Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Books and Truth

All three of you who follow this blog are aware I occasionally review books.

What I haven't done is reviewed books I don't care for. If I post about a title, you can rest assured I thought it was pretty horking good, or I wouldn't bother posting anything at all about it.

However, this troubles me. Is not the "I didn't finish this" or "I finished it under the author's threat to have my children fed to sharks but I hated the book" review as valid as the one that explains why I loved it? Where is the line to walk between Momma's admonition to say something nice or nothing at all, and the truth?

Now, I don't expect anyone to like the same books I do. And I don't always like what other folks do. What a dull world it would be, if only one set of preferences were all that sells! In fact, I expect others to differ with me regarding my take on any given book.

I call that constructive dialogue. Unlike a few other places, I want to encourage such dialogue. If we do this, we may run the risk of disagreeing with one another or something equally terrifying.

I submit that we're all big grown-ups and we can take it.

That said, along the lines of "what's in it for you" -- where do you stand? Would you like to see all reviews on this blog, for books I loved and books I read muttering, "You have got to be kidding!"?

Do you value honest comment (which may lead to controversy) over being nice?

Weigh in, please.

12 comments:

Laurie Alice Eakes said...

I struggle with this, too. Now that we are published, we run the risk of alienating a colleague. I figure if the book got published and some people like it, then it has some redeeming qualities to it and look forthose. Those are the things I point out.

Sadly, in certain genres, it seems the offerings are rather poor and people like the books in the way that one likes Spam, ifit's the only food one has to eat.

Lisa Lickel said...

I used to have a column, A writer reads, on my blog. I tried to be really honest, as a writer learning to write by reading others. By really honest, I didn't necessarily flatter or flatten anyone, but after a while I realized that some of these people might review me later and I stopped the column. I suppose I was (am) chicken. How helpful is it to the authors I reviewed? Or to me? I went on to do regular reviews for several organzations, just lately even joining afictionado, so...hmmm, I don't feel like a compromising weasel, although I've learned to write and read betwen the lines of reviews.

Judith Robl said...

Reviewing is hard. From the standpoint of former English teacher, I tend to edit as I read. If I find my blue pencil worn to the nub, it has to be a really good story to retain my attention.

However, as a coach for aspiring writers, I can see the potential in most of the stories I read.

That's why I really enjoy doing the sort-from-over-the-transom thing. I get to see proposals and stories, recommend further training and mentoring to writers that seem to have something to say, and help weed out the dross.

When you come to a proposal that has craft, technique, story, enthusiasm and message, it's like striking the mother lode in a gold mine. So satisfying!!

Deb said...

We certainly all agree that reviewing the good ones is easy. Fun, too. I love to praise a great read when I happen upon one. NEVER SAY NEVER was such a read for me, and it's so easy to like, and say so!

But what's your take on those that happen along more frequently ... the ones where the historical inaccuracies drive you ballistic, or those that the author "got it right" but the writing is flat? Or those that are technically perfect but lack any life?

Or one of my prime pet-peeves, books whose plot problem would be solved by a 10 minute conversation between Him and Her on page 10, and thereby become flash fic instead of a full length novel?

Hmm? You know the books I mean. What do you think? Honesty or tact?

Lisa Lickel said...

I'll name names: I was one of a few people who hadn't read Colleen Coble, so when a review op came, I jumped. Sure, the book was free and Thomas Nelson, but good gracious, was it a disaster. I'm not necessarily soured for life, but such a huge age gap problem with the main characters who were only supposed to be a couple of years apart in school, then later time stopped for one of them, but not the other and they ended up ten years apart just creeped me out. And there were other issues that just came out of the blue and made no sense whatsoever. In my review I didn't say what the problems were, just that there were plot issues, but that here characters were real and blah, blah. Having had my last book edited witout benefit of my being able to have the final proof, I can see where some of these things might happen if a committee edited your book, each person a different chapter...but c'mon.

On the other side is the flat writing...Then I have to find something else in the book to focus on, and let the readers figure it out. That's one reason I don't make "recommendations" when I review.

Deb said...

Up to now I have made recommendations, but maybe it's time to re-think that stance. Not everyone is going to like what I like -- I accept that.

And I'm just ornery enough to avoid books that are supposed to be "must-reads." I have never read either Ms. Coble's work or Ms. Collins's. Nor do I intend to. I did read one by Ms. Martin whose book (let's say) inspired me to write more and send to the house that publishes her work. I didn't finish that novel and IMO she made every new writer's mistake there is.

So I don't tend to have auto-buy authors until/unless they've already proven themselves to me or one of the very few other readers whose tastes are similar to mine.

Laurie Alice Eakes said...

Hmm. Since you once referred to my writing as being technically perfect, I presume you're talking about one of my books? ouch. Of course, others don't feel that way, so I don't take it too hard, including my editor and the marketing person assigned to me. But you haven't read that one either. I'm actually not very technically perfect. I break every rule I cang et away with and more in my longer works, and I don't expect everyone to like my stuff. In my first Revell book, the hero is a badboy who has done and still does some terrible things. He's going to turn a few people off, but he's redeemable and redeemed.

with that in mind, I figure I need to be careful with others' work, too. Recommed books? Yes, I do if it's really worth it. Otherwise... Well, read my blog. I think you'll figure out which books I really liked and which ones I find... less than appealing. But others don't, including some authors.

Deb said...

Actually it wasn't your book I referred to. It was LADY OF MILKWEED MANOR which I thought was perfect in all technical senses and the plot/characterization were simply dead to me. At the end I was like, "You have GOT to be kidding." It made me much less interested in subsequent work by that author because I felt that she might again wrap up a plot in a convenient and improbable fashion.

Don't get me wrong, either -- lots of people liked that book. Many, many people like Martin's work, and Collins's, and others. I'm just not one of them. Fortunately in Christian fiction we're working toward the desirable state of having something for every reader on the continuum...and boy, is it a wide span!

Laurie Alice Eakes said...

It's no secret that I didn't like Milkweed Manor, for the historical issues, if nothing else, and I have to say that hernext two books are really good, esp. this latest one. We all learn and grow. Never read Martin or Coble. Tried to read one of Collins women's fiction books. I didn't dislike it and thought the writing good; I just wasn't engaged and moved on. So many books, so little time. I have no problem setting down a book. Just did. the author had an adjective for every noun. Got on my nerves. I know too many inspi authors who substitute adjectives for the riht noun or verb.

Janny said...

I have always despised the notion that we dastn't say anything that could remotely be considered negative about anyone's books, anytime, ANYWHERE, no matter how kindly, because someone could be LISTENING...or someday that person will REVIEW us...or her best friend's gonna blab all about it to her and she'll HATE ME FOREVER...

Puh-LEEZE. Can we all just get out of high school here?

The "alienating a colleague" consideration is something that's worth considering...IF you're the kind who tends to sharpen your rapier wit on the edges of someone else's ego. In other words, if the review's going to turn out to be about YOU (and your clever turn of phrase while you decimate them) rather than about THEM...can it. Don't say anything at all. No one needs meanness for meanness' sake, even if it comes off as wickedly funny to you and your close circle of friends.

But if it's a matter of pointing out craft weaknesses, or even--God help us--merely NOT LIKING THE BOOK for whatever reason? There's no room for tissue-paper skin in this business, and merely by saying, "This book could have used ___," you are not disparaging a person, taking cheap shots at her family, doubting her salvation, or "being hurtful." You're merely expressing an opinion and, in some cases, some good honest criticism the author should have heard by other people in her life before the book left her control.

This doesn't give you license to be snotty, as previously mentioned. But if you read a book and don't like it, I think you do us all a disservice by not saying so just as publicly as you tell us about the books you LIKE. We may not agree with your assessment...or we may read a couple of pages of the same book and wonder if there's something wrong with US. Either way, there's reassurance to be had from honest reviews, both good and bad, and we shouldn't hesitate to put them out there.

My cantankerous two cents,
Janny

Lisa Lickel said...

How perfectly put, Janny!

katiejohnsonwriter.com said...

This is so hard for me. I really enjoy reviewing books, but the last time I reviewed a novel, it was so incredibly bad, and was written by a very well-known author. I was struggling to think of anything good to say. I wanted to say, "He put words on the page and they made sentences."

It soured me for a long time on doing reviews. I'm looking to find a balance now that I'm older and wiser. I'm not sure what that balance is!