I’m writing this because a dear friend and superb writer (and I knew she was a superb writer before we became friends, not the other way around) has gotten a scathing review on Amazon. Bad reviews? Low ratings? Gonna happen. We know that when we put our stuff out there. HOWEVER, there are some things that reviewers should consider before writing a bad review (good ones, too). Forget thinking about the author’s feelings. I’m not going to go to the ‘human being behind the screen’ place. I’m talking about the difference between STORY and BOOK.
To simplify to the point of almost nonsense, the STORY is the candy bar; the BOOK is the wrapper. Say what? OK, let’s complicate this a bit. STORY is what happens, who it happens to, where and when it happens, how it happens, and why it happens. (That will sound familiar if you’ve ever taken a journalism class.) STORY is Cinderella’s father makes a poor second marriage choice and then dies, leaving stepmother and stepsisters to abuse Cinderella emotionally until her Fairy Godmother shows up (and I’m sure Cinderella asked her where the hell she’d been earlier) poofs pumpkins, mice, frogs, and thin air into coach, horses, footmen, and evening attire to die for, then boy meets girl, Cindy screws it up by losing a shoe, Prince goes on a quest to find her, her stepmother and sisters attempt in a variety of ways to prevent the meeting of Cindy’s foot with glass slipper, Cindy wins out anyway, marries Prince, HEA (Happily Ever After), THE END. That’s story.
BOOK is how STORY is told. In this instance that could be either the bippity-boppity-boo Disney version with talking mice and bumbling stepsisters, or the original Grimm’s tale in which one stepsister cuts off her big toe and the other carves chunks off her heel in an attempt to … well, shoehorn … into the slipper. (If you’ve never read the original and you think I’m making that up, go find the book and read it.) The BOOK (for Disney, the film, but it’s the same idea) is very different in those cases. The Disney version is nice enough, but it lacks depth and grit, a recognition of the reality of how people sometimes treat each other, how self-centered and greedy humans often are, and what abuse can do to people. The Grimm brothers version is dark, brooding (even though since it’s a fairy tale, we know there’s HEA coming, but HEA doesn’t always mean what we think it’s going to mean), unsuitable for today’s children (though for my generation and earlier, it was just how life is), and lacks the daubs of comic relief that Disney offers to keep it kid-friendly and pad the story to major motion picture length. Those are BOOK, and are very different from STORY as well as from each other.
A person may love the STORY and hate the BOOK, and vice versa. I wouldn’t like the STORY of most horror novels/movies (just not my thing), but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t appreciate the BOOK for excellent telling; I may love the STORY of swashbuckling pirates with male lovers, but loathe the BOOK that’s trite and thinly-veiled porn. There is a difference, people.
THERE IS A DIFFERENCE!
When you’re writing a review, don’t give the BOOK a bad review because you hated the STORY. There are BOOKs out there which have told a STORY that has broken my heart, that I would give two small fortunes (I’ll never have a big one) and several remaining body parts to be able to alter the STORY, so my favorite character didn’t die, or lose his lover, or have to eat brussels sprouts; BOOKs that are so well-written I will read them again and again for the exquisite shudder of a well-turned phrase, an idea that jumps up and down in my head and waves frantically for my attention (hurts, that head-inside-jumping thing). I disliked the STORY, loved the BOOK. The other way, loving the STORY, disliking the BOOK, happens less frequently, probably because I tend very often not to finish books that aren’t well-written. I do it — one must study one’s craft, after all — but not often and not without a handy bottle of bleach for my eyes, and sutures for my soul. (The trite, it burns! The error, it eviscerates!)
I don’t, don’t, don’t DO NOT give a BOOK a bad review because I don’t like the STORY, or an undeserved good review because I do. I will state how I feel about the STORY, but as a reviewer, it’s my job to review the BOOK, to look at the language, the flow, the depth, the guts of the thing, not the pretty face it shows the world. My job as a reviewer is to let others know what the BOOK is like primarily, though as I said, I do mention the STORY. Other readers want to know if the BOOK is worth their time, because even the best STORY can be told poorly; even the worst STORY can be told well. I need to let the potential reader know if the BOOK is worth spending, not their $$ but their time, their very life involved with. They’re going to give an author a precious gift — hours of the very stuff of their lives. It’s my job to make sure they know whether or not (I think) it’s worth it.
STORY can be daydreamed about while driving down the thruway; BOOK requires attention. STORY can be um-ed and oh-ed and well-you-know-ed and still be a good STORY; BOOK requires polished syntax and grammar. STORY can fail to capture a reader’s heart; BOOK must grab and hold.
It is a wondrous thing when STORY and BOOK share the same quality. Of such are made the works of art that grace my “pride of place” bookshelf, that merit a print purchase to hold and caress and gaze upon, rather than simply an e-book quickie in the dark. I love e-books, but they do not have the same solidity, the same permanence print does. I buy print when I love BOOK and STORY both.
PLEASE, if you are reviewing a BOOK, review the damned BOOK and not the STORY. Don’t savage an author because you didn’t get the HEA you thought you should. A bit presumptuous, don’t you think, of a reader to think the author should give them a particular outcome? Want a predetermined ending? Write it yourself. Fanfic is alive and well on the Internet. If you didn’t like the ending, say you didn’t in your review, that’s fine. But don’t trash a stellar BOOK over your own unfulfilled expectations of STORY.