Book reviewers have life pretty sweet. Oh, granted, there's a little treacle and stale plotting to wade through, but think about it--we're the one group on the planet who are asked to read awesome books and give our opinions about them for the benefit of others. More often than not, we're asked to give our opinion in exchange for a free book, or at least in exchange for a cheap copy. And all we have to do is sit down and write what we thought.
Now, lest you get terribly jealous, book reviewing does take some work. First you have to find the time to read the book (no easy feat!) and then you have to make sure your review is honest about its flaws yet not unduly critical at the same time. Then you have make sure you post your thoughts in a timely manner so as to fulfill your end of the contract.
I've been a book reviewer for two and a half years now, and I'm also an author, though not yet published. I have a 600 page historical fiction under my belt, which means I have just enough writing knowledge to be dangerous when it comes to reading. I can critique the books I read from a writer's perspective: "Well, that plot didn't follow through." "Trim some of the padded description there." "You know, this character is really, really awesome." "Love that plot twist!"
I realize that not all you book reviewers out there are writers as well. There's a difference between a writer and a reader. But whether you are one or not, there's a vital concept for all of us to bear in mind as we write reviews:
It is very, very important to remember when we read a book that a real human wrote it.
Sound simple? Not so much. Here's the deal: every time we say, "This book was poorly written," or "This book was well-written," there's a human being on the other end receiving happiness or sorrow through our review. That's a weighty thing. We have no idea whether our review will be the pick-me-up they need to hear, or the last straw to send them into a week of writer's block.
I forget that all too often, even though I write books myself. So today, I'd like to share a little bit of the emotional process of writing a book, in hopes that it can offer a clearer perspective when you read. It's easy to see a book only as a game of plot cards well or poorly played, but what takes more dedication is bearing in mind that the book is a picture of a human soul.
1. Writing stories is a highly emotional process.
Like the term 'baby' or not, that's really what writing a book feels like. You carry this thing with you constantly for months--sometimes you wonder if it's going to die before you get it finished. I've worked on my novel for four years, and it feels like a brand-new first draft every time I go through it. Some days authors feel really depressed, and others they get an excitement high about how awesome their work is. The bigger the book, the more personal the story, the more intimately connected it is with an author. That alcohol abuse plot? That friendship betrayal? That broken home life? That physical abuse? There may be (and is) a very real-life, hurting person, seeking personal healing not only for their characters, but also for themselves and hopefully potential readers as well. While this isn't the case with every novel, it's a weighty thing to remember when reading.
For instance, before Jan Karon created her Mitford series, she was very afraid that she was developing diabetes. She did a lot of internet browsing, found out about the symptoms, researched the treatment, and then worked up courage to see the doctor. Turns out she didn't have it, but she took all the research and life experience and put it into her Father Tim novels. That was real-life pain turned to benefit in the story, and most authors work that way. Charles Dickens is another classic example--he took his pain from working in the factories, his feelings of betrayal towards his parents, and his longing for a better life and poured it into his novels about debtor's prisons, street waifs, and rags to riches.
We authors have to let our books go to be loved by the public, but keep in mind those of you who haven't written a story of your own: a book, just like a child, will always be an intimate part of the author's self. When you critique it, they can't separate the book from themselves. So be gentle, be compassionate, and be fair. When something doesn't work in a book, it's important to remember that the author is going to feel like they've let the characters down, just like a parent will feel like it's partly their fault when their kid does something wrong.
If you're of the reformed persuasion, you probably believe in the parallel truths of God's complete sovereignty and man's responsibility. The concepts, though they seem complete opposites, work in tandem with one another. The same is true with writing--the author is sovereign over the way the book goes, but (and I know this is really hard for some of you to grasp) there is an element of free will on the part of the characters. It's not meant to be an excuse for shoddy work; it's just a fact. Sometimes authors just aren't able to fix all the mistakes. So we have remember when we're pointing out a flaw that the author probably knew it was there before we mentioned it, and probably put forth a great deal of effort to fix it. They may have taken it as far as they were able before letting it go.
2. Writers get paid part with money and part with reviews.
Writers never get a full return on their work in money. It's impossible. Unless they throw the thing together and have someone else edit it, which only happens when you're a big name person, they pour countless hours into research, writing, editing, querying, and mulling over how to make it better. All of them have to come to grips with the fact that they're just not going to get money in enough return for the effort it took. So what they get fully paid with is the encouragement and delight of their readers. That's what makes the sweat worthwhile--if readers love it. One delightful comment can give them a week's worth of satisfaction, and one criticism can do the opposite.
The writing process is a roller coaster swing between the highest ecstasy and the deepest despair. Some of those characters you're reading about right now cost a lot of sleepless nights and writer's block and wrestling in prayer--not to mention the life experiences the author pours into their novels, many of which are quite painful. If you can relate to struggles the character is going through, chances are the author can too, and they were willing to put it in book form so you could find something to relate to. The best gift you can give the author, the best payment they could ever want, is to know that you loved and learned from the pages.
Keep in mind that your review and enjoyment of the book is part of the author's "paycheck"--the return they get on their investment. Don't stint them a compensation, and don't overpay them. Give a fair return on their hard work according to the amount of benefit they gave to you.
3. You'll Help the Author Most by Reviewing With Gracious Honesty.
Even though a book should not be taken lightly, it also doesn't mean you have to shelter the author from any real assessment of the book's merit. It might not be worth much. They might need to put more work and sweat and personal investment to it. Tell them so, and be honest. Critique that baby for all it's worth. After all, Proverbs 27:5 says, "Better is open rebuke than hidden love." But before you toss a book out the window, give serious thought to how you're going to do it in an upbuilding manner. Wrestle over the book's themes, the character arcs, and the moral development. Try to discern why the author used them before you pass hasty judgments. I've made plenty of them, and looking back, I'm rather ashamed of the times that I missed what the author wanted to say by making hasty assumptions and sweeping generalizations.
When you have a bone to pick, keep these words in mind:
Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
My rule of thumb for writing reviews has always been to make sure it's something I wouldn't blush to have the author read. They don't need fits of rage; they don't need sweet sentimentalism. If it's exciting, be passionate. They'll want to throw their arms around you, for you are a kindred spirit. If it's terrible, say so in a professional manner and be sure to leave them with a concrete reason why. They'll want to shake hands with you for helping them along the way.
Francis Bacon said, "Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider." We, as book bloggers, owe it to the author to think deep about why they wrote the things they did, and to speak the truth in love.
What do you think? Questions about authors? Questions about book reviewing? I'd love to discuss them in the comments!