Book Reviews as Blind Dates (Not Diary Entries)

The great (but largely forgotten) composer Max Reger (1873-1916) received more than his share of bad reviews. After reading a nasty review of his Sinfonietta, he wrote the following response to the critic in question: “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me!” This little witticism reflects the pose that many artists adopt—a pose that is only skin deep. For even if you toss the review behind you, or into a convenient trash can, the words don’t go away. A bad review is a bad review forever, haunting the writer, or composer, or artist with the thought that he/she simply isn’t good enough; that he/she really doesn’t have any talent, and that the critic has seen through his/her facade to the ‘real’ man or woman beneath the mask. We’ve all heard the saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Clearly these words were not written by an author—or anyone remotely involved with the creative arts. Reger, or someone much closer to their art, might have revised this to read, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will cut my throat!” 

If reviews were bad in the early 20th century, imagine what Reger and his contemporaries would have thought of our modern review culture, where anyone, qualified or not, can dash off a review and be published for all to see. Indeed, Reger only had to face a handful of critics who were carefully cultivated to pass judgment on the arts. For all their flaws—and they were just as biased as the rest of us—they at least understood the history, traditions, and genres in question. They were, in a word, experts. But the 21st century review isn’t necessarily an expert; while some are aficionados of a given author or field, most are just casual readers, haphazardly encountering a book and all-too-often disappointed. The most common one or two-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads often reveal this kind or reader, complaining that a book is “too slow,” or “not the kind of book I like reading!” Even worse are the reviews that read “Seller shipped me the wrong book” or “came later than expected!” Not the kind of review Reger had to deal with, I imagine.

So what is the purpose of a review by the common reader, one who isn’t necessarily an expert, but wants to share his or her impressions of a just-read book? For most readers, reviews are like traffic signs: they tell you whether to proceed, or to proceed with caution; whether to yield or to stop altogether. Seeing a book with 500+ positive reviews might be the very thing that gets you to click the ‘buy’ button. Likewise, a book with word-of-mouth but only a handful of reviews, and some of them negative, could drop it in a wish list but little more. In short, reviews are designed on the internet to be skimmable or—ironically for books—not even read at all. Often, the title says it all: “Great Debut!” or “Great Plot, Disappointing Characters” or even “How Did This Get Published?” On Goodreads, many readers simply award the book in question a handful of stars and race to the next book. Simple as that.

However, books are rarely that simple. Most people who write reviews do so for a specific reason: either the book pissed them off, or they loved it so desperately that they want to start a new religion. Books then become extremely personal diatribes that are so wrapped up in the reader’s experience that it can be hard to discern the actual book. This is the problem I find in my own literature classes in college: students place themselves before the book; that is, they try to imagine themselves as the main character, and failing that, they often reject the book entirely. While it’s always exciting when a student finds themselves in a book—and much less so when they don’t—this isn’t the best place to start a review. Why? For the simple reason that it becomes almost impossible to write an objective, analytical review when you begin with yourself.

Uh-oh, analytical! Sounds like the early 20th century critic that trashed Reger. However, even though today’s reviews tend to be more off-the-cuff, anyone can be analytical without much effort. After all, a review, by it’s very definition, suggests an analysis. Not a personal response, and not a diary entry, but a slight unpacking of how the book affects readers—the very mechanics of the prose (or poetry) itself. The great failing of most reviews is that the reviewer never gets to why the book is great or terrible, but simply states that it is. Take, for example, an excerpt from a typical 2-star review of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine on Goodreads:

 It was sooooooooooooooooo long and drawn out, with so many descriptions and so many needless details that my advanced future brain just wandered off in search of shiny things. “

Is this a review of the book or a review of the reviewer’s attention span? It’s hard to imagine a book that is barely 100 pages being “sooooooooooooooooo long and drawn out,” and full of “needless details.” Couldn’t the same be said of the average Brandon Sanderson novel (clocking in at 1,000+ pages)? Does this reviewer even enjoy reading books—or does he/she prefer playing with “shiny things?” After reading it, I know next to nothing about The Time Machine other than the reader didn’t like it and found it a tiresome read. But the question remains, why? Why were the details “needless”? Would I find it long and drawn out, or is the reviewer simply new to late 19th century novels or British literature in general? Maybe he/she hates science fiction and would respond the same way to a novelization of Rogue One?

In my classes, I encourage students to practice the art of close reading. This means training yourself to avoid saying what you feel before you explain why it made you feel this way. A literary scholar has to analyze the actual words to understand how an author creates plot and characterization. Novels don’t write themselves, after all, and each word, each sentence, and each paragraph is a wrestling match between the author and the English language (and if a translation, the wrestling becomes even more furious!). While a casual reviewer on Goodreads certainly doesn’t have to see him or herself as a literary scholar, they should consider what it means to read a book. For a book isn’t the same for each reader, and in essence, we all read a different book (which is what makes literature live beyond the moment of publication—and in some cases, over a thousand years).

Consider it like a blind date: some go smashingly, and you’re up all night talking and flirting. Others don’t even make it past appetizers. But if you went home and explained this date to your best friend, he/she would want details: why was it so wonderful or boring? What did your date say? What jokes? What details about his or her personal life? And what did you say in return? For example, a play I enjoy teaching to undergraduates is Shakespeare’s early, gory, and completely ludicrous play, Titus Andronicus. For those readers expecting a prim and proper masterpiece, step aside; the play is quite messy and border-line disgusting, though it still betrays Shakespeare’s trademark wit and language. To help students see the irreverent humor in the piece, which is always making fun of itself, I might point out the following passage spoken by the “villain” of the piece, Aaron the Moor:

“Then, Aaron, arm thy heart and fit thy thoughts
To mount aloft with thy imperial mistress,
And mount her pitch whom thou in triumph long
Hast prisoner held, fettered in amorous chains.”

Here, the meaning is less in what he is saying than how he says it. Note how he uses the word “mount” in this passage: he wants to “mount” the tops of power and love with his “imperial mistress” (Tamora, the captive Queen of the Goths), while at the same time “mounting her.” Yes, that means exactly what it sounds like: he wants to become powerful by shagging her. And he even says it foully: he wants to “mount her pitch,” meaning her field of play, her nether regions, her darkness. He’s also bragging here, noting that she has been a “prisoner” of his love, in “amorous chains” even longer than she’s been a prisoner of the Romans. What a guy, this Aaron!

While this kind of analysis might be exhaustive in a Goodreads or Amazon review, a little bit goes a long way. Help the reader learn something about how you read or experienced the book. Quote the language, let us ‘hear’ a specific passage and understand how the book plays into our ideas of language, or genre, or storytelling. Otherwise, we simply learn that you didn’t like a book and that it was “sooooooooooooo long.” And yet, I bet The Time Machine reads much quicker than such an uninspired and thoughtless review.

And one final note: in the case of living authors, thinking of him or her wanting to hear from living readers. What made you stay up into all hours of the night reading the book? Or what made you hurl it across the room? Have a conversation with the writer as if he or she is actually in the room with you. Tell them what worked, what might not have, and why you would—or wouldn’t—read this book again. Books continue to live for one reason alone: we keep talking about them. So continue the conversation in your review...the less you say, the less chance someone else might add their two cents to the discussion, and fall in love on their next ‘blind date.’