A conversation on Twitter a few weeks ago about the challenges of reviewing books in the new social media got me to thinking about what it must be like to be a book-blogger and/or online reviewer who ends up interacting not just with other readers but with writers and other people in the publishing industry in a way that could not really have happened quite so extensively before.
So I asked reviewer Paul Weimer to write a guest post about his experiences and thoughts. Here it is! (KE)
The Stress of their Regard: Book Reviews and the Reactions to them.
by Paul Weimer
Like Thomas Jefferson, I cannot live without books. Reading books, be it fiction or nonfiction, an epic fantasy or the life of Cicero, makes up a substantial amount of my recreational time. And like anyone, I form opinions about the book, as I am reading (electronic books are wonderful for this), and after I have read the book.
I am a writer, and so my opinions, observations and perspectives about a book inevitably find themselves committed to words. As an active member of the genre community, these thoughts on books and authors inevitably find publication in a number of online venues.
However, publishing book reviews, especially in a hothouse environment that the world of genre fiction can be, comes with a set of challenges and stresses that threaten to corrode my will and desire to share my opinions. It is those challenges and stresses that I would like to elucidate for you.
It is a tightrope act, for me as a reviewer, to write a book review, whether a book exceeded my expectations, or fell vastly short of them. On the one hand, my personal ethics as a reviewer, and the role I play, mandate honesty in my reviews for books. The currency of respect I earn is only valid if my reviews are an honest assessment of the book I have read, presented in a clear and concise manner. If I am dishonest in my reviews, it will quickly come across the page, and my reviews will be at best unread, and worst, denigrated and shunned.
On the other hand, my place in the genre community means that I am often extremely chatty, virtually and otherwise, with the writers I am reading. Some of them I consider friends. When a book of theirs doesn’t meet all of my expectations, or even worse, falls flat for me, there is a real problem for me as a reviewer and as a person. I don’t have illusions that I move the meter on sales for a writer, much. However, slagging their novel baby or being perceived as having done so, makes me a bad social actor, and a bad friend.
I recently quailed over writing a review of a book that simply fell far short of expectations for me. I like the author. The author likes me. With reservations, I liked the author’s debut effort, but this second effort did not meet my expectations and hopes. Writing a review that is honest and fair, and yet does not cause unintended mental anguish in the friend has been extremely difficult.
On the other hand, when I am confronted with a book I absolutely adore and want to tell the world about, the reverse problem applies. Did I really like the book that much, or am I being too much of a promoter for the author and her work? Am I allowing the friendship and respect I have for the writer and her work to cloud my judgement of flaws and problems with a book? How much of a glowing review is me wishing the author well? How do I convey to the reader genuine enthusiasm and elucidate the real quality of the author’s work? How do I avoid looking like I am fawning over a writer’s work? How do I avoid unknowingly fawning over a book?
These tensions form a conundrum that I continually am confronted with. Keep reviews fair and honest, and remain a responsible social actor with the friends and acquaintances I have made, in readers, fellow reviewers, and authors. Every book I read, every review I write is a re-assessment of this fundamental problem. Every review is a new change to grapple with these issues. It causes me stress every time I start on a review. It even starts as I am reading a book, wondering what I am going to write about it, how I am going to handle these issues this time out.
So why do I persist? Why do I put myself through this wringer? Why don’t I simply trunk my reviews? There are two main reasons.
First, any writer, and I am no exception, wants their work to be seen by others. A trunked review is little better than just composing it in my own mind, save for the chance to work on my craft. A writer wants their work to be seen, to be read, to have life beyond their computer screen. I am no exception to this rule. Until my reviews started being published in higher visibility online locales, they languished for lack of attention and feedback. Now, I have people who look forward to my next review, and the reviews have given me offers and opportunities to write other things, in a variety of venues.
Second, I feel like I am providing a useful service. If I can walk that tightrope, and provide fair, balanced, ethical and honest reviews of books, I am providing useful information and feedback out there about books, for readers and authors alike. There are a swath of book review sites which are nothing but glowing reviews of the books they receive, read and review. the reviews at aggregate sites like Amazon are often worse than useless in trying to determine if a book is worth reading, given the propensity for people to use reviews as a way to grind their ax, be it complaints about the cost, jihads against an author, or even stranger obsessions. I like to think my review is far more valuable than that white noise.
So what have I learned? I’ve been reviewing for years, but only in the last year and a half have my reviews had any large amount of visibility due to the venues they have been published in. I have noticed an evolution in my style, improvement in my writing, and an increased readership. I firmly believe that readers and writers reading my work, commenting and talking about my reviews, and in general the greater visibility of my work makes me a better reviewer. I’ve learned from reading my fellow reviewers, as well, studying what they do, what they eschew, and how people react to their work. I have flourished under the pressure.
And so I persist in staying in the stress of their regard as I read and review books.
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota for the last 10 years, Paul “PrinceJvstin” Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy long before there was a World Wide Web. He and his book reviews, columns and other contributions to genre can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style,[http://www.skyseastone.net/jvstin ] SF Signal[http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/author/paulweimer/ ] the Functional Nerds[ http://functionalnerds.com/category/book-review/paul-weimer/] , Twitter[http://twitter.com/#!/PrinceJvstin ] , Livejournal[ http://princejvstin.livejournal.com/] and many other places on the Internet.
I wouldn’t worry about it. Your job is to give honest reviews, and that helps writers and it helps the industry. Who can complain about that?
When I get a solid, critical review, I am (after my initial freakout) actually flattered. That’s because 1) the reviewer took the time to read my work and 2) took the time to write a review and 3) thought I could do better. What’s hidden inside criticism is advice and encouragement. Anyone in a critique group knows that the “I loved it!” critiques are useless. You need the meat to improve your craft.
My very first writing effort was terrible. I gave it to my best friend, who within a few days said, “This is unreadable and I will tell you why . . .” Without that I never would have gone on to be published. By the way–still my best friend.
We’re all professionals – at least that’s what I try to pretend to be. Part of that is doing our jobs. Authors write and strive to improve their craft; reviewers give their honest opinions as to whether that’s working. Both promote books and bring attention to the publishing industry. Yay, right?
I very much agree with your assessment of solid critical reviews.
I personally find that any review that in the most basic sense treats my work with respect almost always contains something encouraging and or positive within it, regardless of how negative or positive the review is. I’ve had positive reviews that, ultimately, didn’t feel very respectful. By which I don’t mean “they must respect me” as a form of flattery or authority but rather that they were a bit condescending or in rare cases outright trolling (and I’ve gotten those “this dumb girl stuff” comments).
I guess that’s a thing for me, though, this notion of respect.
Wonderful post, Paul!!
Paul, that was nicely said and it’s something I struggle myself too. But I figure as long as I’m honest with how I feel about a book, all will work out in the end. When I started blogging, my “mission” was two fold, help promote books I like and help readers find books they’d want to read (or avoid as the case may be). And I think I’ve remained true to that throughout. With those two ideas in mind, it’s helped me keep myself honest both as it regards responsibilities with both the author and readership to the best of my ability. As long as I’ve remained honest with myself, I can face whatever comes my way.
I’ve had authors whose works I’ve been critical of in some manner, and have gone out of their way to thank me for my thoughts. When I’ve had that kind of feedback, it further encourages me to be honest with the good as with the bad because I do feel that if an author ends up reading my review, that I can give a certain perspective for them to consider. By the same token, I invite readers to take certain aspects into consideration so that can evaluate if it’s a book they’d want to read.
In fact, I’ve found some readers say that they’ve become highly interested in a book even when I spent more than half the review complaining about things I didn’t like. So go figure.
It can become hard with authors you’ve become friends with, authors that have sent you a copy in the hopes for a review, and then you don’t end up liking it. What to do then? I didn’t like it, so I’m hesitant to review it. The author sent me a copy, so it’s inevitable that I’d feel guilty if I don’t give it the time to review it. That’s my biggest struggle so far as a reviewer. But it’s a struggle worth having.
Here’s the other problem I find myself at times. How critical can I be about a certain novel, without discouraging potential readers to buy the book? This is important to me despite how honest I want to be. Reason is, if the book doesn’t sell, what happens to the possibility of a sequel? A sequel I’d want to read despite me being critical of some things. It almost feels like shooting myself in the foot.
In all, there’s no easy solution. So all we can do is the best with what we have, and keep things honest. And if everything is framed within the proper context, I think everything works out as it should in the end. I’m of a mind that as long as I tell the truth as I see it, am respectful while doing, all will be OK. With that in mind, if an author shuns you while you were respectful, but critical of his/her work, then honestly, that may not be an author I’d like to be associated with. So I can rationalize it that way despite the pain it may cause, and move on to better pastures.
People react to criticism differently, so there’s really not much you can do about it.
As an interesting aside, I interviewed an author last week whose debut novel I didn’t like last year. I didn’t review it, but I had a few things to say about it on my early days on twitter. Some of it quite harsh. And yes, you bet this author was reading my comments, but kept to herself (one of my early lessons of social media :P). She became a follower of mine, which was quite curious, and something I doubt was easy for her. We didn’t interact right away, but through the months we’ve talked a few times, and yes it became obvious that she had been seeing those comments of mine, but kept things friendly with me despite this. She’s gained my utmost respect, and the interview I did with her took a lot of courage from her part.
All this to say, that you never know how the ball will roll, you just have to carry yourself the best way you can, learn from mistakes, and keep doing what you do to the best of your abilities. Heck you might lose friends doing what’s right, and gain some while doing what’s wrong, so just be true to yourself and things become manageable.
I’ve seen mixed reviews that caused readers to say they were going to pick up the book. Reviewer: I didn’t like X aspect because that’s not a favorite trope for me. Reader: Oh, I really like that trope, I’m definitely picking this book up.
What I really like are discussions of books in which readers don’t feel the need to agree on everything (whether hating or loving a book).
There are some reviewers I follow just because if they don’t like something, chances are I will. I disagree with many of their sentiments.
I’ve heard other people say that, too. And I’ve seen this in blogs, too, when a reader says (of a negative review) “oh, that sounds like just like my thing.”
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