Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Why It's Critical to Review (and Read) Critically

Photo: quacktaculous
Do you want to be part of the publicity machine or do you want to add meaningful insights to conversations on books? 

This past weekend, Kelly, Julia, Janssen and I spoke on a KidLitCon* panel about the importance of reviewing critically. This doesn't necessarily mean writing negative reviews for books you don't like, but it means writing thoughtful reviews that discuss books in ways that are useful for readers. It means paying attention to things like character development, authenticity, voice, pacing, and dialogue. It means saying more than "This book was awesome!" or "This book was terrible!"

First of all, "reviews" that only spout about how great (or terrible) a book was are not very useful. If I'm reading a review, I want to know what it was that made a book great (or terrible). If it's a book you didn't enjoy, what didn't you like about it? Everyone has different tastes, so telling your readers why a book worked (or didn't work) is essential so that readers can tell if a book will work for them.

Gatekeepers are also reading reviews. I presented a session a couple of weeks ago at a state conference about using blogs for collection development and readers' advisory. Parents, teachers, librarians... they're looking to blog reviews to find books for their kids, their students, their collections. Explaining why you liked (or didn't like) a book is essential for gatekeepers who are looking to match books to readers.

Reviewing books critically creates actual content for your blog in a way that book buzz and giveaways do not. Writing critical reviews (and, yes, negative reviews) builds trust between a blogger and a reader. If readers know they can count on your honest opinion, they're more likely to take your opinions into account.

And yes, writing negative reviews is important, too. Be honest: do you actually LOVE everything that you read? Some books work for you better than others. Think about why that is. Let your readers know. Do it in a respectful way, point readers towards an appropriate audience for a book (ex. "I didn't like it, BUT I think super-fans of Twilight would totally dig it", etc.) and nobody's feelings have to be hurt.

Your blog is your blog. Nobody can tell you what to write or how to review. But you have a platform and, like it or not, that platform comes with responsibility. If you're writing down your thoughts on books just for yourself, why put it online? Obviously, you want people to read what you're writing and if they're not finding useful content, they might just stop reading.

So that's one part of what I wanted to talk about.

The other thing is reading blogs critically. 

I'm not writing this to knock anyone's blog or to say that every blog has to be a certain way**. It's your blog. You do what you want. You choose your choices.

Blog readers must also make choices. Just because a blogger has thousands of followers does not necessarily guarantee that she is creating valuable content. Think about why you read certain blogs. How are they useful to you? Do they put new books on your radar? Do they write thoughtful, useful reviews? Do they review books in creative ways? Do they provide information on books that are outside your chosen genres? Do they introduce you to backlist titles that you missed?***

It's fine to read blogs that are just part of the publicity machine. I do it. I follow some blogs not because they provide literary analysis but because they're good sources for keeping new and upcoming books on my radar.

I just think it's important to be aware of the difference.

There are so many excellent bloggers in our vibrant KitLitosphere Community... bloggers writing thoughtful, meaningful content... It would be a shame to fill up your blog reader with blogs that aren't actually that useful after all.

* I was there virtually! We're so tech-savvy!
** I'm also not writing this to say that my reviews are completely awesome and that I have the right to judge everyone else's reviews. I strive to review critically and I hope my reviews are useful, but I certainly don't have the right to judge anyone else!
*** And now that you're asking yourself these questions, I hope you will continue to read my blog. If not, I understand. ;)