Thursday, September 21, 2006

Trash, Lies, Reviews (and Killing a Career Before It Begins)

It’s funny how something that’s been on your mind, perhaps not the primary focus of your thoughts, but rather an issue lingering on the periphery, can suddenly come to the fore. This morning I was skimming through the news headlines when I read, Munro is so admired by so many, both at home and abroad, that the Canadian reviewer who now dares to give her a failing grade needs to think of delisting his phone number and possibly pricing a bullet-proof vest.

Wow, what a statement. And eerily reminiscent of something a Canadian publicist told me recently, that in Canada everyone is afraid to give a bad review in case you end up at a dinner party with the person next week.

Throws our credibility into question, doesn’t it?

I never liked writing reviews, not even when I was studying journalism. They were the type of assignment I was happy to do and be done with, and move back to hard news or some ‘relevant’ feature. I did the ‘dealing with death’ assignment when one of the journalism students was killed in Yugoslavia, for example. Always very serious,

As I moved into writing, I particularly didn’t like signing off on reviews. I hate the feeling of being judge and jury on a book. I know how much work goes into creation, and to some degree with how hard it is to be published, just getting published (I’m not talking self-publishing or vanity press here) is success. It’s something many others strive for and never achieve.

However, as I’ve dealt with writing reviews over the past year, and had to write more and more of them, I’ve learned the cold hard truth of good reviewing: you have to be honest, even if it hurts.

One of the things I didn’t realize when I expanded the reviewing Spinetingler does was that we were going to face so many ethical dilemmas. The crime fiction community is a small one. How will you deal with reviewing friends? What if someone argues over the review they receive? What if your publisher asks you to review someone else they published, and you don’t like the book? That hasn’t happened to me, but once you start down this path, you start to realize where all the potential pitfalls are.

If it’s true I didn’t like writing reviews before, I hate it now.

That said, I have no plans to stop reviewing.

What I have done is given myself a buffer. I’ve had to make some rules so that we avoid problems before we find ourselves neck deep in them.

Part of the reason this has been on my mind is that people have started sending me ARCs that I didn’t request or specifically approve. I suppose that’s a reality – once you’ve given your address to a few people it can get around. May as well post the damn thing on the web for all the good it does to have review submission guidelines - you have no idea how many people don’t bother following them.

I actually had something else in mind for my post today, but when I saw that comment on Alice Monro, the other topic shifted to the back burner. I didn’t click on the link to go on and read the paper singing Monro’s praises. It is, as always, an extreme exaggeration. I don’t know anyone who’s read Alice Monro. Not saying there’s anything wrong with Monro’s work, but the thought of people here being passionate enough to harass reviewers with abusive phone calls or threaten their life?

Please. I mean, if that’s true, I’d love to see it, because it would be more genuine enthusiasm for books and an author than I’ve seen here… since Rankin was in town. The event was sold out, and people were waiting outside in case extra tickets were made available – he’s that popular around here. And even then, this isn’t Scotland, where someone’s assigned to the weekly Rankin report and tells the world if he’s shopping for duvets.*

Take Alice Monro out of the equation. Really, there’s a lot about that statement up there – however obviously exaggerated – that bugs the hell out of me.

I don’t particularly like going on the record trashing books. Tomato, tomahto. What isn’t for me might be enough to convert someone to being a life-long reader. To be honest, the fact that readers have such divergent tastes and don’t always agree should be regarded positively by writers, because it means there’s hope that we shall also find our audience without just writing an imitation of what everyone else is doing. It gives me the courage to follow what’s in my heart to write, instead of trying to follow formulas, and still believe it can sell.

However, I have to admit that writing reviews has made me a better writer. It’s made me a nitpicky reader, but it has taught me a lot about what makes a book succeed and what makes a character lack credibility, what contributes to confusion for a reader, etc.

And I try to apply what I learn in my own writing.

That said, there are certain books I’ll refuse to review. I’m getting to the point now where I don’t read anything strictly for pleasure anymore. Submissions to Spinetingler, manuscripts, review copies… The books I got for my birthday remain unread on my shelves. I had them planned, I was ready to read them, and then got my editing schedule. They got pushed aside. Then we had the Canadian issue and I went to the UK. Then the fall issue was looming, along with another edit of my book, and all things Killer Year…**

So, one of these days, I’m going to read the new Billingham, MacBride, Kernick and (dare I admit it?) McDermid and Lippman books.

I need a month off. And I’m not promising to review any of them. I might, but right now, I just want to read some books for the pure love of reading, and enjoy the latest from some of my favourite authors.

The thing is, when I read that list of names, those are all people I now know and there is a part of me that’s scared of reviewing people who’ve become more than names on book covers.

I know is that anyone who’s a real friend will respect a fair review and take it like a professional. We all have to get used to doing that. Not everyone will like what we do. Although I might be intimidated by the idea of critiquing Val McDermid (and who wouldn’t be? Val is a multi-award winning author, and deservedly so. I feel very much that a little upstart like me has little business evaluating her work.) I also know Val is a professional about these things. If the day ever comes, she won’t hire a hitman to come after me.

I thought reviewing a Rankin book would help me get over that intimidation. Add in that I reviewed Anne Frasier’s latest, Pale Immortal, and I found myself in the unfortunate position of assessing work by two people I have a lot of respect and admiration for. Glutton for punishment that I am, I read those books back to back as well, and they both made me cry.

I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve read as an adult that made me cry, including those two. The others were To the Power of Three, by Laura Lippman, and The Touch of Ghosts by John Rickards.

I used to love chatting about books on forums, but primarily books I liked. As I found myself reviewing more, I found myself reading more arcs, and fewer books already on shelves. I didn’t have as much to talk about, because I wasn’t reading what others were reading.

And the reviews became a one-way dialogue that could no longer be just me expressing my enthusiasm for something I enjoyed.

The authors don’t typically talk to me about my reviews of their books. I used to be grateful for that. Now there are times when I have this gnawing worry, hoping I haven’t offended someone.

If I ever have, I hope the author understands one thing. I never set out to dislike a book, or to give a tepid review, but I try to be fair and honest, and back up my points if I feel criticisms are warranted. It’s never about hurting someone’s feelings.

It’s become far more about my own integrity, because if I praise everything unilaterally, my compliments on writing are worthless.

To be honest with you, I think Alice Monro should be disappointed that an alleged national infatuation with her would be enough to keep reviewers from saying what they honestly think of her work. If she falters, how will she know? If there is room for improvement, who will point it out to her?

This is why critique in the early stages of your writing is so valuable. Not only will the tough love of other knowledgeable writers help you become a better writer yourself, but it will prepare you for the day that your book is out there, and someone writes a review that’s less than glowing.

And there is something else you can do, if you want to learn.

Write reviews.

The more I’ve learned to assess the works of others – even authors I admire – the more I’ve learned about writing.

If you’re a serious writer, that’s never a bad thing. And if the author is a pro, they aren’t going to come after you if your assessment is fair.

Just bear in mind one thing. Whatever you say about someone else’s work can come back on you some day. So be sure you can back it up from their work.

And then double-check your own.

I do miss discussing good books, though. It just seems there is a solid number of people on forums more interested in trashing than anything else, and that’s not my style. There’s a big difference between saying, “This book didn’t work for me” and “This book is shit.”

Something anyone who ever hopes to be published should remember. And to completely indulge myself on a tangent here, it amazes me people do stuff like that when they want to get published. I’ve had emails from authors, editors, agents – all off of forum remarks or blog comments or Spinetingler stuff. People read online.

And do you really think if you go around trashing authors – calling them hacks or whatever – that if their agent sees it they’ll even consider representing you?

Hmmmm. Option #1. Piss off important, best-selling client by taking on upstart who is unproven in the writing community.

Hmmmm. Option #2. Keep best-selling client happy and tell upstart to get lost.

Gee. Do we even need to think about it?

Even what you ‘say’ online casually can come back on you. So if you’re going to level criticism, be smart and be fair.

Or don’t try to be a writer.

Wahoo! Stephen Blackmoore has been caught flashing. Wait a second…. Wahoo? More like run for your life. But this flash is pretty clever.

And possibly proof of Stephen’s insanity.

* I’m not kidding. I read a news story a few years ago where he was tracked down for a comment while out shopping.

** There will be big news on the Killer Year blog on Monday that you won’t want to miss!


Trace said...

Writing reviews is tricky and asking for reviews is also tricky. I bite my nails wondering if the reviewer will think my book is crap. But I really do want a fair and honest review. Like you say, it depends on how things are worded. If there are less than glowing comments on my book and it seems to come from a genuine, sincere person, then I pay attention.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I agree Trace. I think there's always a degree of personal disappointment there - you've let a reader down by not satisfying them completely. But you have to remember a reviewer's job is to give a tough but fair assessment.

If I can't find fault with a book, I don't make stuff up. If something occurs to me as a real potential problem for some readers, I feel I have a responsibility to point that out. A tricky one is always non-linear books. I might have no issue following it, but some people can't handle books like that. It isn't a criticism per se, but it's still something you have to point out.

I don't see a reviewers job as telling people what to read, so much as giving them a framework to decide for themselves if the book appeals to them or not.

Bill Cameron said...

My hope is always that the next thing I write will be better than the last thing I wrote. One thing that will help that is honest criticism from thoughtful readers. If that thoughtful reader happens to be a reviewer, then so be it.

Sure, there's the problem of how many sales a bad review will kill. And there's the problem of some reviewers seemingly reviewing from inside a personal snit bubble. But ultimately, if I'm going to grow as a writer, I feel like I want to hear the real deal. I may not agree. But I want to hear it, especially if it's supported. "I didn't like X because of Y."

I have a great critique group, full of very thoughtful folks, and sometimes they come down on something I've written pretty hard. Usually I think they are on to something, but not always. I can disagree with a review same as I disagree with my group. But I'll listen to both. Because maybe they're right, and maybe I'll learn something in the process. And maybe my next piece will be better because of what I learned.

I can't imagine ever arguing with a reviewer though. I suppose if someone gave me a bad review and I met them in person later, and they brought it up (I wouldn't bring it up), I might say something like, "It was disappointing, but maybe you'll feel differently about the next one." Because maybe they will. What could I possibly gain by arguing?

You can't please everyone, as we all know (or should know).

Sandra Ruttan said...

I agree with you Bill - I hope what I write next will be better than what I wrote previously.

Unfortunately, being three books ahead of SC, that leaves me wondering how good I should think it is.

I'm not convinced about bad reviews killing sales. Maybe there are stats that back that, I don't know. I know my purchasing isn't based on them and I've never been convinced my own reviews do a damn thing for the writers.

Maybe I'm just kidding myself.

angie said...

I read the review. And it came across as a snarky way for the reviewer to CYA. Is it necessary to preface a less-than glowing review with those kind of statements? I dunno, but it kind of bugged me. He didn't like the short story collection. Uh, okay.

I know this is an old argument, but it is a bit odd to have professional writers reviewing books by other writers in their field/genre. Yes, they probably know the field and the craft better than most, but the politics are so tricky I often wonder if the review is really based solely on the quality the work.

Frankly, I take reviews (book, film, art, etc.) with an enormous grain of salt. When I lived in Chicago, there was a film reviewer that I disagreed with 95% of the time. It came in handy. If he hated a movie, there was a better than average chance that I would enjoy it. He was a negative barometer for me. Just means I have to know the reviewer's taste. And that's work I often don't want to deal with.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Angie, you've hit one of my concerns right on the head - even the appearance of slanting a review tarnishes your credibility. What if you're reviewing someone you're competing with for sales? That's a growing possible reality for me. Shudder to think some day the ARC you've got ends up being a book by someone you're up for an award against.

It creates a very complex scenario. Honestly, I wouldn't waste a minute of my time reviewing something in a genre I didn't at least read in my free time. I wouldn't have a clue where to start with an assessment of it. Hand me some of that anime stuff and I'd be out of my depth entirely.

So... it will eventually become a 'to review or not to review' debate. For the moment, I know I'm okay with me. Maybe not everyone I've reviewed, but at least me.

mai wen said...

Ohh, love the textured background and the color...

Also loved the article. I'd never known that about critics in Canada, that's crazy and really interesting. Thanks for the article. I'd never thought of the complexities of reviewing. I admire your bravery to continue reviewing. :)

Sandra Ruttan said...

It might not be bravery but sheer stupidity Mai Wen! :)

At this point, beginning to understand just how important reviews are to authors, it would seem wrong to stop without a damn good reason. Plenty of authors write reviews.

Not that it means my own book will necessarily get reviewed or plugged in any additional capacity - it's more that I'm aware of how important it is that people in a position to review do it.

Glad you like the layout. I have a real aversion to solid strong colours - I mean, I liked the black, but readibility is more important. After that, I couldn't find one colour I was really happy with. Bizarre...

Andrea Maloney said...

I don't think bad reviews will kill sales necessarily. Unless every review that's written about the book is a negative review. I'll take a bad review with a grain of salt....if I like the sound of what the book is about I might read it anyway. Unless everybody hates the book they I might avoid it.

As for conflicts of interest in reviewing friends or competitors I think if you feel uncomfortable doing it then you could just pass the book onto another reviewer. I think each reviewer needs to decide what they are comfortable reviewing. Unless of course you work for a newspaper or magazine where you have to review certain books.

And I haven't read too much in my TBR pile either recently. Reading more books for review than anything. I have three books to read for review now then maybe I'll get to some of my other books. I do review everything I read now though. Even from my TBR pile. I like reviewing. Although not to fond of writing negative review but will if the book warrents it.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I think you're right Andrea - if everyone pans the book it might have an averse affect on sales, but one bad review? I don't know. I guess on Amazon they've been proven to do damage.

Lisa Hunter said...

Some publications will only review books that they recommend.

Since, I'm freelance, I do the same -- I only review books I'm enthusiastic about. I'd have to have to write a negative review.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Lisa, that was my old philosophy.

Until a few people talked to me. It hasn't been easy, but I do see the merit in reviewing books I have mixed feelings about.