On not writing reviews

Twice in the past month I’ve heard writers criticise reviewers for not writing proper reviews. “Some reviewers take a book and use it as a launching pad to write whatever they want,” one complained over lunch.

I kept my mouth shut.

A day or so later, someone emailed me with a list of questions about the current state of on- and off-line reviewing. As I thought about what to answer, I realised one of the aspects I enjoy most about writing reviews online is the freedom to write what I want about a book. I like to write reflections, discussions, musings – and I like to read them, too. I like it when a reviewer gets personal, when s/he admits to feeling provoked, challenged, crushed and remade by a book. Or awed. Or speechless. Or bored.

But are such pieces reviews?

This question has been bugging me, and might account for why I’ve been reading far more than I’ve been posting reviews lately (or writing). The truth is, I’m not sure I want to write “reviews”. Instead, I want to share my experience. I want to give you a glimpse of how I’ve allowed some books to nest inside me, to brood until something cracks, until I feel a stab that tells me: yes, this book has life; this book will take flight in words, inspired-by-this-author musings – or fall, silent.

Whether others catch a glimpse of those words once they’re out and away, whether my impressions flash bright and beautiful, flicker in the shadows or hide invisible, doesn’t matter. The book lives on because it’s helped make me who I am.

So forgive my silence while words brood.

In the meantime, here are some of the books nesting inside me (a few have been there a while):

Do you have books with wings?

Photo by Rodney Weidland (used with permission)

Photo by Rodney Weidland (used with permission)

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66 Comments

  1. I think that when you write a book, it’s like opening a conversation with the reader. If the conversation ends with the end of the book, that’s fine. If the reader goes away with the memory of a happy time, that’s lovely. If they then want to share how lovely it was (or how awful) with others, that’s grand. If they are able and chose to be thoughtful about why they enjoyed it or didn’t, that’s a bonus.

    But if they find that the initial conversation begins a whole avalanche of other things rustling inside them, that’s golden. If they then go and talk about that, I, as a writer would be honoured. It may not sell thousands of my books, but it does contribute to the feast of reason and flow of soul which is part of why I wrote the book in the first place.

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  2. I’m with you. I do write commissioned reviews, just short ones, in which I’m always frustrated by having to keep to a tight word limit and not be as frank as I’d like to be; not to mention having to review books that I would otherwise throw across the room or take to the op shop. But every now and then I strike gold, which makes it worth while.

    This piece of yours is beautiful, and I love the image!

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    • Thanks, Christina. Do you allow yourself more liberties on your blog or do you feel your responses need to conform to a review “style”? I’ve just had an exchange on Twitter and realise there’s a link on AWW site for “Interviews, articles, essays or other” which people could use to link their “reflections”. I’d love to see more of those.

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      • Yes, I am franker and freer in a blog; why else choose this more personal, spontaneous medium? But I read a lot of books I don’t get round to reviewing. It’s something I have to be in the frame of mind for, like any art form, and I would never want to feel it is a duty. So I don’t care much about how many or how few people read my blogs or comment on them. If they find them, read them and like them, that’s good enough. I don’t twitter or do facebook. And I don’t read many reviews, though I glance through the ones in the only paper I buy, the Weekend Australian. But most don’t excite me. I”m a lazy reader!

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        • I must admit, I feel freer if I’ve bought the book or borrowed it from the library. There are a few books that publishers have sent that I haven’t yet reviewed (months later) and I feel guilty. Mostly because I did enjoy those books and want to review them, but for whatever reason haven’t found the spark to set me off. As for the newspaper reviews, I wonder if your response is typical? Who does read those reviews?

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          • Indeed! I doubt we’ll ever know.

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          • I’m so glad to hear that others don’t really read newspaper reviews … I rarely do and when I do it’s usually after I’ve read the book and come up with my own response. I don’t like to read about books I haven’t read.

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            • I’m the same! I do it because I’ve committed to the challenge, but the “reviews” I really enjoy are the ones of books I’ve read where I can compare responses. It’s a Catch-22 though. If I didn’t read any reviews I’d miss some fantastic recommendations.

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          • Hi Elizabeth – I’ve always wondered if reviewers do feel freer with books that have not been sent to them by publishers. Not that the publisher ever expects anything of course and not that the reviewer would not review honestly, but is there ever a feeling from those who receive books from publishers of a need to hold back unfavourable opinions, or to gloss over them more than might be the case if the book wasn’t a freebie? I’ve been wondering because I’ve recently been sent a book by a publisher for the first time and it’s sitting on my desk looking at me and I can’t bring myself to read it yet. It’s by an Australian woman writer so I would normally dive right in but something is holding me back and I think it might be the sense of expectation I feel about the potential review at the end. Hmm, perhaps next time I should just say no when a publisher asks if they can send me a book!

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            • Thanks for your response, Natasha. It’s a tough one, isn’t it? I’ve been faced with the same dilemma. But the truth is, I’m too greedy. I use the library but often I want to keep a book I’ve enjoyed, just so I know I can dip into it again at my leisure (which I rarely do). Having said that, without publishers sending me books in the past year I’d have missed out on some wonderful, inspiring reads – books that are now among my favourites.

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  3. I’ve been struggling with writing reviews at the moment. I realise how much work (and heart and soul) goes into writing a book and I hate it when I don’t absolutely love the book. I can always find something to like in every book but feel I’m being dishonest if I don’t discuss what I didn’t like. At the end of the day my reviews are just my personal opinion, every reader/reviewer approaches a book with their own set of viewpoints, prejudices, beliefs etc it’s a very subjective process. Whether you would class it as a serious “review” is I suppose open to question but at the end of the day the online world is creating a new form of writing and perhaps more a more personal reviewing style is part of that change.

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    • Janine, I agree that going online opens up new spaces for different forms. And why should we limit ourselves? Sometimes a standard review seems adequate. At other times, why not something more reflective? I think blog readers can cope!

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  4. annabelsmith

     /  March 11, 2013

    That is one of the things I enjoy most about your ‘reviews’ Elizabeth – the way you use the book as a doorway into other ideas. Keep em coming!

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  5. Thoughtful piece, Elizabeth. I like your reviews. As an author, one hopes that readers take away more from the story than just the words. Our own life experience will always influence how we read–and how it makes us feel when we close the book. Many reviews simply summarise the plot and give a comment or two, which is fine. But to take it to a higher level of interaction is even better. Keep on doing what you do.

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    • Thanks for the encouragement, Kandy. I detest plot summaries in reviews – then again, I don’t even read back cover blurbs! – but I realise they have a purpose for introducing a book/author to a reader. Those kinds of reviews are perhaps best for new books. I guess what I’m talking about is a kind of “higher level of interaction”. It certainly feels like engaging more with the book (at least emotionally, if not intellectually). It’s about nurturing the life of a book beyond when it first hits the shelves

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      • I’m loving this discussion. I detest reviews that are mostly plot too. One of the first online “reviews” I did was for a group blog, and after I wrote it one of the members of the group said she liked the “review” but “what’s the book about”? Oops. I went back and added a quick plot summary and she was happy. Now I try to do a short paragraph on the plot and leave it at that. I often don’t do emotional response – though I do have emotional responses to books – because I feel a little self-conscious about that, but I like to write about what I like about a book, why I liked reading it, and perhaps where I think it might have lost its way a little (if indeed it has!).

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        • Ha! Love this anecdote, Sue. You wouldn’t have had any complaint from me. Having talked a lot about emotional responses, I must say I appreciate restraint in others (and I always love your take on things). I guess for me I can’t help it: it’s a form of self-expression, probably an indulgence akin to singing in the shower. If you have a good voice, it can sound beautiful to the listener; if not, it’s torture.

          The Lucy Tatman book I’ve been dipping into talks about the “numinous” and the importance of sounds in communication about the sacred, not just talking about it with (limited) literal meaning. I think there’s room for reading about a similar kind of response to literary texts, responses which sing of the joy or trauma of how a book creeps up on the reader, rather than lays itself bare for analysis or inspection. But I’ve no doubt such “riffing” or improvisation, for some readers, could get very annoying.

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          • Variety is the spice of life! If all we bloggers were the same, readers would get annoyed but fortunately we’re not and we don’t have to submit to some blogger-in-the-sky house style do we?

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  6. I agree Elizabeth, I have been thinking about this recently as well. I don’t want to write ‘reviews’ but I like to share my responses to books sometimes. I think for me it’s best to only talk about books I like or love because then it all flows and I don’t have to scratch around for ‘something to say’. I also want my responses to be taken as personal and nothing more than a reflection; I don’t want them to serve me in any way because then you become beholden somehow. I also don’t like it when I see a ‘review’ that is two paras long, and I love it when I see pieces that go on and on, where the minority of wordage is spent on the precis, and the majority is spent on actual analysis of some sort, whether positive, negative or both — but something meaty. These reviews are for the professionals; for me to enjoy reading, not attempt to write. There is a real skill in it.

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    • Jenny, yes, “response” does seem to be the right word, doesn’t it? (I think if it weren’t for the AWW challenge being ostensibly for “reviews” I wouldn’t even see the need for a label!) It’s great to think about the distinction you make between the amateur response and the work of a professional, and what you expect from them. Thanks for the insight.

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  7. Hi Elizabeth, I think about this every time I post a ‘review’.I cringe a little bit knowing full well I am not writing a traditional, professional review. Perhaps I should be calling them something else? A ‘response’?

    I know that when I read professional reviews that don’t have any personal or emotional input I generally don’t pay them much heed. Past the actual facts of genre and plot i don’t believe the reviewers opinion. It’s not a conscious attitude, more a response to the tight structure of reviews.

    I expect it might be exhausting and perhaps more time consuming (? I don’t know?) for a professional reviewer to put that kind of input in again and again. I enjoy the Aus. Women Writers ‘responses’ to books, and read the writers opinions with genuine interest and respect.

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    • Julie, that’s fascinating! It never occurred to me that people might pay less attention to the professionals, but I think it’s the same case with me. For myself, I wonder if I’m still suffering an anti-intellectual bias, a hangover from overdosing on critical theory and analysis at uni. These days, I favour the emotional, the visceral and ineffable. Maybe that’s also why I take so long to write reviews for the books that mean most to me: because to capture those responses takes us beyond mere words – and into poetry?

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      • Book to the Future

         /  March 11, 2013

        Yes! I agree completely – studying critical theory at uni made it so easy to forget the way a good book makes you feel. For me, “the emotional, the visceral and ineffable” as you put it, is what reading is all about.

        I’d like to write reviews one day. For now, I’m just writing about books, working it out as I go along.

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        • I like your attitude, Michelle. “Just writing about books.” Universities have a lot to answer for.

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          • Book to the Future

             /  March 12, 2013

            I’m grateful for my education – it made me the reader I am today. I just wish there were a little more room for discussing the actual experience of reading amongst all that theory.

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  8. One of the things I love about the new media is the fluid and multi-faceted interpretation of ‘reviews’ – they have been the property of too few (and about too few!) for much too long. If the person writing them happens to meander into their own experiences, then it’s usually because the book resonated in some way. That means it’s not just a review, it’s a compliment!

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    • It does feel more democratic, doesn’t it? More like being part of a vast book club. I love the idea of it being a compliment to the author. I think that’s true even when the emotions a book inspires are (so-called) negative ones like disgust or anger – when such reactions are caused by the power of the writing or strength of the story, that is. It’s sometimes tough to admit these reactions, though, for fear of offending the author – a drawback of being part of an inter-connected reading community.

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  9. Hi Elizabeth – I mirror your thoughts on reviewing being a personal response, reflections, discussions, musings… I have prefaced how I review on one of my posting in my blog with the following; “your own experiences of the world influence how you read/what you read and consequently how you feel about a book. My views on any particular book are a personal response that reflects my life experience, my reading experience, my personal taste and as such I say read my reviews and the descriptions/synopsis – and then decide for yourself if you think the book is worthy of YOUR interest. These days I read for entertainment, for pleasure; I am not interested in providing high brow critical analysis in my reviews, I merely want to share with you my individual response to the script; enthusiastic or…. not so much; loved it, couldn’t put it down…or not.” I think that I too am suffering the same anti intellectual bias as you -leftover from my uni days.

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    • Thanks for commenting, Carol. Your preface is an excellent idea – a good guide for people who might seek to have a book review and to readers who might wonder at your choices.

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  10. What a fascinating subject.

    I’m growing to hate the word “review” but I haven’t yet come up with a viable replacement – and even if I did I don’t imagine it would catch on. In the wider book-ish community I think review is the generally accepted term for a wide array of – responses/thoughts/whatevers – and that’s what people look for when they’re searching or browsing – and while I’m not worried about visitor numbers to my site I do want people to be able to find the thing they are looking for – which means using the accepted term I think

    I think once upon a time the “professional” literary reviewer was really a proponent of literary criticism which is a vast gulf away from what I write (or want to write for that matter) but these days there is very little of that around – certainly what gets published in mainstream newspapers/online spaces is rarely the stuff of literary criticism any more though I suppose it still happens in a few spaces (most of which I can’t afford or can’t access). I do largely ignore reviews published in the mainstream press – either they have a kind of agenda (often written by other authors, very few of whom will say anything truly awful about a fellow author – particularly here in Oz) or they don’t seem to know much about the genre they’re reviewing – Personally I am not really interested in the thoughts of an occasional genre reader when it comes to straight reviewing – I’d rather read the thoughts of someone who knows the genre and can place the book in question in the wider context – my exception to this is people who write the kind of “review with wings” that you speak of – then I can get swept away by them getting swept away and I do love intelligent, strong reactions (love or hate) as long as they’re not snarky

    As far as my own “reviewing’ goes I do like to share some aspect about where the book took me or what it reminded me of in my own life and I am learning to do this – slowly – sometimes with success and sometimes not – there’s a fine line between sharing something relevant and boring people to death with rambling, unconnected thoughts 🙂

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    • So much here, Bernadette. I’m amazed to know that you largely ignore reviews in the mainstream press. If respondents to this post are any indication it would seem they’re failing us in some way. Your point about the knowledge of a reviewer of any particular genre is a really important one – though I hadn’t thought it would apply to crime as much as it would apply, say, to romance or fantasy. Definitely the ability to place the book in a wider context would seem to be a key required skill of a professional reviewer. Then again, I like to dabble… For instance, I’ve been intrigued by the “horror” elements of Madigan Mine but feel totally ill-equipped to review it. Maybe I should be prepared to risk sounding ignorant?

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  11. I find I only can be bothered writing a ‘review’ if I feel something about the book. If it doesn’t inspire anything in me, be it love, hate, whatever, why should I write about it? On the other hand, if it did inspire these things, I want to say that, rather than talk about the quality of the writing or the plot or even the characterisation, what I love to talk about is how this book makes me feel, whether it makes me laugh or cry. I would want to know those things about it from other reviewers. That is why I enjoy your reviews so much Elizabeth, as well as a stable of other reviewers on Goodreads that I follow, I trust you all to let me know when you absolutely love a book, and when you hate one too.

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    • Thanks, Paula. You’ve hit it exactly. The key is “trust”: we need reviewers we can trust to be honest about their reactions – while, I hope, remaining respectful of the author’s effort in writing the book. I guess, when we risk being honest about our reactions, we attract the readers that feel the same as us. (It’s very encouraging!)

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  12. Great post, Elizabeth, and clearly rich fodder for discussion.

    I am trying to be a bit more selective about what I review this year, mostly due to time constraints: because I am working hard on edits for my new novel, while also planning a possible creative writing PhD for 2014.

    But I think there’s also an element of what you’re saying in my current attitude to reviews: I want to contribute to conversations when I’ve read a book worth talking about, not feel obliged to comment on everything I read — unless I’m being paid for my opinion of course (I have the good fortune to periodically review crime novels for Radio National – their choice).

    I agree with Bernadette that it’s hard to find reviewers who don’t have an agenda (Bernadette herself is one of my favourite reviewers): as an author, I do find it hard to criticise the work of other writers and tend to say nothing instead. That said, I’ve found Margot Kinberg’s reviewing guidelines helpful: http://margotkinberg.wordpress.com/2013/01/22/but-just-this-once-i-hope-that-looks-dont-deceive/

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    • That’s very exciting news, Angela. Hope the edits go well and plans for the PhD. And I’d love it if you could ping @auswomenwriters with a link when you review crime novels on RN. I’m a fan, but don’t always follow their book discussions. The idea of “contributing to conversations” about a book worth talking about – this is exactly what I’d love to see more of. Thanks for the ref. to MK’s reviewing guidelines. I’ll take a look.

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  13. I think I do tend to write “reviews” but I don’t feel constrained to suit any particular expectation and I do like to add a personal perspective such as why the book might be of particular interest to me. I think the advantage of being a blogger is that you can darn well write anything you like (within what’s legal of course!). You can be formal, personal, funny, serious, short or long. You can write a review or a reflection.

    I would have thought most authors would be pleased to be written about! Any publicity after all is better than none? Did you find out what these writers meant by “proper” review?

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    • Truth? I was a bit intimidated. Both are very experienced readers and reviewers, as well as being talented writers. And, to be fair, they were talking about reviews in mainstream media, rather than blogs. I feared we might get into a debate about whether judging literary merit can ever be “objective”. It’s such a huge topic, and while I think postmodern relativism and valuing of popular culture can direct people’s time-poor attention away from books that might have truly wonderful, long-lasting qualities, I also sensed I might be much more open to relativist aesthetics than these writers are.

      I agree – there’s much to be said about the freedoms afforded by blogging.

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      • I totally understand Elizabeth … I reckon I would have been too. I rather assumed they were talking about mainstream media where I think reviewing is becoming more and more moribund partly because it’s being more syndicated as far as I can tell which means less variety out there.

        As for relativism I’m totally with you … I dislike the sense that the “arts” can be judged objectively but on the other hand I think there are some principles and lines we can draw and then assess from those? We might still disagree on the assessment but we have some basis that we are judging from.

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        • Yes, exactly! The “some basis” from which to judge is contentious, of course – one reader may think a book has those qualities and another may think not – but I’m pretty sure a loose contemporary aesthetics could be identified without too much dissent.

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  14. I was afraid for years to even try to write a “review” but recently having linked in with AWW 2013, I suddenly decided I would have a go writing them my way. And have absolutely loved it.

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    • That’s great news, Tarla. That’s certainly what I hope to inspire with the challenge. I hope you’ll remember to use the Twitter hastag #aww2013 to ping @auswomenwriters with links to your reviews.

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  15. I love your idea of ‘a higher level of interaction’, Elizabeth — as a writer, it’s what I hope for. ‘Proper’ reviews? I’m just happy there are now so many new opportunities for people to share their reading experiences, whether we call them ‘reviews’ or ‘responses’ or something else. Keep it up, everyone!

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    • Thanks, Amanda. I was quoting Kandy Shepherd with that phrase, but I agree she gets it right. And if I could write reviews like you do, I would, believe me. They’re an inspiration.

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  16. What a lovely thing to say — thank you, Elizabeth. Looking forward to your next.

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  17. I love this post Elizabeth, as I love the discussions it’s generated. I believe that a review must reveal something about the reviewer too…to use a cliche…when I read a review I want to know how this book has changed you. I don’t want a literary/technical/critical review. I want to know how it broke your heart, how it frustrated you, how you ranted about it to your partner. And I hope you’ll continue to let your words brood!

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    • Thanks, Rashida. I’m enjoying the discussion, too, getting a sense of everyone’s take on it. It seems quite a few of us enjoy reading personal reactions. It’s reassuring.

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  18. I am with you totally, freedom about what we write and share is foremost for me and if a book inspires me to share more of its experience than merely what the author intended, then it adds something important and worthwhile. Afterall, it is you who have developed a relationship with your audience, not the author of any book. It shouldn’t matter to an author how a blogger or reviewer inspires their own particular audience, it should be enough that they are interested to share their experience of that work, although I’m not in favour of expressions of extreme negativity, I think the book that didn’t do it for me, requires very careful and considerate analysis to understand what caused any discontent.

    There is a place for the formal review and it attracts a particular audience. Equally authors can have opinions about the reviews that they like and as followers clearly if you didn’t like a bloggers style you wouldn’t follow them, but when it comes to the book you wish people to read, this requires significant detachment, letting go.

    Great post Elizabeth. And I love your reviews.

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    • Thanks, Claire. That’s a good point about the reviewer’s responsibility in developing a relationship with his/her own audience, independently of the author. And I agree about the consideration needed if the response is one of extreme negativity (though I do think in some ways it can be a compliment, if it’s about the story, not the terrible writing). There are so many facets to this, aren’t there?

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  19. Just a quick question re AWW2013 I am a little worried that I am tagging my books incorrectly. I know the roundups must be difficult and only some books can be mentioned but I have read two books that haven’t been reviewed by anyone else in the memoir category and neither of them have been cited. As the one I’m currently reading is also a memoir I wanted to check that mine are on the AWW2013 list. I think they are but maybe not the right tags? Particularly the photography book which I wanted to tag as such but couldn’t seem to do two tags.
    Thanks Elisabeth.

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  20. I really enjoyed reading this article. Like you, I’ve heard these complaints a number of times and have had similar thoughts. At the end of the day though, I think the narrative itself if what decides the type of review I write for it in many ways. I seem to mix styles and ways of writing reviews or ‘non-reviews’ based on how I read the book and what was happening in my life at the time. Some are more academic and formal in approach because it felt right to write them that way. Others invoke such strong emotions and reactions from me as a reader that I can’t write a review that is so formal because it won’t allow me to express everything I need too.

    As a reader, I quite often use various book blogs and sites like goodreads to choose my next book to read. When I’m undecided about whether I want to buy a book or not, I visit these sites and read a sample of the top rating, middle rating and lowest rating reviews there and make up my mind based on that. I quite often choose books based on peoples reactions, and I know plenty of other readers who do the same thing as well for various reasons. A book could be beautifully written and the story could potentiall be brilliant, but with out evoking reactions from the reader its not really going to go many places.

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    • Thanks for visiting and commenting, Jess. I like your flexible approach to reviewing and I think it’s one, unconsciously, I’ve taken, too. As far as choosing books based on emotional reactions – yes! It’s an emotional journey I want to be taken on (and I wish I could write like that!). Not everyone responds to a book in the same way, but if it manages to arouse strong feelings, I’m ready to give it a go.

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  21. I completely agree! Sometimes I think my reviews are more like mini-essays inspired by the content of the book or movie I’ve read/seen. I don’t see the point in paraphrasing them – if you’re that interested, read or see them for yourself! But if the book or film has raised a interesting point, proposed an argument or presented a new concept – that’s what I’ll focus on and express my own interpretation and ideas.

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  1. The craft responses. Second up: Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, translated by Susan Bernofsky | Plume of Words
  2. Meanwhile: Other Bloggers’ Links | Iris on Books

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