The Tricky Business of Book Reviews
Writing book reviews sounds like it should be a straightforward task. You're given a book and you tell people what you think about it. Simple, right? If only that were so.
Being a critic of any variety requires a passion that you only get by dedication, and dedication requires devotion and a certain level of skin in the game. You're putting your neck out for a work that people might read on your authority, then potentially hate. You're asking people to trust you as an expert and a connoisseur. You're putting your own taste out into the public spectrum for critique. Every time you post a review, you're potentially sacrificing your audience for the sake of a work you believe in.
And yet, critiques are "supposed" to be objective---based in theory, grounded in indisputable fact, held at arm's length, and examined through some sterile clinical microscope. This is the kind of critique that academia demands, but one that I have no interest in writing.
When I review a book, I'm doing so because I genuinely appreciate the book, so much so that I'm willing to become vulnerable on its behalf. Not only am I sharing it with my audience whose trust I've earned, I'm opening myself up to critique---my taste, my writing, my opinions and all. And as stressful and complicated as the process of reviewing is, I wouldn't have it any other way.
I don't want to review a book that I have no skin in. I don't want to write a review telling you how the book holds up to this theory or that theory. I don't want to write a review where I'm not supposed to show emotion. Books aren't fetal pigs to be dissected; they're works of art.
I want to write reviews telling you how I was affected by the book; how the book spoke to me. Yes, me personally. I have skin in the game and that's precisely what I want to bear for you. I want to have good reason (personal reasons) for why I'm recommending a book to you. If I can't find that in a book, it's not worth reviewing.
Do I have an agenda? Yes, absolutely. I have no interest in being critical for critical's sake. That's not interesting to anyone.
That is not to say that I won't tell you when there's something I don't like about a book. I will, but I won't be doing so as a way to elevate my opinions or show off how much I know about books. If I tell you an author isn't doing something well, it's because I want them to do better because I believe they can do better. It's because I think they're a damn fine writer and I'm pushing them to be a little better than they are. If I'm bothering to be critical at all, it's because I think they deserve my time and attention. My time and attention, like everyone else's, is a limited resource, thus I'm conscious about how I spend it. If I choose to review a particular book at all, it's because I have a lot of faith in its potential.
Some people might object to my lack of objectivity, but that's not who I'm writing for. If anyone is looking for objective criticism about books, there are plenty of people purporting to be doing that already, however an impossible task that may be. If that's what you're after, you don't need me.
I think the best reviewers fall somewhere on the spectrum between scholar, publicist, and fangirl. You have to love books so much that you're willing to immerse yourself in them, study them, develop your own aesthetic taste about them, and shamelessly champion the authors and books you believe are deserving of more attention than they're currently getting. Objectivity discourages the championing that I find to be the lifeblood of the most moving reviews.
This is a hard balance to strike. While personal essays are becoming a more acceptable format as writing is democratized, there's still this antiquated notion that reviewers should be unbiased---or as unbiased as one can be when giving an opinion. It's a hard balance and one that I don't always achieve. I'll be the first to tell you that quality reviews are difficult to write because I've written enough paltry ones to know.
But sometimes you get it right. Sometimes you strike that balance of making your personal experience with a book resonate on a universal plane. That's what happened when I wrote my review of The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein.
As readers, we insert ourselves into every story we read---our experience of reading the book contributes to our understanding of the book; our experience of inserting ourselves into the narrative becomes a part of our understanding of the narrative itself. I couldn't talk about The Sunlit Night without talking about myself too. And after I posted the review, Rebecca tweeted me to say it was one of the most beautiful responses to the book she'd read.
Getting personal about how a book affected you isn't a weakness. Inserting yourself doesn't mean that your thoughts are less valid or your writing isn't as good. Seeing yourself in some way in an author's work is one of the highest compliments you can give a book because it shows it was crafted well.
Though some might see the inability to look at things objectively as a downfall, I find it's one of my greatest strengths.