Tuesday, December 19, 2006

On books and opinions

If you peruse the links in the sidebar, you'll see I'm listed as a reviewer with the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance. I've also participated in the FIRST tours. But I've been thinking about this and I've realized that I'm not real comfortable calling myself a book reviewer. This is not to disparage what the CFBA and FIRST are doing -- these are good ways to get the word out about new books. Bonnie Calhoun (CFBA) and Mimi Pearson (FIRST) put a lot of work into these efforts and deserve our appreciation. But over the last few months I've really begun to think about what it is I'm doing when I write about a book, and if it's appropriate to call it 'reviewing.' Maybe this is just semantics, except I think semantics matters. The words we use and how we use them are important -- if I didn't believe this, I wouldn't spend all this time writing and editing words.

When I think of a book review, I think of something more than a book report, or a brief synopsis, or even a strong opinion. I think of something that examines a book for what it is, what it aspires to be, and how well it accomplishes those things. A book review often places the book in question within the context of its genre and subject. This kind of reviewing seems to call for a depth of knowledge about literature that I don't possess. A reviewer should be able to express an informed opinion about the book. (A subject for a different day -- the lack of informed opinion in public discourse.) If you want examples of what I mean try such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, which I subscribe to, or The New York Times Review of Books (I'm not a regular reader of it, though).

So I've come to the conclusion that I'm not comfortable being called a book reviewer. I have opinions, sure. I can tell you if I like a book, and even why I like it. But should my opinion have weight? Probably not. I have read neither widely nor deeply. I have no training in literary criticism. I couldn't begin to do the kind of analysis that Mark Bertrand did with Ezekiel's Shadow. I'm not suggesting that all book reviewing should be like that, but I think some books deserve that level of treatment, and I know I don't have the literary chops to do it. But what about the average book that has no literary aspirations? If it's going to be reviewed, the person reviewing still needs to be able to offer an informed, and well-formed, opinion. And the person should say whether or not the book is worth reading. (Chip MacGregor goes hard about Christian book reviews in this post at The Master's Artist. He's been a publisher, an author and now he's a literary agent -- he knows what he's talking about.)

Thanks to FIRST and CFBA I have the chance to get lots of free books, and it's tempting, but I haven't requested all the books featured in the tours. Sometimes they're books I'm not likely to read and it feels dishonest to ask a publicist to go to the expense and trouble of sending me the book. And I'm discovering that I'm kind of picky about what I read. And I'm not very dedicated to blogging about every book I read, so I tend to only write about the books I really like. Just as a movie reviewer has to see a lot of movies, whether he likes them or not, a book reviewer needs to read all kinds of books, whether he likes them or not. Well, I don't. And if a book doesn't keep me interested, I'll put it down and not return to it. And I'm not likely to write about it.

This is not to say that there aren't books I'm going to be writing about. (Ah, you say, here's where she doesn't apply her own rule to herself. Please bear with me.) I'm going to differentiate between what I do when I write about a book and an actual book review. Maybe the closest I've come to a real book review was a while back, when I wrote about Relentless. But even that was more recommending a book I really enjoyed. I just don't think my opinion should carry much weight -- I haven't earned it.

But, as I said, there are books I will write about. I read, I interact with what I read, and sometimes I write about it. There are writers whose books I've enjoyed in the last year or so and I know I'll want to read their next books. There are several I'm looking forward to: Chris Well, Robin Parrish and T.L. Hines all have books coming this spring and summer. Kathleen Popa's first novel will be out this spring, too. And Athol Dickson's new novel, The Cure, will be out this summer. Oh, so many books, so little time. I hope I'll be able to get some Q & A's with some of these authors (look for one with Chris Well sometime after the new year), too.

Maybe I've shot myself in the foot here, but maybe not. Not that many people will read this. You can say I offer book impressions, or reflections, or reactions, or recommendations. Just don't call me a book reviewer.

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