In Praise of the Personal Review
Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a lot of bluster in the YA community over what reviews “should be” and how they should be written and defined and what they should and should not contain. It’s a conversation that was very common in the online Romance community not so many years ago, and the topic still breaks the not-so-still waters periodically.
I won’t rehash the arguments made over the past few weeks, but I will provide a link round-up for anyone trying to catch up on the crazy:
A nice summary of the Goodreads flameouts
YA author Hannah Moskowitz’s “open letter” to Goodreads reviewers
Veronica Roth’s thoughtful response to some of her fellow YA authors’ meltdowns
Maggie Stiefvater’s insistence that reviews should be like academic papers, with a thesis and supporting sentences
Crime writer Jim Thompson’s rules for reviewing
Common themes have emerged from authors and reviewers. On the authorial side we’ve seen the assertion that there is a certain type of review that deserves to be called a “review,” and there are certain “professional standards” said “review” must meet, else it becomes something else, something decidedly lesser. And on the reviewer side we have the persistent refrain, “reviews are not for authors, so authors should not be trying to define them.” Of course there are authors on the so-called reviewer side and vice versa, but this conversation has occurred so often over the past decade or so that I’ve been online, that many of the issues are now well-rehearsed.
There also tends to be this polarization of micro and macro perspectives. On the one hand, you get rants on specific reviews that generate numerous generalizations and misunderstandings. We saw that here on Dear Author just yesterday. Then you get these macro-level generalizations about, say, less than stellar Amazon or Goodreads reviews, as if these reviews are mass-produced in some anti-author factory somewhere. In fact, one of the interesting things Veronica Roth notes is that “98% of the time, the reviewer is expressing opinions about a book, and if an author expresses his or her opinions about a review, they are always saying something about the reviewer.” We’ve also seen that here at Dear Author, too.
And let’s face it; it’s not difficult to see why that happens. A book review can feel like an incredibly personal thing, even though it’s directed at the book and not the author. Responding publicly in a way that doesn’t sound like a personal opinion about the reviewer is not as easy as it may seem, in part because a review is a personal opinion, with the reviewer and the review more closely combined in the review itself.
Which is, I think, one of the best things about reviews and one of the chief reasons we (that is, the broad community of readers, authors, editors, and publishers, regardless of favored genre) should be encouraging as broad a diversity of reviewing voices as possible, with the fewest set “rules” about what constitutes a proper or legitimate review.
I suspect a lot of the rule-setting is about legitimacy. I mean, what author wouldn’t want a glowing review in the NYTBR? And regardless of all the dismissive “I’m laughing all the way to the bank” comments about gaining critical exposure in certain venues, there is still a lingering sense that certain critical attention equals cultural or literary legitimacy. I think some of the current muddle in YA is connected to a desire for the perception of greater legitimacy for the genre. And I don’t think that desire is, in itself, illegitimate. What I think is unproductive and short-sighted, though, is the attempt to proscribe reviewing, especially when those doing the proscribing are not, in fact, doing the bulk of the reviewing.
For example, how many people consult Yelp or Trip Advisor when checking out a hotel or restaurant? How would you feel if the restaurant or hotel industry came out publicly against certain kinds of online reviews? Wouldn’t that seem to represent an overstepping of bounds? But book reviewing is different! Books are art! Writing is hard! Yes, writing is difficult. Writing reviews can be difficult, too. Not everyone articulates their opinion easily or in the same way. Not everyone is versed in the language of literary theory or writing craft. Not everyone has the same writing style or feels the same way about a book. In fact, it’s the very personal experience of reading – much like the experience of writing – that makes it special and makes the articulation of its lasting effects on the reader so critical. Not that every review is a gem of brilliant insight or linguistic beauty, but as a whole, reviews are tangible evidence of the importance and legitimacy of reading and of books.
At its best, reading creates an alchemical reaction between book and reader, an elevation of both through the synergy created in the radiance of the experience. Although difficult to express, every reader knows what I’m talking about here, because we’ve all had that experience, thus our ongoing dedication to reading. It’s a very personal experience that, in and of itself, cannot be expressed. However, what can be articulated are the thoughts and reactions we have to books in a review – literally a re-viewing of the text through words. And in that re-viewing, we can share a part of that reading experience with others, making something that is unique and personal into something collective and connected.
If legitimacy is really the issue here, then let’s think about the long-term legitimacy of reading and book buying in general. How many nail-biting admonishments do we hear about the future of books, which are in hot competition with myriad other forms of entertainment. Reading, a largely solitary experience, becomes shared and communal through conversation, some of which may begin with reviews. Conversation both reflects and fosters personal investment, which in turn promotes more reading and conversation. The book is critical, but so are the forums in which the book becomes alive again through discussion and debate. This second-life doesn’t always take on the form most pleasing to the author, but it’s life, nonetheless, and that vivification is productive. It keeps interest in reading and books alive and growing, in the form of overlapping communities, forums, and venues, and in the inclusion of more and more voices. Why would anyone want to limit the number or type or style of voices in reading communities when there is so much worry about the long-term viability of books and reading?
But perhaps even more importantly, why would we want to stifle the precise thing that makes reading so powerful to so many of us – the enduring promise of that alchemical magic – for the sake of formalities? If books are special, if they are to be regarded as “art,” and if genre fiction in general is legitimate, then it will survive bad grammar, bad language, and even bad reviews.