Why write reviews?

No question about it, I love to read. I started at an early age, with Tom Swift, Jr. and the Hardy Boys providing a focus on science-fiction and mystery that continues to this day. Urban fantasy was added to the mix with Kim Harrison’s Dead Witch Walking in the mid 2000s and the discovery of JM Redmann at roughly the same time revealed an affinity for fiction with lesbian protagonists. (To read “About Me ‘n’ the Blog” click “Home.”)

On occasion, I’m asked why I feel it necessary to write about books I’ve read. It’s a fair question, given the fact that I don’t get paid for posting reviews. For a long time, not seriously considering the query, I answered with a shrug. More recently, it’s occurred to me that seriously contemplating the question might be instructive (to me) and informative to anyone reading my reviews.

If this first reason makes me sound unrealistically altruistic—I’m not – it’s still true. I think a writer deserves something back for the pleasurable reading experience s/he has provided. Comments I’ve read from other readers over the years suggest that many, maybe even most, readers believe an author should be (permanently?) indebted to them simply because they’ve read a book. In my opinion, the only thing a writer owes the buyer of a book is thanks. That’s it. Case closed.

Neil Gaiman relates a great story illustrative of that point: For some reason, a reader complained to Gaiman because it was taking too long for George R. R. Martin to finish the next installment of the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Apparently the reader got no satisfactory response from Martin himself and asked Gaiman if his (the reader’s) sense of entitlement was justified. Gaiman’s response: “This may not be palatable…but the simplicity of things…is this: George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.”

To reiterate, because I think it’s an important point, a writer owes nothing to a reader beyond his or her appreciation for buying, or at least reading, the book. Conversely, I want to give something back to the writer, and a review is the only way I know to do that; authors with whom I’ve connected online seem genuinely appreciative. (Clearly, this doesn’t apply to negative reviews, which I’ll get to in a bit.)

I definitely think there’s a place for the non-professional reviewer. For one thing, genre fiction isn’t within the purview of many professional reviewers who concentrate on – here’s another term I dislike, to add to “lesfic” and “sci-fi” – “literary fiction.” The implication that genre writing can’t be literary is not just pretentious; it’s also wrong. Moreover, I think the average reader may relate better to a peer and to someone who simply loves reading and talking about books than to someone getting paid to write a review.

I have to admit that a certain hubris may be involved here, too. I think I write pretty well most of the time, and I admit that it’s kind of a kick to see my words at amazon or goodreads or on this blog. I take a certain pleasure in the idea that those words might inspire someone to read a book about which I’ve written favorably. When I get a notice that one of my amazon reviews has been helpful to a customer, that’s a good feeling. It also means, maybe, that I’ve in some small way helped a writer to sell a book.

There’s also a practical reason for my reviews: I’m retired, and from time to time, discretionary cash is an issue, so I buy a lot of books second-hand or get them from the library. As a result, the authors don’t benefit, so, as I said earlier, writing a review is a kind of compensation.

Finally, and most simply, I love the written word, both reading and talking about it.

Of course, none of the above applies to unfavorable reviews. Kelli Jae Baeli, one of the writers with whom I’ve occasionally corresponded, has written an excellent article on writing reviews, “Giving it Away: Spoilers as Both Noun and Accusation.” In it, she counsels against writing negative reviews; it’s probably the only thing Jae’s ever said with which I disagree, at least in part. She suggests that such reviews are about the review writer more than the author, and while I concede the possibility, I think other factors are at work, too. I’ve rated, though obviously not reviewed, over 400 books on goodreads, with only 6 one-star ratings. In three of those six, the negative impressions were the result of sexist or outright misogynistic content, something a writer deserves being called out for, rather than the actual writing.

For what it’s worth, I think those numbers show I have to feel very strongly about a book before I write a negative review. Even when I have occasional issues with a book I review favorably, I take care to point out where those feelings may be subjective. I’ve often stated my respect for authors due to all the effort it takes to finally bring a book to publication, and that’s every bit as true of books with which I’ve had issues as with those I’ve kvelled to read. That said, the “so many books, so little time” conundrum, as well as the fact that not everyone has unlimited funds makes me think unfavorable reviews do have a purpose as long as they aren’t simply a personal attack or spewing invective in which case, yes, Jae, they are all about the reviewer.

I hope this helps you understand a little about me and my relationship with books. I know it helped me.

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