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Recently, a friend emailed me about a job opening for a book reviewer position, “since I think it’s aligned to your career path right now”.
Every week I get emails from companies that want me to read, review, and promote their books, though most aren’t at all like what I really read.
Even without adding in my work for SF Signal, I write more words about books than I write any other kind of non-fiction.
And it’s all making me want to bang my head against the wall.
I read because I love reading, and because it’s part of the process of becoming a better writer. For me, reading is a step on a path toward my goals, not the end of it. I’ve talked before about how I’m not a book reviewer, but I admit that there are times when the bulk of what I post here is me talking about the books I’ve read. Lately I’ve written long, detailed summaries, because I’ve already had that conversation with myself in my head, so why not share it with you? Maybe someone else is looking for a book that does a thing the book I just read did, and my review will help them to find it.
But I’m not a book reviewer. My aspirations don’t include simply being a consumer of literature – I am and will continue to be a creator of it. Reading and then thinking about what I read is part of the writer equation, and by posting reviews here I’m just showing my work.
There is no possible way that I will read everything I want to before I die. It’s never going to happen. The best that I can do it to devote as much time as I can to reading and accept that there are stories I won’t get to. More and more I think that spending time writing a straight review is taking away from being able to read or write something else, but… I’ve been hesitant to talk about books the way I want to because I wasn’t sure if anyone else would care about my deeper thoughts on the book I was discussing, beyond “is it good or not?”
I wondered: Do I know enough to have my opinion respected? Am I well read enough to make the right connections, the right correlations? There’s very little mainstream junk-food reading in my reading list for this year; it’s just not my style. My to-be-read pile includes some genre classics, a lot of small press, liminal or interstitial work, non-Western fiction, poetry, non-fiction essays, and non-speculative literary fiction. Does anyone else even want to hear about the titles that I most love to read?
And then I remembered that I don’t care what anyone else thinks. I’m going to read what I like.
I will still mention some of the books or stories I think you should read, in brief. I’m more interested in talking about how I was influenced by a particular work, how books are connected, or whether I agreed or disagreed with a certain author. I hope you stick around, because I’d like for my readers to be people who have read or want to read the kind of books I’m reading. I’d like more comments, more discussion. Tell me what you thought of it, ask questions, suggest something for me to read next. Let’s read deeper.
Let’s read better.
I review, on average, 3 books or magazines a month. I talk about what didn’t work for me but mainly I talk about what did, because my goal is to share something that I think you should be reading.* If I read something, and I don’t like it at least enough to suggest you might get something out of it as well, I don’t review it at all.
Why not? Because I’m not a book reviewer.
There’s nothing wrong with being a reviewer, someone who reads a lot of books and shares their opinions with an audience. Depending on who it is, they’re going to be looking for different things in a story, but the overall goal is to take in a lot of reading and produce an opinion about what is good and what isn’t. Their reviews are incredibly useful for people looking to read a new author or a new book, and hoping for recommendations.
As an author and publisher, I love book reviewers who are dedicated solely to this task. A good reviewer can convince you to read something just as much as they can turn you off of it, and (most importantly) doesn’t just recommend everything they read. Their followers can trust that when the reviewer says they liked an author’s work, they genuinely did. If that reviewer like your book, chances are good their audience will too. That’s new readers for me, increased sales, and the satisfaction of knowing that someone else got what we were trying to do.
But for me, reviewing is a byproduct of reading critically, not the goal. I read because I am a writer, first and foremost, and reading teaches me. I learn more about what I like, what I want a story or sentence to sound like, what feels smart or emotionally true or creative. I learn just as much from what I don’t enjoy, because over time you start to recognize patterns in the things that turn you off and then you can learn to avoid those things in your own work.
Even when a book is awful, I learn something.**
When I share my thoughts on a book, it’s because I want to support an author, magazine, or publisher that shared a great story with me. It’s also because most of the people who read this blog are also writers, and if I learned something cool, I want to share that with you too. Lastly, I review books because if I can get you to read something that I loved, or even liked, there’s a better chance that magazine or that author will create someone new in the future, and then I’ll get to read that too.
As far as I’m concerned, my discussions of what I like and don’t like are the same as when a group of us writers sits in a bar at a convention, talking about whose work has made an impression on us since the last con. (Yes, we do that.) I’m talking to you as part of my peer group. Here, come and take a peek at the conversation being had by people who are involved in making books. You’ll see it’s exactly the same as the ones readers have all of the time, too.
Authors should always be readers anyway.
So if you recommend a book to me (or send it to me, or you know that I bought it) and I don’t review it, it means that either I haven’t gotten to it yet (but plan to, if I can find the time) or that I didn’t have anything good to say about it. It could be either one, and you shouldn’t assume that you know which it is. Most of all, don’t ask me to tell you which books I hated this year, or why I didn’t like something. For the most part I can see when a book is well written, but just doesn’t appeal to me. I know my tastes aren’t the same as everyone else’s, and I’m not going to turn you away from a book you may love just because I couldn’t get through it. (I will say, if asked directly, that I wouldn’t recommend a book, because I won’t tell you to read a book I couldn’t get through either.)
When I review a work that fits within the kind of literature I talk about here, I’ll post that review to this site. If I read something that I enjoyed quite a lot, and is very entertaining, but doesn’t teach me anything, I usually post that review other places (like Functional Nerds or SF Signal). Those books are still great, but there’s a difference between “wow that’s brilliant, I should write like that” and “wow that was crazy fun I’m so glad I spent my evening reading that”.
In honor of National Poetry Month, and inspired by Brainpicking’s book spine poetry, may I present my latest masterpiece?
*steps up to the mic*
Dreams of decadence
Strange men, in pinstripe suits
Pretty monsters …
I am legend.
*walks off stage*
You can make your own. Find poetic genius amongst the titles in your personal library, or go out into the world and disorganize a bookstore, creatively! (Just remember to put everything back where you found it.) These are from my bookshelves at home:
I read some of the books from my November 2011 list, I got rid of a few I knew I wasn’t that interested in, and I gave a handful of titles away to people who really wanted them. Of course, since I then had room on my bookshelves …
The following list is broken up into a few categories, and the ones with an * after them are the books I’ve started but never completely finished. As of now, here’s what I have left to read:
Fiction, Short Story Collections:
- The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, ed. by Kelly Link & Gaven Grant *
- Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits & Other Curious Things, Cate Gardner
- My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, ed. Kate Bernheimer *
- The Complete Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle (facsimile of the original 24 stories from THE STRAND MAGAZINE)
- The Book of Cthulhu, ed. by Ross E. Lockhart (one story, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Flash Frame”, first appeared in Cthulhurotica, which I edited) *
- The Living Dead, ed. John Joseph Adams *
- The Mammoth Book of Zombie Comics, ed. David Kendall *
- Evolve, ed. Nancy Kilpatrick
- Other Worlds, Better Lives, Howard Waldrop
- Pretty Monsters, Kelly Link *
- The New Weird, Ann & Jeff Vandermeer *
- Year’s Best SF 15, ed. Hartwell and Cramer *
- Brave New Worlds, ed. John Joseph Adams *
- Shock Totem #2 (2010)
- The Past Through Tomorrow, Heinlein *
- Push of the Sky, Camille Alexa *
- Tales of Ten Worlds, Arthur C. Clarke
- Again, Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison
- The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm
- The Decameron, Boccaccio
- Stories From the Twilight Zone, Rod Serling
As you can see, I tend to read collections a bit at a time and then move on to something else. (more…)
So you want to get your book sold, do you? And you think that a glowing review of your work will get readers interested? I have to agree with you there. There have been several books that I purchased based on a strong review by someone whose opinion I trusted.
Oh, you don’t want to show anyone the reviews where the reader thought you could have used a better editor, or thought your female characters had no agency, or bemoaned your complete lack of a believable plot? Well, sure, I can understand that. A good review tends to sell more books than a bad one. Your only choice is to keep sending your books out until you’ve found your market, and then post the good reviews you do get.
What? That takes too long? And no one likes your book? And you’re going to do what now? Buy a review?
Hello, jackass. This one’s for you.
First off, if you couldn’t be bothered to have your book edited, or didn’t want to spend the money on a cover by a professional artist, or included in your anthology stories by people you know (as opposed to people who could actually write), chances are you deserve that bad review. You can’t just throw a $50 cover on a first-draft novel that your Grandmother thought would be a “big hit” (but no one else would publish) and expect that mess of a manuscript to make you rich.
But you’ve done it, you’ve gone and gotten it published, and now you realize it’s going nowhere. Your solution is to turn to one of the many pay-for-play review services and throw money at them until they put stars next to your name. Do you honestly think that we, other writers and readers, don’t realize that Kirkus* is letting people buy positive reviews? So what if they said that you were going to be the next Tolkien. What they meant was that your check cleared.
Perhaps you think that the answer is to hold on to your money and just have a friend or relative review your book. Authors, editors, and even small presses do this all of the time – when they have no self respect or respect for their readers. As another example, I know an editor/author whose assistant writes glowing reviews of every book she’s worked on or written for. Now, it’s possible that the assistant genuinely loves her boss’ work; after all, she’s got a choice, doesn’t she? I mean, there are millions of well respected, famous authors dying to take on a young, inexperienced intern and make her a star, right?
What’s worse than the person writing the reviews (for money or other gain) is the fact that small press publishers link to these reviews on their websites, Twitter feeds, and so on, hoping that no one will notice the questionable provenance of those kind words. They’re assuming that we’re stupid. That we, as readers, won’t know any better, and will fork over our hard earned cash without caring where the review comes from.
Now who’s the jackass?
* For example. Not to single them out, as other magazines do this as well. Pro tip: if a magazine sells its review services, don’t bother reading their reviews.
** As a publisher and as a writer, I only post reviews of my books or stories when I feel they come from unbiased sources. Plenty of my writers talked about Cthulhurotica, for example, but you won’t find those on our Reviews page. Hell, my mom loves pretty much everything I write, but do you trust her opinion to be unbiased?
*** I should point out that my mom is bound to read this. I love you mom! #coveringmyass