We’re book bloggers. We write book reviews. And while it might seem like book reviews are easy to write, they’re often more difficult than you’d think. How do you condense your thoughts on an entire novel into a single, 800-word article? How do you describe the book without spoiling major plot points? How do you describe your love (or hate) for a book without devolving into a cluster of “I can’t even…”?
Then there’s the question of why we review books in the first place– beyond a basic reason like, ‘the publisher sent me a free copy in exchange for an honest review’. That’s common enough these days that we don’t blink an eye at it, but just as often, I see reviews for books that have been out for years, decades, or even centuries. So why review a book like The Lord of the Rings or Anna Karenina when people have been talking about both for years? Because we want to be part of the conversation. I might not be the first to write about either of those books, but my perspective is unique to me, and so I can add to an ongoing dialogue, even though major literary critics have already made their Grand Opinions known.
Speaking of literary critics…
There’s an assumption that literary criticism is done by high-minded, elite intellectuals writing from their ivory towers and delivering inviolable literary opinions from on high. And sure, you have your Harold Blooms who write like they’re the be-all-end-all of literary criticism, but the truth is that anyone who actively thinks about the books they’re reading is a critic.
This is a good thing. It’s healthy to engage with the things you like. It builds critical thinking skills. And it doesn’t mean that you’ll start to hate the things you previously enjoyed. You can love things and still acknowledge their flaws. Nothing is perfect, and that’s okay. As A.O. Scott writes in his book, Better Living Through Criticism:
“It’s the job of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom. That everyone is a critic means, or should mean, that we are each of us capable of thinking against our own prejudices, of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness, of sharpening our dulled and glutted senses and battling the intellectual inertia that surrounds us. We need to put our remarkable minds to use and to pay our own experience the honor of taking it seriously.”
We all have the ability to engage with the books we read, to examine our reactions to them, and to figure out why we respond the way we do to one work over another. Writing a review allows us to clarify those thoughts and explain, to ourselves and to others, how the book was successful– or not. Were the characters believable as people, or were they one-note figures who responded to everything the same way? Did the story accomplish its goals? Did the narrative hold up to scrutiny, or was it filled with gaping plot holes? Did the story make you think more deeply about its topics, or was it wholly surface-level? Did you enjoy it? Or did you hate it? Why?
Do we need to do this with every piece of media we consume? Probably not. But having the critical skills needed to examine a book or a movie gives us the ability to form a reasoned opinion and be able to defend that opinion. Why is that important? Here are a few examples:
- “I know Book A is a ridiculous piece of fluff, but I love it for these reasons”
- “I know Book B is a cultural touchstone and regarded by many as a Big Important Book, but I didn’t like it, and here’s why”
- “Author X was offended by a negative review of their book and got their Twitter followers to mob the reviewer, but maybe I should step back and think twice before jumping on Author X’s bandwagon”
Critical reading and reviewing help us, as readers, to clarify our thoughts on a work, express our views on it, and engage with the larger book community about that work. It doesn’t mean we’ll stop enjoying fun things and turn into a dour person who only reads Great Works of Literature. It means that we’ll have a better understanding of our own tastes, and be able to say why we love or hate elements of a certain work.
So who are book reviews meant for?
They’re not for authors.
I know there are a lot of bloggers and vloggers who won’t create negative reviews because they feel it’s disrespectful to the author who worked long and hard on their book. Personally, I don’t subscribe to that notion. An author may have poured their heart into a book but that doesn’t, by default, make it good. Nor does it mean I am required to either enjoy or praise it. Once a book has gone to the publisher for printing, it’s out of the author’s hands. The reading public can think whatever they want about it.
Reviews are for readers. They’re for readers who have a limited amount of time and/or money, and who want to know if that hyped book is really worth it. They’re for readers who want to find other, like-minded people to talk about favorite books with. They’re for readers who want to find out about engaging, new-to-them books they might fall in love with. Whatever your opinion is of a book, a review is a way to begin a conversation about it.