Friday, May 27, 2011

Book Reviews, Fans, Friends, and Other Matters

This is an edited, updated repost of one of my Romance Vagabond blogs from March 2009. Since I have begun reviewing one a week on this site, it seems a timely repost.
Over my long years of teaching I spent untold hours thinking and talking about grades. Many of those hours involved attempts to make a student understand why she/he had received a particular grade. Funny thing, no one ever said “I think you should reconsider this A. My essay didn’t deserve it.” But every other grade I assigned, I was at some time called upon to defend. Fortunately, I had clearly defined criteria that I could use in the conferences. Most of the time I was able to persuade the student to see my reasoning. There were a few who left my office convinced I just had it in for athletes, blondes, Tekes, music majors, or some other group. I remember vividly the young man who shook his essay in my face as he proclaimed loudly, “You can’t give fail me; I’m pre-med.”

But some of the most difficult discussions I had about grading involved not students but colleagues.  The general practice in grading workshops was that if the grades two teachers assigned the same paper were more than a letter grade apart, they has to reconcile the grade or call in a mediator to make a decision. These sessions involved professionals, generally experienced in evaluating student writing, who had agreed in advance about the general characteristics of an A paper, a B paper, a C paper, etc. And still we disagreed not infrequently and sometimes with considerable passion, but resolution was possible because we always went back to the pre-determined criteria.
About now you are probably asking yourself what this blog has to do with romance readers and writers. Stay with me. I promise I’ll make the connection.


 Most sites that review romance novels assign grades. If they don’t use A-F grades, they give a number of stars or hearts or some such symbol that corresponds to A-F. Many readers also assign grades to the books they read. I confess that I am among them.  I record the title, author, genre/subgenre, date, one-paragraph summary, and a grade for the books I read.  The grade is helpful for me because I know exactly what it means.
A means that I loved the book and expect to read it again. I fell in love with the characters, willingly suspended disbelief, and overall found the book so compelling, inspiring, or entertaining that I am even willing to forgive a few niggles. The book is headed for the keeper shelf.
B means that I enjoyed the book and will read the author again, but unless the book is part of a series with A books in it, I am unlikely to reread it. The book is headed for a friend who might like it, the UBS or Friends of the Library collection bin.
C means it was an OK book that had some flaws but was not a bad way to spend an hour or so. This book is also headed for a friend who might like it, the UBS or Friends of the Library collection bin.
D means that I failed to connect with the book. It disappointed me in some fundamental way--weak or unbelievable characters, plot that failed to capture my interest, some writing tic that pulled me out of the story.  Since someone might like it, this book ends up at the UBS or the FOL book sale.
F means I found the book poorly conceived, poorly written, and a waste of my time and money.   Sometimes this book goes to the UBS; sometimes it goes in the trash.
Sometimes I give a book a DNF (Did Not Finish). Often the latter book is not a bad book, just a book that was not to my taste.  Since many of my DNFs are romantic suspense or paranormal, subgenres I read very selectively, they often go to family members who like these subgenres.
If you had access only to the grade I gave a particular book without my explanation of what the grade means, your interpretation of the grade might be quite different. Perhaps you don’t even have keepers, and your A means something different from mine. That’s the problem I’m having with some review sites. I can’t figure out what their grades mean. I read one review recently in which the writer praised every element in a book--raved about the complex characters, lauded the historical background, wrote paeans to the author’s prose, and then gave the book a B. I was left wondering if the reviewer were saving her A for some mythical perfect book. I’ve read other reviews that assigned a D to a book because the author didn’t write the book the reviewer wanted to read.  On the other hand, I have also read reviews that focused on all that was wrong with a book, but the book was considered a B book.  Color me confused.
Please understand that it’s not all reviews I have problems with. Many of the reviews I read are intelligent, lucid evaluations that explain one reader’s take on the book.  When the reviewer’s opinion mirrors mine, I am impressed with her astute judgment. When it contradicts mine, I regret her limitations but recognize her right to an opinion. (big grin) But the grades that baffle me seem to be more prevalent these days.

In the two years since I first addressed this issue, my status as a reviewer has changed. In 2009, the only public reviews I wrote were rare ones for the Romance Vagabonds. Now I review frequently here at Just Janga; I am a guest reviewer with The Romance Dish, generally a couple of times each month; and I post reviews on GoodReads regularly. My policy at Just Janga is to post reviews only on books I like. Does the fact that you read only positive reviews here mean that I never read books that I don’t like or that I believe are flawed in major ways? No, indeed, it only means that I choose not to review those books here. I sometimes post reviews elsewhere that explain why I found a book less than satisfactory; more often I save my rants for private conversations. I believe wholeheartedly that fair and honest reviews are in the best interest of the romance genre. We are being less than honest if we pretend that every romance novel published is excellent. Mediocre and substandard books are published in all kinds of fiction, and romance has its share.
Someone once used tastes in ice cream to talk about reader response to reviews. The argument went something like this: If I hate mint chocolate chip, it doesn’t matter that the maker of mint chocolate chip uses the very best ingredients; I’m still not going to rave about her ice cream. On the other hand, if I love pecan praline ice cream, I may wax enthusiastically about a brand that uses somewhat inferior ingredients. If your tastes in ice cream differ from mine, nothing I say about either flavor is likely to change your mind.
I think the analogy has some merit, but extending it, I argue that some ice cream uses such inferior ingredients that any reasonable person will agree that it is not good ice cream, regardless of the individual preferences in flavor. And some ice cream uses such superior ingredients that reasonable people will agree that it’s good ice cream, even if they would never eat a bite of a particular flavor. We may have different tastes in ice cream, but we share some standards against which we measure what is good and what is not. I think the same principles hold when we evaluate books.
Another question that I have pondered is whether it is ethical for me to review books by authors that I’m a fan of or authors who are friends. First, I don’t think “fan” is a dirty word. According to the OED, the word means “A fanatic; in modern English (orig. U.S.): a keen and regular spectator of a (professional) sport, orig. of baseball; a regular supporter of a (professional) sports team; hence, a keen follower of a specified hobby or amusement, and gen. an enthusiast for a particular person or thing.”  The books that I am most eager to talk about with others are often by writers whose work I do intensely believe has worthiness. I indicate in my review if the author is one I follow enthusiastically. I may choose not to review a book by a favorite author if I find it uncharacteristically weak, but I don’t offer praise I feel undeserved. I may be a fan, but I don’t think being one makes an A review for an admired author dishonest or unethical.
Reviewing books written by friends is a stickier problem. I always exempt books by friends from my annual best of list and often from other lists as well. But I will not pledge never to review a book by a friend. If I love a book, I want to be able to rave about it, whoever the author may be. I will be direct about the friendship when I review books written by friends, and I will speak truly when I offer my opinion. Once I’ve done these things, I believe I have satisfied ethical demands.
Do you read reviews? Are you ever confused about why the reviewer awarded a particular grade? Do you grade the books you read? What’s an A book for you?  Is a C book a bad book? What do you think constitutes ethical reviewing?


quantum said...

These are weighty issues to chew over with my Sunday morning breakfast!

Even with scientific peer review there is always a spread of opinion.
With fiction the problem of accurate assessment seems so much harder.

A technically brilliant novel can sometimes seem boring if it lacks that magical ingredient that makes the reader keep turning pages. The magic is different for different readers so a reviewer needs to be trained at Hogwarts.
Dumbledores special lessons on the magic of writing are mandatory!

As with drama, painting, landscape gardening or whatever, a user has to find a critic who is on the same wavelength.

Once that critic has been found, you treat her like gold and never let her go.

I have you Janga! *smile*

Janga said...

Thanks, Q! You are so good for my ego. I love the idea of being a golden critic. :)

irisheyes said...

I like your post, Janga! Reviews are a funny thing. Ever since I've been reading them (either for movies when I was a teen or for books now) I've always sort of taken them with a grain of salt unless I know the reviewer well!

I remember arguing with my siblings about Siskel and Ebert reviews. Half of us sided with Siskel and the other with Ebert! LOL I think your best bet is like Q said... find someone who has similar likes/dislikes and go with them. Otherwise it's just getting one more person's opinion on something.

I do think with the advent of the internet there are a lot of reviews out there that are just love fests for friends. Which is great - cheerleaders and a support group are always helpful especially to aspiring artists. I also think, though, that those types of reviews are pretty easy to discern from actual reviews for content and quality. I think in the end people will find the kind of reviews they seek.

Fortunately for Q and I you have excellent tastes :)

Anonymous said...

"When the reviewer’s opinion mirrors mine, I am impressed with her astute judgment. When it contradicts mine, I regret her limitations but recognize her right to an opinion. (big grin)"

This made me laugh, because it's pretty much how I feel about reviews. I guess I read them to get a feel for what the reviewer feels works and doesn't work--it gives me an idea if it's something I will have troubles with, or if it's something that won't bother me.

I particularly enjoy your reviews because they always come across as well-reasoned, and calm, even when you're a big fan of a book or author. :)


Janga said...

Irish, I think the reverse works too. I know there are some reviewers who only have to pan a book in order for me to place it on my to-be-bought list. LOL

And isn't it strange to think we all once bought books based solely on author's name, covers, and cover copy? It was a different world for readers before the internet.

Janga said...

Donna, thanks for the kind words. I do try to give reasons for my responses even when my inclination is to sink into a series of fangirl "Wows." I'm happy to know I succeed--most of the time. :)

I know what you mean about knowing what won't bother you. Most of the things the historical purists rant about are things I never notice until I see the rants. Grammatical errors, OTOH, drive me wild.