story or world, or did/didn’t care about what happened, then it should be possible for the person reading my review to know whether they might enjoy the book. Which is far more important to get across in my review than whether I enjoyed the book, IMO. That’s my way of handling the problem of subjectivity—I acknowledge that there’s no way to be wholly objective, and just try to provide the tools for other readers to judge for themselves through my experience.

  • Lusty Reader
    May 11, 2009 at 9:21 am

    I’m definitely from the camp of a review is more “Just One Person’s Opinion” and try to write my thoughts down from that perspective.

    I don’t like when reviews are full of IMO, IMHO, they way I feel, etc…with no WHY or analysis to back it up.

    But review styles DO evolve over time, as you mentioned, and I only just got my start. But I have already noticed that I’m reading differently and that maybe a teeny little weensy bit of my reading is not as enjoyable because in the back of my mind now I recognize “ok now she’s info dumping, the format for POV change was inconsistant, etc…” and I yank myself out of the story a bit more often because I am being more analytical in preparation to write a review.

  • AnimeJune
    May 11, 2009 at 10:56 am

    When I review, I find I discuss the characters more than anything else. I adore brilliant writing and good plot structure, but it’s always the hero and heroine first and foremost that make a romance for me. If the story is good but the characters are ninnies, I can’t enjoy the book – but there are many a romance with a gossamer-thin plot that have great characters that I love (Mary Balogh’s “Slightly Sinful” is an example).

    I like the “do I care?” element to the reviewer’s checklist, and this is often something I struggle with. I often have different grades in my head for certain types of books – an emotional grade and a technical grade. Let’s use “Private Arrangements” by Sherry Thomas as an example – reading this book, I’d have given it a high technical grade because it was meticulously constructed, with unconventional settings and an unusual story and morally ambiguous characters. But – but I couldn’t bring myself to care about the characters at all, and as a result the book got a lukewarm grade from me.

  • Kati
    May 11, 2009 at 11:56 am

    This is a really thoughtful post.

    I don’t really count my “review (-ish)” thing as reviews. I’m not anywhere as detailed as you guys are here, or even as they are at AAR. I’m not a “real” reviewer. But I do like to grade the books I read because it helps me at the end of the year put together my Top 10 list and pick my favorites. But I wouldn’t say I’m a “real” reviewer.

    I’ve been struggling, after bitch slapping an author whose work I’ve previously enjoyed’s newest release with a D+, if I’m harder on authors who I consider to be “best beloved.” The review(-ish) that I wrote was harsh, and I know for a fact the author read it. I don’t take any of it back, but I have since wondered if I was harsher on this book than I would have been if I didn’t *know* the author was capable of better. you know?

    For example, I’d say that Carolyn Jewel’s Scandal is probably the best romance I’ve read in the last year. So now, when her next one comes out, will I love it as much? And if not, will I be harsher on it than I should be when I grade it? I don’t know.

    Anyway, I’ve gone off on a tangent. Sorry.

    But I do think that Larkin’s list is probably the way more reviewers should think.

  • Ana
    May 11, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    wow, very interesting comments: thank you!

    Pidute: I too, as a reader want to hear the voice of whoever is writing and at first, it was the very thing I most worried about. I remember writing my first ever review (Raven Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt) and sending it to a friend and asking her: do I have a voice?

    Tumperkin: I think it is why I was so impressed when I read the Larkin Criteria as well: because it was rooted in subjectivity and yet trying to explain it objectively.

  • Ana
    May 11, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    Gerd – very thorough reply, thank you for taking the time. “Finally the review should give me a idea of what to expect from a book in context to its genre.” I wonder, what about in context to other genres? Sometimes, I struggle when I am writing a review of a Romance book and I think: should I compare it to other genres as well or only to other books within the genre? I tend to compare to other genres as well.

    Diana – I find it harder and harder to disconect these days. The books I enjoyed the most so far this year, were the books that I found so good, I lost myself in them without ANY concern – and they received a 10 from me. The Name of the Wind the lastest example.

  • Ana
    May 11, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Heather – It is also very important to be able to convey the Why , I agree. Would you say, it is an attempt to establish a direct connection to the person who is reading the review?

    LR – I totally get what you say – I realized lately that because of my reviewing , my reading has become not as enjoyable for the reasons you listed. I decided to read a couple of books monthly that are “JUST FOR FUN” books. But even then , I have this person inside my mind nagging me.

  • Ana
    May 11, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Animejune – I think this go back to the discussion we are having at your blog as well. 😀 I completely understand what you say about Sherry Thomas, I had similar reaction to Delicious. At points,I felt like crying the writing was SO freaking beautiful, but I did not care about the plotline or the characters as much as I cared about the writing.

    Kati – what are you on about? I really like your reviews. I read your D+ review and regardless of who the author is I thought you explained really well why you did not like it.

    and I am with you re Scandal. I am waiting anxiously for her next book and am terrified of what is going to happen.

    The same acutally happened lately to me: Smooth Talking Stranger by Lisa Kleypas. I think part of m y negative review came from the fact that I KNOW that she can write better character arcs than that of Ella’s in STS.

  • Tiah
    May 11, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    I don’t review books but I am constantly in search of reviews from other people. I do not purchase a book unless I have read at least one review of it. My hubby works hard for the money I blow on books so I need to be picky! 😉

    I too look for structure in a review. I hate when someone reviews a book generically with “I loved this book, it was a quick read.” etc. I need details about the book’s characters and the story’s plot without any spoilers. I want to know what was good about it and what was bad. I love to read opinions about books, if I am reading your review it means we share the same interests in books so I want to know your personal opinion.

    I also don’t want the review to sound like an official book report. I want the reviewers personality to come through the review as well.

  • Kristen
    May 11, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on reviewing, Ana. It’s a subject I think about a lot myself and I was glad to read your thoughts on it. I can sympathize with being far more critical of books than you used to be as you review more. Since reviewing, I tend to notice predictable plots and info dumping a lot more than I did when I read purely for enjoyment.

    I think you and Thea both doing an excellent job of giving enough information to get an idea of whether or not a book will jive with someone’s personal taste – and you make it entertaining with lots of personality. And that’s why I (and many others) keep reading. 🙂

    I’m constantly thinking about and trying to refine my own review process, too. The hardest part for me is explaining what I liked/didn’t like and why without spoilers. Sometimes there’s something I really want to talk about liking or not liking but I can’t because it would give too much away! And then I obsess over whether or not I’ve given too much away in what I have said and get my fiance to read it and ask him if I should/shouldn’t have said something. Then he usually tells me to chill an awful lot. 😉

    The other part that’s hard is what you mentioned about sometimes you just can’t put your finger on what exactly is missing. That’s so aggravating!

    Letting a book sink in for 3 weeks or so is a good idea. I don’t often do that since I’m afraid I’ll forget too many of the things I want to say, but there have been books that I find I forget easier than I expected or that linger in my memory a lot longer than I expected.

  • Kate
    May 12, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    I really, really like the Larkin model of reviewing. Seriously…I may pin it up above my computer.

    I actually have very little method to my reviewing, which strikes even me as odd. Actually I have a pretty strict method for reviewing academic books (as I suppose one must) but strangely that hasn’t melded much into my fiction reviewing. I mean, you don’t come upon a lot of fiction with bibliographic notes I guess.

    I think when I review I just simply try to hit upon the facets of the book that hit me the most, be they good or bad. I often feel like I put up very mixed reviews – I don’t grade or give stars or any sort of quantifiable method – which can result in me reviewing relatively favorably a book I enjoyed, even though I may harp at the change of agency in the character or anachronism inherent in the plot. And et cedera. But I’ve really resisted giving quantifiable reviews and will continue to do so, since I really don’t feel my reading experience should be summed up that way – most books are both good and bad, and even books I love may have bits that drive me nuts.

    I guess I’m sort of rambling. That’ll happen on three cups of coffee. At nine p.m.

  • Mame Burkett
    May 13, 2009 at 3:49 am

    I have loved reading this post and all the accompanying comments. The blogosphere of readers is so cool! I really enjoy when a conversation gets good. I have never seen the Larkin questions before and they are wonderful. I too am going to copy them and keep them nearby while writing up comments for my blog. For me, the most important question is do I care? If I care then I can believe even the most outrageous paranormal or sci fi, example recently is Dean Koontz Darkest Evening of the Year. If I don’t then it can be the most realistic novel and it won’t work for me, i.e. Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich, ok maybe she isn’t the most realistic.
    There are books that are poorly written I have enjoyed because I connected with the characters immediately and incredible prose I didn’t give two figs about because the characters didn’t connect for me.
    As always, thanks for the interesting post and good conversation.
    🙂
    Mame

  • KMont
    May 13, 2009 at 5:11 am

    My process seems to stop at the book info I type up for each book I review, the ISBN, genre, etc beside the book covers. I’m not naturally an organized person, and each book effects me differently anyway, so for me there doesn’t seem to be any way to structure reviews the same each time. I get bored if I try to do that. I do however envy and admire the reviewers that have an obvious process and structure for reviewing.

    The Larkin list mentioned is a good one, and I can see its uses, but I mainly just try to convey the depth of the characters I read, how the world around them effects them and the plot, how well-written said plot was and, finally, if the authors particular style made an impression, I’ll comment on that as well. I don’t use this every time though, like I said, it depends on how each book impacts me. I suppose I believe, because books are individually so different to me, that one structure isn’t necessarily reasonable. It would be like trying to assimilate us all into one mindset on reviewing, hence wiping out our individuality and what makes our reviews uniquely enjoyable.

    I enjoy, so much, the differences in all of our review “styles”, or voices, if you will. I wouldn’t want to see one set of rules for everyone. Larkin’s rules/list as a guide? Sure, but a guide only.

    One concession, or change I’ve made recently in my reviews was to stop personally summarizing the book. I’ve seen so many comments from readers over the last year that the summaries aren’t what they want, they want the reviewer’s opinions on the book itself. I admit, the lack of time lately has made this switch to using back cover blurbs easier on me, but it also allows me to get that much quicker into the meat of the review before I lose any key points I want to make. So, win win. I expect the way I review will keep changing in little ways over time. To try to structure that into ONE process, stifle it, wouldn’t enable me to write reviews very well.

    And this is slightly off topic, but it’s still about reviews – reviews do count. Even if you’re an amateur blogger/reviewer like me, they do matter to someone. I see so many people these days saying that in terms of book sales, PR for authors, etc. that reviews don’t make a difference one way or another, and this has led to some people feeling they don’t need to bother writing reviews anymore. I say even if it’s only something you enjoy doing, your pastime, then do it. Reviews are important. I have no clue HOW important what I do is to someone else, but it’s important to me and that’s got to count for something.

    Anyway, nice post!

  • Ana
    May 13, 2009 at 6:05 am

    Tiah – thanks for your input, as well. I hate the “I loved this book, it was a quick read.” That doesn’t tell me anything I need to know. I too do not purchase a book unless I read reviews of it. UNLESS it is a highly anticipated book that I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

    Kristen – thanks, that is very kind of you. We aim to be thorough whilst still having fun. You get your fiancée to read your reviews? Cool.
    Re: the memory problem: I think it helps me a lot that I write down pointers as I am reading the books. Keywords to describe the characters, or how I felt at a certain point.

    Kate: I know I did print it and it’s pinned to my calendar , I totally fell in love with his criteria.
    The grading part is so difficult sometimes. Thea and I exchange several emails on the subject on occasion especially when we are doing our joints. But even if I find it difficult , I think it is helps to focus and to be honest, it is one thing that I am always looking for in a review. I love your reviews and Jessica’s as well but in the end I often think to myself….so was that a 7 or a 8 graded book?

    Mame – I am loving this conversation as well! Thanks for taking part. You know, one of the things that I find REALLY hard is to carry on reading poorly reading books. It drives me nuts when I recognise potential in the characters and plot but can’t go on because of the writing. I find the other way around is easier.

  • Ana
    May 13, 2009 at 6:16 am

    Kmont – ah, I was waiting for you! I agree that the Larkin Criteria should be a guide only that shouldn’t suppress our individuality and I don’t think anyone would disagree with this view. I don’t think that having one necessarily excludes the other.

    As for the summarising: I don’t think I will ever remove than from my reviews because in many ways Summary= Plot to me. I always start with a couple of paragraphs on that because the way a reviewer summarises the book makes a difference in my opinion: it shows how someone read the book and it helps much more than the blurbs or back page summaries I think.

    I agree that reviews do count: how could they not? If they didn’t, blogs wouldn’t be increasingly popular. I know we can’t quantify it, but I am sure it does help. But I think the reviewers that will quit or the ones that don’t count as much are the ones that put NO THOUGHT whatsoever to what they were doing. So we are back to the “I love this book, It was a quick read” type of reviews – they are not good to readers, authors or PR.Or not?

  • Kate
    May 13, 2009 at 9:36 am

    Kmont, I have to sort of agree on the summarizing thing…I can spend a lot of time thinking of how best to summarize the book, when what ends up coming out often just sounds like a back cover blurb. Why not just use the back cover blurb? I’ve never felt very strongly about a reviewer summary v. back blurb…it’s a good suggestion. Ana, I do think you’re also right in that a reviewer-written summary can really color how the reviewer perceived the book…but at the same time I am throwing my hands up in the air at my current lack of time. I am such a shamefully inattentive blogger right now.

    Ana, I know what you mean about wanting that rating, it can be so useful. And I’m not against it in a broad sense. Sometimes I really jealous that people can assign a grade like that, honestly! It drives me nuts over at Lit Mob that I have to assign a 1-5 star rating. I’m so ambivalent that all of my reviews fall in the 2-4 star range since they’ve all been varying degrees of good or not good. I think my brief fling of producing quantifiable reviews solidified my inability to do so 😀

  • Mr.Carrot72
    October 22, 2009 at 12:12 pm

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  • Wendy
    April 16, 2010 at 2:09 am

    I have a slight method to my reviewing but I’ve never thought of it that way. I think about mainly the characters – A story with not well-developed, inconsistent characters is a story ruined, to me. I can forgive a shaky plot and pretty much anything but crappy characters that don’t make me care about what’s happening to them.

    What it comes down to (at least, pertaining MY reviews) is what I like or did not like about the book – the plot, the worldbuilding, the characters (!) etc. It all makes a circle of awesomness (or suckiness) that I will either love or throw against the wall.

    Regarding grades, I flipping hate them! Not until recently did I start rating books because I was asked to, but it’s just too hard to consistently rate a book when there are things I did or didn’t like about it.

    Anyway, just my two cents! 🙂

  • Mrs. Hanson
    April 16, 2010 at 9:02 am

    Excellent post, ladies! As I’ve just begun my book review blog, I think there’s a delicate balance to objective reviewing. It takes a finesse I’m trying to master!

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