The People We Hate to Love

During my life I’ve been a critic and/or a reviewer of books, movies, theatre, live events, and art.  I’ve written a weekly book review column as well as a weekly art critic column.

Everywhere I’ve worked and for everyone who edited my writing, what a critic or reviewer is and should do has been a bit different.

In the early ‘70s, my editors saw the job as that of critic, the point being to give an honest critique of art pieces I saw in local galleries. Critique, in this case, meant being harsh. I tended to write my columns only about pieces I liked and avoided technical art language in favor of the language used by everyday people. I tried to describe the art in terms of how the piece made me feel, not how the various art elements worked in the piece. Oddly (to me), my columns produced positive letters to the editor, which, of course, made my editors happy.

When I switched newspapers, I became a critic at large, being assigned various entertainment events to cover. This included people like Tony Orlando and Dawn or Liberace, family events like the Ringling Brothers Circus, and generally any event other critics couldn’t cover.

I once ended up critiquing the Ice Capades. The show was a disaster, skaters falling all over themselves, dropping props, and often running into each other. It was more like watching a hockey game than an extravaganza on ice – all of which I said in the critique. Angry letters followed. My favorite published one was that the newspaper should send a woman to review family events next time because the man they sent (me, a woman!) didn’t understand family entertainment.

For both newspapers, I critiqued books and finally made that my life’s pastime. I can’t call it work because I love doing it, nor does it pay well at all.

Interestingly, my newspaper book editors wanted almost an academic critique from me, analyzing plot, character, tone, theme, and other standard literary evaluation criteria even though the books I was assigned were popular biographies like the life of Norman Rockwell, general women’s fiction, and other works academia would never consider the least bit literary.

When I began writing for national review magazines, the job changed from critiquing to reviewing. One of my favorite editors told me early on in the job that she wanted her reviewers not to say a book was bad, but to find the right reader for the book and write the review for that reader. In my opinion she was half right: There are badly written books.

But she changed the way I thought of book reviews. Suddenly, instead of being expected to find the negative, I was supposed to find the positive and highlight it. This publication was asking what another book review magazine editor called haiku reviews, reviews under 200 words.

Writing haiku reviews is difficult at best. The reviewer must give a hasty who, what, and why (three of the standard reporter questions). Who wrote the book includes whether the writer is new, has a new pseudonym, or is renowned for a certain genre. The what is more complicated because it needs to tell readers if the book is part of a series (and where in the series this book falls), if it’s a departure for the author, or if it’s a first publication for the author. (Reviewers and their editors tend to avoid republished books, self-published books, and up until very recently eBooks.) The what also includes a truncated plot synopsis. Forget the subplots; there’s no room. The why is the reviewer’s overall opinion of the book and as short as possible why the reviewer feels that way.  All of this in under 200 words, remember.

While I still review for one of the book review magazines (and have the reviews available on their subscription Web site and on Amazon), haiku reviews are still difficult to write. Do you read the haiku reviews (Publishers Weekly and Booklist, usually) on sites like Amazon and other booksellers?  If so, do they help you decide which books to buy? I’m wondering if the legitimacy that these review venues makes a difference compared to the reader comments.

Finally, I’ve started writing for AAR. I like writing longer reviews and find the ability to write less structured pieces refreshing after over twenty years (and counting) of haiku. Delving into character, relationships, plot, and any other consideration that will help readers decide whether the book is for them or not expands my thinking and makes reviewing a refreshing new experience.

So as I said before, what do you like – a review or a critique? Why? What would you like to see reviewers do that they don’t do now? What would you like to see reviewers stop doing?

- Pat AAR

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14 Responses to “The People We Hate to Love”

  1. Tee says:

    Your final three questions are really more difficult to answer than I first thought and I’m not sure why. When looking for a review of a book, I want to have an idea of the plot and then an opinion from the reviewer. If I’m comfortable with the person and feel that I’m usually in agreement with her/him (or at least understand where they’re coming from), then I don’t need a long-written article. In fact, if it’s very long, I find myself skimming it to get to the personal thoughts. So, I guess I would prefer a shorter critique rather than a longer review. But I don’t want it geared to a person who would like that book. I do want an honest opinion, but in fewer words. I don’t mind the Publishers Weekly-type critiques. Usually they let me know what I want to know. Some people just write them better than others and still get their true opinions across. Others seem to rave about a book that was a total disaster for me and the write-up just didn’t make sense without follow-up material to back their thoughts up.

    Bottom line, for me—Too short, not good. Too long, not good, because I may not really read it. Just enough, without being too long-winded, works really well for me. But then that’s how I usually prefer my books, too.

  2. Ell says:

    I do wish that reviewers would be a little sharper. I sometimes get the impression that they are anxious to avoid hurting an author’s feelings. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely think you can criticize a book without being mean, but soft pedaling problems with a particular book is a real disservice to readers.

    I can’t think how many times I have bought a book based on glowing reviews and had it turn out to be ultimately unreadable.

    How to avoid this kind of thing in the future? I don’t know. Point and counterpoint?

  3. AAR Sandy says:

    Our philosophy here at AAR is to honestly give our opinions about books. We also feel it’s important for a review to contain enough plot description without spoilers for a reader to know if a book is the type of story she enjoys or doesn’t enjoy. We also tell you what works or didn’t work for the reviewer personally.

  4. xina says:

    I prefer reviews rather than critiques. I like a review that is to the point and not long and drawn out. Just get to the point, give me a few examples of the plot and characters, give me your opinion and that is that. I enjoy the reviews here on AAR, because they are to the point and not lengthy and frankly, boring. As for haiku reviews…I don’t read them because I don’t think they can give me an accurate view of the book. I do think that they show that the reviewer can compose haiku, but for review purposes, I just don’t see it.

  5. farmwifetwo says:

    I wish reviewers would quit pandering to authors to get more books to review. I follow a couple of reviewers on goodreads solely for their booklists. They rarely write anything negative about a book and even if they really dislike it the chances of it getting 3 stars is rare to almost never. So IMO their reviews aren’t valid.

    As Sandy noted above, I don’t need the entire plot, but enough information for me to decide if it’s the type of story I would enjoy before buying it and having “buttons” pushed is appreciated.

    I want pro’s and con’s. I want to know how bad the grammar is, is the heroine TSTL, and am I going to have to wade through 100pgs of woe is me’s. I want to know if the dialogue is fun, the characters original and did you get any LOL moments.

    I want to know why that reviewer chose that rating for the book.

  6. Dani says:

    In the past, I avoided reading reviews or critiques and would rely on my impressions of the back cover copy and the first page of the book to see if this was something I wanted to read. That was when I used to buy books exclusively in bookstores or borrow them from the library. Now, I find reviews (not critiques) to be most helpful. A critique of a romance novel is a waste of time. Seriously, I know I’m not reading Pulitzer Prize winning stuff when I pick up a romance. Nor am I expecting that. Reviews though, can really help. I have plot lines I can’t stand and a review usually gives you enough to know if you’ll be heading into bad territory.

    What I’d love to see AAR do is link the reviewer’s name to their top picks. If someone gives a book an A+, I’d love to see quickly and easily what else they loved. Someone who loved Slightly Dangerous and Lord of Scoundrels would have similar tastes and I could trust their opinion more than I could someone who really loved anything by Johanna Lindsey or Stephanie Laurens. That’s not to say they aren’t good writers or haven’t written books others will love, but I don’t dig them and I don’t want to waste my time. I know I can find the information I want at AAR but it’s time-consuming and not intuitive.

    Also, one of my favourite things on AAR is reading the reviews of books that got an F. Seriously a fun way to spend some time. Particularly when the reviewer pulls a particluarly bad quote from the book. Those are the most fun. Don’t ever stop posting the reviews of books you’ve hated.

  7. MB says:

    I like the (new term to me) haiku reviews in Library Journal. The short synopsis of the plot is often an indication of whether it will be worth looking into. If the plot synopsis sounds intriguing, I’ll put it on hold at the library. For some reason, I’ve had great luck finding new authors this way. Some real Gems! But, I’m also a reader that doesn’t hesitate to dump a book–unfinished–that I’m not enjoying. So, since I’m not paying for it, I have no problem if it doesn’t work for me. Back to the Library it goes.

    Other than Library Journal, and sometimes Publishers Weekly…No, haiku reviews do not contain enough info to help me select future reads.

    The only thing short reviews can do for me as a reader is make that plot sound so intriguing, that I have to give it a try. Then provide title, author name, pub date, and sometimes ISBN.

  8. Leigh AAR says:

    Farmwifetwo,
    Great Summary. It would make a great check list. . .

    ELL I remember as a reader when AAR had a counter point type blog. I enjoyed it when they had completely different view points, but when they both agreed, it wasn’t that beneficial. As with anything feedback helps. I hope you feel comfortable saying on the message board, when one of my reviews works or doesn’t work for you. Finding a reviewer or poster on the boards that has similar taste to yours really cuts down on buying disappointments.

    Pat, I love your blog, although I disagree with your title. I like reviewers (of course I haven’t been on the receiving end of a review). I rarely buy a book or go to a movie without at least reading some type of review or getting some positive word of mouth. I don’t sound very adventurous do I(grin)? It just that I hate to waste money.

    I do look at the haiku reviews on Amazon. I love the way they summarize everything in under 200 words. They make every word count and that impresses the heck out of me. I probably have been impressed by one of yours. Do I buy books based on those reviews. . . not really. I consider them more like the back blurb of a book.

  9. AARPat says:

    Thanks, everyone, for the great insight to how readers use/don’t use reviews. It’s good to have this feedback.

    Two other things I’ve done that might add something to the discussion: I’ve been a book publicist who’s written back cover copy (and press releases which are often pretty much the same) and urged authors to influence Amazon reviews.

    Back cover copy: Easy as pie! Give the who and what of the book and find the best, most compelling reason you can find for someone to read the book. Highlight that. If the book has one good scene, this is easy. Two good scenes? The publicist is in heaven.

    Amazon reviews: It’s standard practice, I found out when I visited New York, for publicists to tell their authors to contact friends and relatives across the country to write a good review about a book whether they’ve read the book or not. The wider the span across states and the more varied the last names, the better.

    You mean the Amazon book reviewers aren’t real unaffiliated readers? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. The problem is which is which. I’ve found a few whom I follow, but for the most part, I remain cynical after having a senior publicist tell me her “trick” for getting good Amazon reviews. (She even uses her own relatives if an author can’t come up with someone.)

  10. farmwifetwo says:

    To give an example of “did we read the same book”. I won the new Roxanne St Claire in a goodreads contest. To put it blunt… it was awful. I was very excited, it arrived within days not weeks, I had enjoyed the first, sat down to enjoy it… and this one was awful.

    My status updates list those “scenes” that didn’t appeal… Yet, there isn’t ONE review so far under 3 stars except my 1 star. Did we read the same book??

    I’m not certain if it’s “out” yet so I am not going to post those here, you can look there.

    But that’s the kind of information I’m talking about. Tell it like it is. What made you read it… what made you toss it at the wall.

    I’ve recommended books I did not like to people b/c I know what style of books they enjoy. Just b/c I dislike the damsel in distress, doesn’t mean another person doesn’t. But, to recommend, to have you recommend a book to me…. we need to give each other that information to allow them to make that decision to read the book or not.

  11. Leigh AAR says:

    Pat, I really don’t use Amazon reviews to make buying decisions. I like reading them to confirm that “yes my opinion was right” (grin). Of course if authors are having relatives post reviews then I not getting that satisfaction all the time.

    I don’t really mind too much that they do that. . . If I published a book, then I would hope that my friends would write reviews too. . . (except I would want them to read it first!). I think most of us have suspected this for a long time. I think that is one reason, Amazon started the verified purchase heading.

  12. Ann Stephens says:

    I’m going out a limb here, since I’m a writer, but the subject of reviews draws me like a moth to a flame. Hopefully I won’t get burnt to a crisp.

    Before I wrote, I was a reader. I also studied theater and occasionally acted, which is a fabulous way to learn about rejection. I learned how to critique during my theater years, and appreciate Pat’s differentiation between critiquing and reviewing.

    As a writer, the best reviews are an honest response to my books, even if it sucks when someone gives me one star. I haven’t had a DNF yet, and hope I never do, but the plain fact is that not everyone is going to like my work. There are some best-selling romances out there that didn’t do a thing for me, and plots I can’t stand, either.

    A ‘summary review’ that consists of retelling of the entire plot without saying WHY that person did or did not like a book disappoints me. And while snarky reviews can be funny, now that I know what it’s like to sweat over a book, they often make me feel bad for the writer. (Unless it’s someone too lazy or egotistical to polish their craft and produce the best work they’re capable of. That makes me nuts.) The one other thing I wish for in reviews is basic knowledge of grammar and spelling. Not a problem at AAR, but I’ve seen boo boos elsewhere.

    All that said, reviews are meant to benefit readers, not writers. I’ve never believed that anyone owes me a good review. I don’t make a habit if asking people I know to leave 5 star reviews on B&N or Amazon, because I won’t leave glowing reviews for a book myself unless I loved it.

    Pat, write on! I hope you and the readers here don’t mind my take on this subject.

  13. farmwifetwo says:

    Ann,

    Depending on what that reviewer said that got you that DNF or 1 star, may or may not have me choosing to try your book. IFF (if and only if) as you said “tell me why”.

    I have styles I dislike… I hate heroines that don’t listen, that have to be rescued, that think they are smarter than cops/military/FBI etc, that whine about their entire lives and how hard done by they are and that need a baby to be full-filled as a human being… others like the romance of the heroine being rescued by the hero and seeing Jr being mentioned at the end of the book. Then there’s the one’s where she never tells him she’s pregnant and the kid is now about 10… YUCK!!!

    So, I need to know “why”, and as an author you need to realize I am not going to tell you I loved your book if you plot device isn’t something I enjoy.

    I know reviewers still hand out 4 and 5 stars if the plot device doesn’t appeal to them and I’m not convinced that’s “OK”. Some would say “well the writing was good”. I would read that and say “do you have an actual opinion??” I respect a reviewer that actually rates a book per their preferences. As a reader of reviews I know that if that reviewer likes a book… I may or may not depending on our individual preferrences in plots and styles.

    As for grammar… I never claimed to be a formal reviewer… my goodreads pg is for me and I know that Math was easy in school, not English.

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