Reviewing outside your zone

Reviewing outside your zone

Kris recently did a contest to help readers get over their m/m ennui. This involved readers picking books out of their favorite genres and even venturing into those that push boundaries or comfort levels. The readers were expected to write a review – anything from one line to 1500 words – about this book and they were entered into the contest for a gift certificate.

Great idea and it went over exceptionally well (as most of Kris’ ideas do).
What caught my eye reading the reviews was the common line of some sort – “I don’t usually read this” or “I don’t usually like this genre.”

Now since the goal was to push outside common genres, that’s not too surprising that most comment on it. But it got me thinking about reviewers stepping outside to read and review things they may not like and the result.

Readers should push themselves if they want. Why not? Pick up a book you may not like and take a chance. If it goes well, it’s even more a credit to the book that can convert a reader. But what if the reader doesn’t like the book. Is it the book’s fault?

I sometimes wonder when I read a review that starts “I don’t usually like BDSM books” and the review goes on to say they didn’t like that BDSM book either. It negates the review for me and makes me wonder if it was the book’s fault with poor writing or bad sex scenes – or is it the reader’s comfort level that is outside that realm to begin with for the idea and never warmed to the book. It could legitimately be a bad book and the reader’s preferences never really came into play, but it could easily also be that the reader not liking that element negated the book’s enjoyment.

I don’t fault readers at all for their preferences. It’s absolutely anyone’s personal right to read whatever they want and love it (or not). But when reviewing outside the comfort zone, I think it’s even more essential to identify what didn’t work and realizing if it’s reader preference or the book’s fault. I think it’s perfectly ok to say a book didn’t work for you because you don’t like horror or bdsm or whatever and although you tried, you just couldn’t do it. But I think it’s just as important to be careful not to blame the book unless it deserves it.

What do you think?
Have you tried to step outside your comfort zone and been burned or delighted?
What about reviewing those books?
Do you give more or less credit to reviews that start with "I don’t normally read this genre…"ο»Ώ

16 thoughts on “Reviewing outside your zone

  1. Kassa, these are really good questions, and I almost can’t give any overall answers. I think it can be very hard for reviewers to separate out their evaluation of the book on its own merits from their dislike or unfamiliarity with the subject matter.
    I didn’t used to be able to do this all, and a couple of my earliest reviews were unfair to the book since I didn’t like the subject matter. I didn’t know what I was doing at the time, but I’ve since revised the reviews to be more even-handed.
    I have been both burned and delighted when I’ve stepped outside my comfort zone, but mostly delighted (Angelia Sparrow’s work, The Elegant Corpse by A. M. Riley).
    In terms of reviewing the books outside the comfort zone, some I can review and some I can’t. If the book has a subject matter that I’m not terribly thrilled by (e.g., BDSM, vampires, high fantasy, types of historicals, something with infidelity, something with grieving over a dead person, etc.) I can go ahead and review it, and if the writing is good I’ll enjoy it and reflect all that in my review.
    If the book is structurally a type of book I dislike (epistolary novel, experimental), I might not be able to review it. Then there are certain overall types of books I’m just not going to be able to review objectively: nonstop erotica is one, and the domestic slice-of-life thing is the other (the type of book where it seems to me that there is absolutely no conflict whatsoever).
    I’ve reviewed both types of books negatively as in, “Where’s the plot?” and then have seen my reviewer friends get a lot out of these books. So they’re obviously seeing something that I’m completely missing. In that case, I probably am not the best reviewer in terms of understanding such a book.
    Do I give more or less credit to reviews that start with, “I don’t normally read this genre …”? It depends on the review.
    Sometimes a reviewer is going to completely miss the point like me with the domestic slice-of-life books. But other times, the review will carry even more weight coming from a non-fan than a fan — such as me saying, “Whoa, I normally don’t get BDSM, but I read The Elegant Corpse and Precious Jade and I finally saw the erotic potential.” That would mean that the two books were SO good that they even reached someone like me who isn’t into BDSM.
    I hope this helps. Great post, Kassa!

    • Thanks for commenting Val! I think your comments are great and very much in line with my current thinking but it’s always nice to have another opinion.
      I don’t think there’s anything wrong with disliking a book for whatever reason. It can be anything from personal preference to bad writing. I think there is a responsibility on the reviewer though to differentiate personal preference from the mechanics of the book.
      Like you said if the reviewer is the type not to like BDSM or slice of life books, then if the book is decently written without glaring errors, it’s still likely to appeal to those who do like it. Like Jen says, she’s careful to say the writing isn’t the issue, it’s personal choice.
      I can think of a few books where I just didn’t write a review because I personally didn’t like it. The writing was good, characters well developed, good plot, but for some reason I felt uneasy and didn’t enjoy reading them. Sometimes I can pinpoint why and realize it’s a personal thing, I don’t always like that element or something. So no real need to review that one because it’s clearly something limited to my likes and dislikes. Or that’s my thinking anyway.

  2. I read all types of books. If the story itself looks vaguely interesting, I’ll read it. I’m not a fan of contemporary or sci-fi… steampunk or speculative… but I will read those things if the core story interests me. I’m able to look at that more easily than the genre the book falls into.
    Because of that, I can spot easily when the story is flawed. I’m rereading a particular book I read last year because I want to properly review on my journal the books I have read mainly for my reference. It’s a sci-fi m/m novel. I don’t like sci-fi, but I thought the idea presented in the summary blurb about it would be interesting. Instead, I get a poorly done Star Wars slave fanfic presented as an original novel. It’s not the sci-fi part of the book that ticks me off, it’s the spelling errors, bad grammar, poor editing, and unoriginality — as well as my ability to easily see the thinly veiled Star Wars roots — that bothers me.
    Reading outside my comfort zone is easy, and I will give any genre and almost any author a go. I think because the story is what appeals to me, not the genre, it is easier to review the piece without seeing the genre first and the story second.
    As for reviews that use that line of ‘I don’t usually’… I tend to approach those reviews with caution. Nothing bothers me more than someone reviewing a BDSM novel and calling it abuse because they don’t understand what it is they’re reading. Criticize a story for poor editing, bad storytelling, crappy characters, unrealistic relationships, but don’t slam a story for the genre it sits in.

    • We’re in total agreement on that one. I think if there are problems with the book and thats why you dislike it, by all means state that. Hell, that’s the main point of a review to let readers know if there are writing problems, spelling errors, bad editing, thinly (if at all) veiled fan fiction. These are things that readers want to know going into a book themselves.
      I think the thin line is there versus saying exactly like you did – “I don’t like BDSM and I hated this book.” Well did you hate it because you don’t like BDSM or did you hate it because it was a bad book? When reviewers start with that prejudice, it just seems to me that’d negate their review almost immediately.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment! Very interesting responses and have helped a lot.

  3. I actually need to be better about picking books from the ThreeDBR list that are outside my comfort zone, specifically the BDSM books that are piling up all over the place.
    I do worry, however, that I won’t be able to give that book as fair of a review because it’s a genre I don’t flock toward in general. And then that’s not fair to the author, as you state above. But I know there have got to be books out there that are really well written, and even if I wasn’t a fan of their particular genre–or continue not to be–I’ll become a huge fan of the work.
    So on the one hand, I know I need to be more adventurous with my reading, and on the other, I want to make sure I don’t wind up being unfair to any authors.
    Any advice?

    • Well I’m not sure I have advice but usually if I can tell I didn’t like the book simply based on personal preference I decline to review it. I’ve had books in the past that everyone and their mother has loved and I thought was bad but I couldn’t pin point why. The writing seemed fine, the characters were ok, I just flat out didn’t like the book. In that rare case I usually just decline to review it because I tried but for some reason it wasn’t gelling for me.
      I also don’t think reviewers should be afraid of trying. If you see a book that pushes you but looks interesting, go for it. If you can identify that it’s just YOU, your personal preference that’s ok as long as there’s a strong reason. If you also feel that it’s just better suited to another reader, it’s ok not to review it with that in mind.
      I’m not saying only review things you like, but there’s a difference between not reviewing a bad book and not reviewing one that just doesn’t work for you because you don’t like BDSM. If that makes sense…

  4. This has happened to me a couple of times recently. I was asked both times to review the books, rather than having bought and chosen to read them myself and I hadn’t enjoyed parts of the books, purely because of the subject matter rather than the style or quality of the writing – which in the case of both books was high. Both of these books were difficult to review, and if I had bought the book myself rather than having been sent it to review, I possibly wouldn’t have reviewed them at all because I knew that my negative feelings on the books were personal rather than objective. In the end I did my best to tell readers which bits hadn’t worked and why, stressing that this was my own personal feelings whilst also pointing out that others may possibly enjoy it because the quality of writing and characterisation were good. What surprised me was that when the authors themselves blogged about my review, the people who commented claimed that I was narrow minded and made snide remarks about ‘romance readers and reviewers’ in general. I thought I had been rather open minded in my approach to the book and honest in my review. Plus, I don’t really consider myself just a romance reader as I’ve read and enjoyed many different genres throughout my reading life.
    So what lesson have I learned about this? That perhaps I should be more careful which books I accept for review! It would a shame, I think, to stop stepping out of my comfort zone, because I’ve discovered many great new authors that way.

    • I think calling you narrow minded or other remarks only shows their ignorance. You easily could have returned the book to the author without a review and said you didn’t like it and don’t want to review it. I think it’s a double edged sword because there are books I really want to read that push my boundaries. I know going into the book that it may touch on themes I don’t always like or I’m picky about. I still want to read the book – it looks good and I want to push myself – but reviewing that is always tricky.
      Smart reviewers can tell if their reaction is personal, completely acceptable, and stating that can help. I’ve never felt your personal reviews were anything but open minded and if you didn’t like an aspect that’s personal to you, you’re quick to say it’s that and not necessarily the writing itself. Thus those readers that like the genre or element can feel safe enjoying said book.
      I think the only time such criticism should be laid on a reviewer is if the review trashes the book on what is clearly a personal preference. It’s ok to dislike the book on personal preference, I mean isn’t that the whole point of reviews? But I think idenitfying issues vs. preference is the key. If you’ve done that, then is it really wrong?

  5. When I read reviews in which the reviewer admits they don’t usually read books like this and they liked the book, I will give that review a little more weight. However, if they didn’t like the book and it wasn’t because of writing, editing, or structural issues, I will discount the review.
    I participated in Kris’ challenge. I discovered that I don’t dislike reading historicals as much as I thought I did! The books I read were sort of historical lite (not bogged down in tons of historical details) and I believe that’s why I enjoyed them.
    I also read several fantasies. In both cases, I stated in my reviewette that I couldn’t really review the story because I couldn’t tell whether I didn’t enjoy the story because it was not involving, or because I couldn’t get involved in a fantasy.
    Does that make sense?! πŸ™‚

    • Of course! I don’t think every review has to be that starts out “I read everything in this genre so this validates my opinion.” I do think that reviews are valid no matter what.
      Like you, I tend to give more weight to a review where the book was able to convert the reader. Perhaps you don’t read horror but LOVED the book anyway. Perhaps you don’t read historicals but really enjoyed yourself. That speaks volumes for the book that it can cross the usual reader boundaries.
      I think as long as you state up front that you’re not reviewing a book due to personal bias, that’s completely fine. There are always going to be books you simply don’t like or the genre doesn’t appeal.

  6. I think as long as you’re upfront about your personal preferences and then make an attempt to meaningfully engage with those preferences in the review as well as address other things that did and didn’t work for you that’s okay. If you don’t or can’t do this then I personally think you should not be reviewing the book in the first place.
    For eg, there is no way in hell given my personal bias that I would ever be able to review a western historical romance with any kind of objectivity – and, yeah, I realise there is no such thing. πŸ™‚ I’ve occasionally been called on my ratings for historicals at goodreads and my response is always an honest ‘I approach most historicals with a great deal of skepticism so go look at someone else’s rating/review, you PITA’. Not really, but you get the point.
    I generally start with an honesty statement about my personal preferences at the beginning of my reviews for Wave. I hope that I am then able to go and do a fair review. No one has called me on it yet. Touch wood.
    In terms of stepping out of my comfort zone, I recently read Angelia Sparrow’s and Naomi Brooks’ Alive On The Inside. I’ve never been a horror reader, but this book totally blew me away. It was terrific regardless of my hesitation about reading the genre.

    • There IS western historical romances, in fact I’ve reviewed some before. Emily Veinglory has done some.
      I’m surprised someone called you on it. You totally should have said PITA, you’re too nice though.
      See I totally agree on Alive on the Inside. That’s a genre I don’t really like – horror – but I went into it with an open mind and ended up glued to the book, unable to put it down. Thank you very much for pushing me in that direction. I think it’s a credit to the book that it can get multiple fans into a genre they usually veer away from.

  7. Mmmm….interesting topic. As a reader I actually shy away from reviews that start off with “I don’t usually read this type of book or genre” because my immediate response is why then did you choose to read and review the book? I realize though that sometimes books are not chosen but assigned for review. But when the choice is available???
    I’m not a sci fi buff. It’s not a category of fiction that interests me at all. It never has. I’m also careful with historicals because there are certain historical periods that bore me to tears. It has absolutely nothing to do with the author or the writing it’s the genre/sub-genre. As such, I don’t choose these types of books for review because given my personal tastes I feel it’s not fair to the author, the story or readers.
    Having said this, I do look for books with subject-matters (within the genres/sub-genres that I enjoy) that take me right out of my comfort zone. Provided the book is well-written I enjoy the personal challenge not only as a reader but as a reviewer as well. I like the feeling of having my buttons pushed and of being forced me to think.
    But I do agree that if you are reading for the purposes of reviewing there is a responsibility to be careful to not confuse blaming the book because the genre/sub-genre in which it is written is not your cup of tea.

    • Thanks for commenting and Thank you! Your first statement is totally my reaction most of the time if the rating is low then I just ignore the review entirely (usually, not always).
      Most of your responses are close to my own practices. I tend to want to push myself within genres i like vs. trying for genres I don’t always like. Good to know I’m not alone in that.
      Everyone has personal tastes and interests and that’s all good. I think reviewers just have a responsibility if they’re going to put their thoughts out there. But you know, that’s probably a whole ‘nother post on reviewer responsibility. Hmm…

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