Reviewing Books is Hard: On How and Why I Do It

Hello everyone, and welcome back!

So recently, I read a post by the Bookavid about a trend of outright mean reviews of horror books, and how that might contribute to the lack of success of the horror genre in YA. That got me to thinking about the responsibilities of reviewers and why reviewing books can be a tangled, scary mess of internal conflict that I like to lock in my mental basement like the Babadook.

The Babadook

Less scary than my ethical struggles, to be honest.

Reviewing can be easy…

Okay, let’s rewind, actually. Reviewing books can actually be really easy.

Reviewing books is very easy when the book is yet another dystopian or fantasy with a male and female lead who fall in love or get into a love triangle and basically everyone is white. Because we have about a bajillion of those kinds of books in YA!

So if I write up a review to the effect of “sorry friends, but this book about the same thing as all those other things really isn’t that good,” there is nothing I am depriving you of, as an audience. This is, in fact, what I am here for as a book reviewer and blogger: to provide informed opinions that entertain you (well, I’m working on that, anyway) and/or inform what you decide to check out.

(And hey, this isn’t about ego. If you come here because you like everything I can’t stand and that’s what guides your book-choosing decisions, then good for you! I’d do the same if I were you.)

…And helpful

And really, most of the time, I focus on that as my responsibility. Am I grounding my opinion in what was going on in the book, while also avoiding spoilers as much as possible? (That is tricky and not easy, but not the hardest thing.) Am I giving you a good enough sense of the book to decide whether or not you will be interested in it?

That’s why it’s important to me to give you the premise, let you know what kind of genre the book is and what representation it has in it, what tropes it plays into or how original it seems, and, ultimately, why I decided to use star ratings. Because these are the biggest shortcuts for me when I’m deciding what to read: does the premise sound cool? Do I love or hate the genre? Is this a type of character I want to see or am sick of? Is this a trope I love or can’t handle anymore? Does a reviewer I almost always agree/disagree with love/hate this book?

…But it can also be hard

So one of the first issues with putting out negative opinions on the Internet, regardless of how well-founded or not that they are and how big or small you are, is that anyone can read them. That includes the authors of these books, who I’m sure put a lot of work into creating the content they put out into the world.

I’ll be perfectly honest: other than avoiding being absolutely scathing and sarcastic in reviews, I’m not exactly sure how to deal with that eventuality. For me, it means not absolutely max-promoting a lot of my reviews, because I’m not trying to pull authors aside to tell them I thought their books were a 2.5/5. But I’m also still pretty small, and I think most of the people who come here are aware that I am more critical than most. I mean, I’ve kind of put that in the heading, haven’t I?

My best way of trying to make my reviews not personally about authors is my second chances series. If I didn’t like an author’s work but they’re coming out with something new, I try them again. I wasn’t into Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda like apparently most other people on the YA planet, but no one can say it’s a Becky Albertalli vendetta when I’ve preordered The Upside of Unrequited. 

Well, they can’t say that reasonably, anyway. (People say all kinds of things.)

…especially when representation is involved

But my job gets a lot more complicated again when I’m talking about what’s less represented. If there are only a few sci-fi releases over a few months, and I don’t like any of them, do I just hate sci-fi? Am I just telling you not to read sci-fi and contributing to the fact that there’s not a lot of sci-fi in YA?

I mean, I wanted to love The Diabolic because we were in space! But it was also less than half of the book it promised to be, with very little actual political intrigue and not much by way of memorable combat. And Ten Thousand Pieces of You was just middling for me, to the point where I never continued the series. (I recently was pretty happy with Defy the Stars by the same author, though.)

And that’s just when we’re talking about genre, before this gets potentially ethically tangled.

especially important representation

Because of course, there will also be the cases where there’s only one release in hundreds where the protagonist is trans—such as in the case of If I Was Your Girl, the kind of book I’d love to unreservedly recommend because of its representation and its intended message, but that I personally had reservations about because of the way it incorporated sexual assault.

And then there will be even trickier cases where there’s nothing necessarily bothering me about a book that has a unique and amazing type of representation, but I just don’t think the book is fully realized as a narrative or particularly great other than what it offers through its choice of protagonist(s). Over the past couple of months, I can remember having this issue with 10 Things I Can See From Here, which I really wanted to love but just fell short, or Queens of Geek, which built me up with a great premise and characters I rooted for, but didn’t provide a lot in terms of conflict or character development or setting, so I felt let down.

So Why Do I Do it?

Ultimately, I’m not ever exactly sure how to deal with the tangled ethics of reviewing when it comes to what’s less represented or even how to minimize my potential negative effect on authors while still maximizing my reach to my own readers. (In some ways, I choose to be small. But I can only buy most of my own review copies for so long.)

It’s still something I’m working through, just as I work through how to best write reviews for y’all. I write a couple of pretty long posts a week, and that’s not necessarily How to Do Blogging; most people would recommend more short posts. But I can only be the blog I’d want to see in the world—the type of content I tend to miss, now, with YouTube having so much dominance: long, thought-out written work.

The best I know how to do is to try to be honest with you, and I know that will come with my own biases, and I know that I will definitely screw up sometimes. (And screwing up on the Internet is forever, which is kind of horrifying.) But one of the actual best things about blogging is that you can learn a lot by doing it, and I’ve learned a lot from the community and through my own writing already.

…and if you made it to the end, I hope you’ve learned something here on this blog, too, whether it’s that you’ll love/hate a book, that I’m way beyond critical, that you’re still afraid of the Babadook, whatever.

Whatever it is, thanks for being here to learn it with me. And if you like, let me know down below what it is you’ve learned from book bloggers or book blogging! (And of course, I’ll see you Friday.)

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