A few thoughts on reviewing books

A handful of years ago I read the first three books of Glen Cook’s “Black Company” series. I very much enjoyed the first one, thought the second was okay, and loved the third. Since then I have been repeatedly lambasted for daring to think of his words as anything other than absolutely masterful. So, here I quote my reply to the latest person to take me to task for this:

Okay, I’ve tried to get these two things across so many times before in various milieus; I’ll try again.

1. I do NOT dislike Cook’s style because it “breaks the rules.” There are absolutely plenty of authors who can break “rules” of writing to brilliant effect. Those rules are never meant to be absolute; they’re guidelines to help those who aren’t skilled enough at breaking them. I dislike certain elements of Cook’s style simply because they break the immersion for me in various ways. I really don’t care if he did it deliberately–it makes the book less enjoyable for me. I’m entitled to feel that way.

To put this in context, there are some things Cook does that any early-level writing teacher will tell you not to do. I don’t dismiss them because of this–I dismiss them because they annoy the hell out of me. (It’s also worth noting that I don’t actually dislike Cook’s style–I just have some quibbles with it; it’s the repeated beratings I’ve received from people that have caused me to misremember it as disliking his style. It’s also interesting that the least little quibble with his style results in people believing I don’t like his style no matter how much good stuff I say about it, because they react so defensively to those little quibbles. Argh.) To quote briefly from the first review:

He also props up his dialogue with a lot of unnecessary stuff. It seems like everyone squeaks, rumbles, and whispers their way through conversations, and it gets tiring after a while.

No matter how often people tell me this was deliberate on his part, I’ll still find it annoying. But to continue with that reply…

2. I review books. I’m not here to convince people not to read books I don’t like or to convince them to read books I do. I’m here to provide enough information within the context of my experience and opinions that readers can make their own decisions and find their own good books. If someone comes along, reads this review, says, “what the hell’s she talking about? That sounds fine to me,” buys the book, and enjoys it, then I have done my job.

However, I’m not the sole person on the planet who’s going to find those elements of style annoying; I’m hardly that unique. It’s valuable to note them so that those people who wouldn’t like them can avoid the books.

Therefore I really don’t care how many people tell me they love those elements of style or that Cook did them deliberately–you are absolutely entitled to that opinion, and I’m very glad you enjoyed his books. But I’m not going to suddenly declare, “wow, I think he’s amazing after all!” or remove information from my reviews that I think is useful to people.

I think the problem is that too many people think reviews are about convincing people to buy a book or not buy a book (or other item). I don’t believe that. It’s about providing information that will allow a reader to decide for themselves whether they’d want an item.

There is no objective evaluation of a book’s quality or worth, as much as everyone would like there to be. If there was, you could simply look at sales figures, or feed the text through a computer, and declare it to be good or bad. Even major editors at major publishing houses disagree on which books are good or bad, and the public almost always disagrees–witness the books that sell like mad but are reviled by anyone claiming to know quality when they see it. Therefore, the only thing a reviewer can do–whether they admit it or not–is to provide as much information as possible so that people with different tastes can make their own evaluations.

Here’s the really funny thing about all this. I’ve gotten figuratively beaten on for the least negative I’ve said regarding Cook’s work so many times that I was surprised to go back, re-read my reviews, and note how much I loved most of the trilogy. I actually said many very good things about it–but I’ve gotten so sick of being told how dare I not see his every word as masterful that I’ve come to remember his work as less appealing than it was. It’s a shame that some of his fans are so rabid that they can actually put at least one person who appreciated his work off of his work.

I’ve also noted an interesting (and contradictory) combination of beliefs: It seems it’s the same people who see no value in the guidelines of writing (I’m going to make a conscious effort not to call them “rules,” even though that’s the popular term, because I don’t see them as absolute rules) who also believe in absolute values of “good” vs. “bad” writing–or to be more precise, that the writing they like is absolutely good and the writing they don’t like is absolutely bad. If one is relative, then the other has to be relative. I really do believe that if there were any truth to the idea that writing quality was an absolute, independent of the opinions of the reader, then you could feed it into a computer to find out if it was good or bad–and that would imply that there were absolute “rules” that dictated writing quality.

Anyway, that’s my rant for today. Maybe tomorrow I’ll catch you up on why there was such a long break in posts.

Edited to add: Just as food for thought, here are the links to the three reviews:

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