Blog posts about the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries and their author Rabbi Ilene Schneider

I recently saw the indie movie “Chef,” a quiet, non-raunchy, slice-of- life (if your life includes a successful, gorgeous ex-spouse, a bright and adorable son, a loyal and devoted staff, and the ability to conceive and produce incredible food) comedy in which a gourmet chef revitalizes his zest for cooking after receiving a negative review. (I’m not revealing anything not already in the trailers and promos.) Toward the end of the movie, the eponymous chef confronts the critic who had written the brutal assessment of his boringly stale menu. He says the critic goes to a restaurant, writes his assessment, and then distances himself from the fall out. What he doesn’t realize is the harm he does: “It hurts.”

And that is why I don’t like to write book reviews.

I feel “obligated” in a way to read books written by authors I’ve met. But I don’t always enjoy the books as much as I wish I could. I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings by writing a negative review, so I don’t write anything. I’m worried, though, that if I post only reviews of books I do like, people will devalue my opinion, thinking I’m not sincere or discriminating enough, that I like everything I read. I’m also concerned that authors I haven’t reviewed will think I did not like their books or I would have reviewed them. Nor do I want anyone to think I am writing a positive review only as “payment” for a good review of one of my books from the author.

So I generally don’t write anything.

I have made exceptions when someone has specifically requested I read a book and review it. I also will write a back cover blurb if asked, but only if I am sure I can find something complementary to say. (Okay, I admit that I’m flattered another author thinks a blurb from me will help sell her – so far, it’s always a woman – book.) I sometimes beg off, explaining the book is in a genre such as romance, paranormal, or horror that I don’t enjoy, so I would not be able to do it justice. Other times, I will read the book and, rather than post an unfavorable review, will send the author a private email detailing exactly why I did not like the book. The last time I did that, however, I never heard back from the author; but at least she didn’t unfriend me on Facebook.

The other problem with reviewing a book is that liking it or not can have nothing to do with the quality of the writing, but with the characterization of the protagonist. Such a preference can be very subjective. There are many times when a book will receive rave reviews and awards, but the characters are, to my mind, unpleasant or uninteresting. I recall sitting at a table at a conference when an award winner was announced. My fellow diners and I looked at each other in amazement. The main character of the book winning the award was so unappealing that I am surprised I finished reading the book. The others had the same reaction. But the majority of those choosing the prize winner disagreed. There was later a rather heated and polarizing debate on the quality of the work on a Listserv, with a 50-50 split between those of us who thought the heroine was unrealistic, nasty, selfish, and spoiled and those who thought she was plucky, independent, feisty, and refreshingly original.

I know from firsthand experience how different readers can view the same character differently. I have received a few (very few, I’m pleased to say) mediocre reviews in which the complaints have been that my protagonist, Rabbi Aviva Cohen, is too nosey, too catty, and “not rabbinic enough.” But the majority of reviewers have enjoyed the books for those very reasons, or for their interpretations of those qualities: she is curious, witty, and down-to-earth. The same reviewers who don’t like Aviva’s personality also complain the books are bogged down by too many digressions and minutiae; yet other reviewers enjoy exploring the secondary characters and learning about details of Jewish life, customs, holidays.

Do I say with Chef that it hurts? It’s unpleasant, but I can’t say I’m hurt by the criticisms. You need to have a thick skin before exposing yourself to public scrutiny. But I can only speak for me. Perhaps my harsh criticisms would hurt someone else. I’d rather err on the side of caution and not be the one to cause that hurt.

And so I generally don’t write reviews.

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Comments on: "WHY I DON’T WRITE BOOK REVIEWS" (9)

  1. Great post!
    I find it uncomfortable to review something that I am attempting to do. There are great authors whose books I don’t enjoy but I still feel they are better writers than I am, so I don’t feel I have the authority to say anything negative. So I understand where you are coming from!

  2. I like your policy and your explanation is helpful for me as a newcomer to writing reviews and being reviewed. Even with NYT best-selling authors, I am stingy with a 5-star rating. I give the “it was ok” and then the much better “I liked it” if truthful for any number of reasons. But a “5 amazing” has to really move me, make me cry, or laugh out loud, or lead me to see something a new way.

  3. sounds like pretty much why I don’t. I get people upset with me enough when I do editing. lol

  4. Larry K. & Lorna Collins - Authors said:

    Sorry, Ilene, but it sounds like an excuse not to be bothered. You enjoy good reviews for your own books. You said so above. How do those reviews come about? By readers (other authors included) contributing their opinions. Like you, I won’t write a bad review. I recognize that different people are looking for different things and enjoy various kinds of plots and characters. But I do support those authors whose work I enjoy by writing reviews. You yourself know how important reviews are, and quantity counts. i think we owe it to those authors whose books we enjoy to contribute good reviews.

    • It’s not “an excuse not to be bothered.” If someone asks me for a review and I can say something nice about the book, I do review it. If I really didn’t enjoy the book, I’ll send a private email to the author and explain why. It’s “unsolicited” reviews I’m reluctant to write, for the reasons I mentioned.

  5. I write reviews, but not for every book I read. It’s all subjective, right? And there are plenty of things that don’t work for me – love at first sight and the dream that explains the mystery being two of them.
    I reserve 5 stars for books I’d read again either for enjoyment or because I want to go deeper into them.
    By the way, I saw Chef and loved it.

  6. I guess I take the opposite point of view. A review is an opportunity to help someone get more attention. I review a number of books that I don’t identify with the characters but I think the book is well written and would appeal to many. In those case, I state positive things.

    JL Greger, author of medical thrillers/mysteries – Ignore the Pain, Murder: A New Way to Lose weight, & Coming Flu

  7. I review a lot of things on Amazon, not just books, particularly if I think something I found about a product may help another buyer in making the decision to buy or not buy. Someone criticized me on a review, not a book but another product, saying to be wary of my reviews because all of them were 4 or 5 stars. I was slightly offended that this woman’s perception of me was that I would only give good reviews, as if I was some kind of weakling who had to say something nice about everything. Until then, I, too, only left reviews if I could leave a good one. After some contemplation, I decided to leave reviews on products if I felt strongly about them, whether the review was good or bad, but not to do so with books. The main distinction is that I may not like a book for a million reasons that may not bother another reader, and my opinion is just my opinion. I can say a heel broke on a shoe the first time I wore it or the worm medicine didn’t work on my dog or a dress was too tight on my hips in my regular size, and those are facts that may help someone make a decision about buying the product, as opposed to don’t buy this book because the protag is an idiot or don’t buy this perfume because it stinks.

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