Confessions of a Bleeding Heart Book Critic

Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh

Innocent beginnings. Just a girl and her book. (Yes, this is a picture of Christopher Robin, who was a boy, but we had the same haircut.)

Like many bookish children, I dreamed about reading and writing books for a living. The writing part hasn’t come true–at least not yet–but the reading, well, let’s just say: Be careful what you wish for. Still, there are worse problems than having every horizontal surface in your apartment covered with books you have yet to read. Worse problems like actually having to review said books. Especially when they’re…awful.

See that? I just used a nasty word. A word that has not once, in all of my 150+ reviews since 60second Recap launched in 2009, appeared anywhere in my scripts or anywhere on the website. I haven’t said awful; I haven’t said horrible; and I’ve refrained from using phrases like, “The worst book I’ve ever read.” But I have thought those words. Many, many times.

That’s one of the things that makes reviewing so hard. At a certain point, a kind of fatigue starts to set in. Not a fatigue with reading; I’m always up for a new book,   especially one that’s good. The fatigue comes from reading so many books that aren’t good, or that had the potential to be good but failed miserably a few chapters in. And then more fatigue builds from hearing other people gush about the books you’ve secretly tossed aside with a snarl, making you wonder if you’ve just become a cynical, impossible-to-please crank in all of your reading.

And yet, crank or not, I still don’t allow myself to say those words. Out of a sense of duty to my viewers (and because I need to be able to respect myself in the morning), I never give a glowing review to a book that made me tear my hair or gnash my teeth. I try to find something positive to say (there’s usually at least one thing–because I wasn’t an English major for nothing!), and I try to indicate, in gentle terms, why the reader also might want to steer clear. I don’t want to give away all my trade secrets, but here’s one hint. When I use the phrase, “Better suited for its intended audience,” as I did in this review of a book that made me crazy, it’s usually code for: OMG THIS BOOK MADE ME MUFFLE MY SCREAMS OF FRUSTRATION AND REVIEWER RAGE WITH A PILLOW.

Jenny Sawyer is a crazed book critic

Portrait of Your Critic Today

So why the soft-shoeing? Why not join the throngs of snarky critics currently populating every corner of the web with their hilarious, author/artist-fileting rants? Ah. Now we get to the part that makes reviewing hardest of all. Because there are people on the other side of those books. And no matter how annoyed I get with books, no matter how many protagonists I want to slap or plot twists that make me bonkers, the imaginative, bookish child side of my brain won’t let me forget that a person, a real person with feelings, toiled over that stupid protagonist, and spent hours on that totally wretched plot twist. And every time I find myself at my computer, ready to blast out my first genuine scathing review, I think of Jo March, slaving away in her garret, and I suddenly want to reach out and hug that author and tell them that they’ll do better next time. And that I know how hard they worked. And that writing isn’t easy.

No, writing–or rather, writing well–isn’t easy at all. (It couldn’t be, because if it were, I’d have no books to secretly loathe.) But reviewing in a way that’s nuanced and honest, but still respectful? I think that may be the hardest job of all.

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