Friday, June 21, 2013

Authors as Reviewers

Yesterday a link to a blog post showed up in my Facebook feed over and over. The title of the article is "Should Authors Write Bad Book Reviews?" (henceforth "SAWBBR")

I jokingly said this as a response on my FB wall:
"I say, no one should write bad book reviews.
If you're going to write a review, do it well."

I understand that the SAWBBR blogger actually means negative book reviews. And...I happen to disagree with her.

As I said in THIS blog post on my blog a few months ago:
I've labored over my decision to review books, especially YA books. What's going to happen if one day my books take off, and suddenly I am face to face with some of the authors I've given negative reviews? Will I be sitting alone in the cafeteria, the one hated by all the populars?
SAWBBR implies that yes, you should not give negative reviews for that very reason. You might anger or hurt the author you have reviewed and they may hate you forever. She basically says that because writers are oversensitive, it's our job as fellow writers to never hurt their feelings. Listen, I went into this writing thing knowing I was going to have readers and fellow writers who don't like my work, and who are willing to say so. All writers should know this. You should not put your work out for all to see and expect nothing but gushing praise. Being an emotional artist is not an excuse.

Ah, but there's the whole "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" thing. You know, silence is golden. Just don't review the book at all and the author will get the message without you having to say a single hurtful word.

But the reviews aren't for the author of the book. The reviews are there for readers, and what silence says to readers is something entirely different. When a book has only a few reviews, it does not tell other readers that the book is hated--it tells them that it isn't being read at all. And when a book has gobs of positive reviews and no negative ones, it gives the reader nothing for comparison. Silence doesn't speak volumes, it says nothing.

And since the whole idea behind the article addresses why authors shouldn't give negative reviews for fear that it can hurt their careers, let me say this:

When a reader looks at the list of books a reviewer has reviewed and sees only five-star ratings, that is ALL the information they have about that reviewer. It could mean the the reviewer is not an avid reader and they are impressed with every book they have read. It could mean they only review for friends. It tells readers nothing about what the reviewer does not like, what would make them give a book two stars or only one.

In all honesty, when I see that a reviewer (author or not) only ever gives four and five-star reviews, I tend to dismiss their opinions altogether. I don't assume there are a slew of books out there that they are simply holding their tongue about. And if I know they are an author, I assume they consider reviewing a way to prop up their fellow writers. What I see when a writer says they will give only positive reviews is someone who expects only positive reviews. One of the blog commenters on SAWBBR actually says, "I agree that reviewers should not post 1 or 2 star reviews. When my book comes out, I hope that people will extend that courtesy to me." That reeks of "I scratch your back, you scratch mine."

I really am trying to keep this post from being a point-by-point dismissal of SAWBBR. The author there has a right to her opinion, but one thing in particular really galls me. She says:
"So when I see this in new writers? It’s cute. Like baby steps. When a baby is learning to walk, we don’t yell, “YOU SO SUCK. CAN’T EVEN WALK! LUZR!” A lot of the writers brave enough to go it alone know they are risking rejection, but I prefer to focus on their bravery and not the lack of plot."
I'm sorry, but that boils down to praising in public for someone publishing before they have mastered the craft of writing. If I bought a car and the car was made by someone who hadn't mastered the craft of car design and mechanics, or I bought an outfit by someone just learning to operate a sewing machine, while under the impression that they were a professional in their field....Uh-uh. The whole point of all the gate-keepers and editors and revisions and revisions and revisions is so that what ends up published is actually at a publishable level. Baby steps should be taken in the safety of the living room, not in the middle of the road during a marathon. I really don't consider calling them out on it "hurting my brand." I want readers to respect my opinion on books, and if I'm in defense of authors who have no business self-publishing when they are nowhere near ready, how is that going to help me? (BTW--you can give an honest and negative review and not call someone a loser.)

The final thought in SAWBBR is that critique should be reserved for private emails. The author gets emails from people who point out typos, and it's "super sweet' because they "cared." Yes, and that's great. I've got no issue with a reader privately emailing an author to point out typos. But...typos don't belong in reviews. You do not knock off four stars because of a misplaced comma or a single instance of their when it should be there. ALL books have typos in them. Those little beasts are impossible to get rid of completely, and it's lovely having someone help find them.

But I would not ever presume to send a private unsolicited email to an author listing out what I think they did wrong. I've been asked directly for reviews and emailed authors privately about issues I found in their books. I've emailed a couple that had so many issues I had to tell, I'm sorry, I won't review this publicly. Because I do, in fact, have a heart and if I have agreed to *swap* a review with another author I'm not going to let them (possibly) rave about my book while I bash theirs publicly. But guess what? Those authors have since given me the cold shoulder. They did not at all find my emails super-sweet, even though I wrote them because I cared. I can't imagine sending an email to an author who has no idea who I am and who did not ask for my opinion and expecting them to think I'm anything but a pretentious prat.

No, I actually feel you need to post your reviews as a reviewer, and unless you already have a relationship with the author in question that allows you a personal email, keep it out where others can see it. Take responsibility for your words. Own up to them.

I truly believe that readers find my opinions on books more trustworthy because I'm willing to speak out against books I don't like. And because I'm willing to accept negative criticism out in the open. Yes, I've gotten negative reviews--and I did not have an emotional writer hissy fit.

Lastly, an observation of my own that came about during discussion of SAWBBR on my Facebook page.

The idea that avoiding negative reviews is a way of protecting my own career feels...selfish. As I said, reviews aren't for authors--they're for readers, and it's for readers that I write those reviews. For them alone, and putting my career before my loyalty to readers doesn't feel right to me. And definitely going about it with the attitude that I won't give negative reviews to avoid getting them....well, you know how I feel about that.

That said, I believe there is a level of success an author can reach where negative reviews end up with superpowers. When an author's name holds more weight than the words of the review alone, there is an issue, and those authors need to be very careful. Instead of being a one or two star in a sea of ratings, theirs can end up elevated to unnatural levels. This is why when I see a NYT bestselling author refuse to review books, I'm okay with it. But generally, they simply don't review at all rather than hand out only five-stars, and that is huge difference. They step away and refuse to be a reviewer of any kind, and I don't find that in opposition to my stance of being in as a reviewer means being in all the way.

So maybe some day I'll be proved* wrong in the way I've decided to handle it. I may find that writing negative reviews, and possibly writing this very blog post, will result in writing-career suicide for me. In the meantime, I'm keeping my reviewer hat.

(*grammar nazis--if I have that form of the word wrong, please tell me--I could not find it for sure online)


Anonymous said...

You pretty much said everything I was thinking. I like very much that you emphasise that reviews are for READERS, not authors.

As for the grammar nazi future conditional tense of "prove" I think "proved" is okay. I personal prefer "proven" but I believe that's now considered an archaiac conjugation


Kat Heckenbach said...

Thank you, Katherine. For the comment and the grammar help :).

Kessie said...

Did you read Kirsten's post today?

She addresses the review vs critique conundrum. You might enjoy the discussion.

Kat Heckenbach said...

Yeah, I actually noticed that today as was tweaking this post. I do agree--reviews should be reviews, not line by line critiques. I do think a lot of newbie authors get caught up in giving what would really be considered a critique when they are supposed to be reviewing--and I have probably been guilty of that here and there. But I try to write my reviews as a reader, to readers.

Still--I should be able to write *negative* reviews, as a reader, to readers.

Anyway, yes, thanks for adding that link, Kessie. It would do for readers to see that one as well.

Jill said...

As soon as you reviewed my book, I checked out your other reviews. I wanted to see if you were being honest with me (even though you insisted that you were; I was still sceptical). It meant a lot to me that you write a lot of reviews and don't always rate books highly. That's my perspective as an author. Your integrity as a reviewer makes your critiques valuable. I'm kind of an oddball reviewer--I tend to read a lot of nonfiction, which I don't currently write. I feel very comfortable reviewing nonfiction books. And my reasons for liking fiction are often very bizarre. I don't know what to say about that. I enjoying writing reviews when I have the time to do so, and I don't plan on stopping.
p.s. As to the latest Kristen Lamb article, I can agree with that to an extent. That 2-star review you have on your werewolf story--which I read and enjoyed--seems to fall into that category, where the person writing it sounds like he's been in creative writing workshops (I could be wrong--don't know the man at all).

Kat Heckenbach said...

Jill, I can say the same thing about your reviews of my writing--the fact that your opinion means more because I know you to not be someone who arbitrarily hands out compliments. I know you speak your mind, and therefore I trust that something positive is genuine coming from you.

And that is how I feel about reviewers in general. I'm MUCH more interested in a review from someone willing to speak freely.