Sunday, April 30, 2006

Under Review: One reviewer's reluctance to shred

When I argue something, I’m full-blooded Irish, hot-headed and I’d swear my hair gets redder than usual. My face certainly does.

The problem is, I tend to really argue on things I feel passionately about.

Weird thing is, I don’t like confrontation. I’ve even avoided all Crime Writers of Canada events locally so I don’t have to see anyone from my old writer’s group. Even thinking back over my life and people who’ve really done horrid things to me, I’ve wanted to bitch-slap a few, but it’s a revenge I only take through fiction. From the time I was a teenager, I seriously don’t think I’ve struck back anyone who hit me.

The anger all gets vented elsewhere, or stored. I can argue online no problem, but face to face? Man, you have to really push my buttons.

So, I see the contradictions within me. Opinionated and passionate, but a people pleaser too, more like a dog than a cat, wanting approval from people, wanting to be liked.

Which is likely a big part of the reason I have so much trouble with reviews. Now, I had my first newspaper column when I was 13, so some of it does come from experience, having things scrapped because they weren’t scathing enough. I thought reviews were supposed to be your honest assessment, but not for some publications. Some manufacture interest by fueling the fires of controversy. Best thing to do is attack something popular.

Last year after reviewing some books I said to one of the authors, “Personally, I don't 'do' reviews. I completely don't get the need some people seem to have to go around criticizing things in order to make themselves seem intelligent or important. Even reviews I have read that are positive about the book in question seem to find a way of working in a criticism of someone else.

So that might make me a bit more of a gushing fan on the occasions when my husband coerces me into doing "reviews" for Spinetingler, but I don't care. There are plenty of other people out there eager to tell authors when they've got it wrong. And most of their opinions aren't worth the price of the paper they're written on.”

And I’ll stand by one thing – reviews are opinions.

And we all know what they say about opinions.

But I am now, officially, screwed.

Last July, we were averaging a few hundred downloads per issue of Spinetingler. That’s changed. Now we’re averaging almost 3000. And that doesn’t include online reads.

Every time I tried to extricate myself from responsibilities for the magazine, I got sucked in deeper than ever before. I’ve finally just given up on it. I do have problems – conflicts of interest – and when I see submissions from names that I know even from the blogs and forums, I remove myself from the selection process.

In fact, I haven’t even read some of the stories going into the next issue that are by people I “know”. If I didn’t do the editing on it, I haven’t read it yet.

But that’s a side note, just to say that I try to be fair. I have my principles and I try to live by them.

Which brings me back to my rules for reviews. Until now, for Spinetingler I only did reviews “after the fact”. I’d read a book, really enjoy it and then do a write-up.

I didn’t pick up a book with it in my head that I was going to review it.

With the phenomenal growth of Spinetingler has come the inevitable change. We added the review site. Not that I routinely put stuff up there, but we did it to help promote more authors.

And we’ve had tons of submissions. In two months we’ve had 95 reviews submitted for the review site by 6 reviewers. I must say I’m thankful there are so many people out there passionate enough to take their free time to write up reviews on books.

Along with the review site and the growing awareness surrounding Spinetingler, there has also been an increased interest in me. It might seem funny to you to hear me say I never thought about this as a byproduct, but now, authors and publicists are asking me to review books and if I’ll interview them.

Man, what happened to me just mustering the courage to ask people I sorta knew or really badly wanted to interview, to the point where I wanted to do it more than I was afraid of asking?

You think I’m lying, but it took me 7 months to ask one of my favourite authors and technically, I didn’t ask. I said, “I would ask you, but…”

Lucky me, he said he’d do an interview anyway.

But I’m not casual about doing this stuff. I read a few, if not all, of an author’s works before interviewing them. I read other interviews they’ve done. I’ve done interviews on the fly when I’ve needed to, but in this forum, there’s no call for that. There’s no excuse for me doing an interview unprepared.

So, the requests from authors for me to interview them? Wild. Scary.

More frightening still, I’m getting review copies of books sent to me.

Holy crap, people want to hear my opinion?

Man, I’ve got to tell you, that’s daunting.

See, it’s different when people send me review copies. I’ve got to call it like I see it. And I really hate the feeling of writing a negative review. I can’t help but feel bad for an author that’s slaved over their baby and put it out there…It’s like saying, “God I’m so sorry your lovechild is butt-ugly.”

Other people might feel a thrill to knock someone down a peg or two, but that’s something I feel only about people who’ve really pissed me off. And even then, I haven’t kicked stories by people I’ve had issues with – I’ve just passed them on as per usual.

I know a lot of people would wonder what’s so hard about giving my opinion but even when I critique I feel this pressure on myself to be thorough and fair, to try to be encouraging where I can be while being honest.

In fact, if a well-received book isn’t working for me, I’ll usually try again, because I’m aware of the fact that sometimes, I’m tired, stressed, have been too annoyed with my own edits or whatever, and am just not in the mood and the only reason the book is falling short is because I’m in such a cantankerous state that nothing would please me.

Which is why I am very reluctant to shoot of my mouth with criticism on writing.

This is something I can't feel too casual about, and perhaps that’s what will keep me good at it – that I never lose that gut-wrenching awareness that I’m just one person with an opinion, and that even if a particular style or subgenre doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t mean the whole book is garbage.

Two review copies hit my desk recently. The Forest of Souls by Carla Banks and Rhapsody in Blood by John Morgan Wilson.

And I have to say that reviewing the book by Carla Banks has me unnerved.

Little me at home on the prairies in Canada, reviewing Danuta Reah’s book (Carla Banks is a pseudonym). Not because I got it in my head to do it, but because it was sent to me.

I’m simultaneously honoured and baffled.

Just a few months ago, someone did a critique on a piece of writing and asked me if I agreed with their views. And I said, “What difference does it make what I think?”

I am, after all, only one person with an opinion. But perhaps because I know what it is to slave over my own creation, to put pen to paper and try to breathe life into the characters and make the story engaging, I am aware of the skill it takes just to complete a manuscript.

Never mind publish it.

Recently, Val McDermid said something about reviews (her second comment down on the thread) that really gave me a different way to look at them. I will always be mindful of not wanting to just write a trash review for the sake of being critical and trying to show off how smart and insightful I am.

But I will also bear in mind that a balanced review can be of value to an author, especially given in the right spirit, which is with the goal that should be every author’s – to help them find ways to write an even better book.

Because in this business, there will always be room for improvement. There will always be a new goal to strive for.

And I’m going to see my job as being two-fold – to help readers identify who the book is best suited for, and to try to point the author in the direction that will take their work to the next level.

Which sounds awfully arrogant of me to say.

As though I have all the answers.

What do you guys think of reviews? Do you pay attention to them? Some of them?
How do you choose which books you read?

Thank God – A Joke!
One afternoon a lawyer was riding in his limousine when he saw two men along the roadside eating grass.

Disturbed, he ordered his driver to stop and he got out to investigate.

He asked one man, "Why are you eating grass?"

"We don't have any money for food," the poor man replied. "We have to eat grass."

"Well, then, you can come with me to my house and I'll feed you" the lawyer said.

"But sir, I have a wife and two children with me. They are over there, under that tree."

"Bring them along" the lawyer replied. Turning to the other poor man he stated, "You come with us also."

The second man, in a pitiful voice then said, "But sir, I also have a wife and SIX children with me!"

"Bring them all, as well," the lawyer answered.

They all entered the car, which was no easy task, even for a car as large as the limousine was.

Once underway, one of the poor fellows turned to the lawyer and said, "Sir, you are too kind. Thank you for taking all of us with you."

The lawyer replied, "Glad to do it. You'll really love my place.

The grass is almost a foot high."


Bonnie Calhoun said...

Oh, Sandra...I'm gonna' hafta' find you some jokes...LOL...that was bad...LOL...

But on the reality side, it looks like you've become a force to be reckoned with, in the publishing world....You go girlfriend!

M. G. Tarquini said...

Mental Note:

Stay on Sandra's good side.

How I decide what books to buy:

If I like the cover.

How the following statement affects me:

Weird thing is, I don’t like confrontation

**peels of helpless laughter**

Stuart MacBride said...

The hard thing is finding a proper, constructive review. Something that lets you know what you did wrong (at least in the reviewer’s opinion) so you can fix it. Or ignore it if you don’t have the same problem with it that he/she has.

There have been things that have made me think, ‘Hmm… they’ve got a point there…’ others that have made me shrug, ‘Nope, you just didn’t get that bit at all…’ and others that make me laugh my arse off. The reviews that are simply there to bash the author, or the book, are the ones I pay no attention to now.

But getting sent free review copies: how cool is that? Next thing we know you’ll be getting too big for your boots and have to walk round in your socks. Making everyone faint from the smell of mouldy cheese ;}#

Sandra Ruttan said...

Bonnie, please send jokes my way. My bank of jokes is getting pretty thin!

Mindy, LOL! Maybe we should plan a live fight.

Stuart, and I thought you weren't going to tell anyone about what happens when I'm down to stockings. Geesh, the things you think are private!

Seriously, you make good points about reviews. I still think it sucks for authors to be subjected to reviews that are nothing more than bashing opportunities against an author or book.

Though I suppose it's good for you to remember regularly that you aren't Ian Rankin.

Trace said...

You're getting sent books because you're the bomb, Sandra. You'll be bigger than Ebert before you even know it!

How do I choose books? Lots of ways. Word of mouth. The blurb at the back of a book. Book cover (I'm a very visual person.). If I like the cover I'll pick the book up and flip through the pages. I'll read the first couple and if I like the writing style I may buy it.

Sometimes a good review will make me buy a book but I've bought several that had awful reviews because I've read those authors and know what they're capable of. And like you say, a review is only an opinion :)

For The Trees said...

Sandra, I understand - from your eloquent post - your angst about reviewing. I think that's the problem with caring: you can't just dash something off, and the hell with the fallout. Writing a review of someone's work apparently seems to be an exercise in tearing it down. And most of the reviews I've seen do just that. It's as though they can't stand someone having it good.

Then again, when I read a well-written and glowing review, I tend to go to Amazon and read as much as I can about it - excerpt if available, cover, etc. - and then bookmark it for some month to come when I can afford to get it. So far I've got I think 5 bookmarked, that I was attracted to by the reviews. And I've bought maybe 5 so far this year that I read good glowing reviews on.

I've managed to avoid really negative reviews, how I don't know. Maybe because I stop reading them almost immediately if it is nasty. I figure the book will stand or fall on its own, why topple it with a bad review?

Now if ALL the reviews I read are truncated because of the negativity, I won't consider the book in the first place. Oh, well, can't read them all.

Then again, since you won't read/review the stuff you'd put in Spinetingler, why don't you offer to critique MY writing - TOTALLY different genre and head space - so you can take a break?



Well, will ya?

(Sorry, just had to add that bit. I'm really manic today.)

Sandra Ruttan said...

Trace, I hope that "bigger than Ebert" comment isn't meant literally. I mean, he's a smart guy but it's not the look I'm going for.

Forrest, your slander of me on your blog today is hilarious. Thanks for taking the whip to me.

I won't read submissions to Spinetingler that come from people I "know". The reviews...the reviews are increasing instead of decreasing. Ugh. And honestly, it's painful to consider reviewing a book by someone I know personally. If I feel the book falls short I'd much rather have them over for tea and cookies and talk than tear them apart in writing.

I would read more of your work and critique it, but for lack of time at the moment. I'm really having to learn how to say "no". I've got these books to do, three interviews pending, have been asked to do an interview, have the next Spinetingler to finish assembling and have to pick the selections for the Canadian issue, start those edits and do a review/interview for that issue as well.

Plus finish the edits to my own book.

So I'm actually pretty busy at the moment, have even been a bit less on the blogs. And I have an article due to Crimespree as well.

All of which means it'll likely be several weeks before I take on much new. I'm afraid I'm indebted to several people who need me for various things right now, and I always have to keep a reserve of time on hand for those guys, even if it means giving up sleep.

Lisa Hunter said...

I may have mentioned this already, but several years ago, The New Yorker ran profiles of several of the top critics. They were asked their favorite foods, movies, TV shows, vacation spots, etc. You could see how your tastes matched up and decide if you were likely to agree with them on whatever it was they were reviewing.

But a bigger question is how reviewing became about one persons opinion about a book. In art reviewing, explaining the context of the work is a key part of reviewing; you have to show what standards you're holding it to before deciding if it succeeds or fails.

Sandra Ruttan said...

You see Lisa, I would completely respect those types of reviews. But so often I see people just make sweeping, judgmental statements with nothing to back them up. It's all couched as their opinion. "This falls flat" but no why.

I think it's a real problem in the writing world, we need people like Ebert who have such an established track record behind them that you can give weight to what they're saying, and who support their view with objective criticism. An example of this was when Roeper gave The Two Towers a thumbs up and a good review, because he'd panned the first LOTR movie. So, because you knew he wasn't just inclined to see it favourably, his comments held a lot of weight.

So, up 'til now I've been doing Sandra Suggests so that I could avoid the criticisms, but now it'll be Ruttan's Reviews. Proper reviews I'll likely cry writing.

Lisa Hunter said...

Off topic, but LOL funny:

The Morning News' Opal Mehta plagiarism contest, which requires entrants to create 750 word stories using five texts and none of their own words.

Sandra Ruttan said...

It's like you're my supplier!

I was already planning to blog tomorrow about that other link you left on the weekend!

Stephen Blackmoore said...

"authors and publicists are asking me to review books and if I’ll interview them."

Why does this surprise you? You ask intelligent questions, you pay attention, you're not antagonistic. If you have a problem with a book you don't lash out and just trash the book. You state your opinions and why you feel the way you do.

Of course people are going to ask for your feedback.

JT Ellison said...

Reviewing is difficult at the best of times, but when you're a writer as well as a reader, it's even harder. It's so easy to say -- Oh, I would have done this or that's not a realistic plot device.I am as honest and fortright as I can be in my reviews. If a book blows me away, I say so. If it's missing a certain, Je ne sais quoi, I say that as well. But I think I have more respect for the mechanics and labor than a non-writer -- I'm sure you have that same feeling.It's a blessing and a curse.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yes JT, a blessing and a curse.

And sometimes, I find myself wanting to critique the editor, which is another story.

Stephen, you're too kind. Truthfully, some days, I'm surprised anyone even talks to me. There are plenty of people out there shouting about, wanting to give their opinions on books, so it surprises me in all of that, that people even know I exist, never mind take the time to send me a review copy.

Still, free books. It is nice!

Trace said...

LOL Sandra!

Tania said...

Who wouldn't like free books? I'm still amazed at the wide variety of books I get, and am especially thrilled when the books sent to me are ones I was planning on buying anyhow. Sweet. :)

I read reviews by many other people, and the ones I like the best come across as being balanced with some information about why the book was liked or disliked. There are so many different tastes out there, something that is horrible to one person might be ideal to another. I once had someone tell me that she liked my reviews because I often complained about too much sappy romance in particular mystery novels. It turns out that she loved all that sappy stuff, so even though it was a negative thing for me, it helped her pick books that would suit her. Had I just said that the book was bad, it wouldn't have been useful for her.

That being said, I totally agree with you that reviews are just opinions, no matter if it's Joe Blow paid critic or Suzy Q reader writing them. Their value differs from reader to reader.

Bill, the Wildcat said...

That is pretty cool to see you drawing so much attention as a reviewer. Reviews are such an odd beast, because what makes a book good is so blasted subjective!

A few years ago, I tried to read a fantasy novel that was recommended by a friend, had a nice cover, an interesting premise and dozens of 4 to 5 star ratings by readers on That book was easily one of the worst I've ever read. It was basically porn without the pictures, and I couldn't get more than 120 pages before I tossed it. Out of more than fifty people to do a review on, I'm still the only one to give it anything less than four stars (I gave two, and I felt that was kind). Point being... I might consider it a poorly written book, but it's obviously written just right for certain people.

Andrea at Lochthyme said...

"What do you guys think of reviews? Do you pay attention to them? Some of them?
How do you choose which books you read?"

I personally do read reviews but I don't base my reading only on reviews. I also go by what the book is about and sometimes just the cover grabs me. Even if a book has some negative reviews I will still read it if I like the storyline. I too find writing negative reviews hard..I've done maybe two...but most books aren't all bad even when they aren't great. In the past 4 months I've only read one book that I felt didn't have any redeeming features but that's rare...and again it's my opinion. But I tried to be constructive about the flaws I felt the book had and not mean. I also recommended the author's earlier books which were great. Some people on Amazon reviews loved the book and I just didn't see it. And I don't feel any need to tear apart the author. Constructive criticism is best. Sometimes I might personally not love a book but still give it a good review because it's well written, just not my cup of tea. But like everyone said reviews are just someone's opinion. Andrea in MA :)

Sandra Ruttan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sandra Ruttan said...

And you write great reviews Andrea - really great reviews. I'm so glad you put them up at Spinetingler.

Amra Pajalic said...

I think you have a great philosophy as to how you'll be reviewing. You can always find something positive and helpful to say as long as you put your mind to it.

I was recently listening to a Bat Sedungo podcast and one guy was talking about reviews in traditional formats like newspapers. He went on to say somethng like: "they describe the book, say what's wrong with it even if they like it, and then go back to say what's good about it." It made me realise how stylised they can be. Everyone seems to think that critiquing or reviewing should be about finding fault when it should be just about expressing your opinion whether it be good, bad or indifferent.

As you said it's only one opinion and you have to be sure that this person's opinion will match up with your own values and likes in order to know which context to place it in. I had a friend once and I knew that if she hated a movie, I'd love it. Her opinions while different to mine, still helped me make movie choices.

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