Writing reviews

I’ve just finished a stint as a guest reviewer of children’s books for the Sunday Age. I enjoyed the gig, although I think it took me a week or so to find the right voice for the reviews.

Being a reviewer raises some interesting ethical questions. If I hate a book do I say so? I don’t think so.

For starters, my opinion on a book is exactly that. A personal opinion. It carries no more weight than an opinion from anyone else. (In the case of children’s books it probably carries less weight than a child reviewer.)

I subscribe to the approach of Julian Burnside QC, who said (and I paraphrase) that if someone is brave enough to tackle an artistic endeavour, it isn’t his place to criticise their efforts. They deserve credit for having a go.

So I tried to bring that philosophy to my reviews. What do people want to know about a book? They want to know what it’s about. They’ll make their own mind up whether it’s any good.

For example, one of the books I was given to read (I don’t get to choose) was Part Three of a sci-fi series. Without reading the first two, it didn’t make much sense to me. Anyone who had read the preceding titles might have had a very different reading experience.

So how did I review it in the 150 words available? I stuck to the synopsis and the author’s successful track record. Hopefully that was fair.

On the other hand, if I loved a book, I tried to show this without going over the top.

At the end of the day, does the review really matter anyway? Most publicists would argue a bad review is better than no review because it’s the exposure that matters. I don’t know about that.

Depending on your authorly confidence, negative reviews can cut you to the bone. You just have to remember it’s one person’s opinion and hope that other people see things differently.

I can remember one sizzling, scathing review of a book from a very high profile Australian author. The review was so bad and so unprecedented for that author it made me want to read the book to see for myself whether it was so terrible. I did and it wasn’t.

So perhaps reviews aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. On the other hand, anything that encourages people to read has to be good, right? Any thoughts out there? Do you take reviews as gospel – or with a grain of salt?

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