Making Nice in Book Reviews

Once again, the “you shouldn’t say mean things about a book/character in a book because you might hurt the author’s feelings” crowd has come out in full force, this time in response to a Dear Author review of Susan Grant’s latest release, Sureblood. In this particular review, the reviewer said that the heroine “made her want to puke” and was roundly chastised by some commenters for being cruel and unprofessional. (To be fair, she also got a lot of support.)

I don’t think it’s any secret that I’ve always been on the side of reviewers sharing their honest, gut-reaction opinions about the books they read. As a reader, I want to know how a reviewer really felt about the book because it helps me decide whether or not I might like it (and in some cases, if a particular reviewer hates a book, it means I’ll probably love it because our tastes differ that much.) And as an author, I don’t want reviewers to be afraid of giving an honest review for fear of hurting my feelings. I’m a grown-up, I put my work out there for criticism by getting it published, and my craft isn’t going to wither on the vine because one reviewer (or even half a dozen) says my work sucks.

(As an aside, I’d rather have dozens of negative reviews of my book available on the Internet than only a handful of very positive ones. Reviews, whether good or bad, equal exposure, and the more exposure a book gets, the more likely it is that readers will know it exists. Few reviews, even if they are all slavishly adoring, don’t do much to help a book get “traction.” The negative reviews might not make me feel as good as the positive ones, but they’re likely to do a lot more for my book’s visibility.)

But all of that said, what I find most fascinating about this debate is that there does seem to be a core thread of belief out there about not going “too hard” on books in reviews that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere else in the entertainment world. I’ve never seen a movie/television reviewer taken to task for writing a searingly negative review. And believe me, I’ve read/heard plenty of really painfully negative reviews of films and TV shows, either on the grounds of the writing or the acting or both. So why isn’t anyone worried about the egos of the poor scriptwriter(s), actors, directors, producers, camerapeople, etc.?

I suppose there may be some fans of actors who DO defend their idols with great vigor, but as far as I know, screenwriters NEVER get the kind of “defense by the minions” that authors of books seem to, and in large part, it’s the SAME job. Yes, a screenwriter’s vision goes through many more people to finally reach its audience than a novelist’s does, but by and large, it’s still about writing, about plotting, about characterization. And as for the directors, producers, and so on…NO ONE seems to worry a bit that their feelings might be hurt by a bad review.

This baffles me. I get that, when approaching a novel, it’s easy to feel a very personal connection to the author who wrote it, and that this doesn’t necessarily translate to other entertainment media (TV, movies, plays, music). But by the same token, I can’t understand how anyone believes that screenwriters, directors, actors, musicians, etc. are any less emotionally invested in their work and therefore any less subject to “ego-crushing” than authors.

I’m interested in any thoughts you have on this. Am I wrong? ARE there people out there jumping to the defense of their favorite screenwriters/directors/musicians? Or is this really something that’s pretty much unique to books, particularly fiction?

On Reviews and Fairness

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.

WTF Wednesday: The Only Honest Reviews Cost the Reviewer Money

Yes, yes, I know it’s only Monday. But sometimes, WTF Wednesday comes early. Think of it as like Christmas in July :).

This week’s early WTF Wednesday is brought to you by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission). By now, you’ve probably heard about this strange new set of guidelines, which basically requires bloggers who review books they have received for free (or, apparently, even books they paid for but to which they provide an Amazon link for purchase) to disclose their “financial” relationship with the publisher/author/seller of said book. Well, at least if they say nice things about the book.

I won’t go into a lengthy explanation of the rule here, because others have already done so. Instead, I simply point you to the post that made me drop my jaw in disbelief–an overview of a discussion with Richard Cleland of the FTC, explaining why bloggers who don’t actually get paid to review books should be subject to a different standard than those who are paid to do reviews by newspapers, magazines, etc. I’ll wait for you to get back if you haven’t already read it, because it is seriously WTF-inducing.

Back? Picked your jaw up off the floor yet?

Okay, so here was the first thing that got my undies in a twist (I’m not sure what gets yours; there’s plenty of grist for the mill): Cleland believes that when a blogger receives a free copy of a book to read, there is an “expectation” on the part of the party providing the book that the review will be positive in nature. Apparently, then, the free book is “payment” for a service being rendered by the blogger–to wit, an endorsement of the product.

Except I don’t know ANY authors who believe this. Every author I’ve ever known who has sent out review copies of her book to bloggers has worried whether the resulting review would be positive or negative (or whether there would be a review at all). And in fact, in many cases, there IS no review. Sites like Dear Author and Smart Bitches can’t possibly read and review all the books they receive–the people doing the reviews can’t read that fast or live that long. And I’ve sent out plenty of copies of Behind the Red Door to reviewers who NEVER reviewed them, one way or the other. Guess what? I don’t expect them back. They aren’t payment for a service–they’re a gift, plain and simple. There’s nothing I can do TO get them back, even if I wanted to, so the notion that the book is a payment strikes me as ludicrous. It’s only payment if you don’t get it until you do the work…but that’s pretty hard to manage in the case of book reviews.

But what troubles me even more about this rule isn’t that the FTC is asking book bloggers to disclose their “sponsorship” by authors/publishers who send them free books for review. It’s that they’re exempting the folks who really DO get sponsorship (and lots of it) from publishers and authors from the rule. You see, apparently, readers of magazines like Romantic Times or other “traditional” book review media (including the booksellers themselves) are somehow aware that those publications’ endorsements of the products reviewed in them are, by definition, NOT THE REVIEWER’S HONEST OPINION.

Um, wow. Thanks for saying what I knew all along–we can’t trust the reviews of paid media because, hey, they’re being paid for it! (And yes, I believe that WHICH books are reviewed/recommended in traditional media is strongly influenced by money. I don’t mean that publishers are paying for good reviews/recommendations per se, but I do believe that publishers DRIVE which books get attention with their advertising dollars, and that translates into greater attention to those books by reviewers.)

Okay, so now the book bloggers who don’t actually make a living at reviewing books are being asked to disclose the fact that they received a book for free (with a WHOPPING value of, what, $8 for an mmpb, $15 for a trade, and $25 for a hardcover) because I MIGHT believe their review is an honest expression of their opinion of the book. Well, heaven forfend!

To me, the irony is that I think when people read a review in the New York Times or on Publisher’s Weekly, I’m betting that for the most part, they actually think they’re reading the revewier’s honest opinion, even though the reviewer is getting paid to do the review. If we DIDN’T believe that when reading a review, regardless of the medium, why would we bother at all?

And of course, this doesn’t even get into the whole free speech thing. If I love a book and want to recommend it to my friends, how I came by it is irrelevant. I should be able to say what I want about it.

Frankly, I’m stunned by this. Even more so that this is the FTC under my president. What gives?

WTF Wednesday: Only Writers Should Review Books

By now, you’ve probably heard about author Alice Hoffman’s unseemly outbursts on Twitter in response to a less-than-glowing review of her latest novel by Roberta Silman for the Boston Globe. If you haven’t, you’ve probably been living in a hole in the ground. (I’d say a cave, but I kinda think you can get wireless in most caves these days.) However, for those who did manage to miss it, here are a couple of links to summarize:

Now, I’ve always said that an author never does herself a favor by responding to a negative review unless it’s simply to thank the reviewer for his/her time and thoughtful commentary. In other words, if you defend the book or attack the reviewer or call on your fans to give said reviewer what-for, you’re only going to come of looking bad. A truly inaccurate or vicious review speaks for itself, and readers will know it’s not trustworthy. No need for the author to come out with both guns blazing like a mother bear defending her cub. (Yeah, I know. Way to mix metaphors. So shoot me!)

That observation out of the way, what set me off about this incident isn’t Hoffman’s behavior, because as foolish and unprofessional as it may be, what she did was hardly unique. (Heck, this very week, another author by the name of Alain de Boton posted on a reviewer’s blog that he wished said reviewer nothing but ill will and would hate him until the day he died. Oh yeah, way to sound like an adult!)

No, what got me about this whole episode is this Tweet of Ms. Hoffman’s and the response to it:

“Now any idiot can be a critic. Writers used to review writers. My second novel was reviewed by Ann Tyler. Who is Roberta Silman?”

Many of Ms. Hoffman’s critics were quick to point out that Ms. Silman is, in fact, an author with numerous publishing credits to her name. They also suggested Ms. Hoffman might have considering Googling Ms. Silman’s name before she suggested the woman wasn’t “qualified” to review books by virtue of not being an author.

But that entirely misses the point, doesn’t it? Do people honestly believe only writers should review other writers’ work? WTF?

That’s like saying that anyone who’s not a painter can’t have an opinion about a painting or that a film critic has to be an actor or director to provide an accurate assessment of a movie’s merits. And I don’t think anyone believes either of those constructs. So where on God’s green earth does this “only writers can review books because they’re the only ones who can ‘understand’ them” come from? Because Ms. Hoffman is hardly the first writer I’ve seen express this opinion, and the folks who determined Ms. Silman’s qualifications for the job seem to be supporting that contention. (Note: I haven’t read everything that’s been said on this point; there may be folks out there who are saying exactly what I am. I just haven’t found them yet.)

Okay, so here’s the deal. READERS are the people we should expect and WANT to review our work. Why? Because they’re our customers! And while most writers are also readers, and therefore a segment of our “market,” they’re a tiny subset of the much larger group of folks who are just readers. If your book only appeals to the segment of readers who are also writers, you’ve got a problem. By the same token, if the segment of readers who are writers generally dislike your book, but the readers who aren’t love it (I can think of a few recent runaway bestsellers in recent years that probably fit this criteria–Da Vinci Code, anyone), I think you’re in much better shape.

It’s true that pure readers and readers who are also writers don’t always see books the same way. Just as the painter who looks at another painter’s work sees how the brush strokes were applied, how the colors were mixed, and other technical aspects that the rest of us don’t, the writer who is reading can appreciate technical elements of the craft (or decry the lack thereof) in a way readers probably can’t…at least not consciously. But that doesn’t mean that a reader’s response to a book is any less valid or less well-considered than a writer’s. And as a writer myself, I want to know that my book worked (or didn’t) for my readers…all of them, not just a tiny subset who happen to write.

So, to all the reader-reviewers out there: Please keep it up! If you review my book, I will never attack you in any way if any element of your reaction is less than positive (even if it’s really negative), and I will never pull the “you just don’t understand because you’re not a writer” card. I value and appreciate readers who take the time to think about and comment on my work (and that of other writers), so don’t let the nasties out there treat you as if you are not worthy.

In my opinion, you’re the worthiest people I know!