I’ve been asking myself lately what authors, readers, and critics truly want to see in book reviews. When I write up a review, I want to intelligently comment on varied aspects of the work: its style, plot, relevance to the audience, how it compares with others in the genre, and any particular inadequacies that I find difficult to bear. However, at times I feel quite unqualified to comment on a time period whose background I am not familiar with or a plot that I can’t understand. I hate simply stating, at the end of it all, that a book was a “good read” without an explanation as to how and why.
I’ve been struggling, wondering what makes my opinion valuable to authors and publishers. In an effort to finesse my reviewing style and correct any mistakes I may have inadvertently been making, I researched what authors would like to see in their book reviews. One particularly enlightening and helpful article, I found on a blog by a writer named David Lewis Edelman (http://www.davidlouisedelman.com/book-reviews/authors-and-their-reviewers/) This author apparently isn’t a “yes man” when it comes to fair reviewing, seeming to prefer creative criticism to enthusiastic blatherings. Here is his list of requirements from reviewers:
- Opinion. Have one. Better yet: have several.
- Honesty. Love it? Hate it? Moved? Unimpressed? Offended? Enraptured? All I want is your honest opinion, whether it’s favorable to me or not. Don’t worry about the politics, don’t worry about the personalities, don’t worry about what’s popular or unpopular in the stores or what other critics are saying. What do you think?
- Insight. I want to know that you engaged with my work. Whether you loved it or hated it is not always the point; I want to know that you thought about it. And if my book left you with a soul-crushing emptiness that sucks light out of the universe? That’s fine too, as long as you gave the book a fair shot. Skimmers and summarizers don’t impress me.
- Elaboration. I can handle the fact that you found the book far-fetched. But I want to know how and where. Specific examples help. Better yet, specific quotations that you took the time to type verbatim from the text.
- Disclosure. Are you and I up for the same award? Are you the brother of the guy I dissed in an article on my blog? Are you a specialist in the field that I’m writing about? Are you my uncle? None of these things disqualifies you from writing a useful review of my books. I just want to know.
- No anonymity. There’s a reason Slashdot’s default label for commenters who don’t leave their names is “Anonymous Coward.” Give your review a byline. It doesn’t necessarily have to be your full name or your real name; just don’t say something provocative and then duck behind the shield of anonymity. I want to know something about you; I want to be able to put your opinions about my work in some kind of context.
- Originality. Anyone can find a detailed summary of MultiReal on the website, or on Amazon, or in other reviews for that matter. Anybody can toss around the phrases “high octane,” “edge of your seat,” and “page turner.” Feel free to confirm impressions that other readers have had, but I’m much more impressed when I see some positive or negative tidbit that I haven’t seen before.
- Accuracy. Probably not the most important point, but important nonetheless. I can forgive misspellings of minor characters’ names; I can forgive that you said the assassination by beer bottle bludgeoning took place in Barcelona instead of Madrid. But when you completely mangle entire plot threads because you weren’t paying attention, you’re just wasting my time.
- No pandering. It’s nice to be quotable, and yes, quotable blurbs can often find their way into the front matter of the next book. But please, don’t say pithy things just for the sake of trying to get on the book jacket or the website.
- No spoilers. It’s not for my sake that you should avoid spoilers; it’s for the sake of my (potential) readers. When a review blithely spoils a suspenseful plot element a third of the way into the novel — like this review of MultiReal from SFRevu does — well, it’s irritating.