The Reviewer’s Dilemma: Looking Back and Wincing

Sometimes I wish I could purge this blog of everything I’ve written that’s over 2 years old.

Why? Because I’ve changed. And I know it. Not only has my writing improved, but so has my ability to critique novels. I know better the difference between something good and something I enjoyed. My skin has toughened and I’m not longer quite so afraid of saying negative things about a book for fear that I may hurt someone’s feelings. I’m better able to articulate my impressions of a novel, and I think my reviews actually say more, and say more valuable things, than they used to.

But why I really want to do that purge is because of how my tastes have changed over time. I look back at some of the novels I rated highly and I wince, actually physically wince, and wonder what it was that made me think so highly of them when I know I wouldn’t do so today.

Part of it is exposure, of course. It’s something I’ve talked about before. We don’t review in a vacuum. Each book we read makes its impressive, good or bad. Whether that book is a shining example of literary merit or something that gave us concrete lessons in how not to write a good novel, each time we read a book, it adds to our experience pool. So a book that seemed utterly fantastic 3 years ago might seem like garbage compared to everything you’ve read since then.

So here’s the dilemma of this week’s Reviewer’s Dilemma. To re-review or not to re-review? How much effort should we put into keeping our expressed opinions current, and how much are we okay with keeping out of date opinions around for others to be influenced by?

I’ll provide a little personal history here. When I first started this blog, at the beginning of 2010, I reviewed pretty much anything I read. Whether that was a new fantasy novel or a random Amish morality tale that I found for $0.50 in a department store clearout bin. (No, seriously, I really did review that.) A book was a book was a book, and I wasn’t that picky about what I stuffed into my brain. I read and reviewed some genuinely good things, but back then, I wasn’t as focused, and I wasn’t as experienced.

So take, for instance, my reviews of PC and Kristen Cast’s House of Night novels, or at least the 6 of them that I actually read before getting bored with the series. I rated them all 4 out of 4 stars until Tempted, when I got sick of so many things and the series started to go downhill and I ended up rating that one 2 stars. But if all you go by are my reviews, it looks like up to that point, the series is a solid one. After all, I also rated A M Dellamonica’s Child of a Hidden Sea 4 stars, so the quality must be comparable, yes?

Er, no. Not even close.

It isn’t that the series took a drastic downturn. From what I remember of them, I probably would rate the first one 4 stars still, maybe a high 3. I rated them similarly because they stayed so much the same as the series progressed. I figured then that what must be good in one book must therefore be good in another. Overlooking such miniscule things as character development (of which there was little), diversity (plenty, if you count the constant reminders that one of Zoey’s friends is gay), and realistic characters (I don’t know if they were reduced to painful caricatures of themselves or whether I just got tired of handwaving their lack of depth while reading about them).

If I were to read them for the first time today, my opinion of them would not be so generous. If I were to reread them and rereview them, I would be far more critical.

But, should I?

There are 2 ways I look at this. 1 is that my blog is a catalogue, not just of the books I’ve read, but also a timeline of my own improvements. I jumped into this reviewing thing without doing any research, and it shows. Erasing my past reviews would eliminate the chance that someone’s going to come along and see something ridiculous that I wrote when I was considerably less experienced, but it also takes away the context of the blog as a whole. I’m be selectively erasing the unpleasant parts of my past that I didn’t want people to know about anymore.

On the other hand, how many people read a review blog as a chronological sequence of events, anyway? I’m pretty sure that nobody has found my blog recently and clicked back to January 2010 to see what I talked about then. So like much of a person’s past, those events and reviews are still there, but largely ignored because they’re not relevent anymore. No harm, no foul.

I’ve been tempted a few times to grab certain books again and give them another go. Some I suspect I will rate higher. Some lower. Some I will rate the same on the 1-5 number scale but my commentary will be much improved. As a personal exercise, this is appealing to me. It’ll be good for me to see where I am compared to where I was, see where I’ve gotten better and where I’m still clearly weak when it comes to commentary. And maybe it will give older books some much-needed revival in attention.

But that’s also effort that I could be putting into reading and reviewing books that I haven’t already read. Where does the line get drawn? 3 years from now, will I be looking at books I reviews in, say, May 2014 and wincing just as hard, trying to rewrite them to be better and more up to whatever standards I set for myself at that time?

Rereviewing is one of those traps that can be hard to climb out of. Before I started reviewing, I read a lot, but most of what I read I was rereading. For the umpteenth time. I called myself an avid reader, but being happy about reading 50 books in a year doesn’t mean as much when 7 of those books are the Harry Potter series, and you’re reading them for the 5th time. At that point it’s less like reading and more like passively moving my eyes over words on a page to remind myself where in the story I am. Reviewing forced me to step out of that comfort zone and start actively reading again. So I worry about falling too deep into rereads. At what point is enough enough? One reread and re-review? Two? Only so long as there’s at least a year between them?

There’s no point in rereviewing if my opinions have stayed the same over time. That much is clear. It’s why I use Jo Walton’s Among Others as my ultimate comfort read, and have read it at least once a year since getting it. No need to write another review when all I’ll be saying is how awesome it still is. But for books where my opinion has changed, or my ability to critique it, I have to wonder if it’s worth taking the time and effort to write up something new, to approach an old read in a new way, and provide some updated content for others to potentially enjoy here.

If nothing else, it might put a stop to me beating myself up over the fact that I’ve improved over time. Improvement is a good thing, and every reviewer will get better the more the read and the more they review. It’s inevitable. We don’t start out perfect. We all have room for growth. Acknowledging that isn’t so bad, and demonstrating it is even better.

It also might be an encouraging project for those who are new to reviewing and who are seeing these fantastic reviews on a dozen or more blogs, written by people who have honed their art over the years. When you see only those things, it can get discouraging. It can feel like you’re a whisper in a storm, that not only are you too new and small to even be heard, but if someone does hear you, there’s the fear that you’re not actually going to be saying anything worthwhile. So there might be some merit to the community aspect of blogging, if some people took it upon themselves not just to reread and rewrite from a few older reviews, but to also openly compare and contrast. Stand up and saying, “Yes, back then, I was awful compared to now. But I worked hard and improved, and so can you.”

Now that I’ve got that saccharine notion out of the way…

What do you think of redoing reviews to provide more updated opinions? Do you think it could be worthwhile, or do you think it’s a waste of time? Let me know in the comments!

4 comments on “The Reviewer’s Dilemma: Looking Back and Wincing

  1. A review, just like reading a book, is an artifact of time and space. You can re-read a book and have a different reaction to it…but a re-review without a re-read seems false, somehow. Your opinion can change on a book after the fact, but without looking at the text again, it becomes a second order or third order reflection.

    In other words, its not a review at all, but rather criticism and reflection. That’s fine, but its not a “Review”.

  2. I agree with so much here. Mostly about wanting to delete most of the first year’s reviews. *wince* But I still do occasional rereads myself. I figure when the time comes to do a reread of something I have actually reviewed I will just repost the review with a recap of my new ideas up top; along with any changes in star ratings. But I wouldn’t change ratings from the past because that was your though at that point in time.

  3. Pingback: Sunday Sampler: August 31 | Classy Cat Books

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