My methodology for reviewing novels has formed over time, beginning when Dan, Miranda and I started Foes of Reality. I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to include summaries. It seemed… cheap, somehow, like a too-easy way of approaching the task. I wanted to produce something professional, and something that would add value in ways that were unique to me. Anyone can read a book and write a summary. What value could I deliver?
Reviewing a novel provides a unique opportunity that I’ve touched on, before: to read deeply and thoughtfully. It requires about the same level of preparation that you would need to lead a discussion composed of good readers. The analysis is something that I love to do, and at the risk of being self-aggrandizing, I think I do pretty well.
Structurally, my reviews are based on a list of criteria brainstormed with Dan and Miranda when we started Foes and modified by me, as well as on my own knowledge of writing and narrative. I try to address a variety of elements, ranging from character to plot to style. I attempt to balance the subjective and the objective as I consider craft and its application.
I understand now that my desire to avoid summarizing was about more than avoiding the easy route; it was linked to deeper feelings I have, about how story should be experienced. The challenge is to write reviews that help a reader determine their level of interest in a given work, without ruining it by revealing too much.
I try to convey the experience of reading. Mention that the protagonist’s choices were frustrating? Sure, but do it without saying what they were. Talk about how the conclusion felt rushed? Okay, then describe how there wasn’t enough build-up to create suspense, but stay away from specifics. The idea is to allow individual readers to get a feel for where the book stands in relation to their own preferences – is it fast-paced, or slow? Are the characters fully drawn, or paper thin? Is the mood dark and grim, or light and casual?
It might sound as if I try to take myself out of the review in the name of allowing readers to make up their own minds, but nothing could be farther from the truth. My opinions drive the review – give it personality and style, and to some extent determine the content. At the same time, I want my opinion to be clearly differentiated from the more objective parts of the review. I might say that I wanted more character development, but what that means is that if you’re a fan of character development (as I am), you might want to look elsewhere. Maybe I loved the slow, deliberate pace, but that doesn’t mean all readers will, or should. Ultimately, my goal when I write a review is to help a reader figure out their own opinion, even as I share mine.
I try to be positive. I can be tough, I know that. As a writer myself, I have expectations of what’s presented to me as professional-level work. I know poor character development and shoddy plotting when I come into contact with it, and though I might not call it out directly, I can’t pretend it’s not there. I don’t demand perfection – what I expect is a level of craft and vision that reaches certain benchmarks, across the board.
Over time, the number of book reviews at Foes has declined as we’ve each found our own niches and the site has evolved more towards general interest. We still review books (sometimes in fits and starts), and I hope to review some novels and short stories here, that don’t fall under the category of work we talk about at Foes.
What do you like to see, when you read a book review? Have you read a book, based on one? Do you think that the sheer number of reviews available, at places like Goodreads and Amazon, make the individual reviewer (let alone the book critic) redundant?