Why I Can’t Write Book Reviews – My History as the Worst Reader

NOTE: Reading back over this post, I’m not very happy with it. I don’t hate it enough to delete it – since I do want an answer on hand for when people ask why someone who writes books doesn’t read or review them with any regularity. If you’re here for the quick explanation, here is the point of this post, stripped of its directionless anecdotes:

Whenever I read, a combination of my over-active imagination and lack of focus causes my brain to invent my own story, one which usually diverges dramatically from the actual text. For this reason, my reading of a fictional work is usually full of fabrications that would have nothing to do with another reader’s experience of the same work – because they don’t actually exist in the text. Therefore, even when I think I’ve focused sufficiently on the text itself, I hesitate to pass judgment on on a book for fear of misinforming others.

That’s it.

Only read on if you want to hear about how unfocused and annoying I was as a kid.

While filming my Pride Month TBR video, I made a joke about how good I am at pretending to have read books. It was meant as a throwaway line but, as I tried to proceed with my June reading, I started to remember, with creeping horror, why I spent my school years fabricating book reports. I was a such a bad reader and such a compulsive storyteller that, no matter how good the book, it was always, always more fun for me to make up a story than absorb one. I would start reading, get as far as the basic premise and aesthetic, and then just run wherever my imagination went, leaving the text itself forgotten.

There were a few – and I mean precious few – books that cast a strong enough spell on my brain to keep me engaged in the actual text through to the end. In fantasy, these were J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Suzanne Collins’ Gregor the Overlander, and to a lesser extent, The Song of the Lioness and Protector of the Small by Tamora Pierce – although with Pierce’s books, I think my brain took a lot of liberties that deviated from the words on the page. Weirdly, the only other books that ever engaged me were historical wilderness/survival stories about kids roughly my own age – A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, and Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich being the ones I remember vividly.

Evslin is still my king of weird mythology retellings though. Come at me.

I also went through what must have been an insufferable phase during which I would get actively angry at books for not handling their ideas ‘as well as I would have’ within the first two chapters. Christopher Paolini’s Eragon and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books were casualties of this narcissistic nonsense. Simply because I enjoyed edgy, gory (incidentally, just as ‘inaccurate’) Greek mythology by Bernard Evslin, my view of the myths was the right one and everyone else was stupid for enjoying a fun kids’ book. In the case of Paolini, I think I was also in fits of jealous rage that Theonite hadn’t been picked up by a major publisher and turned into the next phenomenon. (Bear in mind that at the time, Theonite was the angry scribbling of a thirteen-year-old nerd that read like the angry scribbling of a thirteen-year-old nerd). Boy, was I charming as an adolescent.

But I digress.

It has always been difficult for me to read without my brain shooting off the page in a hundred different directions. 99% of the time, I can only find immersion in someone else’s story through TV, movies, and the occasional audiobook. This is not only because I am more responsive to sound than text but because, even if my mind does wander, it usually ends up reengaged because the story proceeds without my effort – and reading really is an effort for me. Ask my kindergarten teachers, who had the grueling task of trying to teach me. I would do anything to avoid sounding out the sentence at the bottom of the page, including trying to derail the session by directing my teacher’s attention to the book’s illustration and telling my own story based on the pictures. Often, I recall getting annoyed at my teacher for not simply accepting my story, which was a valid explanation of the illustrations, fun for me, and also obviously better than whatever the boring words said. You see the problem here?

From day one as a reader, I have had a terrible tendency to extrapolate before I absorb.

At one point, in 7th grade, I wanted to read Twilight for a book report but decided against it when I realized that it would be impossible to fake a report for such a popular book. I would actually have to read the whole thing, which was out of the question.

Later in my childhood, this evolved into a habit of fabricating book reports based on cover art and genre in lieu of reading the book. By the time I hit fourth grade, I had turned faking book reports into a game, just to see how many I could get away with, a practice I took with me all the way to high school. This exercise in laziness doubled as validation in the form of ‘Ha, see, I can totally make up a plot that my smart teacher believes was conceived by a published author. I am the next J. K. Rowling! Take that, Paolini.’

This inability to follow the text of the story is something I thought I outgrew during college, since I never struggled with course reading and research. But, as it turns out, seeking out and piecing together information is not the same as engaging in a story. If anything, my ability to infer a larger narrative from small, separate pieces of information was great for research papers.

It wasn’t until I set myself the task of reading and then reviewing a very modest number of books for Pride Month that I realized that I still have a serious problem processing other peoples’ fiction. I still let my own ideas run away from the text itself. So, why is this a problem when it comes to reviewing? Well…

Enter my experience as an author.

Now, I am in full support of the oft-repeated assertion that reviews are for readers, not authors.

However, being an author, looking at my own positive and negative reviews has prompted me to think more critically about the function of book reviews. When I get upset about a review (as every author does at some point), my approach is to take a few steps back and remind myself why positive, negative, and lukewarm reviews are important to any community of readers. Part of the calming process is that reminder: reviews are for readers, not authors.

The corollary here is that reviews – including the negative ones – help readers figure out whether or not they will actually enjoy a book. For example, a negative review that bemoans a slow build can attract readers who enjoy a slow burn while repelling readers who were just going to DNF or end up leaving a negative review of their own. Bearing that in mind, I’ve actually mellowed out about most of the critical reviews of my book, accepting them as valuable communication between readers.

But then there are those reviews…

The ones that make claims about things that aren’t in the book, that seem to describe a story you didn’t write. Those are the worst. As an author, at least, they feel the worst.

I honestly experience more distress reading a positive review that misunderstands the story than I do seeing someone who understood the book articulating why they didn’t like it. At least that second guy got what I was going for. I’ve connected to him as a human, through language, achieving the most basic goal of storytelling.

There is hardly anything more demoralizing than looking at a review and going “Wait… what book did this person even read? How could you read the book that I wrote and get that out of it?” Well,

I know how.

That reviewer who missed the point, the plot, and all the themes? Who seems to have imagined a book you didn’t write? Who projected their own imagination directly onto the work and thus, can’t see it for its actual contents? It’s me! I am that reader!

I obviously have no problem with these people reading books, or I would have to glue my own eyes shut. Books are for everyone, and people are free to interpret (or misinterpret) them however they want. I do, however, take issue with them ‘reviewing’ books. Not because it will hurt the author’s feelings; authors’ feelings are going to get hurt, no matter how courteous the community. You grow a thick skin or you stop publishing.

But, coming back to that original assertion – reviews are for readers, not authors – a review by a reader like me is terrible for other readers!

I’m sorry, Percy Jackson. I never did give you a fair shake.

Good book reviewers are a gift, and there are so many ways to be a good book reviewer. Regardless of their personal style, most of these reviewers share an ability to describe three things:

  1. The contents of a book
  2. Their emotional response to those contents
  3. How and why 1 & 2 affected each other

A good reviewer probably knows that they didn’t have nice experience reading The Fellowship of the Ring because they don’t like high fantasy, but that they did like Aragorn because they have a soft spot for rugged loners. This ability to articulate their experience and the way it related to the text is useful to others because it might help a reader figure out whether someone with their preferences might enjoy a book.

This isn’t to say that all reviews must follow the format above in order to be good (‘goodness’ being such a subjective quality, anyway). I’m just using this particular model to explain why my attempts at book reviews are objectively bad.

My problem is that I am so terrible at processing the text that my brain skips ahead to 2 and it’s all downhill from there. Ultimately, 2 overtakes 1 and 3 to the point of 1 partially disappearing and 3 being useless. The only information I am left with resembling a review is that this book gave me an idea for a different book, which is not available to you, the reader, because it only exists in my head.

This is why I don’t see my experience of a book being valuable to anyone, even if I could explain it. For instance, does a prospective reader of Eragon really benefit from the knowledge that some teenager is jealous of Christopher Paolini’s success and could have written the story SOOOO much better? Does a prospective reader of The Lightning Thief benefit from the rantings of a nerd who thinks they know more about Greek mythology than Rick Riordan? Would you like to read a review of the Golden Compass consisting mostly of the daydreams of a zoned-out nine-year-old? I’m guessing not.

Anyway, all this to say, I don’t think I should review books, because it is more likely than not that I will misinform readers. Maybe bending the truth about a book doesn’t seem like a grievous offense to the average person, but as an author, I definitely prefer that people have accurate information on books. And I have to assume that readers who invest their time (and often money) into books would also prefer accurate reviews.

So, does a reader like me have anything to add to book discussion?

Maybe sometimes.

Sometimes, I find an outstanding feature of a book that I want to dissect. The action in Mask of Shadows, the language use in A Taste of Honey… They’re mostly reflections on the craft of writing that are divorced from my experience of the larger story.

So, that’s what I’ll be doing for my June wrap-up: looking at little pieces that drew my attention. As far as things that enjoy that might have value to someone, that’s all I’ve got.

And you know what else I enjoy?

Making book lists, like this one of 25 Asian fantasy books I compiled while promoting The Sword of Kaigen. I had a ton of fun putting that together, based on real information that I got about the books from properly attentive readers. In the future, I think I’ll use this blog to make more lists in a similar vein, offering simple, objective information on titles, rather than my own weird misinterpretations.

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