I've been thinking about writing this post for awhile now, but hesitated because I never want to sound like I'm trying to tell people what to do. But this is something that influences the way I approach reviewing books, so at least for me, I thought it would be interesting to explore it.
When I’m considering buying a new book, book reviews are usually the first thing I check out. (Well after looking at the book cover and reading the blurb.) Seeing what other people think helps me a ton when deciding on whether or not to spend my money. But what makes me sad - even if it’s a book I didn’t like - is seeing those really angry reviews. The ones that rip into the the story and call into question the sanity of anyone willing to read it. Or the sanity of the author for writing it. I just wish those reviewers would be a little kinder. Now being kind when reviewing books is an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, if you, as the reader and reviewer, are disappointed by a book, you should make your disappointment clear as a warning to potential readers, and maybe if those feelings are strong enough, you want to show it with a few choice insults. Just for the sake of accuracy and to make sure there is no mistaking your attitude of derision and displeasure.
But being kind when reviewing does not mean letting a book slide for it’s faults or being banal or ineffective in your comments. It is important to point out what did not work in the book, but also important to remember that not all readers are the same. Reading is a solitary pastime, so a review is an account of a personal experience with a book. I don’t think you can be completely objective when reading a book because you project a little (or a lot) of yourself into the story. (Or in the case of a book you hated, you probably identified with nothing at all, and you would feel insulted if anyone thought you did.) But for every book that someone hated, someone loved it. In book reviewing, I think being kind is just in remembering that someone does love that book.
I know that many people really write the review for themselves, and to that I’d say that being kind can also help make a review more precise. To my mind, a review full of vitriol doesn’t necessarily make it more accurate. I mean generally if someone is angry, their judgement is impaired. There is someone out there who does like that book, so there has to be some merit to it. Perhaps a character stands out, a plot point was interesting, a point of view resonates, the writing wasn’t all bad, or there was just enjoyment value. This kindness approach can help to really see the book for what it is, and not for what you want it to be. And maybe, if you’re writing a review just for yourself, that one merit you flew by when writing about how much you hated everything else, could be something you actually look for as a reader in the future. Sometimes there are books you hated, and yet find they are not so bad when you read them years later.
If you are reviewing books to help other readers, it seems more helpful to weigh the good and the bad as much as possible to paint a complete picture (or at least complete from your point of view.) As a reader, you love books, and writers want their books to be loved, so not to get too hippy dippy, but wouldn’t it be nice to spread that bookish love more and try to be kind when reviewing books?
Now, maybe I should reread Moby Dick… Lord, give me strength.