Thursday, November 15, 2012

...REVIEWS?

You know, those things many of you read before deciding whether to purchase a book, and which some of you write after being impressed... or bored... or disgusted... or entertained... by your current read?  Yeah, those.

As a writer and a reader, I enjoy a well-written, thoughtful review. It it can help me decide between two books, or can maybe help me decide to avoid or buy both. Sometimes seeing the thoughts of others can help me process what I've read, in order to form my own opinion. Strictly as a writer, a well-written review (whether the reader loved the book or didn't)  is invaluable in letting me see how effective I was in translating my characters and storyline from my head to the paper. Of course most writers would rather see a positive review than a negative review, but both can be useful. Books are written to entertain the reader--we need to know if we're accomplishing what we set out to do, right? And as much as we love unbridled adoration, it takes more than unfocussed praise to do that job. So here are a few tips for writing a useful review from a reader AND a writer (and a reviewer, come to think of it):

1) READ THE BOOK

This might seem self-explanatory, but I can't count the reviews I've read wherein the reader admits that they never read past the first few pages, but then writes a glowing (or scathing, more often) review. Really, guys, this helps no one. Other readers should be forming an opinion based upon the merits or downfalls of the book, not upon the particular hobbyhorse the reviewer is currently riding. Writers get nothing from such reviews either--no idea where they went off-track for that reader. Further, without reading into the book, the writer of the review might have missed the reason for whatever they disliked in the first few pages. What irritated the crap out of you on page ten might have been explained on page 100.

This is assuming a well-written book. There is a very popular book for which you will never see a review written by me, as I could not bring myself to read more than the first couple of chapters. Therefore, my thoughts in a review would be based solely on what little I did read. That would not be fair to the author, nor would it be of much use to the reader. So I keep my trap shut publicly.

2) UNDERSTAND THAT THE MAIN CHARACTER IS NOT THE AUTHOR

I know it can seem like a natural progression: like the characters, love the author (lord knows Stephenie Meyer benefitted from this). Hate the characters, revile the author. This isn't a good idea for any number of reasons, but the most important is because THE AUTHOR IS NOT HIS/HER CHARACTER. We're using imagination to create a world and the souls that inhabit that world, not transcribing our exact thoughts/lives.

I'd be the first to admit that authors use their lives (and those of people they know) as grist for their mill. I use stories and funny things I hear around me all of the time. But I am not my characters. For example, I gave Jena in Cocktails & Dreams some of the funny experiences from my college years, and have stolen real life lines from so many people in my life. She has my comic-book geekiness (lol), but that's about all. At 25 I was married, working full time, going to school, and nowhere NEAR as emo as the people in that book. Nor was or am I so likely to sidle around issues--I'm pretty direct, and always have been. She is a creature of my imagination, frankly, as are most characters that you read. As an author, I love it when you feel like you know the characters so well that they are like friends. That's exactly what I write toward. Just don't assume they are me (or any author).

I was recently disturbed by a snarky review of a friend's book. The reviewer made an assumption that the writer was Mary Sue-ing her way through a book (A Mary Sue is a thinly veiled version of an author) because the main character shared one of the writer's interests. This was patently unfair, to both the writer and to a reader who uses that review to make a buying decision.

3) UNDERSTAND STORY STRUCTURE  OR CHARACTER SOMETIMES DICTATES STYLE

I caught myself on this one just yesterday. Thank God it wasn't in a published review. I contacted a writer friend of mine, concerned about one section of her story in which the letter of a character was missing a few words here and there. I ASSUMED (and you know what happens when we assume, children, right?) that because the book was self-pubbed, it was a technical error with formatting. I imposed my own bias on a section that was very purposely written that way (my writer friend kindly advised me) in order to show the distress and mental state of the character.

DUH. I should have known that, particularly because I'd just corrected the snarky reviewer of another friend's book on her assumption that footnoting in that book was used because the writer was not inventive enough to work the information into the story naturally. I saw the footnoting as a device that fit the character's orderly, yet tending to go off on tangents, mind.  In both of these cases, writing style was dictated by the character, with no reference to the individual writer's abilities.

The point of view of a story can dictate the narrative as well. One thing that I often see in reviews are scathing demolitions of an author's character because the reviewer doesn't like the actions of a character, or presumes sympathy where the author generally has none. First person narrators are often unreliable (no one wants to see themselves as the bad guy, right?), and the author of that character often gets taken to task for thinking it's okay for the character to behave or think the way he or she does. One great example of this is Humbert Humbert in Nabakov's novel, Lolita. He is an awful, terrible man who preys on children. There is no doubt about this. But he justifies himself by various claims: his desire is natural, it was okay in the past, Lolita liked it, too... Many reviews vilify Nabakov as a presumptive pedophile because of Humbert's thoughts, but they are just that--Humbert's thoughts. Not Nabakov's. In this year's Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn sets up a similar situation with the journal of one of her main characters--it is only after we get about 2/3 of the way into the story, distrusting and despising another character, that we discover the truth about her. Some reviewers considered that a cheat; I don't. First person, baby. That character can do/think anything, and we can't trust a word of what we're told. And that is NOT a failing of the author. It is a device to tell a story.

So that's it. Read, please read. and keep those reviews coming. Just make sure they're fair and accurate.

(No pretty pics this time, and no zombies. I'm on the edge of my seat about The Walking Dead, so look out for a zombieblast next week-haha!)


2 comments:

  1. Great post, Autumn. My friends (especially my gay friends) are much funnier than me so I've also used their lines verbatim. A Mary Sue is a thinly guised version of the author? I thought a Mary Sue meant that the female character was so perfect she was boring. I loved Gone Girl! Some people thought the author was like Amy? Poor Gillian LOL.

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  2. I've used a lot of lines verbatim! I was once accused of having unbelievably snappy dialogue (lol), but it's a function of having funny friends and the time to pick and choose the best lines :)

    Mary Sues are a bit of both, I suspect--an idealized version of the author, or a character so void of... well, CHARACTER... that the reader can easily imagine him or herself in that position.

    As far as Gillian Flynn, I might not have expressed myself as clearly as I intended. The reviews I've read that criticize Amy's characterization generally do so on the basis of her quick-change, calling it unrealistic, when what they're really angry about is that Flynn 'tricked' them with her use of first person narration. So many people want to believe that voice, when it's so often unreliable.

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