I have long been of the opinion that as a writer who writes fiction, it doesn't make much sense for me (karmic or otherwise) to formally review the fiction of others. I've drawn the line at "formal" reviews, which allows me to tell anyone in print or blog or otherwise, how a certain book made me feel, which elements worked for me and which did not. I've carefully walked this line for awhile...never stepping foot in the dangerous (to me) world of proper book reviews. Yet over the past few years, I've warmed to the idea that some authors are quite good - even great - at cogently arguing the merits or non-merits of recently published books. I don't, however, think I'm one of them. I also don't think I want to be one of them.
Before I can even examine why I don't want to be one of them, I should probably qualify the "formal" review. What does that really mean? In my definition, "formal" hinges on publication for a wider audience. I don't think my comments about books I love or books I didn't take a shine to that appear on this blog are "formal" in the least. They are purely my opinion. While we can argue that all book reviews are shades of opinions, I think the reader of published reviews expects something different when the book is reviewed by someone who is employed to do just that...read a book and write a response. It seems to me there is a larger responsibility there. Yet even as I type, I realize my own illogical thinking on this. If I'm posting any words about another writer on this blog or elsewhere, perhaps I also have a larger responsibility to make clear points, support those points with evidence, and stand behind my words. If so, it's a frightening prospect.
As an avid reader and as a writer, I have much to say about books and writing and all the techniques writers employ (effectively or not) to create the worlds their characters live in. I believe many of us do. I have no problem discussing these various techniques here and elsewhere...as part of a conversation...a conversation in which it is likely we will not all agree. Yet when faced with the new task of reviewing books for LAist (I know, I know, Kakutani-ish reviews and James Woodsian critique is not warranted - may in fact be loathed - in this venue), I find I'm freezing up. Putting it off. Freaking out. Why?
- I have such respect for truly critical critiques and proper take-downs that I'd rather leave that to the pros. I feel that even attempting to wade in these waters when I know I don't have the chops is just foolish and wouldn't add anything of value to the conversation.
- I've read so many book reviews that are dull, that put me to sleep, that don't in any way do for me what I'd hoped they would do: illuminate aspects of a book I didn't know about, challenge my own thinking on a particular book/subject/author, link the context of the book to larger issues. (Which leads to the central point of all this: what is a book review meant to do? and is the function of it different given the venue in which its written? delivered?)
- I really do believe my karma will be shot to hell if I, writer of unpublished works, deign to critique the writing of published works. Perhaps this is an amateur stance, but it is always working on my brain, a program running in the background.
- A part of me thinks there must be a middle ground - a place in between where it is less about critical analysis and more about bringing attention to books in a positive way, expanding readership of all kinds of books, of all kinds of authors. I don't mean to say that I'd prefer to write or read purely positive reviews - not at all. In fact, I think part of the problem is that the book reviewing world has become a place to churn out a yay or nay review and little else. Why must that be the case? Can't we do better in a simpler, less academic way? In a way that is less elitist, less academic, more accessible to the very people who don't yet read widely but could if persuaded? Be all these things and yet not insulting to readers with brief summaries of books and little else? I think we can. I think we must.
So, I ask you, writers who are also reviewers: What elements make up a proper book review? What do you feel a book review should do? Should not do? How do you approach book reviews when you write them?
And I ask you, readers: What are you hoping to find when you read a book review? What annoys you most? What engages you the most? What makes you keep reading them, if you do?
As I prepare my 200 word piece on BSG (see, a mere trifle! not even a "review"!), these larger questions keep popping up, presenting themselves before me, begging to be answered. I'm well-versed on the state of the dwindling book review sections and I'm painfully familiar with both the trite little summary book reviews and the lengthy critical analyses that fill pages every week in papers, in journals, in magazines. I'm fumbling around, though, for the terrain in between. Is it there and I just can't see it clearly? Or is it a fictional place I should stop dreaming about and move on?