Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Book Reviews: The Good, the Bad and the Really Really Ugly

Downtown Chula Vista, as it was

My first professionally published piece of writing was a book review, and this is how it came about: back in the 1960s, the Chula Vista Star-News, a heavily subscribed twice-weekly broadsheet newspaper serving a community of about 30,000 people, posted an announcement that they were looking for a book reviewer. My mother saw the announcement, mailed the editor a copy of a book report I wrote (actually, this bears a striking similarity to how I ended up in the US Army, but that's another story), and it was not long until the report was published and I received an invitation from co-publisher Lowell Blankfort to visit him at his home in bucolic Bonita. My father had to drive me up a winding hill, past the exclusive and isolated houses to Lowell's estate near the summit. There, he officially informed me I had been hired as the Star-News' book reviewer, that I was expected to review 3-5 books weekly, and that he was sure that this experience (i.e., no pay) would greatly expand my abilities as a writer and journalist. Then he threw open his cupboard, which contained review copies of books sent by publishers all over the country, and told me to take all I could carry. That weekly appearance in the newspaper brought me some notoriety at school, sometimes helped me with my English teachers, and taught me about writing on a strict schedule in a limited space. By the time I gave up the job a few years later, I had reviewed more than 600 books.

Fast-forward to now. The Star-News is still published, Chula Vista has a population of 250,000, but the newspaper is free and no longer has a book section. Most community newspapers these days have either vanished or become free publications, supported by a mostly unpaid staff and cheap rates to local advertisers. Book reviews, once seen as a social imperative, have become a luxury they can no longer support because book reviews generate no revenue. This is also true in larger newspapers where once stand-alone book review sections have been either incorporated into "Lifestyles" or done away with entirely. In the cutthroat world of newspaper economics the bean-counters who call the shots point out that books generally appeal to an older and more elite readership, not a group they want to consider in this demographic-driven age. When the San Francisco Chronicle drastically cut its book review section, the move brought a paltry 400 complaints.

At one time, most books carried snippets from newspaper book reviews on the front and/or back covers. If it was a mystery, you could almost be certain it would carry a blurb from the San Diego Union, because that newspaper once had an entire section of mystery and detective book reviews by veteran mystery writer Robert Wade. Now, you're much more likely to find a cover blurb from another writer or a reader with name recognition who was given an advance copy. Now, it's rare that any book not written by a best-selling or "celebrated" writer will get a mention in the atrophied and increasingly irrelevant newspapers of the 21st Century. When people read a book review these days it's usually from one of the numerous book-oriented blogs, some website like Library Thing or Good Reads, or that bastion of literary good taste and erudite opinions...Amazon.

I've seen many people write that they will not buy a book on Amazon till it has at least five reviews. However, it is my experience that before I can use a review on Amazon (or any other other site for that matter) to evaluate a book, I have to evaluate the reviews themselves. Sadly, most of the reviews published are not worth the electrons they are written with. Thus we get...
  • "I don't know why I bought this book, but I wouldn't buy it again. Otherwise it was okay, I guess."
  • "Best book ever! But since I have to write at least twenty words before the review can be posted on"
  • "Hated it, and if you don't like that don't ask me to write a review again."
  • "As I read this book I imagined the author, if you want to call him that, flouncing around the basement of his mother's home in his pyjamas, from time to time coming to his computer like a butterfly to a flower, typing another precious word, taking a sip from his mug of hot coco, then then returning to his prancing as he waits for mommy to tell him his waffles are done."
  • "I liked this book, but I don't know why. I think you'll like it too."
  • "I'm giving this book one star because I couldn't download it in my country."
  • "I bought this book but never got around to reading it."
The demise of newspapers and the rise of the Internet has democratized the book review. While that means giving a soapbox to every screwball, knucklehead or nutter with an ax to grind or a character to assassinate, or who just want to see their names in print, it also means that many intelligent, insightful and well-spoken people now have a venue to express their opinions about the books they love, the books they hate, and the books they love to hate. If you can disregard the bottom-feeding reviewers and the sock-puppets of poor writers (they are obvious), then reading the worthwhile reviews gives you something not possible back in the age of newspapers--a consensus of opinion. Personally, I like that the Internet has freed me from the tight limits of the newspaper column, and I can say a bit more about books that deserve the effort.

In 50 years of publishing in print and on the Internet I've written thousands of book reviews. I don't hold up my own efforts as a template to anyone, but, like everyone else in the world, I tend to measure others by my own yardstick. I try to put into my own book reviews what I would hope to see in the reviews of others:
  • What is the basic theme of the book, or what is the author trying to say?
  • What genre is the book?
  • Without giving spoilers, what is the book about?
  • What's interesting about the setting and/or characters?
  • What insights can you give me about the book or its author?
  • Why did you like (or not like) the book?
  • Is this book part of a series, and how does it measure up?
  • How well written is the book?
  • Was the book a satisfying read?
  • What audience will this book appeal to?
  • Do you recommend it?
Of course, that's just a partial list and not every point is going to be appropriate for every book. Just as you hold a history book to a different set of standards than you would an historical novel, so different books require different approaches when reviewing them. For example, my review of Brian Ritt's excellent Paperback Confidential is very different than reviews I gave to Lawrence Block's Grifter's GameDavid Goodis' Night Squad or Say It With Bullets by Richard Powell, all books written by authors profiled in Brian's indispensable book. However, no matter the book, no matter the genre, no matter the author, when a reader finishes one of my reviews, he will have a pretty good idea what the book was all about, why I liked a book or not, and whether he wants to invest the time, energy and money to read it for himself. And that's nothing less than what I want when I read someone else's review.

No comments:

Post a Comment