What Part of the Brain Controls Book Reviews? (and a Tribute to Jerry and Bill) – Essay by Gavin Atlas

Last year at Saints and Sinners, Jerry and Bill offered a panel on book reviewing, and I wished I could have participated.  Since the bosses are in New Orleans, I’ll fill up some space, and hopefully you’ll get something out of it.  At the end, I’ll have a request of you based on the fact that traffic reports indicate lots of people view Out in Print, but often there are only a few comments, if any.

First, why should you want to read criticism on criticism?  Perhaps because authors who practice story and character analysis by writing reviews, even if it’s for their eyes only, learn more quickly to avoid mistakes they’ve identified in other people’s work.  Meanwhile, readers might discern patterns in what they like and dislike which can help them winnow their to-be-read lists.

I’m unusual because I come at reviews from three angles:  an author, a book reviewer (although I now write few reviews), and a publicist.  Wait a minute.  Four angles.  Sometimes I’m a potential consumer.

Seeing it from all those perspectives has taught me that reviewing is extremely difficult, and there are so many ways to go wrong.  When studying reviewing techniques in college, we were told professionals use third person and make declarative statements.  “Readers of all ages will love this immensely”.   That sounds good, and you can bet that authors (and publicists) love the confidence and universality of that statement.  I used to do that with every review. 

Then I started looking at Dear Author and other sites that revel in getting attention by shredding authors with world-class sarcasm.  I came across vicious declaratives like “Readers will decry this protagonist as the most passive individual since Terri Schiavo”.   I’d be dishonest if I said snark and hyperbole are never funny, but it’s most likely not if you’re the author under attack.  Offending someone isn’t any concern to the anonymous critics at Dear Author, and if any of them know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a review gleefully dripping with venom, I would never have guessed.  The Out in Print reviewers are brave and decent enough to put their names on their reviews even though the books largely come from a small writing community where nearly everyone knows everyone.  

Here’s a side note to reviewers who write angry reviews, not for attention, but out of honest, serious disappointment. I know it’s dreadful to read bad book after bad book, and if you have innumerable reviewing commitments, I can understand the bile.  But perhaps you should stop.  The times I’ve had trouble with vitriol were when I didn’t realize I was exhausted, and that could be what’s going on with you.  If this isn’t your livelihood, take a break until you can enjoy reading again.  Really.   

Here’s something I picked up from Jerry.  Despite what journalism class dictated, if something was potentially painful, I think it can be preferable to own that opinion by using an “I statement”.  So that grumpy reviewer could have said, “I felt that this book was a disappointing read as the protagonist rarely took action to help herself or anyone else, so it felt unreasonable for her village to conclude she must be their immortal savior.”  See? It’s logical, well-defended, and the writer recognizes he’s a humble book reviewer, not the Almighty Dictator of Literary Merit.  Is that an easy skill to learn?  Not at all.  

I’ve heard many reviewers say they are writing for readers, not writers.  However, I’ve heard enough reviewers complain about writers not reading their reviews to know that’s not a hundred percent honest. I’ve also heard it’s unreasonable and delusional for writers to conclude that a bad review reflects a bad reader, not a bad book.  Well…not always. 

It’s true many reviewers these days could be considered amateurs if they haven’t taken Critical Methods in school nor have previous experience reviewing before jumping head first into the blogosphere.  But so what? There’s nothing wrong with that and many, perhaps most, do a fantastic job.  But there’s a difference between amateur journalism and unprofessional journalism.  Now we’re seeing the “Unfair Overshare” problem cropping up where even a glowing review can decimate books sales because the review gave away the ending. Then there’s the “Indefensible Absolute” problem (“It’s impossible that anyone would enjoy this book”) that you nearly never used to see. 

What’s possibly worse is the new “Out of Element Review” problem.  Here’s an extreme example. Pretend there’s a site called Cozy Mystery Reviews, and a reviewer posts, “Yuck.  This mystery was hard-boiled, blood-drenched, and not at all cozy!  There wasn’t a single cat, fireplace, or cup of tea!  Boo, hiss.  Grade F!”  Readers looking at this review would be wondering why in the world this reader would choose this book for this site.  But it happens a lot.

I work with erotica authors, and this is a frequent problem for them and, to nearly the same degree, mainstream romance authors.  Scenes may trigger readers’ “squicks” (turn offs) and emotional boundaries that are unpredictable, often reflexive, and very often inconsistent.  It’s not uncommon to see a review contain a phrase like “Oh, I love BDSM books, but, ugh, after all that nice flogging, they French kissed.  Unacceptable!  2 stars.” 

There is something I was taught called Critical Distance which basically means that a reviewer is aware that a book was not written specifically for her/him and therefore should do the best possible job of transcending biases/preferences/tastes to look objectively at plot, character, and the quality of the prose.   It’s not an easy technique to acquire, but it’s important to make an attempt. 

What does this have to do with Out in Print?  There are too many times I’m seeing half apologies like “The reason I couldn’t get into this was the lesbian subplot turned my stomach, but that’s just me.  If that doesn’t bother you, you might like this novel as there’s some strong characterization and good writing.”  But the reader doesn’t get that far because at the top of the review, she sees the book only got two stars.  Why bother going further? 

Not that authors (myself included) are totally free from misbehavior.  You see statements posted on blogs or Facebook like “Jesus Christ, I bet that damn reviewer is selling my titles to Half-Priced Books” (true, they shouldn’t if they got a free galley, but keep reading) or “I would never have sent that site an ARC if I knew the review wouldn’t appear for three months!”

Not that long ago book reviewing was normally a paying occupation.  Now reviewers like Michiko Kakutani who are salaried, enjoy the ability to influence thousands or millions of readers, and are recognized with major awards are a tiny minority.

Today reviewing is largely a labor of love where little love is offered.  It’s also skilled labor that takes hours and hours each week.  I don’t condone selling galleys, particularly when that’s a pre-agreed upon condition as it is with Amazon Vine. But instead of losing sleep over resale fouls, let’s calculate how much a reviewer would make if somehow he did get paid an hourly rate, even at minimum wage, and then compare it to how much he’d receive from selling the book.  The reviewer invariably comes out way behind.  Also consider that publishers have been sending out free review copies for decades.  They would know by now if it was a losing proposition.  

So please, if you enjoy a review on Out in Print or found one useful, leave a comment. If you have a differing perspective on a book, participate.  Are there new small press books no one seems to know about, but need to be discovered?  Offer to write a few reviews. Last, please give Jerry, Bill, the other reviewers at Out in Print and reviewers everywhere who provide coverage of LGBT works a big thumbs up.  It is a rare privilege to have skilled, dedicated, and unbiased reviewers that give our literature the forum it deserves.


Gavin Atlas

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