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Unfinished Books and the Truth Behind Book Reviews

It seems like every couple of months there’s a media spotlight on book reviewing. Usually, the ones I see are within the science fiction community. However, the latest focus seems to from the world of mainstream literature.

The Valve points to a semi-confessional Newsweek article “In Literature, Size Matters“, in which Malcolm Jones says he only read 100 of the 928 pages of Sacred Games. The Valve focuses on the fact that Jones, a paid reviewer, did not finish the book because it was too big. As per the Jones article:

Book reviewers, if they’re being paid and if they’re being the least bit fair, finish the books they review. But this creates a strange, maybe unnatural, situation: the very people paid to be objective about a book are also duty bound to finish it, and believe it or not, this warps a lot of peoples’ judgment. Let’s say you read a 900-page novel and you don’t absolutely hate it. You even sort of like it. Are you going to say that? Apparently not, judging by most reviews I read. Most reviewers get invested in the books they review, one way or the other. So the books are either panned outright or praised.

I guess it all comes down to whether a reviewer can be truly honest with himself, even in acknowledgement of any psychological factors that may come into play.

And while reviewers are thinking about psychology, check out the Miles Kington article “Masterclass: How to Write a Book Review” [via Booksquare]. In essence, the article says that reviewers are not writing about books, they are writing about themselves. I think the article is written tongue-in-cheek, but I can’t help but notice that some of his statements are completely believable, especially since I have dome some of those things. Here’s an interesting snippet:

Evelyn Waugh once said that the golden rule of book reviewing is that you should never give a bad review to a book you have not read. This is now seen as rather old-fashioned and romantic. No book reviewer ever has time to read the whole book, not for the money they are paying you. The vital thing is to give the impression that you HAVE read the whole book. This can easily be done by only quoting from near the end of the book. And by pointing out an error.

This one made me laugh. Of course, implying that you have read a book when you have not is just plain wrong. However, noting impressions of an admittedly unfinished book is OK. I’ve done it and I say why in my review criteria.

And now that I said I’ve done it, I should mention that I don’t always do it. As I posted previously in The 33% Rule post, I could not finish Blindsight, a book that has otherwise been getting rave reviews. I did not give that one a formal “review” – really my impressions using the book review format – because I could not put my finger on why other than saying I was uninterested in it. I could not point to any particular flaw in the book, I just wasn’t get the sci-fi buzz out of it. Can you imagine if I posted a review as if I had read the book? Yikes!

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

3 Comments on Unfinished Books and the Truth Behind Book Reviews

  1. If I was unable to finish a book, I would say so in the review and make it crystal clear that my opinion was only on the completed portion.

    I also wouldn’t count it in the number of books I read for the year, or the points system or anything else. I’m usually lucky enough not to read such a horrible book that I am unable to finish it.

  2. I’ve reviewed a few books in my time and I’ve slogged through nearly all of them. I don’t think anyone goes into book reviewing for the money, so that presumably means they like what they’re doing, at least to some extent, and are more keenly interested in the books they’re reviewing.

  3. Geoff Airey // January 23, 2007 at 1:56 pm //

    This is just plain wrong.

    It’s their job to review books, if it doesn’t pay enough, get a new job, but I’d imagine that their reviewing is their second job anyway.

    Taking a Similar Instance, can you imagine trying to review the following Films without seeing the last half Hour:

    The Sixth Sense

    Donny Darko

    The Butterfly effect

    The Usual uspects

    Any Tarantino Movie


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