I wasn’t paying attention, but there has been some sort of brouhaha online about reviews on Goodreads. Apparently someone on there posted a negative review of a book, and a friend of the author’s who responded in a less-than-professional manner, causing a stunning flame war on Twitter (the author herself apparently was very gracious when she finally responded to the whole discussion).
I’m not sure what the big deal is here. Reviews on Goodreads or Amazon are reader opinions. As a librarian neither of those are places I would go to decide whether to buy a book for my collection, and as a reader, well, one bad review(or one good review) on Goodreads or Amazon is something I take with a grain of salt. Our philosophy here is that the individual reader’s taste is personal. Not everyone will have the same taste. And that’s okay.
But out of all of this craziness came this post by Maggie Stiefvater. Maggie Stiefvater, if you don’t know, is a bestselling YA author who has written a series called The Wolves of Mercy Falls. Last year she wrote an article for Knowledge Quest, the journal of the American Association of School Librarians, about the responsibilities of a YA author toward her teenage audience, which I thought was pretty good.
Apparently this Goodreads debacle caused her to step up and inform her readers that
A review is an unbiased, careful look at a book — basically it is a little academic paper. It involves an itty-bitty thesis on your opinion of the book, surrounded by tiny supporting sentences describing the strengths and weaknesses of said book. Every month, dozens upon dozens of these reviews come out in professional journals. Because they’re fair and thorough, they’re prized and respected in the publishing world.
I’m not going to quibble with everything she says here. A review SHOULD BE a careful look at a book. But it will never be unbiased and it shouldn’t be. At MonsterLibrarian.com we have reviewers who enjoy and are knowledgeable about extreme horror and bizarro. Those are the people we ask to review extreme horror and bizarro, because they like reading it, have experience with it, and understand what it means to write well in those genres. If you write in those genres, be glad that we have those (awesome) people on staff.
Ms. Stiefvater’s post suggests that ONLY the reviews that appear in professional journals matter. I strongly disagree that a review must be a “little academic paper” with a thesis and supporting statements, though. If that were the case, I can guarantee academic and professional journals would not be publishing “dozens and dozens” of reviews(Also, her publisher wouldn’t have sent me a copy of Forever for review). Just out of curiosity, I used the INSPIRE database Academic Search Premier (INSPIRE is Indiana’s virtual library) to find some “little academic papers” that have been published about Ms. Stiefvater’s own books. Reviews of her books have appeared in well-respected journals, including The Horn Book, Booklist, School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. I’ve read all of these at some point, read some of them regularly and have great respect for the work they do.
But many reviews are mostly plot summaries. This is from the review of Shiver from Publishers Weekly. Eighty percent of it described the plot- only part of the first sentence and the last sentence provide an evaluation of the “strengths and weaknesses” of the book.
Stiefvater leaves the faeries oí Lament and Ballad for a lyrical tale… Stiefvater skillfully increases the tension throughout; her take on werewolves is interesting and original while her characters are refreshingly willing to use their brains to deal with the challenges they face.
Where’s the thesis and its multiple supporting sentences?
Here’s a review, this time of Linger, from the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. Once again, a majority of the review was a plot summary. Here’s the reviewer’s conclusion:
The sequel is as enjoyable as its predecessor but might benefit from more action. Both stories are basically love stories with supernatural elements. The new characters in Linger keep the story interesting, and readers are unlikely to sense an opening in the ending for a third book.
And here’s a review from Booklist, for Forever.
Once again, a large chunk was devoted to a plot summary. Here’s the part that actually commented on the book.
The parallel love stories contrast beautifully with each other: Grace and Sam are sweetly innocent together, constant and enduring; while Isabel and Cole’s relationship is more knowing, with sharp edges and an uncertain future. Stiefvater’s emotional prose is rich without being melodramatic, and she clearly shares her fans’ love of these characters.
She clearly shares her fans’ love of her characters? Is that supposed to be a strength or a weakness?
If it matters, I’m happy to share the citations, in proper format, on request.
MonsterLibrarian.com isn’t Booklist, and doesn’t pretend to be. We strive to write honest reviews, and to remember the audience we’re writing for. Every one of us is a volunteer and many of us devote hours each week to writing reviews that are so much more than what you see above, that our reviewers put their hearts and minds into to provide librarians and readers with reviews and information they aren’t going to find anywhere else. Kirkus Reviews may produce 5,000 reviews a year, but how many books are there out there with authors who will never make their cut? Ms. Stiefvater is one of the lucky few who can count on getting reviewed in the journals that libraries and bookstores use to choose the books they order. Not everyone gets that chance. But just because their review didn’t appear in a professional review journal doesn’t mean that the book isn’t worth reviewing or that those of us who genuinely strive to serve a professional or reading audience matter less. As you can see above, even the reviews written for professional journals don’t quite meet her vision. Most authors who wait for a “little academic paper” complete with thesis and supporting sentences are waiting for Godot.
But authors, readers, and librarians looking for honest reviews of horror and paranormal fiction and the related genres, or scary stories for kids, will find that here.