The Empathetic Reader & The Effective Reviewer
Not too long ago, while browsing through my virtual bookshelf on Goodreads.com, I became inspired to go back to some of my favorite books and see what other readers & reviewers had to say about them. The result was a surprisingly unpleasant experience, which lead to my making a comment on Twitter about the need for effective reviewers to be empathetic readers. The response I received to that Tweet was unexpectedly overwhelming, with replies in agreement and confutation.
As book bloggers and reviewers, we all have an obvious passion for reading. Why would we spend our free time and our own money building up our blogs, buying books, organizing events, and giving away books, swag, etc., if not out of love for the material and the industry? But with that passion, there comes great responsibility.
We must recognize that the book blogging world has expanded exponentially over the past few years, particularly with the advent of electronic reading devices. The landscape of the reading and reviewing world has shifted – how many average readers pick up a copy of The Paris Review or the New York Times Review of Books? Not many. Instead, they subscribe to book blogs or browse for reviews online, which inevitably lead to book blogs. Like it or not, we have become the new critics – and we need to take that responsibility seriously.
So, when I encounter reviews on Goodreads.com, LibraryThing, Shelfari or similar websites and these reviews are obviously biased or incomplete (such as 1-star ratings of books the reviewer clearly didn’t understand, or 5-star ratings of books the reviewer has never read but would like to) there is a serious disservice being done to those who are browsing titles and searching average ratings for recommendations and, perhaps, an even greater injustice to the authors who deserve honest, specific feedback on their work – be it positive or negative.
Roof Beam Reader is committed to providing comprehensive reviews of quality, without bias or coercion. The following passages provide thoughts on how I aim to achieve this, consistently and under varying circumstances.
Reviewing Books Whose Stories are Outside my Experience
First, let me clarify what I mean by being an empathetic reader. I do not mean that we need to try to like books that are simply not very good (or, let’s face it, downright bad). What I mean is this: our reviews should be constructed based upon the literary merit and/or entertainment value of a book, depending on its intended audience and purpose. Of course, whether it “speaks to us” personally is important, particularly if we are reading the book for pleasure; however, there are countless books whose subject matter, narrator, or characters were beyond my realm of experience, yet, as a reader, I could empathize with their situations and emotions. If you find that you are reading a book that is not wholly relatable to your life and experiences, ask yourself: “But, how would I feel if I were dealing with this particular situation?”
One of the reviews I came across on Goodreads.com was written by a woman in her twenties, who was commenting on a book narrated by a teenage boy. The story involved sexual situations and experiences with drugs and alcohol. Ultimately, the reviewer gave this book a 1-star rating, stating: “When I was 15 I would have never engaged in things like this, and neither would any of my friends.” So, because her personal history was different, the book had no merit?
As a male reader, it would be easy for me to remain disconnected from female narrators. How can I, as a man of the 21st Century, feel any connection with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Zenobia, from The Blithedale Romance? The answer is simply this: because I imagine it is so. Yes, it takes a great writer to create characters and situations which allow the reader to feel s/he could be a part of the story, but it also requires an active reader to make the effort, to let go of contemporary restraints, be they temporal, socioeconomic, cultural, religious or otherwise, and just feel. I do not know what it would be like to live in a world where women are used as biological vessels and nothing more, as Offred of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale does; but I can imagine myself in that world, and I can reflect on how it would feel to live in a society that would force my mother, my sister, and my friends into sexual servitude. I am not a woman, that particular world does not exist, and my society is unlike the one created in the book, but that does not mean the book is irrelevant to me.
Reviewing Books that I Couldn’t (or Wouldn’t) Finish
I recently found a 1-Star review on Goodreads.com for one of my favorite books, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I was flabbergasted that anyone could dislike the book so much as to give it the most negative rating possible, particularly since my experience with it was the polar-opposite. Still, I was curious and approached the review with an open-mind and a desire to learn how this book spoke to others (having already known how it speaks to me). The reviewer essentially rated the book so low not because it was poorly written, nor because it had lack of character development or depth, nor because it was meaningless or inaccurate; instead, the review, summed up, came to this: “The main character was a 15-year-old who didn’t know what masturbation was and who cried a lot, so he wasn’t believable and I couldn’t finish the book.” Astounding.
Reading further into the comments on the review (not in the actual review itself), I discovered that the reviewer had not read more than 40-pages of this 200+ page book. How can one make a judgment about a character and about an entire book, when they have read less than 20% of the text? Had the reader given the book a chance and read through to the end, she would have soon realized that two major events in the main character’s life, which are revealed later in the story, have much to do with his introverted personality and his seemingly extraordinary sensitivity.
So, what should we do when we choose not to finish a book, whether because we do not connect with the story or its characters, or because it is so poorly written that the effort doesn’t seem worth the outcome? I think, in both cases, it is perfectly appropriate to write a reflection post about the book. It is necessary, however, to explain in your response that you did not finish the book and clarify just how far into it you got before you stopped reading. People out there are reading our reviews for guidance – so, to rate a book poorly and then not explain that you did not finish the book or elaborate on why exactly you chose not to continue, is misleading and irresponsible.
That being said, it is perfectly fine not to finish a book – there have been a few books that, try as I might, I could not see through to the end (I still have to try Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho again); but those books do not get reviewed on Roof Beam Reader. It is an issue of fairness and, in fairness, I believe a book should be completed before being reviewed. That is not to say, of course, that I won’t mention why I stopped reading it – that, too, my readers deserve to know.
Reviewing Books that I’ve Never Read
Years ago, when I first joined Goodreads.com (it was still in beta version, believe it or not!), I spent much of my time searching through reviews of the books I had already read, to get an idea of how people were organizing their thoughts. The idea of reviewing and rating books was still very new to me at the time, so I was looking for some direction. Imagine my surprise when I came across a 1-star review for The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (who, incidentally, is the inspiration for the name Roof Beam Reader).
Do I know that there are people out there in the world who did not like or connect with Catcher? Yes, of course. I have had my fair share of conversations with readers who found Holden Caulfield to be bratty and unlikable (which is fine and even true, and which, ironically, is why some people hate the book and why some review it so highly). This review, however, one of the first I ever read, went something like this:
“I haven’t read this book, but I’m giving it one star and will never read it, because the guy who shot John Lennon loved it so that creeps me out.”
To me, this type of review – this type of thinking– borders on blasphemy. Yet, even now, from experienced book bloggers, I occasionally stumble across books that were given positive or negative ratings, but have never been read! Some bloggers will give 5-stars to the next book in their favorite series (like the new Cassandra Clare book) but advanced reader copies haven’t even been released because the book is still in the editing phase. Conversely, as with that review of Catcher above, some book bloggers will give the lowest possible rating to a book they have never read, simply because they do not like the author or premise or a previous book by the same writer. There have been times, too, when I have seen negative reviews based on an earlier/unfinished version of the book and while the reviewer may have had valid reasons for disliking it in its initial form, this is not that book and thus deserves its own judgment.
If we take ourselves seriously and if we truly believe in what we are doing, we need to restrain ourselves from making these snap-judgments. For instance, I strongly dislike Orson Scott Card as a person; I disagree with him philosophically and his positions on social issues make me cringe, but readers will never find me leaving one-star reviews on his books simply out of spite. In fact, I have read some of his books and, much to my chagrin, have absolutely loved them. It is hard, sometimes, to separate the author from the book – but unless the primary purpose of your book blog is in fact political punditry or something similar, then we need to judge books on their own merit and not based upon our feelings about the writer(s).
Reviewing Books that I’ve Been Asked to Review
One of the most difficult situations a book blogger can find him/herself in is having to write a negative review for a book they received from an author, agent, or publisher. There have been countless posts and articles about the back-and-forth between industry representatives and book bloggers who write negative reviews, as if agreeing to read and review a book on one’s blog guarantees for the author a positive review and free publicity.
There are two effective ways to handle this sticky situation. The first is not to accept any books for review from anyone directly involved in the marketing or publication of the book. Simply buy your own books, read them, and review them. The second is to make it clear, in disclaimers on your blog, on your review request forms, and in your e-mail agreements (or Facebook/Twitter communications, whatever the case may be) that you will accept the book for review, you will review it honestly, good or bad, and that you have the right to post it wherever you want to post it (your blog, Goodreads.com, Amazon.com, etc.). This is not only courteous to the agent/author, but it could also save you headaches down the road. If you make it perfectly clear to everyone what your review policy is, yet someone still gets flustered about a negative review, know that you have your disclaimers and agreements at the ready.
The policy for review requests at Roof Beam Reader is clearly outlined on a page of its own. Does this limit the number of requests I receive? Maybe – but it also means that the majority of requests are coming from professional sources who understand the true nature of book blogs and expect only honest thoughts and reviews in return for their provided book(s).
Of course, there are many book bloggers who are paid reviewers – whether they disclose that fact or not. We cannot be so naïve as to imagine there are not people in the world who are willing to accept cash in exchange for a glowing review on a book or books that, in reality, are quite terrible. These reviews can be found all over the web. Sometimes the more ethical of folks will disclose their relationships up-front (as they should), but oftentimes the fact that a review was provided for money/gifts is never made clear; thus, inaccurate ratings and mislead readers, once again. This is perhaps the greatest deception and darkest mark on the book blogging community, after plagiarism of another’s ideas (which will be left alone for now).
Final Thoughts – Where to go From Here
So, as “professional” book bloggers, what do we do? There is no easy answer. People use book review websites in many ways. Some rank books they’ve never read based on the order in which they want to read them (giving 5 stars to the books they want to read first, 1 star to the books they might read someday, etc.). Others rank books without providing thoughts at all, and still others intentionally try to sabotage ratings for popular books and authors, simply because they get irritated by the hype. And, of course, there are those who copy/paste reviews from others’ sites or who are reviewers-for-hire, posting inaccurate or misleading information about a book and receiving compensation in return.
Personally, I have decided not to use these types of websites for review or recommendation purposes. Instead, I visit seasoned, trusted book blogs and suggest the same to my friends, co-workers, and family. At least, in visiting a responsible book blogger, I know that although they may disagree with my opinion on a particular book, they will at least support their decision with a thoughtful, honest review.
For this reason, because I expect so much from other book bloggers, I can guarantee my readers that they will always find the same quality here at Roof Beam Reader. As a lover of books, my commitment is to the reader, which means a promise that visitors will always get my honest opinion. You will find here books that are rated based on a comprehensive system, with clearly expressed thoughts about how and why a particular book appealed to me, or not.
If I receive books for review from publishers, agents, or authors, that will be indicated up-front and the fact that the book was received with a review request will in no way impact my thoughts about it. I will never, ever rate/review a book that I haven’t read or that I haven’t finished, though I might provide a response on why I started a book but couldn’t continue with it.
I believe in this community and I believe in what I do. The thoughts and opinions you find here will always be mine and no one else’s. I hope that I can continue to be a trusted and reliable source on books, and I look forward to the continued growth and success of our little community, come what may.
A Small Sample of my Most Trusted Blogs: