Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Monday, April 13, 2015

8 Tips for Writing a Juicy Book Review

There was a time, not so long ago, when only critics wrote book reviews. The advent of online and ebook sales and the rating and commenting capacity of sites like Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, etc., as well as the book-focused social media sites like Goodreads have fundamentally changed the way we not only buy books, but the way we choose them.

There are positive and negative aspects to this. One of the most useful being that, since few critics lowered themselves to write reviews of non-literary texts, only the most notable of genre writers could ever hope to have their books reviewed. Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan or Sarah Waters are very likely to get a review somewhere worthy. Even first novels within the literary genre are often graced with critical attention. But only the star quarterbacks of the detective fiction, sci-fi, horror or thriller genres could expect any attention. P.D. James, John Le Carre, Iain M. Banks, William Peter Blatty, Stephen King et al sell so many books that any newspaper or magazine with a book review section who ignored them courted the ire of its readers.

Most critics did not review 'The Exorcist' until after the film was made. Pity - because 'The Exorcist' wasn't just a good horror novel; it was an excellently crafted piece of prose, as complex, nuanced, layered and description rich as many literary works. Similarly, it took the social recognition of William Gibson's influence on the emerging information society to force critics to evaluate his works in any depth. And, when they grudgingly complied - for Pattern Recognition, published in 2003 - what they found was not only a novel of insightful cultural critique, but a rich creator of enigmatic characters. Indeed, the first line of his novel 'Neuromancer' is widely agreed to be one of the best opening lines in a novel: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."

When online platforms allowed book readers to rate and review the books they'd read, it seemed like a wonderful day for readers of genre fiction, and it could have been. Years of the expectation of a critique forced writers in the literary genre to be mindful to use language well. Literary novels will often sag horribly in plot, feature characters who are mind-numbingly boring and offer readers little in the way of escapism, but they are expected to be, at the very least, artfully written. Sadly, those same literary critics have often been, in my view, woefully lenient on shabbily constructed stories.

Conversely, some genre fiction may feature compelling characters, exciting plots and far less attention may be given to the style of the prose. Sometimes, in fact, the writing is very quotidian.

So, it seemed that the stampede of new and willing critics, in the guise of reader reviews and ratings, might offer us all a wonderful way to not only choose our next genre read, but encourage genre writers to a higher standard of prose writing.

Sadly, this has not been the case. Most reader-critics have never grown past the level of an elementary school 'book report'. Some can't even manage that. It's not really all that surprising: it takes skill to write a good book review and practice to do it well. Most people have never learned how to organize and communicate their response to a reading in a way that might be helpful to others. We are all of us, without a little discipline, narcissistic beasts who believe that our opinion, our feelings, our impressions are the only ones that matter. But a good review (not a positive review) is generous - not to the writer, but to prospective readers.

For those of you who would like to evolve past the 'book report' phase of book reviewing, I'd like to offer a few things to help you construct a review that will offer a prospective reader a more informed way to purchase, or not purchase, a novel you've read. This is not a complete how-to-review guide, and it doesn't address basics like setting, character, plot, voice, pace, etc. I'm offering a few approaches you might not yet have considered.

1. Who is speaking? Orient the Readers of Your Reviews

The first, most honest and often most helpful thing to do in a review is let readers know what your personal starting position is. If you've never read anything in this genre before, say so! There is nothing wrong with admitting this. You've come into the novel with far fewer expectations. That can be a very useful point of view. You can offer people a fresh way to look at the novel outside the known assumptions made about a novel in a certain genre.

If you are extensively read within the genre, then point that out. You have a sense of the genre-specific context that other readers may not have. You possess a level of authority that allows you to compare the book you are reviewing to similar ones in the genre, other books by the same author. You can offer the reader a context for how they approach the novel. You can offer insight into the ways in which a novel conforms or breaks with the conventions of the genre.

2. Skip the Synopsis

A book review is not like the book report you had to write in fifth grade, where you have to give a synopsis of the story to prove to your teacher that you actually did read it over the holidays. The writer and her/his publisher have already constructed and provided, via the marketing material, a synopsis they feel will adequately intrigue the reader without spoiling his or her experience of discovery. Additionally, the book probably already has a Wikipedia page with a summary of the plot - link to that if you must -  or be a good net citizen and create or edit the Wiki page. Finally, there is always going to be someone who is still stuck in fifth grade and has already written one.

One thing that has rendered Goodreads almost useless to me is the unending number of story summaries masquerading as reviews. I don't even read the end of the review (which might be informative) because I just don't want to read yet another damn précis.

3. There's No Such Thing as a Completely Objective Review, but that Doesn't Mean You Shouldn't Aim to Produce One

Fiction is written to both excite the mind and the emotions. The concrete facts of a book (i.e. this is the author's sixth novel in the series and continues the story of ***; the narrative is presented as a series of diary entries; it is set in Paris at the end of the war; the plot is tightly woven and the ending is unexpected; the narrator is a loud-mouthed and unreliable adolescent who, although endearing, manages to completely undermine my suspension of disbelief; please don't let the genre fool you, this should be in the Young Adult section; etc.) will resonate with everyone.

How the book made you feel is probably most important to you, but that information is probably the least reliably universal. If you focus only on how the book made you feel, don't fool yourself that you're writing a review; you're performing emotional masturbation in a public place.

It is perfectly fine to say you were left devastated by the ending, or that it kept you up all night, or that your heart soared when the heroine triumphed, or that the violence in the novel ruined all your memories of your nice holiday in the Caribbean, but that should not be the bulk of your review. Otherwise, you are just indulging in hyper-subjective exhibitionism, and I will conclude that you are using Goodreads as a way to suppress your deep-seated desire to take pictures of yourself naked with a dildo and post them on the net, but you don't have the balls to do it.

4. Read Preceding Reviews

'Me too' reviews are uninformative. If you have nothing new to bring to the discussion, just leave a star rating. If you really want to communicate something valuable to other readers instead of using the platform as a way to stroke your own ego, you will read the other reviews first and take note of what they have covered and what they have overlooked. A helpful review provides new insights.

I've often gone to Amazon all fired up to write a review only to find that other reviewers have gotten their first and made all the points I wanted to make. That's when I use the little star button to give the book a rating and move on. It is also very helpful to comment on previous reviews. Yes, people ARE entitled to THEIR opinion of a book, but they are not entitled to an UNCONTESTED opinion. If you read a review that you feel is unbalanced, say so!

If you find that none of the reviews deal with your particular insights into the book, then go ahead and write! You really are offering fellow readers something valuable.

5. Pick Four Things

There have been whole books written on books. Literature can be so open-texted and nuanced that readers can read the same book and yet have virtually read a different one. A review doesn't have to cover everything and, in fact, the best reviews limit themselves to a few strong critiques. Pick the four or five things that you feel are most important about the book and focus on them. There's nothing wrong with headings and point form! You're not expected to write a novel on the novel. Be as brief or in-depth as you like, but always explain why you have come to the conclusions you're offering.

6. Contextualize But Don't Re-Shelve

Novels always contain a certain amount of commentary on reality. Whether it is the libertarian ethos lurking beneath a survivalist thriller, or the possible underlying conservativism of a dominatrix who decides to marry her accountant, good novels offer us ways of looking at our own world and the best ones do it by offering rather than preaching a viewpoint. It is very helpful to other readers to construct a review that links some topic or aspect of the novel to our everyday lives or real environment. Thinking about books this way often give you an insight into what the writer 'wants you to think' and a contextualized review invites other readers to consider that aspect of the reading they might have missed.

Indeed, a really exciting way into reviewing a novel, now that you have enjoyed it, is to ask the same question of the text that you have, at the onset of your review, asked yourself. Who is speaking? Do you suspect the writer and the narrator overlap? Is the writer attempting to explore the world from a standpoint other than her own by narrating the story via someone very different to herself? If the story is in third person, past tense and no obvious narrator is present, consider how adjectives and adverbs, descriptive passages are used to put a spin on the story. How immediate does the storytelling feel? Does it feel like the story is being told in a distanced retrospect? This can affect how real the story feels to you - how immanent the characters and events.

However, fiction is fiction. It is fine for you to point out that something in the novel might be untenable in real life, but if you go on and on about it, what you are now complaining about is that the novel is not a non-fiction handbook. And that's not helpful when you found it in the Romance genre.  A case in point is the critiques of Fifty Shades of Grey which repeatedly point out how abusive the relationship is, and how little it resembles a healthy BDSM relationship. Had E.L. James written a guidebook on how to conduct a healthy BDSM relationship, critics would have every right to nail her to the wall, but that's not what she set out to do. The book is a fiction of one relationship. It's fine to point out that it portrays a very unhealthy fictional BDSM relationship, but it's unfair and unhelpful to criticize it for failing to be the self-help handbook it never intended to be. It would have been just as valid and probably more informative to simply point out that the novel portrays an unhealthy form of D/s and should not be read as a lifestyle guide.

7. Consumer Choice Confirmation

No one ever had his or her life ruined by a bad book. No one ever went broke reading one. No one ever died from a poorly written novel (with the exception of the writer, perhaps). Moreover, it is unforgivably arrogant to tell someone not to 'bother' reading something simply because you didn't like it. You may have gotten nothing from a book, but you can't assume another reader will feel the same. You are not responsible for other people's reading choices. Make your critique - make it scathing if you feel it merits it - but telling another reader not to buy it is rude and bossy.

Meanwhile, one of the most disturbing trends revealed in the consumer review sphere is also the reason why online bookstores like Amazon and iTunes provide space for reviews and why Goodreads exists. Behavioural scientists have noticed something interesting: consumers exhibit a desire to have their 'good purchase judgments' confirmed. They do this by encouraging others to make the same purchase.  Platforms like Amazon know this and they harness it as a way to encourage purchases.  It's important to recognize that almost all of us have a desire to have 'our good taste' confirmed, and that this often unconscious desire is being manipulated to someone else's profit.

As a good reviewer, your job in neither to encourage nor discourage people from buying a book, but simply giving them more information for their consideration. I've watched reviewers unconsciously turn themselves into book agents. They love a book or an author, and they take on the job of making sure everyone they know buys it. At the point you do this, you cease to be offering a review. You've become a member of the sales team, pitching the product.

We all want to encourage other people to read a book we've enjoyed, but the best way to do this is by offering a review that gives people both factual and emotional reasons why you found it so compelling. The moment you step over that line, you become an unreliable reviewer and an untrustworthy informant because it is not longer the book you are praising, but your own wise choice in purchasing it.

8. Find One Good Thing; Find One Bad Thing

No matter how much you hated or loved the book, pointing out one aspect that contradicts your overall impression is the single most effective way to make your review credible. It also happens to be a very good intellectual exercise.

For example, I gave Sylvia Day's 'Bared To You' a predominantly poor review. In truth, I found it aggravating for a whole host of reasons, but the prose, although purple in places, is constructed with far more skill than 'Fifty Shades of Grey' or most of the subsequent copycat novels. Conversely, my review of 'Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran' by Marion Grace Wooley is almost wholly positive and I was so taken with the novel that I was reluctant to say anything negative about it at all. Nonetheless, made myself do it. The pacing in the second half does drag a little.

Do, Do, Do Review!


In the age of e-books and an avalanche of self-published and small imprint published novels, there is a lot of crap out there. But there are also gems we are all likely to miss unless someone takes the time and has the generosity of spirit to review them.

Many of you are extensive readers and, as a fellow reader, I value your informed opinion. Well-constructed reviews don't spoil a novel for me. They often tempt me to read genres I wouldn't normally read and loosen up my expectations and assumptions. This affords me a more adventurous reading experience. Some reviews have called my attention to underlying themes and aspects of a novel I might have missed and contributed greatly to my reading experience. I've even chosen to buy a novel based on a well-written negative review because I realized the reviewer was put off by exactly the things I found most delicious in a novel. In fact, it was this very negative review of 'Those Rosy Hours At Mazandaran' that prompted me to read it:
"...If you enjoy stories about psychopaths who discover each other’s love for toying with their human prey before brutally murdering them, then this book is the perfect one for you." (excerpt from 'Psychopath Filled "Prequel" to the Phantom of the Opera', one star review by The Reading Wench, Amazon.com, Feb 25, 2015)
I read that and thought, "Whoa, that sounds perfect to me!"

No one is obligated to review every book they read; none of us have the time. But when you find yourself brimming with opinions about a book, when it has offered you insight, or a disappointing experience you feel you can put your finger on, please take the time to write a review. Readers everywhere are depending on it.

10 comments:

  1. This is the first time I've seen a "how-to" on the art of writing a thoughtful review--thank you for doing this public service!

    "...please take the time to write a review. Readers everywhere are depending on it." Not only readers, but also I think writers benefit from well-crafted reviews as well. I'll often rifle around looking for negative reviews of my favorite writers' work and see if I'm committing the same sins in my own projects that the big dogs are catching flak over.

    But that only works if there are thoughtful, well-written reviews to look at.

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    1. There are some good how to give critiques, and they work well as a baseline for a review too. Observations on the standard aspects of any structured narrative. But beyond that... yeah, I'm so depressed by the super-subjective, uninformative review. So many books, so many uninformative reviews. It's a jungle out there.

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  2. Fabulous post, RG. I can't find one bad thing to say!

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    1. Come on... find one. Otherwise I won't think your review is sincere. :P

      Hugs,
      RG

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    2. Okay - well... I'm not sure I agree with your comments about reading previous reviews. Sometimes I do, but in fact I prefer not to do so, until I've written my own, because I don't want to be unduly influenced. I believe there's value to readers in confirming the opinions of previous reviewers. After all, like ratings (which I hate), the body of reviews associated with a work constitutes a sort of vote - voices for and against.

      That being said, I sometimes read other reviews after posting my own. Occasionally, this reveals aspects of a book I never considered or noticed.

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  3. Amazon and Goodreads should require all reviewers to read this before they are allowed to post their own review. One of my pet peeves with reviews of erotica anthologies is that reviewers seem compelled to list their favorite stories, usually without giving a good reason why. Definitely pushing Rule #3 as far as I'm concerned.

    It also struck me that having "our good taste" confirmed explains why so many people will read a tedious book by a literary author just because The New Yorker gave it a good review. It's the fast lane to showing "good taste." I mention this because I used to be a victim of it. No more.

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    1. So was I. But I can't do it anymore. If it bores me, it bores me.

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    2. How can you review an anthology without mentioning specific stories, Donna?

      Also - reviews have a variety of goals, depending on where they are posted. Goodreads reviews are personal, but when I review for the Erotica Revealed site, I'm focused on informing other readers, as well. (I also like to mention stories that really grabbed me in order to give credit to the authors. I know how wonderful it feels to have one's story called out.)

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  4. Great advice, RG!

    And thanks, Lisabet for putting us hip to this on the the ERWA list.

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  5. RG, this is a very useful guide for reviewers. Unfortunately, I suspect that the reviewers who really need to read this piece won't. Re mentioning one bad thing, the reviewer of an antho of erotic fantasy pointed out that my story in it made her uncomfortable and somewhat bewildered because it was about lesbian sex. I felt uncomfortable and somewhat bewildered to learn that there are reviewers who feel it necessary to say such things about an antho from a publisher that is known for explicitly experimental, pansexual erotica in a context of speculative fiction.

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