A Good Review

It is a common preoccupation in the arts in general. We worry about what others are saying about our work. And for writers, the review can seem like it's the most important response we can get; those stars on Amzn can rather dominate your view.

I'm inclined to feel that it is a mistake to attach too much importance to the number of stars. Unless they are almost all * or **, I'm not sure that they will influence the potential reader as much as the content of reviews.

So the question arises: what is a good review, who is a good reviewer? And what makes a review influential. It's easy to get caught up in the fallacy of subjective vs. objective opinions.

Anyone who has an "objective" response to your work can't possibly like it - what you create when you write, whether you want to or not, is art, culture; it can only be understood, interpreted, experienced, in context. This means that the only meaningful review is a subjective one.

That out of the way, there are (very broadly speaking) three types of commentary on written work:

1) the textual analysis. This gets as close as it is possible to get to being objective, by describing only the writer's techniques, devices, conceits. 'Author seeks to affect the reader using technique X.' This is dry and academic, but is essential to learn to do it if you mean to do the next type:

2) literary criticism. This arose in the mid twentieth century as a means of discussing and informing. Google F R Leavis for the background. Lit Crit does not seek to be objective but to place work in a broader cultural context. The aims of lit crit are what were essentially bastardized to create the literary review culture of the second half of the twentieth century.

3) book reviews. Book reviews are a comparatively recent phenomenon, which arise from a classroom exercise devised in the mid twentieth century in order to teach children the basics of critical sense. The first step is "I liked/disliked this book because ... ". That step, originally intended to awaken the critical sense, has the side effect of convincing the student that it is how he feels about the work that matters most in the review. In my opinion, he is right to think so, and all reviews should take this ultimately honest and somewhat biographical approach. If a reader can't give you personal reasons for liking or disliking your work then he is hiding something.

I don't think that writers have some magical knowledge, nor any specific technical knowledge, that makes them better reviewers. It probably makes them better at writing reviews but as story editors like me will tell you, content is not the same as execution. Ultimately, the purpose of a textual analysis is to examine writers' technique. This is of great value to the writer as well as the academic, because it helps him to get to become more conscious of himself and his habits. Literary Criticism is perhaps of lesser value to the writer; it is intended as a means of discussing writing, though, so it is a worthwhile study to those writers who seek to improve their work through writer's groups and fora, or working with a developmental editor. The purpose of a book review is to help readers to decide whether or not to try the book. That might sound pretty narrow, but it's a really big thing.

The most influential reviews reveal as much about the reviewer (if not more) as they do about the book. This information about the reviewer gives other readers a cultural context in which to gauge the subjective content of the review, and through this to form an expectation of what their own reading experience might be.

So, any review which takes the form "this book is X, this book is Y" is not a useful review. Any that takes the form "I like/dislike this book because" is both valuable and influential.

There is no such thing as "objective" evaluation of culture. Even style is chimeric enough that writers will feel differently about it. Being a writer, even a good writer, does not make you a good critic nor a good reviewer. Each of these is a different (though related) skill, and as in all such cases, practice, good examples to follow, good advice and more practice are what makes you good at it.

In a sense, a good negative review is beneficial to the author. A reviewer who states clearly that he didn't like it, and expresses why in a way that reveals his personal and cultural context, will be helping those readers who ought not to read it. And their avoidance of your work means they won't be posting negative reviews.

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