Aug 22

Honest Reviews: Should I Write Them?—Part II

Before I delve fully into the second post in this series, I’d like to begin by clarifying some points from last week’s post that I feel have the potential to be misunderstood:

1. When I refer to a “negative” review, I want to be perfectly clear that I am in no way referring to a review written with a rude or callous tone. Oh, no. I am merely meaning an “honest” review—a review that explains my true opinion of a book’s strengths and weaknesses. (Note: The title of this series has been changed from “NEGATIVE REVIEWS” to “HONEST REVIEWS” in order to reflect this point.) I feel that at times we authors filter, perhaps ever censor, our public thoughts regarding published books, and I’m not altogether convinced that we should. I’ll address the reasoning behind that statement next week.

2. I do not now, nor will I ever, in any capacity, advocate or excuse reviews that are damaging to an author’s career or personal life. I do not believe reviewers should ever insult an author’s intelligence or threaten an author’s life or family. Ever. This is childish and wholly despicable, and comments of this nature should immediately be disregarded. There is an old saying that was kicked around last week, both in my own mind as I drafted last week’s post, as well as in the comments left below the post: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. This is a classic proverb for a reason, but I’d like to put a spin in it, if I may, to illustrate my thoughts on writing reviews: If you can’t express your opinion respectfully, don’t express your opinion at all. Period.

3. This point was raised last week, and I agree. If I truly hated a book, I would not review it. This is not me being chicken. This is me not wasting time. If a book does not appeal to me at all, there is no reason I should review it. Why? Well, as I said last week, every book will appeal to someone, even if it doesn’t appeal to everyone, including me. I will choose to spend my time writing reviews for books with which I feel a certain connection, and I have those books in abundance. I will not waste precious time attempting to draft a thoughtful review for a book I truly don’t care for. If I think I can’t fairly weigh a book’s strengths and weaknesses, I’ll leave that review to someone else who feels a deeper connection to the book than I.

Finally, after I posted last week, I came upon several other blog posts that I highly recommend you read if you have the time. Not all these posts agree with my position on authors reviewing books, and that is more than okay. With permission from the authors, I am including the links if you’d like to get some other perspectives on this issue:

Phoebe North–On Honest Reviewing

Lenore Appelhans–On Authors Reviewing Books 

Mike Jung–It’s All Good. Or Is It?

Evan Roskos–Negative Reviews Reprise

Okay. I think that does it. If you have any further questions, I am all ears. Moving on to today’s post.

Issue Number 2: Should I give my honest opinion of an author’s work if it could potentially cause massive reader backlash and drama? Or should I merely keep quiet and not rock the proverbial boat?

Recent talk has revolved around reviewers lashing out inappropriately at authors, but do authors or other professionals ever lash out at reviewers in defense of a book they adore? To find out, I chose what I believe to be one of the most (if not the most) talked about and beloved books of the year—WONDER by R.J. Palacio—and researched the lukewarm and negative reviews (3 stars or less) left on Goodreads. I read quite a few of these reviews, as well as the comments they received—not all of them, but enough to discern if endorsers of WONDER were making any attempt to chide the “dissenting” reviewers for their opinions. I admit this is not a terribly scientific way to go about it, but with the precious little time I have, it was the quickest. And after all, with all the controversy currently surrounding Goodreads, I assumed any drama to be found would be uncovered there.

So what did I find? Well out of 6,757 ratings there were a combined total of 824 three star or less ratings. The overwhelming majority gave WONDER four or five stars. In theory, there is a rather large gang of WONDER-adorers capable of passionately defending the book they love. But…(da-da-dummm)

They didn’t! Of the negative reviews I did read, many were articulate, well-written, and respectful. Some of them forced me to seriously consider the book from a different perspective, and I hold those in the highest esteem. All comments I read were also respectful, even if the commenter didn’t necessarily agree with the reviewer. To say the least, I was pleasantly surprised. This example alone should offer encouragement in terms of exercising the right to pen honest reviews without fear of a horrid backlash occurring. I’m not saying that backlash has never occurred, but I do think this well proves that most of us are quite accepting of the fact that others may not feel the same way about certain books as we do. Still, some folks are not so convinced. So, to soothe their nerves, I am going present some critical questions regarding WONDER—right here on my blog.

Back in July, there was a post on the SLJ blog titled Newbery/Caldecott 2013: Mid-Year Prediction Edition. The post outlined some of the most buzzed about contenders for the 2013 Newbery. Of course, WONDER was at the top of the list. You who have read my blog over the past few weeks know I love WONDER. Truly. I think it a lovely and important book. I hosted a giveaway in which I offered up six copies of WONDER, and I’m reading it for the second time—aloud to my children each night. Would I be crazy enough to do those things if I didn’t enjoy the book? Let’s hope not. But now that I’ve come down from the emotional high I first felt after reading it, now that I’ve had time to read and seriously consider a few critical points other reviewers have made, and now that I am reading it for a second time, do I still believe WONDER is without flaw? No.

It is no secret that readers far and wide are rooting for WONDER in the fierce competition for the 2013 Newbery Medal. I certainly don’t envy the responsibility each committee member must feel in selecting what they believe to be the greatest contribution to children’s literature in any given year. Can you imagine? The committee must select one book, and perhaps three or four Honor books, out of many worthy contenders. The collective gasp that swept over the ballroom at January’s awards ceremony when it was announced that only two (two!) Honor books had been chosen still echoes in my ears. (No, I wasn’t lucky enough to be there, but I was sitting in my office practically glued to my laptop screen.)

Committee members are certainly not afforded the same luxuries as we casual readers. They can’t read merely for pleasure. They must read with an intensely critical eye. They must systematically pick apart the strengths and weaknesses of each and every title they read. They must read and reread books, make notes in the margins, discuss the best books at length with fellow committee members, and narrow those books down to as manageable a number a possible. They must judge the mechanics of a book, not merely its emotional pull. And, after all of this, they must also listen to the collective gasp which sweeps across America when we firmly believe they got it wrong. So, with the help of a highly-respected figure in the world of children’s literature, and in the spirit of honest critical reviews, let us step into their shoes for a few minutes. Let us pretend we are on this year’s Newbery committee and the book now in discussion is WONDER. Do we keep it or put it aside?

In the SLJ blog post referenced above, you will find a link to this blog post written by the late Peter Sieruta, brilliant champion of children’s books far and wide. (You must scroll down about ¾ of the page to reach the section called “Wondering about WONDER.”) In it, he eloquently and gently raised questions such as these concerning the book’s flaws: Is the viewpoint of Justin necessary? Is the ending too pat and happily-ever-after? As a middle grade novel, are the first-person narrations of three high school students necessary or intrusive? If you haven’t read this already, please do. You won’t regret it.

There are others that agree with Mr. Sieruta. Take the first sentence of this anonymous comment left below the above referenced SLJ blog post:

“I’m glad to know that Peter Sieruta had the guts to question the overwhelming swell of devotion to “Wonder” as I am not brave enough to put my name to this.”

Anonymous finishes the comment by questioning why there has been no deep discussion of the flaws of R.J. Palacio’s novel. I agree. Why not? Aren’t we selling the book short if we aren’t discussing it?

Here is another comment, this one from Brandy at Random Musings of a Bibliophile:

“I do love Wonder, but I love Liar & Spy more. I’m interested to see the discussion regarding Wonder when Heavy Medal starts back up. Because yes, it is a wonderful book with a wonderful message, but it’s far from perfect. I really hope there is an actual discussion like the one we had over Okay for Now.”

I remember vividly the discussion held over OKAY FOR NOW. These are the types of discussions I look forward to each and every awards season. Not because I enjoy picking a book apart at the seams, but because critical discussions like these teach me so much in terms of my own writing. They push me to sharpen my critical eye, an indispensable tool when it comes to revising my work. They inspire me to strive for perfection even if, realistically speaking, I will never attain perfection. And perhaps most importantly, they fuel my passion for books—introducing me to titles I may never have read, or, as in the case of WONDER, force me to view a book I love from a different angle.

I have wondered (pun not intended) if folks feel that criticizing WONDER in any way equates to criticizing Auggie or his message. Should it? I don’t believe so. Let’s suppose we as the Newbery committee choose to recognize WONDER. Will that change the meaning or beauty of the book in any way? No. Let’s suppose WONDER fails to capture the undying support of the real Newbery committee in January and it is passed over. Will that make the book any less meaningful or any less loved? Of course not. Will that mean that the Newbery committee is a callous and unfeeling group of people who are obviously the Scrooges of the ALA? Of course not. Books are important because they entertain, inspire, and explore. Books are important because they widen our horizons, fill us with empathy, and hold truths we may not have otherwise considered. The importance of a book should not be determined by a unanimous and uncontested love for it, but by the love we as individuals hold for it—in spite of its flaws.

In closing I’ll say this: No, we shouldn’t fear reader backlash. I’m fairly convinced that it’s far less of an issue than we believe. And, no, we should not keep quiet about our honest feelings regarding a book—any book. It doesn’t matter whether we agree on the level of distinction WONDER holds. It truly doesn’t. Neither does it matter whether the love of a specific book comes from only one child or from thousands of grown-ups or from a Newbery committee. It simply matters that someone somewhere loves a book. And what we love, we love to talk about. Deep discussions of books are manifestations of our love for them. So, readers everywhere, let us promise to never stop loving and to never stop talking.


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