Thursday, September 4, 2008

Reviewing books we like

It started when I wanted to do a review of Stephen King's 'The Stand'. 'The Stand' is a book I 'traditionally' re-read every year when I’m at the seaside with my friends, and since it is such a huge book (around 1400 pages), I discover something forgotten every time I read it, be it little details or the more forgettable chapters. You could say that I like this book very, very much.
But there was a sudden problem: I caught myself wondering if I was really able to write a good review. Firstly, can I explain all the reasons for why I like this book so much? And secondly, can I remain objective the whole time?
I figured out that reviewing books you like very much is a kind of a problem, and I gave it some thought.

There are, if you ask me, two basic types of books one likes very, very much:

*books you read and really liked, so you re-read them many times and marveled at how great they are every time anew
*books you just read and really liked, so you’ll probably re-read them but you can’t know that for sure (of course, there are books you read and simply know you will re-read them one day, but these are fairly rare) – neither you know it you will find them as great (or even greater) as you did the first time.

It’s easier, I think, to review the latter type, though none of the two is really easy to review. Why?

You can like a book for a number of reasons: because the style of writing is good, because the characters seem as if they were real, living persons, because the world-building is so superb that you feel as if you were there yourself. These reasons are just slightly subjective, but fairly easy to agree on and very easily explainable. They are, of course, based on our personal preferences, but I’m fairly sure there are some objective guidelines that apply to what we’d call a ‘good’ style of writing. I’m saying that because there are also various ‘wild’, completely subjective (and often even a bit silly) reasons you like a book for, which often appear with your ‘all-time favorite’ books: because The Hero is such a badass, because you always wanted to be an astronaut when you were a kid or because you too have a cat named Pestilence and it’s really great to pretend that it could shoot laser beams from its eyes, just like the one in the book. These reasons are in no way inferior to those former ones (after all, they made you love the book just as well), but their subjective nature makes them much harder to explain. ‘All in all, the book was awesome mostly because The Hero is such a badass’ is, after all, a bit silly thing to write in a review.

Not that this is the only problem. Sometimes, you don’t even know why exactly you like a certain book or genre so much. Myself, I adore most of post-apocalyptic novels, but I’m not really certain why that is so. I know that it’s not because I’d wish to see humanity destroyed or because I’d hate the world. I mean, I saw this old movie where, at the end, there is no more life on our planet (I googled it out later; it's "On The Beach" (1959)) and I had nightmares about it for a week afterwards – but still I’m drawn to this genre. Maybe I just like to read about how people react in case of a global destruction and what kind of societies they form afterwards, or facing the unknown and unpredictable (that would explain why I liked Terror so much). I admit, I don’t really know – but if I can’t even figure it out myself, how can I explain my liking for a certain book in a review, to other people?

To make things worse (or at least more complicated), the above mentioned problems appear when you try to figure out the reasons for really liking a book which otherwise has many good qualities – in other words, when the style is great, the plot even more so, the world-building is ok, but the best thing is that you like it for a reason that is totally subjective and that makes it one of your all-time favorite books. But it sometimes happens that the book has one really awesome element, while the others are pretty mediocre (it’s rare, I think, to adore a book which has one good element while all the others are dreadful). Or you love the book, but you can’t really put your finger on the reason why, so you ascribe it to the style, the plot, the characters … and when you do so, it’s easy to miss some facts and/or exaggerate a bit. If it was one of those subjective reasons that made a book so great to read, you can easily overlook how flawed the plot was or that there wasn’t much world-building included. You don’t do that willingly – it’s just that you are too overwhelmed with what you like. And, in fact, a book can’t be really bad if it managed to impress you so.

But the question here is: can you write a good review in such case? Can you even remain objective while reviewing one of your favorite books, or do you just say that you’re being much more subjective than usual, even though you can’t explain everything?
And if you decide to look at the book objectively, regarding its possible flaws as well as its qualities – what if that ruins the book for you?

Option A: it can’t, if you are a type of person that loves the book despite its flaws* and if the qualities are still bigger than flaws
Option B: it can, because you were so ‘blinded’ before that you didn’t even notice that nasty flaw there and you’ll be never really able to enjoy that book again.

*I found an interesting solution to the ‘review full of praise, but bad rating at the end’ (or vice versa) problem in Option A – what if that’s not a sign of reviewer’s dishonesty, as some suggested, but the other way around? You can try and expose the flaws in your review, but since you like the book, you’ll give it a good rating, or the other way around – you’ll write a review and tell everyone how much you like the book, but since you know it has flaws you barely mentioned, you’ll rate it lower. Happened to me, too.

So, at the end we’re down to our duty as a reviewer (search for possible flaws so you can judge and present the book fairly) vs. our right as a reader (enjoy the book). What shall one choose?

I guess I’m more inclined to my right as a reader. I like to read better than I like to review (but that’s mostly because I like to read better than anything) and if enjoying books without analyzing them thoroughly means that I’m being blinded, so be it. There are books that are technically good, but otherwise annoying, and books that are really loveable but technically mediocre. I guess I prefer the latter ones. Maybe not everyone judges a book based on a feeling it left – but your average reader surely does. So if a book left a bad feeling with me, I look for flaws that were the reason, but if a book is good, I don’t really care. Do you?

I have to say that my reviews don’t always reflect the opinion I expressed above – it’s because I’m still relatively new to the world of reviewing and am yet to set my final criteria.

Also, there is a lot left to say on topic of reviewing books you like; it’s just that it’s hard for me to write it all down, especially in a foreign language, so I ask you that if you have any thoughts, comments or experience on the topic, do share it with us in the comments.


Jen said...

Well this hits close to home :) The Stand is one of my favorite books ever, I love post-apocalyptic stuff though I can't exactly say why, and I like reading muuuuch more than I like reviewing.

However, it's a bit different for me, since I never set out to write reviews. They're just opinions. I don't want to recommend books, I want to discuss books with people who already read them.

I did write about The Stand 2 weeks or so ago in a review-ish way but I still it still reads like "OMGOMG this book rocks". There's so many things I like about it, but my vocabulary fails me... and it's not just because I'm writing in a foreign language. So I'm stuck.

Not that it matters much to me that my reviews will never match up to others', but I hope I don't turn anyone away from a good book because of my ranting and raving.

(P.S. A friend had been recommending me The Terror for a long while, but my past experiences with Simmons have been less than happy... But if you like the same stuff as me in general and you thought it was good, I'll give it a shot.)

Thea said...

Great post Trin--and definitely one close to my heart as well. Stephen King is my favorite author (while I love The Stand, it's really The Dark Tower books that are my favorites), but so far as actually reviewing his work? Well, I suppose they would all fall under the "books that are really loveable but technically mediocre" category. And if I had to pick between an irritating but excellently written book (say, Neuromancer by William Gibson) and a loveable but mediocre book (like say, The Waste Lands by King), I'd pick the second option in a heartbeat.

The reviewer quandry is a toughie, but reading is more than the sum total of it's parts (damn, Neuromancer is stuck in my head now)--in addition to being well written, having exceptional world building, etc ad nauseam, there's also the emotional, cool cat shooting lazer beams out of its eyeballs factor ;) A balance is a good thing--and I think you do this beautifully in your reviews.

Oh and, since you're a fan of The Stand--the first comic arc (""Captain Trips") issue will be in stores next wednesday! (Along with the third Dark Tower comic arc "Treachery")

Ana said...

Great, great topic!

I guess for me it all comes down to the emotional issue - I am an emotional reader, I can cry, laugh, despair, sob, and almost get heart attacks while reading a book. I love a well-written book as much as anyone but I love it even more when my emotions are engaged somehow. And that reflects in my reviews as well - I try as much as I can to be objective regarding certain aspects of the books I read i.e. writing style, plotlines, character development etc but in the end, the more I was involved in the story the higher the grade - I try always, to explain why though.

Having said that, there are books that leave me cold emotionally speaking - meaning, I didn't cry or laugh or anything like that BUT that give my brain such a hype because of all the cool/interesting things.

An example that comes to mind is American Gods by Neil Gaiman. It wasn't an emotional reading but it was amazingly intellectual one.

And I have no idea if I actually contributed anything to the discussion!

Trin said...

@jen: oh, you should definitely try The Terror! I can't guarantee you'll like it (especially if you disliked Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, which made quite an impression on me) but the chances are good. :)

@thea: I've read The Stand just because I heard it is connected to The Dark Tower. :) The Dark Tower books are mine favourite too; I love the voodoo-fantasy feeling, but didn't re-read them (except for The Gunslinger), since I have to take some time for that. Don't even want to think about their technical side, though. :)
Ty for the info on the comic; sadly, these never come as far as our country, so I guess I'll just wait untill they're all out and then order them via Amazon. :)

/back on topic

@ana: well I think you did. :) I know what you mean - I often cry while reading (and feel pretty silly afterwards), but personally, I think laughing is worse, especially if you (like me) often read in public places. :) Also I know what you mean by books that give your brain a hype, but my first thought was 'anything by Phillip K. Dick'. I read two of his books and was all 'whoooaaaa, I guess I didn't really get that'. It's why I've never written the reviews. :)

Sara J. said...

For me this hits on two issues about reviewing.

The first is that I don't really believe that reviews are objective by nature, since they are opinion pieces written from a person's own perspective. It doesn't matter how fair I try to be because my take on the book will always be infuenced by who I am. I think what's really important is to be honest with readers as to why you like it or don't, and what your biases may be.

The other item is that it's infinitely harder to review books that you like, since it's hard to do anything much other than gush about them. For me, I know when I'm enjoying the story enough to let myself go along for the ride, many things are inifinitely forgivable because at that point in time I enjoy myself too much to really care about repetition of certain words or turns of phrases or structural consistency. I think it's much more challenging to do than write a bad review, and it takes a lot more time to separate yourself from the enjoyable parts to be able to step back and have a more honest look at it...

But that's just me ;)


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