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About Writing Right: The Blog


I was perusing some online writing forums the other day when I came across an interesting question. The writer wanted to know what responsibilities a book reviewer has while reviewing a particular work. Not many people had answered the question (in fact, only two), and one of them was way off base. So, of course, I had to chime in. Here's my take on the subject.

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Well, while one of your respondents may know Hindi (his self-description, not mine), he certainly doesn't understand English. You asked about the responsibilities a writer has while writing a book review; he responded by explaining how to critique another writer's work. Two different animals.


Fortunately, another respondent to your question, Rodney, hit the nail on the head. His response is on-point and accurate. To that I would add a few things.


First, a book reviewer must be inscrutably honest at all times and not let a book's subject matter influence or taint his or her review. That may sound simple, but it could be unnervingly difficult. I've reviewed some books in which I didn't care for the author's literary style, but the books themselves were quite good—informative and entertaining. So, I overlooked my personal biases in stylistic preference and gave those books positive reviews.


Another thing a reviewer should keep in mind: Never give out either five stars (or the highest rating) or one star (or the lowest rating) unless you have thought long and hard about it and are sure the book is either 1.) perfect and deserving of the highest rating you can possibly give it, or 2.) a dog with no redeeming value whatsoever. Keep in mind that some person's literary career is on the line every time you write a review; so, make sure it's an accurate reflection of the work and not your personal biases.


As an example, I wrote a book about former Chief Justice and governor of California Earl Warren that met with nearly perfect ratings on Amazon except for one obviously biased "reviewer" who said he couldn't read more than fifteen pages before throwing the book away. Obviously, when lawyers, judges, and legal scholars advocate making my Warren book "required reading" in law courses and others found it tremendously "informative" and "illuminating" (it contains never-before-published anecdotes about and photographs of Warren and his family), the naysayer had an ax to grind. Perhaps he was a competing author with his own book on Earl Warren garnering lower reviews. More likely, his misspelling of the word "analyses" as "analagizes" makes me think he was some whack job who used to stalk me online, creating poorly written fake reviews (including on Amazon) under several fictitious names in order to "ruin me" before I hired an attorney to "enlighten" him. In the end, he was forced to remove the phony reviews and pay all legal expenses. In either case, one bad review can taint an otherwise great book and an author's solid reputation. Remember that.


In another instance, I was commissioned to write a book about Roe v. Wade. I had to have a serious talk with myself as a responsible journalist before starting that one. You see, as a practicing Roman Catholic, I held at the time a dim view toward abortion. Yet, I was determined not to let my choice of language or other literary mechanisms persuade my readers to feel the way I did. So, I put my personal feelings aside and worked doubly hard to present the story as objectively and accurately as humanly possible by examining all sides of the issue. The resulting reviews unanimously showed my efforts worked. It was five stars all the way down the line … except for a single reviewer who knocked off one star because she said that, while the book was extremely informative and accurate, "the author has an obvious bias in favor of abortion, so I knocked off one star."


Oh, well. You can't win them all. But responsible book reviewers should keep in mind the tremendous amount of power they may have in swaying potential readers one way or the other. And that power just might make or break an author's career.


So, in answer to your question, assume Rodney has the right response and Mr. "I know Hindi" missed the boat by a mile. As a reviewer, a writer needs to be scrupulously honest, fair, and unbiased. Hopefully, if you're thinking about reviewing a book yourself, you'll keep that in mind. Until then ...


Smoke if you've got 'em.

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D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his column, "The Author-Ethicist," which runs weekly at Substack. Well, almost weekly. Occasionally weekly. Sometimes weekly. (Hey, he's only human!)

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