The responsibility of a book reviewer

I take being a book reviewer very responsibly. I know that because I have a platform, and readers, what I say may have some kind of influence on whether someone buys a book. And I know that if I write a negative book review, then I’m contributing to a debate or discussion that has a direct effect on the author – someone who spent time, energy, and money on writing that book.

So, it’s important to be an honest book reviewer. What I mean by honest is this: if I was to pick up a book by Ann Coulter, I wouldn’t be able to judge her work on its own merits. I find Coulter’s politics and opinions repugnant and stupid. I’d probably get through maybe a chapter or two before throwing aside the book in disgust. So I wouldn’t post a review of any Ann Coulter books.

Being an honest book reviewer means having the integrity to judge whether one is going to be a fair reviewer. I don’t mean that a reviewer is obligated to shoot sunshine up an author’s ass just because she didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but what I do mean is that if you are taking on the task of reviewing a book, there is an etiquette to follow.

Why am I saying all this? Because I was looking through a review for a book I recently read – Stories from Jonestown. The reviewer panned the book, citing its strong language as the reason, but ending the review by admitted that he hadn’t finished the book, nor had he gotten far into the book (I changed around details and am remaining purposely vague, so as to protect the privacy of said reviewer).

If you’ve read my review of Stories from Jonestown, then you’d know that it’s primarily a collection of interviews from survivors of the Jonestown mass suicide. These were subjects that went through some unimaginable horror and were encouraged to be honest – was some of the language rough? Yes – not excessively so, but yes, the language is a bit blue at times, to reflect a passionate or angry response to a particularly painful memory. Many of the people interviewed carry anger still to this day, and will express it by cursing.

But I’ll concede that even if the language was a detriment to the project as a whole, then a negative review would’ve been fair. But I had an issue with the admission of not finishing the book, nor getting too far into it. When you take on reviewing a book, you take on a certain responsibility, and that means being fair and honest – which also means you have to read the whole book (or at least most of it) to judge whether the foul language did take away from the book as a whole.

A good example would be Eddie Huang’s excellent memoir Fresh Off the Boat. It’s written in the voice of the author, that includes lots of references to sports as well as a healthy amount of slang and hip-hop lingo (and as I write “hip-hop lingo” I couldn’t feel more white or square). To some, this felt forced, and the language distracted readers who needed to look up allusions, references, and turns of phrases. Now, to me, that’s a good thing – learning new words is never a bad thing, no matter in what context. But I’d argue that it’s a fair assessment if someone felt that something was taken away by the heavy reliance on slang in the writing. But the reviews I’m referring to, actually read the whole book before they slammed it.

As a wannabe writer, I’m also interested in what people have to say about my work – and I know not all of it will be positive. In fact, there are cases when I get negative feedback for some of the posts I’ve published. And that’s okay. Negative reviews are helpful in that your readers know to proceed with caution. But this is also a responsibility that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

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2 Comments

Filed under Book, commentary, Writing

2 responses to “The responsibility of a book reviewer

  1. An interesting post. This is a subject that is much discussed amongst book reviewers on Amazon – should one review a book if one fails to finishes it. While I rarely post a review without finishing the book, I don’t think it’s always wrong to do so. As an example, I posted a very negative review of Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetary after abandoning it at the three-quarters mark. In my opinion it was so badly written and structured that it wouldn’t have been published if it came from an unknown author. Many, many people agreed and at least as many disagreed. My view would not have changed had I struggled through to the end. If people who hate a book so much that they abandon it don’t review it, then the reviews are skewed towards people who like it. To take it to extremes, if 100 people start it and only 1 finishes it, and that one person then reviews that they loved it, is that a fair assesment of the book? Or helpful to the potential reader? Only if some at least of the other 99 review it too, I’d suggest.

    I think reviewers (amateur reviewers at least) sometimes tend to over-estimate their own influence. As a reader, I read both positive and negative reviews and make up my own mind. As a reviewer, that’s what I assume other people do too. 🙂

    • Thanks for the reply and thanks for reading! –
      I agree that one doesn’t need to finish a book in its entirety – and you wrote that you got through about 3/4 of Eco’s book which is appropriate. The question is how far into the book did the reviewer get – far enough to correctly (and fairly) assess its merits; the writer in question admitted that he didn’t get “that far into it” and the reason he gave was the language. If the reader got through at least half the book, then maybe he’d realize that the language wasn’t gratuitious…
      So yeah, I think negative reviews are appropriate, but I think the reviewer is required to give the author a fair shake – this reminded me of Dan Quayle condeming ‘Murphy Brown’ without actually seeing the show – he was going by what his handlers were saying the show was about – had he watched an episode, I think his opinion would’ve been different – or at least more nuanced…
      And like you, I read reviews both negative and positive, and then make a judgment call – but if a reviewer admits in his review, “Oh, btw, I didn’t get too far into the book because it’s about a dog, and I hate dogs,” then fairly or not, I immediately question the reviewer’s take.
      Again, thanks for the smart comment – it’s something to think about.

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