Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Spoil Sport: How Spoilerish Should Book Reviews Be?

Thanks to Amazon, everyone’s a reviewer now. While over a thousand people are getting sued for leaving false reviews, that still leaves millions of others who aren’t. I’m not saying that people who leave reviews should be sued. Just the people who leave bad reviews on my books. Ha ha. Just kidding. No, really. I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve only had two negative reviews, and in both cases, the reviewers followed the rules – they were specific about their complaints, and, more importantly, they didn’t give any spoilers. For many authors I know, spoilers in their Amazon reviews are incredibly annoying. But these reviewers are amateurs. Should professionals make sure not to reveal later plot twists?

As a reviewer for Chick Lit Central, I’ve written a heck of a lot more reviews than books. And the spoilers thing is something I grapple with regularly. I generally try not to reveal anything that happens in a book after about the first 25%, which is up to and including the first major plot point. That is usually what you’ll find in the plot description given on the book’s back cover, so it feels fair.

But sometimes something happens after that point that is so big, it changes the feel of the entire book. For instance, one book I read was a pretty fun ride until the last third, when the writer decided to kill off a teenage girl in a casual manner and then have the protagonist make internal jokes at her funeral. This might have worked had the protagonist been a psychopath but not in women’s fiction. Before that point, I’d been working on a fairly positive review for the book. Instead, I opted not to review it at all.

A few months ago, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies came out with a lot of fanfare, and the reviews were positive. I was intrigued by the idea of a book about marriage written first from the husband’s point of view, then from the wife’s, that didn’t include anyone faking their own death. It sounded good, and I put it on hold at my local library. (Can I just do a quick shout out here for the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative and the amazing job they do getting the latest books and circulating them around the system? And, just, libraries in general. What an amazing concept. Thank you, Ben Franklin, and thank you PPLC.)

Then I read this review over the weekend in the New Yorker. Turns out that Fates and Furies is not the book I thought it was. Not that Groff really needs to worry about losing one potential reader, but I’m taking the book off my list.

As a reader, I’m grateful for the time saved. As a writer, I’m torn. I believe readers should know exactly what type of ride they’ve signed up for when downloading, borrowing or buying a book – especially for someone who’s shelling out nearly $30 for a hard cover. (Which I don’t often do, but am planning for the new Stephen King. But as a writer, I’m perturbed that the reviewer wasn’t more indirect about the book’s second half. Don’t readers deserve a chance to decide for themselves whether these plot twists work? Shouldn’t a review that gives readers the book’s concept, characters, tone, and first plot point or two be enough?

This reviewer seemed to write his piece as a warning: The book doesn’t deserve the positive press it’s gotten so far. And I appreciate that he saved me the time of reading a book that would disappoint me, not to mention an extra trip to the library. But this was the New Yorker, friends. I imagine it devastated Groff.


  1. I appreciate it when reviewers don't give away any more than what's already revealed on the cover blurb. But it's interesting... this point that the New Yorker reviewer makes, that "a novel that can be truly “spoiled” by the summary of its plot is a novel that was already spoiled by that plot.' That statement really makes me think of a book I just read (which shall remain nameless...) which had a big plot twist in it. But that big twist (IMHO) was the only thing the book had going for it. To me, everything in the book (and parts of it were rather boring because they were so laden down with backstory) was geared toward that twist. If folks give away her twist in the their reviews, there'd kinda be no point in reading the book. Maybe I'll look at spoilery reviews differently now, thinking of that statement from the reviewer.

    1. Interesting point. However, I must point out that you basically reviewed that book without giving away the title or the big plot twist. Boring, too much back story, and the entire book is dependent on the big twist. I don't need to know what the twist is in order to know not to bother with the book!