Book ReviewsSunday Salon

Sunday Salon: Review dilemma

sundaysalonSavidge Reads triggered a discussion this week on the art of reviewing. The question posed was whether reviews have become more ‘samey’ because bloggers feel compelled when they receive a book for review, to make their comments ‘fair and nice’ rather than reflecting an honest opinion.

The question couldn’t have been more timely because it’s one I’ve been wrestling with over the last few days.

During the past week I’ve been reading an advance copy of a novel supplied to me via NetGalley. The beginning was so bad I would have abandoned it had I got it from the library or borrowed it from a friend. But the fact it was a review copy somehow made me feel obliged to plough on. And it did get better eventually – not great – not even good, just better. It’s still a deeply flawed novel. So now the dilemma I face is how to provide feedback.

Do I let the publishers know about the basic factual errors such as having your main character  wear a silk dress where five paragraphs earlier she was wearing velvet?  Or referring to a waiter as male in one sentence, and female in the next (maybe the quickest sex change in history)? Or should I just let these pass in the belief the publishers will spot these kinds of errors in final proofing stage and really wouldn’t appreciate hearing from some clever clogs pointing out the obvious to them. I would hate to be one of those people who delight in contacting television or film drama producers with lists of factual and historical inaccuracies.

The bigger dilemma however is striking the right balance between criticising the fundamental problems of narration and characterisation and yet not demoralising the author who has put heart and soul into this creation? Easy for me to be critical maybe when all I’ve written is a few short stories (none of which I have ever had the courage to subject to public scrutiny). If I fudge the issue however and just focus on the positives, then the review is not going to be a true reflection of my opinion of the novel.

I could play chicken and simply not write a review or submit any feedback. I know the terms of NetGalley mean there is absolutely no requirement on me to write anything at all but I wouldn’t be comfortable with that – I somehow feel my comments are a fair exchange for the proof copy. So I need to write something – but just what, I don’t yet know.

How do you deal with these situations? Any tips and advice would be very welcome…


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

14 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: Review dilemma

  • I think honesty is always the best policy. There are ways of saying things of course – but saying something was great when it wasn’t seems pointless, sometimes I read something – and am able to recognise that is has qualities that are good – but I didn’t gel with the book – and then I can say it wasn’t my kind of thing – ie putting tha blame with myself. However if I think something is poorly done I will say so – I don’t believe that getting a review copy means I have to say something positive if I don’t find it very good. Thankfully I don’t get that many review copies, so it’s not something I have to think about much – I don’t want any more than the few I do get as I have so many of my own books still to read.

    • Thanks Ali – I have thought further about this and reflected on your comments and others and decided that i would indeed post a review that wasn’t overly critical but still not that effusive. I just published it so will let others judge whether I succeeded

  • You definitely need to be honest about the book, if you aren’t then it is your reputation on the line. You can be honest but still be nice about it, mix in the not good with the things you did like, and always note that it is your reader’s opinion, that others might see things differently. Good luck!

    • Good point about the importance of keeping the reputation intact. Thanks for the comment and hep Stefanie

  • Hi Karen. I deal with this by not accepting ARCs from authors that I do not know. That way, I wouldn’t have to worry about destroying the career of a budding writer if the book is that bad (but really, someone has to tell them whether they should stop writing or not).

    • I can see that as an option Angus but since I am trying to get out of my comfort zone I do want to try new authors.

  • The first question to ask is who are you writing for? Who are your readers?
    In 30 plus years of reviewing (mostly plays, but also some books for a newspaper), I have made all the mistakes and probably faced all the dilemmas. I think being honest is fundamental to a review. I differ from others here; I never felt I was writing feedback for or to the professional writer or the professional cast of a play. I wasn’t giving director’s notes or writing lessons. Someone else could do that. (I had different thinking about amateur (always kind, always constructive) and community theater — I won’t go into that here). With professional or semi-professional paid actors, my responsibility was to my readers; I was accountable to them.
    I know actors, writers and directors didn’t always see it my way — those who read reviews were looking mostly for praise. Public constructive criticism — probably not so much. (And I would occasionally get comments from them that indicated they thought it was all about them. Mostly from semi-professionals.)
    I did however feel responsible to the writers, actors, etc. in that I tried not to write clever negative criticism at their expense. I focused on the work, where I felt it didn’t make sense or dragged etc.
    As for free books or advance copies, they are nice to get but should not compromise your opinion; if they do you are writing free publicity, not reviews.
    I have now moved beyond reviewing considerations on my blog. I am often more interested in writing afterthoughts or responses to literature than I am in writing traditional reviews.
    Who am I writing for? Who is my audience?
    Blogging ,I have no idea. My stats show large numbers of readers in the Netherlands. ( I know they are probably not even real readers).
    Why not just write what I want?

    • Wow, there is so much to think about in your post Barbara. A rich vein of insight from your experience. I spent part of the sunny afternoon yesterday considering your question about who am I writing for. Not sure I totally answered myself but I did reach a conclusion that I’m not wriging for a professional audience – I am writing for people who like me enjoy reading and sharing what they thought.

  • I always try to give a full, reasonably detailed account of the book – the way the story starts out, the themes, a sketch portrait of the main characters, an idea of the genre, a quote or two that are representative of the style – and then after that, I’ll talk about my own experience of reading it. I’ve found that just about everybody reads a book differently, so I can’t take my own feelings as exemplary. Instead, I try to give as much information to others, so they can judge for themselves if they’re interested in the book or not, and then I’ll be honest about my personal response. That way, I figure no one can complain!

  • Be honest. If honesty is not expected, better not to continue to review for that publisher. You mentioned factual issues, and no one should object to noting inconsistencies. It is more difficult with style, as it is subjective. The hard part, if to continue to plow through a book that the author should have shredded. If you are honest after putting in the work, the writer should appreciate the constructive criticisms. Reviews that are merely “good” or “bad” without constructive criticism, even it is all “bad”, don’t provide a service. If the writer hopes to improve he/she does not need to be stroked by finding a nugget for encouragement. Fortunately, most writing is not at the extremes.

  • I always try and give positives and negatives even if I despise the book. Clearly a book I don’t like well have many more negatives than positives. When it comes to galleys I’m as honest as possible and always include errors like you mention above and mention that the book could’ve used a better copyeditor (but I make sure to note whether it’s in pre-production or not because it might not have seen a final copyeditor yet).

    I always review on my blog and submit to the publisher because I hope it influences the writer when they sit down for their next book, or encourages the publisher to hire a better (or more) copyeditors. But I’m not too harsh in general so maybe mine don’t come across quite in the way I think they do.

    • I shall think about this as an approach Geoff for my future reviews. I did provide private feedback to the publisher about the errors but refrained from mentioning them in the review just so I didn’t come across as a nitpicker….

  • This is a dilemma yes. If you want you can provide feedback without writing a review on your blog and in the notes section just point out that you were not sure if you should post a negative review on your blog. That way you give feedback and won’t feel bad about not reviewing it on your blog?

    • Thanks Melinda. I decided to do a review in the end but also to send more detailed comments in a more private way direct to the publishers………


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