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On Writing "Reviews", or whatever you want to call them

Less than three months into the year, the book blogging and reviewing community has already seen the latest upset – which is really a kind of “re-upset”, since these happen every year it seems.

I had originally written this really long, impassioned post about my thoughts on the matter, but once I got the rant out of my system I felt that none of it was particularly valid or new anymore; in fact, I come quite late to this debate.

The debate, to bring you up to speed (or to explain what this post is about), is essentially around “bad” book blogger/reviewer and author behaviour, and whether book bloggers/online reviewers actually write “real” reviews at all. I’ve gathered together pertinent links below if you want to journey through the discussions – at the very least, check out Maggie Stiefvater’s blog post about what she considers to be a “real” review, because it sparked a whole new round of posts on the topic.

I sometimes read reviews that you could probably label “enflaming” or snarky, and I generally find that they provide good warnings (they’re always of YA books, it seems, the quality of which, now that they have such huge cross-generational readership, is a bit iffy at times). But I wouldn’t have cared much for this debate if Stiefvater’s words hadn’t pricked a few of my pedantic nerves. Of the kind of reviews that provoked bad author behaviour, she says they

often involve animated gifs, swearing, and snark. They’re often quite funny. But here’s the thing, though. When a blogger writes a biased, hilarious, snarky rundown of a book they despised, he/ she is not writing a review. They are writing a post about a book. I’m not saying that bloggers shouldn’t write biased, hilarious, snarky rundowns of books. I’m saying that those rundowns are not reviews.

While a real book review she defines as:

… an unbiased, careful look at a book — basically it is a little academic paper. It involves an itty-bitty thesis on your opinion of the book, surrounded by tiny supporting sentences describing the strengths and weaknesses of said book. [In writing a review for the New York Times, my] opinion was important, yes, but even more important was getting the essence of the book across in a few short paragraphs. The better I define the strengths and weaknesses, the more useful that review is really going to be to a reader. In the end, my opinion is nearly secondary — I should’ve done my job well enough that the reader can decide for themselves if the book is for them or not. Because a review isn’t for me. It’s for other people.

I wanted an example of what she meant (I like examples) and so I found her recent review of Francesca Lia Block’s Pink Smog on the New York Times Book Review site that she’s referring to in the above quote. And yes, it’s a very well-written review. It provides an example of the kind of “professional” review Stiefvater is talking about, the kind of review that book bloggers rarely write (more on that in a bit).

I don’t disagree with Stiefvater’s definition of a review, not really (more on that later). What I have trouble with is her claim that a “professional” review isn’t subjective. Of course it is. We’re human, and we’re not writing technical manuals here. Anyone who’s ever studied journalism knows we can’t keep personal bias out of what we write, and reviews are nothing but one person’s take on a book.

BUT, there are well-written reviews, and there are weakly-written reviews, and then there are the snarky ones she mentions above, which can be highly entertaining and often get right to the contentious point about a book (see some of the links below) without farting around. I would like to write well-written reviews, and I feel like I have some success sometimes and fail miserably at other times. Certainly I think I was writing better reviews before having a baby. But they keep me writing, which I have little time for these days (and a lack of inspiration, but that’s another issue entirely).

While wandering around the internet, I came across an earlier post on Fiction Writers Review on “Owl Criticism” by Charles Baxter, which – if we link the two, written a year apart – helps us understand what Stiefvater really meant (or what I think she really meant). “Owl criticism” is the tendency online reviewers – on Amazon and Goodreads, in particular – have of saying things like “this book has an owl in it. I don’t like owls, so I didn’t like the book.” Baxter includes some examples gleaned from thousands like them on Amazon:

“Paintlady” from Jacksonville, Florida, writes: “Anna Karenina is the most boring book I have ever laid eyes on; I do not know how this book became a classic; it belongs in the circular file, not on the bookshelf.” About Madame Bovary, “photondancer” writes, “Dear lord, this book was awful. One of the very few novels that I have been unable to finish or indeed to get halfway through. It was just TOO BORING.” About Shakespeare’s King Lear, Daisy in Arizona writes, “The story overall was just unsatisfactory. At times it seemed idealistic and illogical.”

(as an aside, I’m often reminded – and often keep in mind – when I write reviews, that classic, basic piece of direction we all got from our high school English teachers: don’t just say “it was good” or “I didn’t like it.” EXPLAIN and ANALYSE why you found it good or not. I personally add to that: You can argue anything you like in English, as long as you can back it up.)

If you look at these so-called reviews that Baxter quoted, what do you notice about them? That’s right, you haven’t learnt anything about the book. Therefore, you cannot – or should not – have a good idea of whether you would enjoy this book, or get something out of it, yourself, or even if it’s a good book regardless of one person’s take on it. And reading a book is such a personal, subjective journey – we each of us can only experience a book in our own way, which may not be the way anyone else reads it and experiences it. Which is indeed what those people were writing. It just isn’t that helpful, or indeed, one could argue, that intelligent. So is it trustworthy?

Baxter describes a well-written – or trustworthy – review as having two distinctions:

[first that] the reviewer manages to assert somehow that the book under discussion is of some importance for one reason or another; and second, a good review provides a formal description of the book’s properties, so that you could reconstruct it from the reviewer’s sketch of it. This description is not the same as a plot summary, although a plot summary may figure into it. What a formal description does is to show what a book is about in relation to the form in which the subject matter has been shaped or located. In order to write such a review, let’s say of a novel, you have to have a basic idea of how novels are constructed; you have to have the technical knowledge that allows you to stand back from the book and to say how a book is put together.

It does sound like writing a “proper” review is something of an elitist, or academic, act, something only a “professional” would have the educational background, the time, the ability or even the inclination to write. What Stiefvater called a “little academic paper”. And the one thing that I love about the internet and the book blogging community in particular is how, collectively, we’ve broken down the elite doors of professional reviewing and, in a way, cut out the middle-man professional reviewer altogether, allowing authors and publishers to connect directly with readers. We like the personal touch, while a pro review might be hard to connect with (that said, I’ve picked up several books based on reviews in the Globe and Mail’s slim book review section – incidentally, I’ve noticed that those reviewers (all authors themselves) tend to begin their reviews with some personal story relevant to the book they’re reviewing, which actually makes me trust them more). Interestingly, Baxter cites two professional reviews – from the New York Times Book Review and The Atlantic – that failed his criteria and were thus “untrustworthy”, so really I was left with the feeling that only PhD theses’ were worthy of his time. And that’s hugely unrealistic.

Going back to Stiefvater’s description of unprofessional book reviews posts (above), Really, there will always be a place for such “rundowns of books”, and if they’re not what you’re looking for as you tour the internet, you don’t have to pay them any attention – or let them decide whether you’ll read a book. I’ve written a few that I would call snarky, of books that just had me so enraged I couldn’t have written them any other way. And it’s time-consuming, writing anything resembling a real review. I don’t have that kind of time, that’s for sure.

But I do aspire to write well-written, trustworthy reviews. I try to dredge up memories of critical theory from uni – less to use such language in my reviews than to help me grasp what I’ve read and my reaction to it. I struggle all the time. In writing up a so-called review of Crime and Punishment, which I failed to quite finish, I could not get past my incredible scorn for Raskolnikov, which coloured the entire book for me – I would never go so far as saying that, because I detested the main character (who was a whinging, self-indulgent, tiring person), the book was crap and shouldn’t be called a classic. I would never be so arrogant, and my opinion is not that God-like. So perhaps what I am writing, in cases like this, is the story of my reading experience with a particular book. Can I call it a review? Does it really matter?

Sometimes I think that it’s not the online reviewers – yes I will use that word – that need to be taken to task so much as some of the people who read said reviews and take offence at them. I’ve had my fair share of vitriol from people who decide, based on a single review (or opinion piece, if you prefer), that they know everything about me and are in a position to psychoanalyse me – very much along the lines of “owl criticism”, too. Here’s an example – one of the tamer ones – from my review of C&P on Goodreads:

It is sad for me to read such a continuous stream of negative comments. You have given up on this book without even finishing it, or even attempting to analyze and relate to it. This is sad. Were you put off by the lack of “excitement”? By the abundance of Russian last names? By your own ignorance about the time period and the deep psychological consequences that resulted from the political order of 19th century Russia? By your inability to comprehend Dostoevsky’s brilliant use of symbolism, religious allegory (or research allegorical passages, for that matter), and suspenseful chronology? Sorry to be so blunt, but that is what these I-have-not-read-or-even-attempted-to-understand-the-book comments force me to conclude.

From the OP’s review, There’s also no mystery, and not much suspense. If this is true, then what IS suspense for you? Please enlighten me. Because if you are looking for a generic feeling of suspense, don’t look for it in Dostoevsky. Go read Agatha Christie or something. It doesn’t require any outside knowledge or research, just a box of popcorn and boredom.

I’ve also been taken to task:

My statements had less to do with that particular book, and much more to do with lazy criticism. I wouldn’t even really have cared if Shannon had said that she hated the book. My problem was that she seemed to have no critical context beyond how miserable it was. The review basically consisted of a bland recapitulation of the plot, and ended with a bunch of entirely subjective complaints about how self-centered Raskolnikov is. What I’m wondering is just how this is supposed to be helpful to other people who are curious about reading the book.

This commenter isn’t wrong, really (as much as it hurts), but it does make me think that sometimes what we’re writing aren’t “real” reviews after all – which brings us back full circle to Maggie Stiefvater’s post. I sometimes don’t try at all to write a “real” review, but I do write these partly for myself – to help me remember, and to practice writing.

If we’re going to make better attempts at writing our book reviews/posts/thoughts/opinions – whatever you want to call them – with respect, thoughtfulness, clarity and hey, a bit of education, then maybe the people who like to write “owl criticism” reviews and comments on other reviews, could maybe respond with a bit more respect, open-mindedness, understanding and hey, how about some manners?

But I guess there’s no fun in that, for some.

__________________________________
LINKAGE

There was a sort-of beginning to this round of internet slagging. It started with some negative book reviews:

Allison’s review of Don’t Stop Now by Julie Halpern at The Allure of Books;

Wendy Darling’s review of The Selection by Kiera Cass on Goodreads;

Flannery’s review of Froi of the Exiles by Melina Marchetta on Goodreads;

and Kira’s review of Tempest by Julie Cross on Goodreads, in which things got nasty in the comments and linked to Julie Halpern’s response to Allison’s review. There are also profuse apologies from YA author Lauren deStefano for Twitter comments on the subject; apparently she wasn’t aware of the larger context around it.

It got even messier, including the above-mentioned angry post by Julie Halpern that has since been deleted, though there is this one still up, and over time led to more book blogger and author posts which in turn broadened the topic.

Then there’s this post from Amber of Me, My Shelf and I on reviewers comparing books to Twilight all the time, that seemed to fan some more flames.

YA author Julie Kagawa on Authors and Negative Reviews, Re-posted

April of Good Books and Good Wine on Legitimacy, Professionalism, and Book Blogging

Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat on On Negative “Reviews”, Bookmark Ripping and Nick Hornby

Kat of Cuddlebuggery Book Blog on The First Five Days on Goodreads, giving the full run-down of the antagonism between reviewers and authors, with links and Twitter quotes. And then in a second post here, the “wank fest” continues.

Then there was an article in the Guardian on YA novel readers clash with publishing establishment (which sums up the mess without saying anything particularly intelligent about it), which led to this:

YA author Maggie Stiefvater on The Only Thing I am Going to Say About Bloggers in 2012

Which got some very articulate, intelligent book bloggers thinking, and writing some stellar posts on the art of reviewing:

Amy of Just Book Reading on Review. Can I Use That Word?

Eva of A Striped Armchair on What I Talk About When Talking About Reading

Chris of Chrisbookarama on Surely it’s a Review. And Don’t Call Me Shirley

Iris of Iris on Books on On Celebrating Subjectivity

Ana of things mean a lot on On Objectivity, Again

Bettina of Liburuak on The Review Coninuum

Jillian of A Room of One’s Own on For the right-brained book bloggers: a manifesto, or why I don’t call my posts “reviews”.

And finally, because it’s somewhat related and definitely worth reading, if a bit off-topic, on Insane Hussein the post O RLY: A “Contract” for Book Reviews?

Thank you to everyone for including links in your posts that led me to another, and yet another, fabulous post on the topic in its various forms! If you have a post on the topic, or you know of some I’ve missed, feel free to leave a link in the comments so I can include it. This is the internet, after all, and an open debate.

32 comments to On Writing “Reviews”, or whatever you want to call them

  • According to this, I probably shouldn’t call my books reviews, but really what else are they? How can a review not be an opinion? The way Stiefvater describes it, a review is a dry summary of the novel. THAT IS NOT WHAT WILL MAKE PEOPLE PICK UP A BOOK. Maybe Stiefvater doesn’t respect what we do, but I know I wouldn’t have picked up The Scorpio Races without book bloggers reviewing it, and none of those reviews were written the way she described it. If they had been, I probably wouldn’t have read the book because honestly the talk of a dragged out beginning would have put me off. I’m tired of authors or anyone else really judging us.

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Meghan, I agree Meghan, I think the “professional” reviewers are feeling a bit sour because people go to blogs rather than the New York Times book review section –

    I think maybe we just need to redefine the word “review”. Like Alex says below, it’s just semantics.

    [Reply]

  • Shannon, it’s a great analysis of the situation an probably the one I can back-up the most so far. I’m a bit baffled by the whole controversy because, it sounds like a simple matter of semantics. If I paint a picture, doesn’t that mean I’m not an artist or can’t call my piece art? Are only the professional artists able to do it? As you very well put it, the distinction is not reviews vs. though-pieces-or-whatever, but good reviews vs. bad reviews, and a good review includes opinions and sustained arguments, no matter what the arguments are.

    I prefer getting my book recommendations from book bloggers exactly because of the personal touch. Sometimes, while reading a post, I speed-read the summary until I hit of the personal opinion. Most times I scroll down to your giraffes before going back up and start reading.

    I’m also puzzled by the thought that professional reviewers don’t give their personal opinion. Maybe this is my innocent self thinking but: isn’t that their job?! The difference between them and amateurs reviews like us is that they have experience in the literary business, maybe some professional training and likely better writing skills. I don’t read a review only to understand what the book is about, I want to know if I should like it or not, and for that I can trust (or not) the *opinion* of the reviewer.

    This being said, with all of this controversy I’ve become a bit self-conscious about calling my posts review (since I don’t have a degree in English or Literature I might be missing something), so instead I say things like “my thoughts on”. Maggie Stiefvater would be proud of me, I know my place in the literary hierarchy!

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Alex (Sleepless Reader), Exactly Alex, it is a matter of semantics and not a whole lot else! I do sometimes read book reviews in the paper, if the book itself catches my eye, and they’re usually always written by another published author. That’s their only credential, really. And like you say, it’s the personal touch that gives us an idea of whether it’s trust-worthy – and whether we share a perspective with the reviewer, thus giving us an idea if we’d get the same kind of magic from the book (thinking of positive reviews here).

    It does make me feel self-conscious too, especially when I went back to that so-called review of mind of Crime & Punishment and read again that person’s comment about how lazy and unhelpful my review was. But I think there’s room for OUR kind of review alongside the pro ones. I do have a degree (with first class honours no less!) in English lit, but that just means I feel more strongly about all the different opinions there can be about a book. I just feel that the “real” definition of a review creates a kind of arrogant, pretentious reviewer who can’t understand other perspectives, and that’s the last thing I’d want to be!

    I’m going to keep on using the word “review” – if nothing else, it keeps me striving to write well – and “up yours” to the gits who want to keep book reviews in the hands of a precious few!

    [Reply]

  • Oh, controversy. We live in a time in which the opinions of the masses/non-professionals are becoming more (or at least as) prominent than those of professionals. Of course it irritates professionals that there are people invading their turf, doing their jobs for free, doing it without credentials or the bounds and restraints of a formalized profession. And of course it irritates authors to read negative reviews of their work. No one enjoys criticism or personal attacks or negative reviews. Insisting that we don’t use the term review for our opinions seems to me to be just a way of trying to disparage the voice of the non-professional reviewer, especially when you don’t like the opinions they are expressing. It’s rather disturbing to think that this is just a move to subvert voices and opinions that authors/publishers/professional reviewers don’t want to hear…

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Elizabeth, Very well said, Elizabeth. It certainly strikes me as something aimed at belittling or possibly even censoring us, to keep us book bloggers in our places. Book blogging has opened up a slew of new authors and books for me, and broadened my reading so much more than a few “pro” reviews in the hallowed pages of some literature section.

    It definitely ties in with a lot of other side-effects or repercussions of technology and social media, and how we all need to learn how to use it – not in terms of what the buttons do or how to work it, but how to maintain a good standard of communication, politeness, open-mindedness…

    I have to add that, it seems like authors keep thinking that Twitter is private, like an email. You’d think they would have learnt off the ones who’ve gaffed before them wouldn’t you. 😉

    [Reply]

  • This is something that doesn’t have a clear answer to who is right and who is wrong. It’s opinion, semantics, and when you look at it, it’s an argument over the definition of a word. Frankly, I am annoyed that someone else is telling me, as a book blogger, what to call what I write, but in the end it doesn’t really affect me so I’ve decided letting it go is best for me. I’m going to continue to do my thing. I think everyone else should continue to do their thing, and let other people do their thing. It’s when people go in and tell others what to do and what’s “wrong” and “right” that the pot is stirred up (yet again) and the blogosphere is aflame with indignation. Sigh.

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @janicu, Yes indeed – in fact it strikes me as ironic that this question of the validity of opinion is a matter of opinion. Which reminds me not to take it so seriously!

    [Reply]

    janicu Reply:

    @Shannon, Haha, yup, exactly. 🙂

    [Reply]

  • This is a really interesting post and quite timely as well as I’m struggling to write a “review” (um… should I call it that?) for The Good Muslim which reflects my struggle with the book itself.

    It’s funny because we had a discussion at work last week about the difference between UK and US reviewers. It seemed that for a same title, UK reviewers are much more inclined to actually give their opinion as opposed to US reviewers who merely tell you about the book, trying to remain “objective”. I remember seeing some professional online magazine looking for reviewers and one of the guidelines was not to use “I” at all in the review…

    The thing is, when reading a review, I don’t care about the summary, I can find that anywhere online. I generally skip directly to what the person thought and felt while reading the book. I know I’m probably not going to feel the same way but for me, plot is almost secondary because while I remain a die hard SF&F fan, I’m still pretty confident that I can read anything as long as it’s engaging and well-written. What I need to know is what kind of mood I should be in to read this book: is it a light read, a challenging one? If someone found a book boring, that won’t stop me from reading it if they clearly explain why and if I don’t think those reasons will not apply to me.

    Anyway, thank you for posting this and all those links as well… I’m completely behind on the reading challenge but really, I hadn’t struggled so much with a book in a while and it’s interesting to analyze why.

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Roxane, Ah, did you read The Good Muslim without realising it was a sequel, too? I found that out after I’d written my review and had one of those “Oh” moments. Ah well.

    Do you mean professional reviewers, like for newspapers, journals etc? (as opposed to bloggers?) I hadn’t noticed that there’s that kind of trend but they do tend to follow the predominant model. I certainly see “I” used though, and I’d consider it hugely misleading and arrogant for any reviewer not to use “I”!! You can only ever recommend a book as an individual, after all, though I like the quotes they use in books from newspapers etc. that describe a book’s themes etc. I just mean, when I read an entire review, that it would probably get my back up to read an opinion disguised as “the one and only view” – what can I call it, “Biblical truth”? Where something’s presented as fact with no room for other perspectives.

    I like a little bit of summary, but I hate it when people give away a plot or overall premise that, when you don’t know it, makes reading the book more powerful. I’m thinking of books like Never Let Me Go – I’ve seen a lot of reviews talk openly about what the book’s about, which is fine really because it’s the kind of thing you do want to discuss, but it should be marked as a spoiler because once you know what’s going on it loses its impact as a first-time reader. And I’m like you: I like to get a sense of what kind of book it is, what kind of mood I need to be in to read it.

    [Reply]

  • Just wanted to thank you for posting this. I read it while at work, but responding on my iPhone isn’t always ideal, but thank you. I followed some of the links too. 🙂 I remember sort of talking about this issue a year or so ago, and it’s one of the reasons I try to stress the “reaction” part of my blog name. 🙂

    But I despise people who come to my blog and tell me I’m reviewing wrong. There’s an easy fix to that: if they don’t like my blog, they don’t have to read it. I’d much rather that than have to listen to them tell me what I’m doing wrong and why, and then point to reviews that apparently do it so much better. Trust me, when you’ve been blogging for 6+ years, you aren’t going to change your review style unless YOU want to, not because some one-time commenter tells you to.

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Shara White (Calico Reaction), You’ve had people tell you to write your reviews differently? What cheek! I like your reviews a lot – when I want to get a general idea of what the book’s about and whether it’s worth reading, I read certain well-marked bits of your review, and if I’ve already read the book or I think I’ll never read it, I’ll read the whole thing (and sometimes change my mind about not reading it!). It works. And yours won’t necessarily be the only review I’ll have seen/read, and if I’m still on the fence I’ll look up others. None of us think we’re the be-all-and-end-all of book reviewers!! Not like some of the “pro” reviewers! 😉

    [Reply]

    Shara White (Calico Reaction) Reply:

    @Shannon, Yep, I have. The most recent example happened at the start of the year, and it was a bit mind-boggling. 🙂

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Shara White (Calico Reaction), Dear me. There are so many of them on Goodreads, but to come to our personal blogs and criticise us there?! That’s like going to someone’s house and saying, “yeah I don’t like your wallpaper, and have you thought about switching the kitchen with the garage?” 😉

    [Reply]

    Shara White (Calico Reaction) Reply:

    @Shannon,

    I’ve often considered a similar analogy!

    If you’re super-curious, here’s the link to the review that provoked the response and the response itself (and how I ended up handling it): here.

    I would ask, though I doubt anyone here would feel so inspired, that no one comment to the commenter in question. I’d rather not open that can of worms back up! Commenting back here is cool though. 🙂

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Shara White (Calico Reaction), Okay, wow, yes that’s the kind of thing I’m used to seeing on Goodreads all the time, which is one of the reasons I don’t engage in discussion much anymore.

    I especially noted the non-argument of “well I liked it so clearly there’s something wrong with you!” Seriously, is this what they teach in school these days?? I can’t help but feel that book blogging has highlighted a bigger problem for us to see, or rather, a failure in education. It breaks my heart a little bit, to be honest.

    [Reply]

    Shara White (Calico Reaction) Reply:

    @Shannon, I wouldn’t be surprised if I found that commenter on Goodreads, actually. If she thinks it’s appropriate there, what’s to stop her from that same kind of vitriol in other book blogs? That said, I spent a lot of time thinking through my response, and I feel like it was the best thing way to go.

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Shara White (Calico Reaction), It was a very good reply. It’s hard isn’t it, ’cause what we really want to say is “oh fuck off you moron” but that’d just make us add to the problem. Still, it can be tempting can’t it. 😉 My policy these days is to ignore them, but if I had one on my blog I’d probably do what you do. I only had one on my blog from some guy and I didn’t approve it because it was incredibly insulting, and a few days later he tried to leave another accusing me of censorship, which naturally I didn’t approve either – I trusted my gut instinct after the first comment that there was not going to be any kind of rational discussion with him, and he proved me right. I don’t think it’s censorship either. It’s my blog, and I don’t have to have people saying mean things about me here. But your commenter was less insulting, and you responded with such dignity, intelligence and politeness.

    [Reply]

    Shara White (Calico Reaction) Reply:

    @Shannon, It was fortunate that when I originally got the comment, I was reading on my iPhone, which is a bad place to type a witty and intellectual response. So I emailed back and forth with a friend to get the frustration out of my system, which really helped!

    [Reply]

  • This really is such a good post, commentary, whatever you want to call it. I’m still fairly new to the book blogging world so I think I caught the tail end of it. At the time I didn’t really get it… why were people so enraged over blog reviews and who was doing the reviewing? I understood both sides, but there just seemed to be such a big hubbub about it.

    And then I really got into blogging. I started to see what I was doing was gaining an audience, one that I might be able to influence with my thoughts on books. So I “got” the whole deal with professionals being squeamish about us (bloggers) entering into their job field.

    As a reader I NEVER read book reviews. I honestly didn’t care what so-and-so professional reviewer thought of a book; chances are they were too snotty to actually enjoy it (okay, that was mean. haha). I preferred to make my own calls when it came to books. Since I’ve been blogging clearly I read reviews now but still like to use my own judgement. But I know this isn’t the case with everyone so I keep in mind that sometimes people are looking for others opinions so they can decide if they want to read a book or not.

    I think to say that book bloggers reviews aren’t legitimate or are untrustworthy is sort of a slap in the face to those of us who are huge fans of books, who support authors as they develop their careers, talk about books, buy books. Maybe we’re not professionals with fancy literary degrees who have been working in the industry for years… but we know what’s good and what’s bad. And we know how to share it with others.

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Candice, I’m the same way, Candice – I think before I started blogging back in 2006, I didn’t really read book reviews but when I did they were by other, regular readers (like fellow students in the student paper – I wrote a review for it once too, come to think of it!). I tended to prefer browsing in bookshops and deciding to read something based on the blurb etc. – still do really.

    It’s a big slap in the face, I agree. We’re readers, we love books, we get passionate and enthusiastic and enraged because we care – and we love to discuss books. Reviews get us talking, not just about the books but about issues etc. that they raise. Which keeps us thinking, which is all good for our brains!! 😉 “Sharing” is a good word for it. I see it as a much more wide-ranging, open, inclusive, exciting realm than the more traditional stuffy review in some elite journal that nobody reads except industry insiders. And we’re the ones buying the books!! At least the publishers seem to get that. 😉 (I don’t mean in terms of free books, but in terms of not dismissing us etc. I love seeing quotes/endorsements from book bloggers printed in books, especially book blogs I recognise!)

    [Reply]

  • I have to admit I actually think that the whole debate is a bit pointless and people are far too pedanctic for their own good, or take things too seriously for their own good, and people just need to relax.

    I call what I do on my book blog ‘reviews’ but I don’t have any grand illusions that what I write is anything like what a professional review in a paper or literary magazine looks like.

    It might not be as critical, as well written or as informative as a professional reviewer but it doesn’t mean its not a review. Its a review of a book from my perspective, using my own words based on my own thoughts and opinions.

    That’s what I think anyway.

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Becky (Page Turners), Well said, Becky. You just said in three short paragraphs what I was trying to express in my incredibly long-winded post! Though I will say that the controversy raised a few interesting issues, such as bad author and blogger behaviour, but this seems to come up at least once a year. Does no one ever learn?

    [Reply]

  • Wow, This is the first time I’m reading about this controversy. Thanks for all those links so I can look back into the history of it, and perhaps write a post on MY view 🙂

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Dee, an old follower stopping by, I hope you do, since it’s all about our opinions! 😉 Glad the linkage is helpful.

    [Reply]

  • This is also the first time I’m reading about this controversy as well! It was a great read!

    I totally agree with you — a so called professional review is still, at its core, an opinion. I believe there is no such thing as a fully objective book review. I’m sure we’ve all disagreed with a professional book reviewer’s review before, but are we to disregard our own opinions in favor of a professional’s? I’m never going to think, “Oh wow, that pro reviewer says this book is really good but when I read it, I thought it sucked. I guess it must be good though, since the pro reviewer said it was.”

    In the end, I think the issue here is that authors/publishers/pros are unhappy that the ‘ordinary masses’ (online reviewers) can hold so much sway over whether a book becomes popular or not when they have no credentials or whatever. Or perhaps it’s even simpler — people are just hurt and upset when someone doesn’t like their book and want to silence the opposing opinions by belittling them: “Oh, you’re not a *professional* reviewer, your opinion doesn’t really count!”

    On the other hand, I also agree with you that the quality of many online reviewers can be quite lacking at times … At the same time though, it seems a lot of people would rather read reviews from non-pros, than pros. I admit, I never really care what the so called professional reviewer says. I don’t really care what *they* thought. On the other hand, I DO care about what some of my non-professional, favourite bloggers (like you!) think.

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Jinny (SkyInk.net), Exactly. I think where a pro reviewer has grounds for being taken more seriously is having the language and breadth of learning to back up their opinion, whereas we tend to speak more from our gut. Sometimes I’ll see a connection between a book’s theme and culture, language, history etc., and be able to articulate it, but not often – as an English teacher I feel I should be able to do it more than I do, but so what?

    I get the impression that the publishers, in general, are very supportive of book bloggers and see clearly that we do good things for their sales, but for authors I guess they’re not used to being able to hear their readership’s reactions to their books quite this easily!! It’s something both sides need to learn, though, I think. A bit of respect, it goes both ways, yeah?

    I think one thing we have over pro reviewers is that we read – and review – like readers, not academics or authors (a lot of us are writers, but I think when you’ve got a novel out you’re much more self-conscious of making a good, intelligent impression in your professional review, right?). So as readers who review what we read, I think we have a much broader audience and actually more trust in bloggers’ reviews, as you said.

    [Reply]

  • Edi

    I really appreciate this post. I continually struggle with how to improve my “book reviews”. While I know they are far from what a professional review would dare to compose, I do try to write something that reflects what the books is about, its strengths and weaknesses and of course why I did or didn’t like it. I always stop short of giving away too much of the plot although I’ve been told that by definition, a review will do just that. I’ve always said my reviews suffer from my poor background in literature and your piece confirms that. You’ve given me ideas on how I can improve what I do so that whoever does read them with get something worthwhile from them. Am I trying to write a traditionally professional review? No! I’d like to develop my own unique flair on guiding readings in the selection of a good book and I think that’s all a book review can strive to do.

    I’m curious, are there any awards for book reviews?

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Edi, I’ve noticed that too, Edi, that in pro reviews like in the newspaper, they tend to give away a lot more of the plot points than us bloggers do, in general. And maybe that’s to do with being able to discuss a book in more depth, along thematic lines – you can’t exactly do that without divulging more plot. But I like the way us bloggers do it, generally – we’re able to discuss a book often in great detail and get others enthusiastic about reading it, without spoiling the magic the reading it without knowing everything beforehand. I hadn’t thought of it before in that way, but you’re spot-on.

    And don’t be so hard on yourself! I have a degree in English lit and I still find myself struggling, like when you know there’s some theory out there but you can’t think what it is so you just get frustrated. But I think our reviews are the more honest and trustworthy – and helpful, too! – for being more, I dunno, what’s the word? Unpretentious? Casual?

    I like what you said about developing your own unique flair, like how we tend to develop our own reviewing style. So true! We get a distinctive voice and a wide audience and people grow to trust us that way.

    I don’t think there are any awards, really, or not “real” ones anyway. There’re blog awards but I can’t remember what they’re called, they give you boasting rights. I never recognise many of them though!

    [Reply]

  • […] fellow book blogger Shannon of Giraffe Days wrote a post called “On Writing Reviews, Or Whatever You Want to Call Them.” Apparently, there’s been renewed debate in the blogosphere on the topic of […]

  • […] On Writing “Reviews”, or whatever you want to call them […]

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