The Reviewer’s Dilemma: Mind vs Gut

There’s no one set way that a review has to go. There are about as many different styles of review as there are reviewers, and no two reviews are going to be exactly the same even when two reviewers share similar opinions of a book. A Twitter conversation in the wee hours of the morning really got me thinking about the way I review; not only how it’s different from other reviews, but also how what I write is often quite different from what I think and feel while reading the book itself.

When I’m reading, especially if I’m enjoying what I’m reading, I’m immersed in the story, sucked into the world and its people and events. When I’m invested in what I’m reading, my reactions to the story are on a base, almost instinctive level. When I’m writing my review, I get to take a mental step back, to examine the book in a much more analytical way, to look at what worked for me and what didn’t, and more importantly, why.

So very often there’s a bit of a disconnect between what I write and what I feel. I don’t write what I didn’t think, so whatever I say in a review is, technically, what I thought of a book, but sometimes it works out that there’s, shall we say, a bit of a disconnect between my reaction in the moment and my reaction after the moment has passed.

My mind and my gut don’t always communicate well. If I wrote my reviews based simply on my gut reactions to a book, half of them would probably be incoherent, most of them would involve copious amounts of creative swearing, and I’m not entirely sure readers would consider me entirely sane, nor would authors actually want me anywhere near their books anymore.

I’ll give you some examples of what I mean, the difference between something that I’d end up writing, versus something that I might actually feel and possibly even say aloud during mid-read commentary.

Example 1

Mind: It was interesting to see the antagonist show such a strong emotional connection to one of his servants.
Gut: Those two seriously need to get a room.

Example 2

Mind: I’m curious to see how the relationship between [Character 1] and [Character 2] will develop as the series continues.
Gut: Crap on a cracker, if they don’t start banging by the end of Book 3, I’m going to pitch an unholy fit!

Example 3

Mind: This disappointed me, since it felt like the protagonist’s actions here went counter to everything that had been established about her personality in the book so far, and the whole thing felt forced for plot purposes.
Gut: Holy fuck, [author], why the hell did you think writing that was a good idea?! You know better! I know you know better! Ugh, this pisses me off.

Just a little bit of a disconnect, you see.

None of the things my mind told me to write were incorrect, by my way of looking at things. Each example is pulled from a different novel I’ve read and reviewed, though in my review I may not have used those exact words. In stepping back and coming at things from a more analytical angle, I’m able to express my thoughts in more coherent and PG-13 manner. I’m able to look at something within a book and figure out more details about it, about why I had that gut reaction to it, why it did or didn’t work from the context I’m reading it in.

It does, unfortunately, have the effect of making my writing a bit colder, less human. On the flip side, it also has the effect of making what I say actually be potentially worth reading, and actual review instead of a series of random reactions or looking like I’m live-Tweeting my way through a novel. (Which might not be so bad a project someday…) Ranting about how I want to see two characters get together doesn’t actually tell people much about what I thought of them, except that I liked them and support a romantic relationship developing on the pages. Saying that I enjoyed seeing their relationship develop on the pages I think says a lot more.

But how? And why? Why does the cold analysis, even when it’s a cold analysis of feelings, seem better to me?

When I write reviews, I try to be at least a little bit professional. In books that really bother me or that I find quite bad, it’s harder to do this. The negative emotions surrounding an experience overpower my ability to step back far enough to write that way. It’s easier for me to feel like I’m writing what I really feel when I say that it looks like the author had no sweet clue what they were talking about than to just say there appeared to be little fact-checking done during the novel’s development. If I tried to create that disconnect then, I feel like I’d be doing readers a disservice, I suppose, like I wouldn’t be warning them away from a novel hard enough.

So why should the negative reviews get more emotional than the positive reviews? Well, in a big way it’s because when I really enjoy a book, I mean really enjoy it, talking about it in the same way would just have me coming across like a raging fandrogyne, and I don’t think that’s particularly helpful. I try to keep that to a minimum in such reviews, try to work harder at narrowing down just what I liked about a really good book, try to be helpful in what I say, and unfortunately, I think a lot of what I really feel ends up getting lost because I feel that it’s unprofessional to go so nuts over something.

Do I view myself as a professional reviewer? Hell no! That implies that I’ve made a profession out of this, and when last I checked, this is just a hobby. A very involved hobby that I take quite seriously, mind you, but a hobby still. I’m not a professional reviewer. So the question is why do I think that way?

I take reviewing seriously. So I want to be taken seriously when I review. I want to put my most intelligent and insightful foot forward and hope that what I say makes a difference.

Could I get a greater readership by being off-the-wall and just writing my gut reactions to a book instead of actually analysing it? Probably. There’s some novelty in that, and I think people would drop by just to see what crazy crap came out of my virtual mouth next. But would it be helpful? Probably not. It might generate some interesting publicity for a book, but it wouldn’t necessarily be the kind of publicity I want associated with my name. It would have commentary, but not much that would help someone understand anything about why they might also like reading what I’m reading. It probably wouldn’t end up being that respectful, even when I like it.

Here’s what it boils down to: my gut tells me things in a different way than my brain does, and letting my gut speak isn’t always the best idea. Honestly, if any of you, writers and readers alike knew half the thoughts that flit through my head when I’m reading, you’d probably laugh then run far away. I judge a book’s world-building by how much fun it could be to role-play a scenario in it. I say funny words aloud in different accents when I come across them. I’ll go on profanity-laden mini-rants about an event that affected me, be it in a good way or a bad way. I make a lot of odd comments about homoerotica.

Is that the sort of stuff you really want to see in my reviews? Have I been doing it wrong this whole time? Should I be letting those reactionary comments creep in? Should I be writing separate mini-commentaries in which I allow myself to go a little nuts about what I read, and would that really be helpful to anyone?

So I’m curious on what other reviewers think about this aspect of the reviewer’s dilemma. Does what you write in a review differ that much from what you think while reading the book itself? Writers, are you curious about this hidden side of what’s going on inside a person when they’re reading your book? Readers of all kinds, would it actually be helpful for you to see more gut reactions to novels, or would it just be an amusing diversion?

Let me know your opinions in the comments; I’d love to see what other people think about this!

6 comments on “The Reviewer’s Dilemma: Mind vs Gut

  1. I’ve been accused of writing reviews to a formula, a template. It keeps me “professional” but it also does smooth out the rough edges, the rants, the sharp shocks of reaction to a book.

    There is no one way to review. I *do* think experimentation (something I need to do more myself) is the way to go. Try new forms, new techniques. New ideas.

  2. Some of my reviews get a little off the wall, and I like it when that happens. Feels like an impressionist painting sometimes.

    “my reaction in the moment and my reaction after the moment has passed.”

    it’s this, exactly. I try to take notes while I’m reading, and those notes reflect inside the moment “omg, is she his daughter??”, “I think that person is a spy”, “pg 158, prose was so beautiful I cried”, “this feels like it will shatter”. And then I finish the book, and everything has *changed*. My little notes are individual reactions, and now I’m seeing the entire picture, and it’s completely different from those moments. sometimes my husband finds my handwritten notes all over the house or being used as a bookmark in another book, and then he’ll read the review…. and it’s like I’m talking about two completely different books.

    Long story short, I feel ya, sister.

  3. I think you’re right about taking it seriously and writing in a semi-formal way. I’d also add that it’s important to avoid spoilers. I’m still surprised by how often I read blog reviews which give away major plot points (and that’s why I only read certain bloggers’ reviews of books I haven’t yet read).

  4. I think your ‘gut’ reviews could be quite entertaining! But I know what you are saying. It’s hard to know how to best represent your experience reading a book, and there’s no reason to not try different things for different books. I think just write the reviews how seems best to you at the time. There’s no right or wrong way.

  5. Writer here. My reviews I keep private because I would never do what I do to another of my kind. BUT as a reader, I count on people with guts and brains to let me know what’s good, what’s gruesome. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve chased something down to heave it after three pages. (Lucky me, I don’t have to finish that you know what.) Being who you are, Ria, oh please, go with the guts. Let it loose. Give us poor you know what’s in the trenches a really up close hairy eye-ball look at what is NOT cutting it.

  6. Pingback: July in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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