Saturday, 2 August 2008

What makes a review a review?

I've mentioned this already but Aidan wasn't a fan of Paul Kearney's 'The Ten Thousand', he wasn't a fan to the extent that he put the book down halfway through the story and told us why over Here. Nothing I haven't pointed you at already but stick around for a little longer...

Standing out amongst the resulting comments is a comment from none other than Paul Kearney (the author himself!) who said...

If you don’t read a book to the end, you aren’t in a position to review it. Period.

Talk about going for the jugular! To be fair though, Paul did clarify what he meant in the ensuing discussion over Here. Paul's comment got me thinking about what I'm doing here on my own blog. I'm not a literary critic and the closest I ever got to being one was writing English essays at college eleven years ago (which makes me feel really old...) My approach has been to give my opinion on what I read and then make damn sure I back it up with either something from the text or an argument that I've come up with.

The thing is though, if a book's not working for me then I've got no problems about putting it down and then posting my reasons why. Is this a review though or is Paul right?

Sorry Paul but I don't agree with you on this one...

For me, a review is about what I've read and it doesn't matter whether this is the whole book or not. Obviously I wouldn't be able to review the whole book if I hadn't read it, where's the point in that? What I'm perfectly qualified to do though, as a reader, is comment on and review what I've read. It doesn't matter if I didn't get past the first page, it doesn't even matter if the first paragraph didn't work for me and I threw the book in the bin (maybe that's pushing it a bit too far!) For me, a review is all about the experiences that the reviewer had with a book and what this says about them just as much as what it says about the book. How did they react to the book and why? Did they react at all? I've certainly read more than a few books that just left me feeling cold...
Again, experience is perfectly valid no matter how much of the book the reviewer made it through.
I'd certainly much rather read about why Aidan put 'The Ten Thousand' down halfway through rather than see him slog through a book just for the sake of finishing it (especially when he'd already made up his mind).

The bottom line is that I think you don't have to finish a book in order to be able to write a review, so long as you only comment on what you've actually read. I could be completely wrong though and that's where you and the comments section get together and throw all sorts of stuff at me! I can take it :o)


Joe Sherry said...

I responded with several paragraphs on Aidan's follow up post, but basically I agree with you.

Knowing why a reviewer just couldn't finish a book is just as valuable as them saying that the new Terry Brooks sucks less than the last one (for example). More so, when we realize that in general we readers WANT to like what we read and we WANT to finish what we read, whether or not it is for review.

I can't speak for everyone, but it is a semi-difficult decision to quit a book. If we're being fair in evaluating a book, the ability to finish should definitely be discussed and does constitute a review.

Mulluane said...

The only exception to this that I can come up with is when you don't know why. I've picked up Shadowmarch by Tad Williams 2-3 times and just put it back down. I don't have a clue as to why.

Other then that I completely agree. If you are going to be fair to yourself and your readers you need to be honest, even if honest means saying less then flattering things about the book. Sadly this includes I just couldn't finish the book and the reasons why.

How else is anybody going to trust you as a reviewer?

Eoghann Irving said...

Well I'm going to take the contrary position and agree with Paul Kearney. If you're going to publish a review and claim it's a review... finish the book.

If you're chatting about a book in a discussion list or just making a passing comment on a blog post that's one thing. But if you're presenting something that is supposed to be a review of the book, you can't do that without having read the whole thing.

I certainly don't have any background in literary criticism and I often think that the quality of my reviews is rather low, but the one thing I can do is give the author the courtesy of finishing the book before trying to dissect it.

If I can't finish a book, I won't publish a review on it. And that has happened several times.

Nicola said...

Well, I agree that if you don't finish a book you can write your opinion of what you read and tell why you didn't finish it. I don't think I'd officially call it a review but more of an opinion.

On my blog I do not review books I have not finished, unless it was sent to me to be reviewed.

If it was sent to me for review I feel obligated to give my opinion of the book. If I can't finish the book, I will say I couldn't finish it and then state why. But I also won't give it a rating as I don't think that is fair to rate a book you didn't finish. I just call it DNF.

Chris, The Book Swede said...

I think in a venue which is by nature more informal -- the blog -- where we are not being paid (and let's not start that again!), a review is what we say a review is :)

I do find it extremely valuable knowing why a reviewed couldn't finish a certain book -- and I enjoyed Aidan's thoughts on the book. If I was posting it, I would call it a review... But not if it was a more formal setting.

We're not being paid for this (and nor do I think we should be!), though, so I don't think we should have to slog through a book that, for whatever reasons (which we explain in our review...) didn't work for us.

I have several books I've been sent that I've been unable to review because I haven't gotten far enough in to get an impression other than "this is awful!"

I keep saying I'm going to force my way to the end, and then write a really nasty, but funny, review -- I haven't managed to convince myself fully yet, though!

Mullane -- Shadowmarch bored the socks off me :( However, I did get to the end, even though I didn't enjoy it greatly (it was a "meh" feeling), and read the sequel and was blown away :) Weird, that.

Sorry to go on a bit ;) I do think that, just for good PR, authors shouldn't try to defend their books (even if Paul was being reasonable, which I think he was) from reviews.

ThRiNiDiR said...

I responded to the Aidan's follow up post as well; as did Kearney for that matter. He actually apologized for the snarky comment and turned out quite a bloke after all!

I agree with both of you (Aidan&you) on almost all arguments you two stated; Aidan was honest and analytical in his review or whatever he was writing. Honesty, analytical approach, a big chunk of "objectivity" and integrity - as far as these points are ticked, you'll prolly be on my rss feed :)

Robert Walker said...

As I've said elsewhere, I think it actually is important as to what is considered an official "review." While the notion that since this is the internet you can do whatever you want and call anything you want to a review might be true on a certain level, that doesn't mean it will bring the kind of respect some reviewers might desire. Rather, that attitude sets up a glass ceiling of professionalism beyond which you won't be able to climb.

But, it's all about what you want to do with your blog/site. If you want a casual, screw-every-convention kind of blog, then you're certainly free to have one. But, if you want to be taken seriously as a book reviewer, then there are certain conventions that one needs to follow. And I think what they are is pretty self-evident. In fact, all the (what I would consider to be) serious online reviewers seem to follow them quite naturally.

Personally, I completely agree with Paul that if you don't read a book to the end, you aren't in a position to review it. To review it. By all means, talk about your experience with the part you read, and why you didn't finish it. I think that can be very valuable. The issue on the table, though, is whether that kind of commentary/criticism can legitimately called a "review." I think not. The problem is not in the writing about it (you should always feel free to do that), but in calling something a "review" that actually isn't one.

Mark Chitty said...

I can see both points of view, but as long as the person who is posting about the book makes it clear why they couldn't finish the book. As others have said, reading those reasons can help you in your decision whether or not to read it.

If I read enough of a book to form an opinion about a book, I'd sure as hell tell people why I didn't finish it, provided there is a good reason. Whether people perceive that as a review or not is their opinion, I'll just put my reasons down with a good explanation.

SQT said...

I actually used to do reviews for a newspaper and there were really no hard and fast rules for review.

If I was reading a book and couldn't finish it, I would skim the rest to see how it ended and get a feel for the whole thing and then offer an opinion. I guess you could say, from a speed-reading point of view I finished it-- if you wanted to be technical, but I certainly didn't savor the book.

I still do that from time to time, but usually, if I was hating the book from the beginning, nothing I come across in the end is going to change that opinion. Usually we don't finish a book because we don't like it. Period. Is that opinion less valid because we didn't force a bigger headache on ourselves by not forcing ourselves to finish? I don't think so. It's like eating half a meal we don't like. We can say why we don't like it and why we don't want to finish it and the opinion is just as valid is it would be if we made ourselves sick on the whole meal.

Robert Walker said...

I see what you're saying, sqt, but I'm not sure about comparing a novel to a meal, in that a few bites of a meal will be the same as any subsequent bites. When it comes to reviewing food, I think you're right--there's no need to force yourself to finish to be able to speak to the food.

In this situation, though, concerning novels, I think that a more accurate comparison might be seeing only 1/4 or 1/2 of a painting. As with novels, there is the matter of "whole composition" involved. Or, another comparison might be listening to only 3 or 4 songs out of 10 on an album and then writing a "review of the album." I think that would be disingenuous. And I think it might be just as disingenuous to only read a part of a novel (a part of a whole composition) and put forth a "review of the novel."

Neth said...

I really am amazed that everyone seems to be in agreement, yet the use of the term review still causes so much heartburn.

If someone finishes a book, outlines their thoughts, reactions, what they liked and what they didn't like I think it's far to call it a review.

Yet, if someone doesn't finish the whole book, outlines their thoughts, reactions, what they liked, and what they didn't like (bascially why they didn't finish the book), some people are happy calling it a review and some get really upset at the idea that it's a review.

If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and swims like a duck - it's probably a duck.

To me this is a semantical argument - some people want to give a narrow definition of a review, some a broader definition - but the thing is it doesn't matter since they both accomplish the same end.

So, my opinion is call it what you want - a review, not-review, DNF, unreview, or thecrackofaidansass. It doesn't really matter.

pacamanca said...

Oooh, this is complicated. There's a lot of semantics involved, like neth said, but I also agree with chitty in that both points of view are understandable. This whole thing got me thinking, however, and by now I can clearly remember at least two books I started reading, put down after about 1/3, totally forgot about, picked up again after months (or years!) and got hooked enough to read everything else by the author and then re-read it all.

Although I do think you have the right (and sometimes the duty) to review the part you have read, I also believe that opinions change 'cause people change, and that some books should be given a second chance. Some, not all :P I'm definitely not a reviewer, have never studied literature (although I should have, given that books share the 1st position in my priorities in life with traveling) and in my blog I write mostly about my life as a Brazilian expat in Italy. But I *do* read A LOT A LOT A LOT and some of that inevitably ends up leaking into my blog, although I'm never as serious about it as you guys are (which is why I love reading what you write). I only write about books I gave up when they're truly, truly horrible, so I can warn my few readers to stay away from them; if it's just a metter of "I couldn't connect to the story" I tend to send the book back to its shelf and just never mention it. It's never been a conscious choice, as far as I can tell, but now you guys got me thinking and I can kinda see why I do it. Maybe I'm just trying to be fair with the book and the author, I don't know. But it's worked before, and as I result I haven't read anything that I would classify as truly unreadable in a long, long time. Just my two cents.

Adrian Tchaikovsky said...

Lord knows I've run into books I couldn't finish. A few years back there was a run of them that put me off impulse-buying books for quite a while. If I was going to be writing a *review* about them, I'd probably have gone on to the end, but then, barring dramatic reversals in quality, the tone of the review might mean that the author would have preferred that I'd just reported it missing, presumed read, after chapter 4.

If a book stinks so much that the reviewer can't reach the end then, well perhaps it isn't the most detailed review, but I guess it's a review.

There is, however, one unforgivable schtick for reviewers, and it's seen at the professional level probably more than elsewhere: "This sort of (book/film/etc) isn't the sort of thing I like, and so I didn't like this one."

Graeme Flory said...

Thanks for commenting everyone!

Like Neth says, it really does seem to be all about the semantics doesn't it? One person's review is another person's... er... 'not review'!

Robert - I completely agree with you in that you shouldn't say you've reviewed a book when you haven't read it all. However, if I make it clear that I'm only reviewing what I've read (and not in the context of the rest of the book, which I haven't read) then that's still a review, isn't it? (Although maybe I won't fully appreciate what I've read unless I read the whole thing in context...)
I agree with what you're saying about certain conventions that need to be followed though.

Cheers guys! You've given me a fair old bit to think about, aways useful in a job that's not that interesting :o)

Aidan Moher said...

"So, my opinion is call it what you want - a review, not-review, DNF, unreview, or thecrackofaidansass."

Hey, I like this one! :D

A Dribble of Ink

Anonymous said...

A review is a review. What isn't black and white is the 'of' bit.

If I read a review anywhere, I expect it to be for the total product not just part of it. If it is not for the total product, the reviewer must make clear exactly what the review covers. Same as with any statistic, it is only of value if it is clear how the data was collected. It's content labeling, isn't it.

My own opinion of any review (my own included) is that it is a reflection of the reviewers tastes first and foremost. What it isn't is a definitely correct prediction of how anybody else will perceive the same book.

I can also understand that any author must be very disappointed if a reviewer forms an opinion before the end. However, comparing it to getting someone to try a new dish... I think it is ok as long as a full spoon that contains most of the ingredients was tasted not just the edge nibbled with bunny teeth.

Keep the good work up, reviewers :-)


Eoghann Irving said...

One of the key factors in my mind is that a review (rather than an opinion) is not just about liked or didn't like. It should really also discuss themes, structure etc. Which is why I said I don't think I'm a particularly good reviewer because I struggle with that aspect.

You don't need to read the whole book in order to say I found it boring and cliched (or whatever), but if you want to discuss character development, recurring themes or story structure... you really need to read the whole book.

And yes it is a matter of semantics. The meaning of the word review seems to have broadened a lot in recent years. I was going to say devalued, but I'm not sure thats the term I really want to use.

Seraphim said...

I agree with the author. You get sent free books, and basically influence weather or not someone will read or not read.

If you are going to call yourself a reviewer, read the whole book. How many times have you read a book that 'tripped on the finish line' or was saved from itself in the last chapter?

I have. so I don't think you can review a book without reading the whole thing... and then you want to be able to whine about it?


Graeme Flory said...

Hi Seraphim!

I just had a quick look at your blog and liked the poem from April. I'm pretty sure I've seen it somewhere before, who wrote it?

My original point was more along the lines of 'Can you review what you've read, of a book, without reading the whole thing?' Without repeating myself too much, I think you can. I now find myself agreeing with those who've mentioned the difference between a 'review' and an 'opinion', loads to think about :o)

Seraphim said...

I wrote the poem from April. And I post some of my stuff on a post modern message board for 'Christians' and those who used to be...

have you been there? I guess my reaction was strong because to me a bad review isn't as bad as 'man I couldn't even finish the book...'



Graeme Flory said...

Cool poem!

I haven't been there, I must have seen it on another blog somewhere but I can't remember which one... (that's really going to bug me now!)

Anonymous said...

I prefer reviewers to 'read the whole' novel for a fair review; because of the many books that left me cold initially ... only to become beloved books later.

Not beloved, but for example - Lord of the Rings!!

Hey, no spitting and heckling please! As a teenager I devoured the hobbit ... but, I must have picked up 'Fellowship of the Ring' umpteen times over the next two decades, underscore 'two', and didn't get to it till mid-thirties. And guess what? I was ready for it then.

So, Adrian Tchaikovsky's punning,

"reported it missing, presumed read, after chapter 4"

had me laughing and thinking both.

What someone else doesn't like may be something I do like in plotting, theme, or narrative structure etc. So, it would not necessarily put me off reading it - sometimes, I'm intrigued enough to try something after negative responses ... as it happened with Pullman's "His Dark Materials" when it was first published. And still a favourite re-read of mine. All a matter of opinion, and finding reviewers you trust 99% of the time.

So, how's about all them banned books then? :-)