Ask the Expert!

QUESTION #3 from Kirk Hammond

Q. If a book doesn’t exactly match your preferred genre, how do you remain objective while reviewing, or is subjectivity inherent in all reviews?

The reason I ask is, after receiving certain reviews (not yours), I felt they assigned the wrong reviewer. Not that I disagreed with what they wrote, I just felt they paired my book with a person who would’ve never enjoyed it in the first place.

A: Kirk, great question—and one that I’ve been asked many times over the years from more than a few disgruntled writers who have received less than stellar professional reviews. While I can’t speak for other reviewers, I will say that I try very hard not to bring any of my reading preferences or prejudices to the table when reviewing a novel. I try to be what I call a universal reader—and that is a reader that can sit down with a book, any book, and experience it as purely as possible, without any personal baggage to taint the read. There are two significant reasons for this:

1. I understand how much hard work goes into not only writing a novel but publishing and marketing it as well. I know writers who have spent close to a decade      writing and editing a single novel. Judging a novel strictly on my biases as a reader would be completely unfair to the writer and to his or her readers.

2. I’ve read some highly unconventional stories in my career—Rigor Amortis, a zombie erotica anthology released in 2011 comes immediately to mind—as well as a ton of hybridized novels that are difficult to categorize. And while I probably wouldn’t seek out and read some of these titles as a regular reader, I’ve found that, because I approached these novels with an open mind, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by many of these titles and absolutely blown away by a few of them. Your novel, Kirk, is a great example of this. I described Opposable as “equal parts drug and alcohol-fueled road novel, bizarro science fiction, and apocalyptic thriller.” Can I see a reader expecting a conventional SF adventure not enjoying your novel? Absolutely! And that’s fine—a novel that I described as “the literary equivalent of Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, and Douglas Adams, all dropping acid during a pulp horror convention” definitely isn’t for everyone. But a reviewer panning it on the basis of personal preference and not something related to the actual writing—strength of story, depth of character, plot intricacy, etc.—that just seems wrong.

Also, I feel like I need to add this. While I approach every novel with an open mind, I do bring 25 years of reviewing experience with me—and that includes understanding the various genres’ histories and evolutionary tracts, reader expectation for a specific category, and current trends impacting fiction and genre fiction. So, for me, it’s not just about the reading experience but also how that release stacks up against other comparable contemporary and historical titles. Is it completely formulaic and uninspired? Is it a watered-down retelling of a classic backlist title? Or is it pushing the boundaries of the genre, exploring new storylines and characters?

I suppose the bottom line is this, Kirk. Reviews are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. Your novel could land in the hands of a reviewer who understands what you’re attempting to do and loves the audacity of it all, or it could find a reviewer who, because they’re limited by their own biases, ends up hating a novel for all the wrong reasons.

The review should never be about the reviewer—it should always be about the novel.

QUESTION #2 from Lona Manning

Q: It seems that in the old days (Jane Austen’s time), book reviewers pretty much gave the whole plot away. What are your thoughts about revealing plot points?

[Also], my pet peeve is when a reader picks up a book, doesn’t like the genre, and writes a scathing review. For example, trashing a romance novel because they prefer thrillers. Do you have a pet peeve about book reviews?

A: Lona, excellent questions. First off, I agree with you about negative reader reviews based purely on personal preference. If a horror aficionado picks up a Regency romance and hates it, that reader should understand that posting a review isn’t fair to the author or the writer’s audience. That one bad review—however silly—can negatively impact a book’s sales, which directly affects a writer’s income.

They should also understand that a novel isn’t like ordering a fast-food burger made especially for them—hold the pickle, hold the lettuce—it’s a work of art that a writer spent months if not years creating. The fact that some readers get upset enough to post a scathing review because a fantasy novel doesn’t contain enough dragons, for example, says more about them than it does the author.

As far as professional reviews go (PW, Kirkus, BlueInk, etc.), every organization that I’ve ever worked for has understood not only my categories of expertise but also the kinds of books I prefer to review. In my case, I consider myself a universal reader and will happily read and review anything. I have zero “pet peeves” when it comes to the kinds of storylines I review—although I will say that I get excited when I read a story that is innovative in some way. After reviewing 10,000+ novels, some storylines can get a bit, ahem, predictable.

My answer to your question about revealing plot points in a review is a bit complicated. So, I got into reviewing through an editorial gig with B&N back in the ‘90s. My mission was to seek out noteworthy novels and promote them in newsletters that contained reviews from myself and B&N book buyers. If I didn’t like a novel, I would simply not include it in the newsletters. The reviews that I wrote contained critical analysis, yes, but ultimately they were meant to get readers excited enough to purchase the featured titles. Writing those reviews was a great education for me because I had to reveal enough plot to hook the reader but not so much that all of the glorious plot twists and turns were revealed.

And that’s pretty much standard procedure with today’s pro reviews. Reviews contain a brief synopsis but generally no real spoilers. I’m a big believer of keeping the reading experience as pure as possible and spoiling someone’s experience by revealing a particularly jaw-dropping twist seems wrong.

I hope this helps, Lona. Thanks for the questions!

QUESTION #1 from Thomas Duffy

Q: My question in response to your Facebook post is this: Could a book with a lot of powerful emotions be well-reviewed to the point of receiving a starred review under BlueInk guidelines even if the book had a few typos or technicalities? If your critic found his or her self moved by the story, could he/she give the book a starred review or does the critic have to abide by the academic standards for book production?

While I have yet to get a starred review, I found Kirkus “got” the emotions with my book One Love but BlueInk missed the emotion to focus on technicalities. On the other hand, BlueInk was kinder and more receptive to the emotion in another one of my books To Never Know.

Are there any rules where emotions can be more important to the assessment than technicalities? Or will it always be a combination?

A: Thomas, great questions. I work for both Kirkus and BlueInk—as well as PW and other review sites—and I review both traditionally published and self-published releases so hopefully you’ll find my response to your questions at least a little helpful.

I’ve been reviewing for around 25 years, and I’m an instructor in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program as well, so I’ve spent the last few decades essentially dissecting and analyzing a wide variety of storylines in every genre category and subcategory imaginable. I consider myself a universal reader—I will read anything with a completely open mind and focus on the reading experience. That said, I’ve found that every novel—regardless of category—needs to have certain narrative elements to create a positive reading experience (and that can certainly encompass critical acclaim and/or commercial success). I call it my Hierarchy of Needs pyramid. (Back in 2018, I wrote an article for Writer’s Digest examining this pyramid. Here’s the link if you’re interested).

So, the base level of this pyramid is Readability. If a novel isn’t readable, it’s all but guaranteed to fail—and not only get a poor review but also do poorly commercially. Narrative fluidity is absolutely essential to a story. You mentioned typos. A few typos are not a big deal if they don’t impact this fluidity. I find errors in traditional published releases often so don’t feel like your novel needs to be error-free. It doesn’t. Here’s the thing. I keep track of every error in the novels I review. I keep count in a notebook. If a novel has a handful of errors, it’s forgivable and not an issue because it hasn’t impacted my reading experience. But I’ve reviewed novels with hundreds, possibly even thousands, of errors. I’ve reviewed novels with errors on every page, in almost every paragraph. I’ve reviewed a novel with a grammatical error on the cover in the title! So, yes, grammatical errors can matter—and can ruin a reading experience no matter how strong the story is.

You also mentioned powerful emotions. Referencing my pyramid, that ties in with my third level, Character Development. Emotional connectivity is essential if you want readers to enjoy and remember your novel. Without these emotions, and this intimate connection to your characters, you have a cast of cardboard characters that readers will almost immediately forget. This depth of emotion, this understanding and identifiability of your characters, is particularly significant in romance categories.

So, Thomas, to (finally) answer your question, if I reviewed a novel that featured powerful emotional storylines and had characters so well developed that I felt emotionally connected to them, I would definitely note that aspect in the review. Emotional connectivity is a noteworthy accomplishment and many novels never attain this level. But if the overall novel didn’t achieve readability—i.e. had so many typos that it negatively impacted the reading experience—there’s no way that I could give it a positive review.

As a final thought, I’ve read more than a few novels over the years with brilliant premises and impressively original storylines, but they’ve failed because the writing didn’t achieve narrative clarity and fluidity, be it because of an inundation of errors or just plain sloppy writing. They weren’t readable. Think about this: how many bestsellers have you read that were predictable and formulaic but written so well that they were virtually unputdownable page-turners? (I’ve read a lot of these kinds of novels!) Readability isn’t everything—but without readability, you’ve got nothing.—Paul Goat Allen

Our expert, Paul Goat Allen, has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He has reviewed over 10,000 titles across a wide range of categories.