A couple of weeks ago, in a post touching on the question of reviews, I said this:
Turning a static review into a debate strikes me as a good thing, particularly as regards putting the reviewer on notice that they will also have to defend the merits of their words.
Today, Self-Publishing Review provides us a perfect illustration of the benefits and pitfalls of this kind of conversation in the review of Nathan Charlton’s Terra Nova: The Search, by Levi Montgomery.
I will not directly address the story, which I haven’t read, or the review, which I cannot judge because I haven’t read the story. In this case, the reviewer looked unfavorably on the author’s work. But in responding to the review, the author uncovered the fact that the reviewer had failed to read the entire story:
I’m actually curious if you read the whole thing, because everything you mentioned happens in the first 50 pages (and most of it in the first 30).
The reviewer’s defense of this novel approach to reviewing was weak:
I actually read the Prologue and Part One, which would be something over seventy pages, and I neither stated not implied otherwise.
Which prompted the site’s editor, Henry Baum, to weigh in:
I didn’t know Levi Montgomery hadn’t read the whole book. And didn’t assume I had to include the criteria – “in order to review the book you have to read it.”
That it did not occur to the reviewer that he was both required by ethics to read the entire work, or at the very least disclose that he had not read the entire work, seriously undermines his credibility in every other regard. Charlton’s book may be just as Montgomery describes. But having deceived the reader with a lie of omission, and having defended that lie of omission by blaming the victims (readers) for assuming that Montgomery was required to read the entire work before shooting it full of indignant holes, is probably not the right way to go about establishing your credentials as a reviewer.
If the internet is about trust, and in particular about building trust with individual readers, then that cuts both ways. It’s not only the case that authors have a test to meet, but reviewers as well, and in both instances I think readers profit by this kind of interaction. Even if the conversation devolves, as it did in this case, more information is better. Precisely because this existed we now know more about Nathan Charlton and Levi Montgomery and Henry Baum, and we can use that information to make more informed decisions about our content choices.
— Mark Barrett
Henry Baum says
I should have vetted this review better. He turned in the review very quickly and I just assumed he was a quick reader. As editor who hadn’t read the novel, I didn’t know his review was based on only part of the book. But the nitpicking by the author doesn’t help his credibility because it comes off as complaining. He could have left it at: it sounds like you only read x number of pages and been more persuasive. Not a great situation all around.
Clearly neither the writer or the reviewer did themselves any favors, and I can imagine your incredulity at much of it. Still, I thank you for sponsoring the exchange, and I hope you’ll continue to do so.
There is a lot of infrastructure that needs to be built to support self-publishing as a legitimate platform. Authors need to do their share, reviewers need to do theirs. If people still need to up their game at this stage, that’s probably not surprising.
Structural criticism can contribute both positive and negative points. But i think it’s up to the writer how to take it. Attitude can determine. The key there is to take criticism as a motivation to refine your work of art. Thanks for the post!
Nathan Charlton says
Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten into so many specifics…but when I had a sneaking suspicion he hadn’t read the whole thing, I felt that was the only way to prove it. Did I push too far? Probably, but I tried to keep it civil, and I’m glad the conversation never turned personal.
I think the best thing would-be readers can do is read an excerpt from the reviewer’s books, read an excerpt from the writer’s books, and then use all of that information together to form their own opinion.
Taking criticism is tough. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was that you have to have enough ego to take the heat, but not so much that you can’t hear the truth.
I think you did a good job pinning the reviewer down on the fact that he didn’t read your whole story. That was a mistake on his part.
Your job, now that you’ve scored one for the home team, is to go back and read what he had to say and see if it makes sense. If it does, consider changes. If you’re done with that piece, think about how you can profit from his feedback in your next work.
Meryl Evans says
I’ve read books that started slow and sped up. I’ve read books that started strong and fell flat. Non-fiction is another story as some chapters can be weak and some strong. In fact, one book I read was excellent throughout… but the last chapter was a waste and should’ve been left off. Big difference.
Either read the whole book or disclose exactly how much you read. How would you feel if you bought a book based on a review that was incomplete? It’s not only about serving readers and authors, but also about your own reputation.
Agreed. It’s the reviewer’s responsibility to do the work, even when it’s not fun.
Every once in a while I think about all the blah movies that movie reviewers have to sit through — and they have to sit through many more individual films than a book reviewer will ever read books. If you’re going to be a professional at that kind of thing, you have to be willing to slog it out. Same goes for books.
Will Hindmarch says
Amen. I can understand, to a point, if a reviewer chooses not to keep reading because something in the material is that dissuasive, but the reviewer has got to let us know that’s the case. “I only read the first 50 pages,” he can write, “and I think that’s a pretty clear review of my relationship to the material.” I have no problem with a reviewer saying he couldn’t abide the material enough to finish it, provided he doesn’t expect us to regard his opinion has exactly *informed,* then, you know? Such a review would say as much about the reviewer.
But the job is to read the thing. The job is not just to form an opinion as fast as possible, right?
“The job is not just to form an opinion as fast as possible, right?”
Well, in the age of Twitter, where the average American lives head-down in a texting keypad, I’m sure there are plenty of people who would disagree — but I’m not one of them. 🙂
If you’re reviewing X, you read X. Even if it’s terrible. Then you explain why it’s terrible.