J. A. Keener

I Started to Write a Book Review…

But then I realized I didn’t have anything nice to say about the book. This is especially sad, because when I think about it objectively, there were a lot of things done right. This particular work just didn’t come together in the end as a cohesive piece of fiction, which was very disappointing.

So instead, I’m going to put some thoughts out there on my reviews. Namely, why I write them, what my agenda is, and why you won’t see an overly negative review on my website.

I started to write reviews as a way of training myself to think in shorter terms. I read (and write) Science Fiction and Fantasy, which, by its very nature, tends to be long-winded. If you ask any of my current or former coworkers, I’m sure they’d tell you that I like to be thorough and I don’t give out “easy” answers without the context. While that may be incredibly frustrating for someone looking for a yes or no answer, I think it’s very important to understand the reason why the answer is “yes.”

By writing reviews, I’m forcing myself not to go into depth. If I did, I might spoil the story. I’m training my mind not to get lost in the minutiae, which is where it thrives, and instead try to gain a big picture view. “Is this book worth buying?” If you like psychological horror and a teen sociopath protagonist, then the answer is “yes,” and so on.

As for my agenda, I think it’s more clearly expressed as what my agenda isn’t than what it is. For example, my agenda isn’t to belittle, demean, destroy, or subvert an author’s work. I refuse to put something into my blog posts that I wouldn’t tell the author to their face, and I try very hard not to write anything that isn’t, on some level at least, constructive. As a result, my book reviews are pretty much only going to be about books that I think others would enjoy.

I had the privilege to share a panel with Ann Leckie (author of Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, & Ancillary Mercy) at ICON 40 in October 2015. At one point Ann talked about the controversy surrounding her Hugo Award nomination and how it didn’t bother her; that even negative attention was good for her. In effect, even if people were saying bad things about her books, at least they were talking about them.

I will agree that, for some authors and some situations, this is absolutely true. In her case, the controversy revolved around the narrative and the lack of gender-specific pronouns. A discussion like that could drive more readers to say, “Wow, that’s weird. I should totally read that and see if I like it!” On the macro scale, that works because it’s a general discussion. It isn’t an endorsement or denouncement from a known and trusted source. Rather, it is the internet saying mean things, as the internet is wont to do.

In my case, my current audience is mostly friends and family, and I feel like my opinions and thoughts may carry more weight than RandomInternetCommentor#12. That could just be ego talking, though.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with my father-in-law a few months ago. He had mentioned that he had gotten Bladerunner from Netflix and was really excited to watch it again. When he asked if I liked it, I mentioned that it wasn’t really high up there for me. I honestly couldn’t even remember why it hadn’t resonated with me (and I still can’t remember), but after our conversation, he decided to send it back without watching it. It was never my intent to steer him away from a movie I had no strong feelings about, but that was the result.

So now we come full circle: I write book reviews about books I think you might like, but at the same time, I try to provide my reasoning for why I liked it and (in some cases) caveats for who the audience that would most enjoy the book would be. I will also do my best not to pass along negativity. I would rather you discover a book I hated on your own and read it unbiased, because your tastes are different, and arguably more refined, than mine. If someone I trusted had told me to steer clear of Brandon Sanderson novels, I might not have ever discovered the author that has been most influential on my own literary voice.

Oh, and for the record, I now want to go back and watch Bladerunner to figure out why I didn’t like it…

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