I’ve meditated before on how hard it is for authors to sit on their hands and not argue with a review they disagree with. I’ve also said I think it’s the only right way to handle it. As an author, you have to put your book out there and let it speak for itself. If a reviewer doesn’t “get” it or doesn’t like it, for whatever reason, it’s appropriate to thank the reviewer for their time and then turn away. (I did recently respond to a review in which the reader said she found the POV shifts hard to follow, and because I knew we’d taken out the scene breaks that originally demarcated them in the editorial cycle, I mentioned that in my comment. But even without the scene breaks, if she wasn’t sure whose POV she was in at all times, it’s my fault as the author for not making it clearer and obviously something I can do better.)
That said, I’ve been thinking lately about what is “fair” in a review and what isn’t. In recent weeks, I’ve noticed a fair number of comment threads in which the reviewer is taken to task for allowing his or her biases, education, or preferences to “prejudice” their reading of the book. Apparently, these folks think that reviewers ought to read as if they are blank slates, with no prejudices whatsoever, and judge the book solely based upon…what exactly?
And that’s the problem, isn’t it? If a reviewer can’t invoke his or her biases, education, or preferences in evaluating a book, what the heck is left? I don’t know how anyone can ever come to a book without any preconceptions. It’s just not possible. Every reader’s response to every book is as individual as that person. If no one is allowed to bring their life experiences to their perceptions of a book, no one can ever review any book, period, because everyone’s reaction to a book is inherently subjective. There’s no such thing as an “objective” review, and I think we ought to throw the idea that they can or ought to be out the window with the baby and the bathwater.
That said, there’s objective and then there’s “objective.” By “objective” in quotes, I mean that the reviewer has somehow been “cherry-picked” and/or influenced in some manner to give a particular review, usually a positive one rather than a negative one. As an author, I always prefer reviews written by people with whom I have no personal relationship. Not that I don’t love hearing how my friends loved my book, but that’s a lot less important to me than the opinion of a reader I don’t know from Adam. I also find there are some review sites which seem to give glowing reviews of nearly every book they review. I tend to have a lot less faith in the “objectivity” of those reviews, especially when I know the publisher has provided a free copy, than of those where the ratings vary from the very positive to the very negative. (And I would be just as wary, of course, of a review site that seemed to post nothing but negative reviews.)
I also think it’s not fair to give a book a negative review because you don’t like the author personally, because you think the author is ugly or fat, or because (and this one is a little more slippery) because you hate all books of that genre. This isn’t to say that I don’t think reviewers should ever try to read a book in a genre that hasn’t previously appealed to them or to read books with characters or plot situations they usually find unpleasant or distasteful. It’s just to say that if the only reason for reading it is to confirm your suspicion that you are right and everything like this is trash, it may not be a good idea of actually write a review after you’ve read it, unless, of course, you are completely upfront about your intentions. (And by, it might not be a good idea, I don’t mean you can’t write a review. I just mean that when people accuse you of not being fair in your review, they’re probably right.) This sort of thing happens a lot with books in the romance genre (we’ve all read the opinions of people who’ve read one romance and concluded it’s all mindless drivel), but I’m sure it also happens to books in other genres as well, and that sort of blanket criticism truly isn’t fair.
But other than those situations, I can’t think about much that’s not as fair in reviews as it is in love and war. As a writer, I might like it if I could tell readers to judge the book solely by MY intentions and what I believe I put on the page, but the reality is, I know that’s impossible. One reason I know it’s impossible is because I can’t do it, either.
So, what do you think? What makes a review fair or unfair? I’d love to hear your thoughts.