I review every book that I read on Goodreads.
I do this because I’m a writer with aspirations of future publication and strong book sales.
I’m aware of how crucial reviews are to authors, both in helping produce those strong sales and in enabling one to (traditionally) publish subsequent books.
Writing reviews is thus my way of providing the assistance I someday hope to receive myself.
There is a school of thought within the writing community that writers should only review books that they like. That we shouldn’t pick holes in the efforts of our fellow authors, especially since we well know the struggle that goes into writing a novel.
This same argument also asserts that a negative review from a fellow writer can be even more harmful than one from a non-writer. The reason being because, as writers, we’ve seen behind the curtain.
We know all the tricks of storytelling that non-writers don’t, and thus are more likely to include things in our negative reviews that non-writers wouldn’t even notice.
Some writers have a policy of only leaving five-star reviews for books, believing that we should never do anything that might hurt our writer colleagues’ chances of success.
Two minds and two hands
Personally, I’m of two minds about the whole thing.
On one hand, I definitely recognize how my perception of stories has changed since I became a writer.
In now knowing how the sausage gets made, rarely can I fully escape into a story. Always a part of me is evaluating it on a technical level, judging flaws of execution that most readers don’t really care about.
On the other hand, to only ever leave five-star reviews seems disingenuous. It would be an affront to my literary integrity and a misrepresentation of reality. The fact is that I don’t love every book that I read; sometimes I just like them.
Sometimes I don’t like them so much as not dislike them.
And since I have no way of knowing what books I’ll love vs. like ahead of time, trying to portray it as if I just happened to love every book that I’ve read would be misleading.
Besides, I am a reader too, if a compromised one.
Reading is my oldest pastime, and at this point in my life I’ve still been a pure reader longer than I’ve been a reader-writer.
I’m allowed to have an honest opinion on what I read. And I want to. Whenever I finish reading a book, I want to let people know what I thought of it.
To balance out these two opposing perspectives, I’ve created the following rules for myself for writing book reviews:
1) I only review books that I finish
In truth, I see nothing wrong with reviewing an unfinished book so long as this fact is disclosed and the reason for not finishing is clearly explained. Sometimes, this reason can be instructive.
But since a review of an unfinished book is guaranteed to be a negative one, I prefer to give books the best possible chance of earning my praise.
If I really want to write a negative review, the price for my doing so is finishing the book first … and thus remaining open to the possibility that I’ll actually end up liking it in the end.
2) I mention only one or two of a books most notable flaws
This is both because I like to keep my reviews reasonably short and also because I see little value in beating a dead horse if I feel a book is seriously flawed.
As well, the idea that as a writer, what I consider a flaw mightn’t be seen as such to a reader once again comes into play.
Only including one or two problems forces me to be selective about what really bothers me the most without possibly spoiling all the fun for everyone else.
3) I apply the Third Law of Library Science
The Third Law of Library Science is “Every book its reader”.
Whenever I’m faced with a book I didn’t enjoy, I ask myself if it’s merely a matter of personal taste—that I just wasn’t that book’s proper reader, rather than a case of it being objectively bad. If the former, I write my review accordingly.
(I should also note that in general, I believe that very few books are truly, objectively bad.)
Beyond all that, as a reader, I’m actually very easy to please.
If a story follows a standard narrative arc and makes me feel a little something for the characters, I’m all but guaranteed to at least like it. The easiest three stars any author has ever earned.
(The only time I’ve ever given a two- or one-star review was when I felt the messages of the book were harmful to society.)
From there, it just becomes a matter of my favourite story tropes, educational interest, or subversions of well-worn storylines that make me hand out four- and five-star reviews.
For these are the books that make me remember why I love reading so much, and further encourage me to work hard at my writing to someday bring that same joy to someone else.
Want to see what books I’m reading and what I make of them? Follow me on Goodreads, or send me a friend request.
(Image source #1 and #2 – J.G. Noelle)