Reviewing 101

It is my understanding that book reviews, paid or unpaid, including reviews in comments sections, are the property of the site on which the text actually appears. For example, when I review a book for the NYT, I don’t own that review. I cannot reprint it on my own website, because it’s not mine. Similarly, Amazon owns all the comments that appear on that site.

What this means is that writers may not appropriate these comments for marketing purposes. I’m not sure why we would want to, but if, for instance, a particularly snazzy Amazon Vine review caught your eye, you would not be able to use it–paste it onto your own pages–to promote yourself. It’s not yours.

However, copyright does not pertain to reviews. If I write a book, I can’t complain of copyright infringement when a reviewer (paid or unpaid) quotes from it in order to support her judgment of it.

For this reason, I think it best if, when we paste in those reviews we’re about to analyze, we do not connect the reviews with the particular book being discussed. I see no need to do that anyway. Our focus is on the review itself–a published piece of writing. We’re not here to defend our books against these reviews, but to decide whether the review is well-written.

I also want to avoid, at least for now, linking these pages to the reviews under discussion. Again, we’re just looking at the text.

For now, I’d like to go over what, in my op., constitutes an objectionable unpaid review and what does not. Rather than go on and on about it, I’ll just slap in some examples. I’m using a few I just gleaned from looking at my own Amazon comments. Here goes:

Bought this book for my daughter because she loved the author’s other book. Did not enjoy stories at all.

Nothing wrong with this. I’m sorry the writer’s daughter didn’t enjoy it, but this is a straightforward factual claim, not about the book but about a reader’s experience of it.

I bought this book because I have read, and loved, two of Jincy Willett’s other books. This book was a huge disappointment. David Sedaris, a very funny man, said on the cover, “It’s just the funniest collection of stories I’ve ever read – really funny and perfectly sad at the same time.” Well, I get the perfectly sad – just not the really funny. Not a chuckle from me throughout. Just really sad stories.

This is fine too. There is no such thing as universal funny.

Horrible book. Tried to read about 25 pages and could not care about the main character at all. No interest.

Again, this is what the reader experienced—a horrible book. Can’t argue with experience.

“Winner” is a book that suffers from bad advertising. I was promised a black comedy. “Riotous. Hugely funny…” and “The funniest novel I have read, possibly ever” appear right there on the cover.

The book was certainly sarcastic. It was caustic and biting but there was very little in the book that I could laugh at in good conscience. (And honestly, during reading, I wasn’t inclined to do so.) In many ways, it was more like a car wreck on the highway – horrific but engrossing – than anything else.

Ms. Willett’s main characters, twins Dorcas and Abigail, area a fascinating pair. Each completely embody the part of the human condition that the other lacks. “Winner” is the story of their interactions with each other and the members of a New England literary circle made up arch-typical characters.

Through my entire reading, I was off balance. I kept expecting ‘funny’ to show up and it never did. That said, “Winner” had other redeeming qualities which kept me reading. Ms. Willet gives Dorcas, the bookish narrator, wonderful recollections and descriptions of the joy of reading. The relationships between the people in a group and between the sisters were exaggerated for effect, but still intriguing.

Other parts of “Winner” were less successful. There were bits of extraneous metaphor and occasional clunky bits. Occasionally certain characters verged on caricatures.

I understand what Ms. Willett was attempting to skewer but in the end, “Winner” falls a bit short. If I had come at “Winner” with different expectations I might have found it more enjoyable, but I never shook the feeling of being a bit cheated by a novel that failed to deliver on its promises.

Good review! I could use an example or two of those clunky metaphors, but this is a thoughtful writer and a fine reader.

I couldn’t force myself to care about any of these people. Prose reads musically in an obtuse, pointless plot. Appears to illuminate only that the author is well-read. I’m about to put my copy on the driveway and run over it eight times.

This is my favorite review. I quote from it a lot, especially the part about running it over in the driveway, which is probably hyperbolic but I hope not. “Prose reads musically in an obtuse, pointless plot” is brilliant.

This book was just plain awful. The characters were inconsistent and uninteresting. It’s such a stupid book. The only reason I kept reading until the end was so that I could make note of the pretentious and ostentatious vocabulary that peppers the pages. The author is, in my humble opinion, a show-off. Yeah, we’re all REALLY impressed. Better to just say “belch” than try to impress us by using the word “eructation.” It’s so obvious what she’s trying to do, which is to show us how well-educated she is.

Call me a spoil-sport, but that issue with the dates REALLY bothered me as well. It’s a very sloppy mistake which seems to epitomize how I felt about this book. It’s clever at times, but Dorcas (the narrator) goes from being a funny, irreverent sage to an out-and-out pill awfully fast and Willett’s narrative style is wildly inconsistent. Literary and thoughtful at times, a messy spew of words the next. And that date mistake. How does a writer do such a thing? How does an editor not catch it? It only indicates that no-one involved in the writing or publishing of this book cared enough or took enough time with it. So why should I or any other reader?

Here, finally, is a badly written review. The first paragraph degenerates into an ad hominem attack. The writer assumes that a fictional character’s vocabulary is designed to brandish the writer’s verbal brilliance. Still, I wouldn’t have been annoyed by it were it not for the second paragraph. This is one of those readers who count beans. The “issue of the dates” is actually well-taken—I screwed up the dates in at least one instance and had somebody slogging through snow during the Korean War before that war had actually started. I am a real slob about stuff like that, and usually a copy editor will save me, but that didn’t happen in this case. I did alert my publisher about the date problem so that it could be corrected for the next printing, and I thanked the Amazon commenter (not this one) who pointed out the error.

But the argument that such an error makes any book not worth reading is ridiculous.

I have been unable to find a truly dreadful review, but I hope these examples give some idea of what I’m focusing on—or in this case, for the most part, not focusing on.

I look forward to your review reviews!