What makes for a good review?
I am not a professional reviewer. That is not one of my job descriptions, but as someone who is quite active on the bookish side of social media, hosting a podcast where I interview authors and talk about books, at some point I had to step back and consider my role as a hobbyist reviewer.
Whether we get paid for it or not, reviews are an important part of the book community, and reviews help authors, even when you hold a small Instagram account with just a few followers.
But reviews don’t come to me easily; I have a tendency to love books and yet forget pretty easily most of everything I read. I will tell you a book is my all time favourite (I will say this about quite a few), but you will want to talk to me about specific scenes and my mind is blank: have I read that book? And yes, I have read it but, to me, books are mostly filled with feelings, and memory can be a tricky thing. So by the time I am reviewing a book, I often know very little about it, except for the ways it made me feel, and how much I liked or disliked it.
Books I liked are usually easy to review. I simply say how much I love and recommend them, what I thought of the characters and plot development, how much the writing clicked for me. I don’t tend to hang much on the negatives of a book I have rated 4 or 5 stars, but I will definitely point them out when the rating is lower than that.
The problem here is that it is very easy to take the path of meanness when a book doesn’t click with us. I even admit that I absolutely love bashing books I didn’t like, one of little pleasures in life. But when you have a more or less public reviewing platform at hand — even one with a small audience — being completely honest without a filter can bring more trouble than joy, and can pass on a personal image you don’t want to convey.
Of course, most people will argue: what makes for a good review is honesty. Concision. Clarity. And they will be partially right.
When I seek out a review — either because I am trying to understand the book I have just read better, or because I am deciding if I should buy a certain book or not — I am thankful if the reviewer is honest about the reasons why the book worked/didn’t work for them. Especially with titles I am not sure I should purchase (sometimes you have a gut feeling you won’t like it, even when so many seem to love it), I try to find the two sides of a review: the ones from those who loved the book, and those who really disliked it.
Since so many things can make or break a book, having a good layout of the book from someone else helps loads. I find that a good reviewer is someone who is aware that a book not working for them is often a personal thing, rather than a reflection of the general quality of the book.
A great example of this is Leah’s consideration on why we should read books for what they are. And why we should review and rate them accordingly.
As I stated above, I invite authors to come to my podcast. Unfortunately, I don’t always love every book I read in preparation for those interviews. This happens for a myriad of reasons: I am glad to interview most people who reach out to me first, even if I haven’t heard about them before; usually, when I accept an interview request, my worries are less geared towards the genre of the book we’ll be discussing, and more towards the problematics that may surround the author and the book itself. I have certain beliefs, and I would like my social media and podcast to reflect those beliefs. Ideally, those I accept to bring to the podcast will have similar ideas regarding human rights and social justice. I don’t have to offer anyone a platform for the sake of argument, nor do I do well with so-called devil’s advocates.
At times, the books I get to read and review are not my cup of tea. I may struggle to get to the end of them, especially if it’s a genre I don’t appreciate. But without exception, there is one tool I use when I review these books, and that is kindness.
Kindness towards someone who put a lot of passion, love, but also work, into creating a whole ass-book (kudos to anyone out there publishing things: I see you, and I applaud you). And then, having the courage to put that work into the world and deal with whatever comes at them, which isn’t always what was expected or dreamed of.
I review works from people I will bring into my podcast, as a means of social media marketing, and I know those authors will read my review. I am not one to shatter someone’s work just for the heck of it. As my podcast and bookstagram account evolved and I started sharing reviews of books written by my guests, something I had never considered before struck me as obvious: this way to tackle books is actually the best way to do so. It allows you to set aside your own expectations and preferences, and indeed review the book for what is is outside of you.
Not only will this be a lot more useful to your followers than a petty “this book was shite,” it will also make it less awkward may the author accidentally find your review online (and it is never enough to reiterate this: do not tag authors in your negative reviews).
All the complaints you have that you just need to vent can be relayed upon your bookish friends, in private. You can let yourself go wild, and it will keep your social media a place filled with kind vibes, and with better — and, actually, more objective — reviews.
Of course, all of the above does not include books that are problematic, or that deal poorly with problematic themes. Authors should be held accountable for their biases and prejudices, especially when they refuse to apologise, address, or change such behaviours. So if you are writing Nazi romance and still think that’s okay, or if, let’s say, you are hypothetically harassing reviewers who rated your book 4 stars “only:” not respectfully (or kindly), very much fuck off.
Kindness is a powerful tool. Consider applying it next time you review a book you didn’t click with. You’ll see there is much to gain from it and, like with every exercise, it will eventually come naturally. It may even change your relationship with, and enjoyment of books, by letting you see the good amongst the bad.
“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
If you have enjoyed this essay, here are a few more you’ll appreciate:
No Man Is An Island: Changing Your Opinion About A Book
Why I Review Everything I Read
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