Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Books are like hamburgers (a philosophical post)

There have been several really interesting articles by authors that have me thinking, lately. Justine Larbalestier's "I Love Bad Reviews" is the only one I bothered to save for the purpose of linking, unfortunately. Here's the a link to the article by Janni Lee Simmer that began the conversation (which is mentioned in Larbalestier's post). Both are well worth your time.

What are they saying? Larbalestier is just one of many authors who are trying to make the point that authors need to be accepting of reviews, regardless of whether they're positive or negative. She goes so far as to say that a negative review -- even one in which a blogger or other reviewer truly stomps on the author and doesn't say a single positive word -- is a good thing, simply because it's better to have someone read your book and spout off about how awful it is than to sink into obscurity. Great point, I thought.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, last year or the year before, Shannon Hale wrote an article that asked bloggers to consider why they rate books and then send their words out into the universe to potentially wreak havoc and wreck lives. That wasn't her wording at all, but I will tell you I initially found her article upsetting because I had never thought of myself as a person who placed my reviews out there for the world to see. I have always blogged for myself. The whole reason I began blogging was to have a place to simply write my honest thoughts and purge about the books I read.

I had to give Shannon Hale's words a lot of thought. And, really, although I still don't think of blogging as a way of "presenting my thoughts to the world", I suppose the fact that most of my readers arrive via Google means . . . well, yes, I am. It was thanks to Hale's post that I ceased to rate books numerically. I'd never really liked giving books a rating, since I've found that the way I feel about a book can change a week or a month after I set it aside. In a way, she gave me permission to let go of numbers. It was difficult to let go of numerical ratings, at first, simply because I knew my readers liked seeing how I rated a book. I've worked diligently to try to rate in words rather than numbers, since then -- in other words, present my thoughts clearly enough that a reader can gauge how I feel as well as he or she would by glancing at numbers -- although I know it's not the same.

Getting to the point: How are books like hamburgers?

Here's my thought: Books are like hamburgers in the way we feel about them and the kind we choose. Some people like mustard, mayonnaise and ketchup. Some people like pickles and tomatoes only . . . or just cheese (that was me, a hundred million years ago, little miss "Plain, with cheese"). Some folks will not touch a hamburger because it's got meat in it or they want something just a little offbeat between the buns (bookwise: between the covers). One person's hamburger is another person's gag reflex. The same is true of books.

Sometimes, you get even get e-Coli from the contents. There is such a thing as a bad hamburger and there is such a thing as a totally awful book. I believe both are the exceptions. But, how we react to what's inside our hamburgers and our books is very individual. In both cases, it's a matter of taste, preference, sometimes even the way we happen to feel on a particular day.

The bottom line is that I have always believed and still feel strongly about the importance of honesty in reviewing. It's important to me to attempt to find something I like about each and every book and mention it, if at all humanly possible, simply because I've been published and I know what it feels like to be reviewed. But, I know it's not always possible. Some books just don't work for everyone. I love this particular line of conversation amongst authors. What do you think? Have you ever felt like you had to adjust your thoughts to avoid hurting feelings? Have you ever had an author attempt to debate your impressions of his or her book? Is complete honesty the best policy?

Addendum: Here's one blogger's response to the "pressure to be nice" at Literary Life. I don't personally feel pressured, but I am a bit of a nonconformist (nobody's going to tell me how to blog -- I'm here to do my own thing, period) and always try to be nice, anyway. If a book stirs my passions in some way, I'm going to say so . . . but as kindly as possible. At least, that's always my intent.

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  1. I do think it's important to be honest in reviews, but I also think there's a proper way to do it. There's no need to attack the author or the book.

  2. Kathy,

    I totally agree. It's usually not hard to find *something* positive to mention.

  3. This is a really interesting post. There are so many things to respond to!

    I think moving from numeral ratings is good. It's not only hard for the reader to figure out exactly what the rater meant, I think it would be hard to assign a number - as you said.

    And there is a pressure to be nice out there - not only for reviewers. Sometimes, someone posts an entry and I strongly disagree for one reason or another. In the beginning, it just was easier to not post a comment at all - especially if all the other commenters agreed with the poster!

    But eventually I grew courageous enough to "disagree without being disagreeable" as mom used to say.
    Sometimes I just mention another view as a possibility - but I think in the end that's good for everyone.

    As for your question - is complete honesty the best policy? - I think it is. But we don't necessarily have to give our honest opinion about everything!

  4. Great post!! I'm with you..I think it's important to be honest in your reviews..like you, I write my blog mainly for myself to record and talk about what I read. I'm not going to change my opinion for fear of hurting the author's feelings. It's a published work...not everyone is going to love it. Having said that, I tend to only review the books that I really enjoyed....I'm just not good at writing about things I don't love, lol.

    Also, I REALLY want a freaking cheeseburger right now!!!!

  5. I like mine with lettuce and tomato
    Heinz 57 and french fried potatoes...


    Excellent post, Nancy. And I agree that one can be honest without being hurtful or nasty.

  6. I stive to be as honest as I can in the reviews I post, even when I have to be negative. I always try to mention at least one good thing about the book, but I have had authors attack my interpretations of their work before, and when that happens I totally lose respect for them. One author repeatedly hounded me through my comments section to change a part of my review, and I was very angry. I didn't react to it, but she went down several notches in my eyes, and no matter how good her books are, I will never read another. I thin as bloggers, we have the right to our own opinions, and have the right to say what we really feel about a book, but we should at least try to do it in a respectful and non threatening way.

  7. Shoreacres,

    It's hard to assign numerical ratings, but I did have a little word chart to help clarify what a rating meant (it also helped me decide how to rate) and my readers actually preferred a numerical rating -- I asked! But, while it was difficult to quit doing the rating because I knew it was something my readers liked, I feel better about not doing so, for some reason.

    I can't remember if it was Justine Larbalestier or someone else that said this, but I agree with whoever said it's better to actually have opposing opinions because that makes fodder for discussion. I do think it's much more fun to talk about likes *and* dislikes than for everyone who loved a book to speak up and the those with dissenting opinions to quietly steal away, unheard.

    Yep, I agree. I'm sometimes a little *too* honest, myself, but there have been times I've opted not to write about a book at all because I felt too strongly negative about it.

  8. Chris,

    I didn't realize you skipped over the ones you don't like! I do that, sometimes -- but, usually only if they're from my personal stacks, as opposed to ARCs. I've found from chats with publicists and authors that most of them prefer a negative review or a DNF post to nothing at all. Exposure is good, in general, in other words. But, I see nothing wrong with opting not to write about a book one doesn't like. I think that's a part of being honest -- being honest with yourself and not writing something that you're not comfortable with.

    Haha! Sorry you can't eat that picture. I don't even like hamburgers, but I think that one looks pretty good. I carefully chose my image. ;)


    I hate hamburgers! Kind of a funny basis for a post -- something I can't stand to eat -- but it just seemed to fit the line of thought.

    It can be hard reigning yourself in when you really hate a book, but I totally agree. It's possible to be honest without being cruel or obnoxious and I think it's worth the effort to find the right words to say, "This book wasn't for me, but it might be for you." I feel kind of fortunate in having had a lot of people tell me that a DNF post or a negative review still made the book sound so good to them that they planned to buy it. It's a load off my conscience knowing my thoughts aren't necessarily going to turn everyone away!! :)

  9. Zibilee,

    I'm sorry you had such a rotten experience. I've never had an author get upset with one of my reviews, although one asked me why my review was so positive but my rating was just 3 stars (a few years ago). Well . . . it had a crap ending. It was great for a time and then went dramatically downhill and I was just trying to say the most positive things I could think of. That was one of the rare occasions that I tried not to hurt an author's feelings. I later removed the post because I decided it wasn't honest enough -- the only time I've removed a book review and the only time I felt like I tried *too* hard to be nice and ended up with a review that was positive enough to potentially mislead people.

    I can't remember if it was my blog or someone else's at which I saw an author's comment that 99% of his reviews were positive (indicating there must be something wrong with the reviewer if s/he didn't give it a glowing review). You'd think I'd remember if it was my blog, wouldn't you? LOL But, anyway, those really stick out. An author who kindly thanks you for your review, even if you hated the book, will find that people sit up and notice a graceful message and desire to support them because of their manners.

  10. If we can't post honest reviews about books that we don't absolutely love, where would the variety be? I think it would be pretty boring to read reviews that just raved all the time about everything. I like to see what people don't like as well as what they do like, and why. I've even had some readers say that my reviews on books I didn't like made them want to go read it! (because their tastes just differ from mine). At the same time, I don't see any reason to be hurtful or mean, so even when writing a "negative review" I try very hard not to be negative and respect others' feelings.

  11. Interesting post. I wrote a post on my blog a few weeks ago about how it's okay to agree to disagree, after reading some really heated, nasty comments on a blog where the blogger didn't like a book.

    I try to write honest and balanced reviews. It's rare that I completely hate a book, but I do sometimes find something in a book that I'm a bit "meh" on -- but I balance that with the positives in the book.

  12. When a blog post combines books AND burgers, I'm so there. 100% agree with your burger comparison. And I love that you're talking about the sometimes tricky side of reviews. I don't think anyone enjoys giving a negative review, but the fact is, not all books (or other products) are going to appeal to us 100% of the time.

  13. Jeane,

    Exactly -- variety is the spice of life. I think that's one reason I like blog reviews over "professional" reviews; they're honest, varied and talk about how books make people feel, not just what they're about. Professional reviews focus more on writing skill and other technical facets of a story and, frankly, I think that's not as exciting or fun as a blog post that opens up discussion about a variety of impressions.

    I've had the same thing happen. It's not unusual for several people to say, "Oh, that sounds interesting! I think I'll buy a copy!" when I write a negative review or DNF post. I do try to be as tactful as possible. Sometimes I slip up. I did so with The Procrastination Equation and if I'd gone with my gut, I would have ditched the book. Fortunately, the author is a nice guy who didn't take my comments personally and he convinced me to finish reading. Wow, am I glad I did! That really shows you what a kindly-worded author response can do!!


    I sometimes wonder if the fact that I don't get a lot of heated discussion means I'm doing something right because I've read about bloggers who have gotten hate mail, of all things, as well as the nasty comments you remarked upon. That hasn't happened to me, although there have been a few rather strident comments that I had to work hard to respond to tactfully. I'll have to look for your post. I think "agreeing to disagree" is something we all must learn to do.

    I sometimes feel really strongly about books -- seldom "meh", but since I allow myself not to continue reading books that aren't doing it for me, I think I'm ending up with a lot more positive reviews. Most everything I finish, now, ends up in the mental "Like or Love" categories. Every now and then, though, I do have to work at finding something I like, when I review!! :)

  14. Rosemary,

    I thought of you when I snatched that hamburger photo, believe it or not!!! Books, Hamburgers, Ro . . . they go together. ;)

    This is such a fun conversation. I didn't start it, of course, but I think it's good that the topic has come up because there are way too many bloggers who've had bad experiences and blogging shouldn't be a negative thing. It's about celebrating books. We should celebrate our differences of opinion, as well.

  15. I'm big on attempting to explain why I don't like something. I mean, I will say oh gross I HATE mayo I can't believe you're eating it!! But I'm not going to say that you can't have it on your burger. I think we all need to get better at realizing (and most authors are good) that personal reading tastes are personal, and bad reviews happen because everyone doesn't like the same thing, and that it isn't a bad thing.

    I'm definitely all about the honesty in my reviews :)

  16. Well stated, Amy. And, I hate mustard. Mayo . . . meh. LOL


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