Sunday, January 27, 2008

An Author’s Reviewing Dilemma

As reviewers, we are often faced with dilemmas in the process of assessing a book. Take it on its merits, based on the writing and execution, some say. And that is the goal, to separate out the personal taste issues and say who the book is intended for, and whether or not that audience should be satisfied with the offering.

However, it’s never that simple, because when a book isn’t working for a reader they often either abandon it, or become nitpicky. They aren’t absorbed by the story, so they notice every little thing it’s possible to critique.

There are other variables that can affect our assessment. In going over my reviews for the Winter 2008 Spinetingler issue, I realized many were variations on a theme. I’d had a particularly good run with books in the last few months, some of which I’d received review copies for and others which I’d purchased, and would highly recommend many of those books to readers of hardboiled/noir fiction.

Can anyone take my recommendations seriously if they can’t weigh them against the times a book doesn’t quite work for me, and understand how I assess both positively and negatively?

And yet, I didn't receive a review copy - I bought this book - so I'm under no obligation to review it...

One of the risks when you have a good stretch in your reading is that the bar is raised. Will the next book measure up? So much about our reactions to a book involve our preferences, our tastes. How can we not be enthusiastic about the read that hits home for us on every level and keeps us turning the pages, late into the night?

And how unfair to the next author coming along, because we can’t help but compare the experience of one read and hope to have it repeated or surpassed.

I’m also a person who runs counter to hype, and so I’m prepared to say that my impressions may be affected by that as well. The problem with hype is, just like that last great read we experienced, it raises our level of expectations, and sometimes does an otherwise great read a disservice, because we end up dissatisfied because it was only great and not spectacular.

In the end, as much as we aim for objectivity, there will always be a portion of a review that is much like the artistic impression marks of old in figure skating… It will come down to an opinion. It isn’t a commentary on an author or a personal attack.

My aim is to try to be fair. Not to tell you how I’d write the book, but to try to understand what the author intended to do with the book and measure it against that yardstick.

Some would say I should keep my opinion to myself.

And as an author, things are particularly complicated.

The crime fiction community isn’t exactly small, but it is navigable. I am not a professional reviewer – as in, I do not get paid to review.

I am a professional author.

As an author, I could find myself at a convention in eight months with an author whose work I’ve critiqued.

What if we were on the same panel?

As an author, I also know how it feels to get that negative review. I experienced that with my debut book. One review was scathing. The reviewer basically gave it a 1 out of 10…

And I know the reviewer.

Have I ever spoken to the reviewer about the review? No. Would I? No. Have I stopped speaking to the person? No, not at all. There actually was something in the review that made me laugh at them, because they criticized me over something they clearly didn’t know anything about… but is anything to be gained by arguing?

No, absolutely not. And if you’re going to survive in this business you have to learn to deal with it. Not everyone will like your work. That’s a simple reality. As long as a critical assessment is about the work and not personal, I’m prepared to take it.

Truth is, I feel like a complete hypocrite even asking these questions. Okay, I read a book that I didn’t like. I have explanations of what didn’t work for me and why it didn’t work. I don’t really know the author. Okay, I’ve met them once, in passing. I believe we exchanged a dozen words on that one occasion. From all appearances, this author is loved in the crime fiction community and well respected.

I have nothing against them.

I just didn’t come out with a favourable view of this one book they wrote. In fact, I fully intend to read one more title by them, at least.

The question is, do I run this review?

It’s too late for the winter issue – I’ve put that to bed. It’s ready to roll on Thursday. If I use the review any time soon, it will end up as either a debut review or one of my very first on a new site I’m reviewing for.

And by nature of being one of my first reviews there, it may draw a higher level of attention than just one in a series of reviews.

I get no special joy from negative reviews. Typically these days, I toss books that aren’t working for me. I just don’t have the time for them, with so many great reads stacking up. But they can be important reads, helping me think through plot, pace, character development, tone, more than others.

And truth is, I’ve learned things that I’ve been able to apply to my writing to improve from the reviews of my own work that I’ve read. When you can separate yourself from the emotion of it, you learn to take it like a report card, and if you’re serious about being a straight A student you work hard on your weak spots. That’s how I try to see it, anyway.

The question is, what should I do? What would you do? If it was your book, or your husband’s, wife’s, son’s, daughter’s, how would you feel? What if it was by someone you’re close to, and we’re friends – would you stop speaking to me? Respect me for calling it like I see it?

Lose respect for me if I don’t go ahead with the review?

Or acknowledge that doing so is committing career suicide, and accept that other reviewers may blacklist me, other authors may disassociate with me. I’ve already had the experience once, of being shunned by an author whose book I gave a mediocre review, and it isn't the only negative backlash I've experience, so I don’t doubt that there will be repercussions if I go ahead with this. Right or wrong doesn't matter – it’s the way it is.

18 comments:

Kerrie said...

I'm not a professional reviewer Sandra, nor a writer, so I guess I come at things from a bit of a different angle to you. I do get sent the occasional book to review. I am always conscious that what I enjoy another may hate, and vice versa. But on the other hand, there are many who share my reading tastes.
So my reviews do I admit follow a bit of a pattern - some sort of lead in based on the first 50 pages of the book, then what I particularly liked about the book, and if necessary what I really hated or what annoyed me about it. Because I am such a minor reviewer, and really unlikely to say much that will affect a book's sales in a negative way, I doubt any author will come after me with a hatchet. So perhaps my opinion will be of little help to you. Reviewing at the higher level must be rather like treading a thin line. Perhaps what is not said in the review will carry almost as much weight as is said.

LJ Roberts said...

I publish reviews, both positive and negative. I make it clear that my reviews are my opinion only, try to be very clear as to what I didn't like about a book and never criticize the author. I've never had an author slam me, but have had a couple write to say they hoped I would give their next book a chance. Some have even sent me the next book. Personally, I don't give a lot of credibility to a reviewer who only posts positive reviews. But that's purely my opinion.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Kerrie, thanks for your thoughts. I don't think of myself being at a higher level, just in a different spot, and because of the multiple hats I wear, it makes it tricky sometimes.

I like your general pattern.

LJ, I've published negative reviews, and also tepid reviews in the past. I think the biggest problem is that, with my schedule being what it is, if a book isn't working for me I usually abandon it. I feel I have so little reading time already I just don't want to spend it on bad books.

But as I said, every now and again reading a bad book is important.

Lourdes said...

I hope you do run the review! I think if you approach it from a constructive point of view, there is nothing wrong with a "negative" review. I would venture to say most authors have had at least one (and probably more) such reviews.

You have a point in that reviews are very subjective -- I usually take into account who a movie reviewer is when reading the review. Since I disagree with one particular reviewer, if he dislikes something, it means I'll probably like it! Still, I always learn something from the reviewer because he's an expert at this.

As an author, I would also cast you as an expert on what works and what doesn't. So your point of view is very valid -- and should be put out there!

Kerrie said...

Does it ultimately come down to the purpose of the review? If you are reading an ARC then perhaps there is a chance, just a slim one, that the thing you hated will get changed.

I think I mainly review to tell me people what I liked about the book, how successful it was for me, what I found in it to think about. So people who think generally like me might go out and find the book.

Books that I've really hated pose a different problem. I am only too aware that someone else may love it and even love it for the very reasons I hated it.
I so very rarely DNF a book that I can't use that as an excuse for not writing the review.

Basically what I've decided to do this year is to review (for publication) the books that come my way as review books, and also write, for my blog, reviews on books that I've read in the normal course of things.

The guidelines for the two are a bit different, but perhaps a bit beyond the scope of my comment here.

John McFetridge said...

To be honest, I'm not much interested in a negative review. I read reviews looking to find good books I've missed - and there are plenty. And I've found many good books through reviews.

I wouldn't lose respect for a reviewer who only published positive reviews, as long as those reviews actually said something beyond, "I like this book." The review itself actually matters.

I do some reviewing - not much (although I have one in the Toronto Star today, here:
http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/article/297783) and I usually only review something that I think people will be interested in and might otherwise miss.

I think sometimes we confuse book reviews with literary critique. We're not writing term papers here, we're giving personal impressions of books.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Kerrie, I can appreciate the reasoning behind different criteria. Different venues have different policies too.

John, I disagree with you. I don't think writing a negative review is just writing a term paper. I also do think that reviewers who only publish positive reviews ultimately don't have as much credibility, because part of understanding how a person thinks (and therefore, why their positive opinion has value) involves understanding why they might have a negative view on something.

The good ol' days of Siskel and Ebert - I always knew I'd love what Siskel loved and if Ebert was against it I'd probably love it more. Imagine if book reviewing had two voices who brought as much passion and enthusiasm to the reviewing process as they do. It would sell a lot of books, even when they had split opinions.

angie said...

Well, I think reviewing is especially challenging when the reviewer is an author. For all of the "say what you think, consequences be damned," a negative review written by an author (or a wannabe author) can wind up being way more trouble than it's worth. I know, I know. We're all supposed to be far more adult and forward thinking than this, but...a lot of us ain't.

I don't have an issue with folks who only publish positive reviews - life's short, and I'd rather hear about a book that rocked someone's world than a big ol' stinkarootie. I know when I read one of these reviews that the reviewer wouldn't be taking the time to talk about the book if s/he didn't really, truly love it. And frankly, there are reviewers that I know I either share similar reading tastes, or they are the evil anti-reading version of me - if they like it, I'll loathe it, and vice versa.

Just, y'know, my thoughts on the matter.

Sophie said...

I've thought about this subject a lot. I'll soon have reviewed 100 books on librarything.com....these reviews are actually mostly notes for my own use, evaluations of what worked and didn't from my own understanding of how to tell a story. I don't publicize my reviews in any way. Still, I've "met" 2 fascinating people on librarything who I hope to stay in touch with - both authors - and a 3rd author, a friend, stumbled on my review there. So now I've realized that I need to either accept that these *are* public comments, or else change my id to make it truly anonymous.

I really can't decide. On the one hand, I hope to be a part of the writing community, and don't want to step on any toes. On the other, I know that I *really* value understanding what worked/didn't work for other readers, and that can't happen unless people fearlessly share their opinions. Passionate critics, I submit, are a vital part of the publishing and reading community, and someone's got to do the job.

On a side note, I find that my reviews skew higher and higher as I get better at choosing books I'll love.

On a second side note, an online friend recently shared the point of view that a star system (like librarything or amazon) is far less useful than simple prose reviews, possibly with the addition of an "I especially liked this one" tag, like the pw starred review.
- Sophie

Sandra Ruttan said...

"I know when I read one of these reviews that the reviewer wouldn't be taking the time to talk about the book if s/he didn't really, truly love it."

Or, in the case of an author-reviewer, someone who's kissing ass in the hopes of getting the author to blurb their next book. Don't think it doesn't happen. Frankly, it's why I only pay attention to the reviews of a select few people.

But if they always like everything, I just assume they're easy to please. Me being a skeptic and all.

"Passionate critics, I submit, are a vital part of the publishing and reading community, and someone's got to do the job."

Sophie, I do agree. I see your dilemma as well. Reviewing is never something I've particularly enjoyed, because you're setting yourself up as judge and jury over a work, and it's like the artistic impression marks in figure skating - highly subjective. And yet when people have wildly different views on books I'm more inclined to want to read it and make up my own mind.

It's tough. No doubt about it. But the review will run. I just need to see if I can tweak it down from 1800 words... (See, if I like a book, I don't end up with lengthy discourse, it's a general assessment - necessitated by word count restrictions for a few places I review. But to explain why a book doesn't work you need to be thorough. My feeling, anyway.)

Vincent said...

Hmm, tricky. The only reviewing I've done was on sites where the primary reader of the review was the person who wrote the piece under examination (American Zoetrope and Triggerstreet). I'd like to say I was brutally honest, but even with work that was plain rubbish by any measure - easy to find on sites like that - the slant of my review was never 'this is cack-handed dross', but rather 'these bits could be better'.

Unfortunately, that may help a writer, but it's not what a reader is looking for from a review.

In fact, readers may be coming at a review from two different angle. The first is where they read coverage of books looking for titles they might enjoy. In this case, a reviewer covering only novels they themselves enjoyed might be appreciated. On the other hand, the reader could already have seen a book on the shelf and considered it for purchase, either for themselves or someone else, and is looking for an honest opinion on it. Finding out what's wrong with the book would be as valuable for them as finding out what's right.

Personally, I think negative reviews provide a valuable yardstick for a reviewer's taste. I'm put off by the Richard and Judy book club here in the UK, because the praise for each title is unequivocal. I'd actually be more inclined to accept that their selections were universally great if a few people didn't like them, rather than everyone on the show saying they are indeed universally great.

So, as a reader of reviews, I'd say publish. As a writer of reviews... well, I'd be agonising over the same thing if I was in your position.

Ali Karim said...

Originally posted at 4-MA [for mystery addicts group 28/Jan/08]

Interesting post -

I have in the past presented editors with negative reviews, but over time I have been so overwhelmed by the volume of books in my review and reading pile; that if a book does not hold my attention or engage early on; I abandon it, as time is so precious that to read a book [that didn't push my buttons for whatever reason] would [a] take and waste my time and [b] take and waste even more time writing why it didn't appeal - It makes it counter-productive. I then move on to the next book in the pile. I do however make exceptions to this rule -

http://www.booksnbytes.com/reviews/wolstencroft_goodnewsbadnews2.html

But usually books I don't enjoy = books I don't finish = books I therefore can't review.

There are also books I just didn't get to review due to time pressure as well.

I agree about the problem in books that raise the bar - or what I term HTB's ['High Tidemark Books'] - these are books that 'sear the mind' - and this year [for me] I've had a run of some truly excellent debut works that have come from nowhere - and these I can not recommend highly enough -

Stieg Larsson's "THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO"

And

Tom Rob Smith's "GIRL 44"

Both truly excellent debut works that fevered my mind and made me question my own sanity.

But like most reviewers, I get no money as I read / review books because reading is an integral part of my life like breathing and when I get a really good book, it's like finding a reason to live. I know that sounds odd, and my family find it amusing [and annoying at times] but they humour me. And I have this weird personality trait that I have to tell everyone about what I've read.

I've been reviewing books since a teenager - and wrote for fanzines before the Internet came along.

Ali

Interesting thread Sandra - but don't please don't torment yourself, as one can only be true to oneself, and reviewers are a service to the writing and reading community and reviewing in the end is subjective.

And a bit of BSP - I contributed to this volume which is now on sale [you all know my fascination for the novels of Thomas Harris :-

UK
http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_ss_w_h_?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=dissecting+hannibal+lecter&Go.x=9&Go.y=12

USA
http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_gw/104-0859829-6159129?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=dissecting+hannibal+lecter&x=9&y=12

More info -
http://www.shotsmag.co.uk/features/2007/lecter/lecter.html

I have some more books out later - more info to follow

Josephine Damian said...

Ali Karim: I saw the "Tattoo" book talked up on "The Rap Sheet" (my guess you too) and foolishly bought it. Thought it was awful and said so in my "Why I stopped reading this book" feature on my blog.

In order to review a book I need to finish it, in order to finish it I have to like it.

Sandra: As I crime writer who hopes to be published someday, and as a current book reviewer, I face the same dilema.

If someone sends me an arc, especially a blogger or myspace buddy to review, I do not feel any obligation to read the book, let alone review it.

The crime community is quite incestuous - with a policy of you-give-me-a-rave-review/great-blurb-and-I'll-return-the-favor, which to me is fraud - falsely inciting people to spend money on an inferior product.

I absolutely no longer trust any review or blurb of any crime book written by any crime writer. I personally believe in honesty at all costs, however, I may have an agent or publisher to answer to someday. I also may be on a panel or cross paths with some whiny cry-baby crime author who was "hurt" by my bad review (why oh why does any author waste any time reading reviews - good or bad - anyway?).

So my policy is this: if a crime writer is still alive, and especially if they're repped by an agent I plan to query, and I tried to read their book but could not because it was so bad (and frankly most of the moderm crime books ARE bad), then my policy as a reviewer is to STFU, to pass on giving that book any review at all.

My tastes as a reader are literary, and my "talent" as a writer is not; therefore I mostly read and review books by literary authors whose path I'll probably never cross at Bouchercon, and whose agent who never consider representing me- so I feel free to reviews their books honestly. And should I ever cross paths with anyone I gave a negative review to, I'd be more than happy to defend my position to their face, should they ask.

In the future, if I receive a negative review from a fellow crime scribe once I'm published, I wouldn't know since I refuse to even google myself, let alone plan on reading any reviews, but no, I'd never refuse to speak to someone if I knew or heard that they did give me a negative review.

But Sandra, as the reviewer of a crime magazine who also writes crime novels my advice to you is this: STOP doing reviews for a while - delegate the task to someone else, someone who isn't about to hit the marketplace with - what? -I think - two new books? Writers are a petty, insecure and jealous lot, and they just may take a pot shot at your book out of spite, not merit.

By all means, continue being an honest reviewer - but use a different name and be sure to keep that name/identity a secret lest anyone betray or "out" you. I'm not advocating hiding behind a mask in order to snipe at your enemies, but if your intention is honest reviews with no personal feelings or agenda, then by all means keep reviewing, but just don't do it as "Sandra Ruttan."

Sandra Ruttan said...

(why oh why does any author waste any time reading reviews - good or bad - anyway?).

A good critical assessment can be an important learning tool. I'll give you an earful on why, but not on the blog - e-mail me if you want my uncensored opinion.

The thing is, I can't delegate reviewing. Routinely, people volunteer to review. I get them books. Once I hit half a dozen and they never turn in a review, I stop getting them books - they're wasting my time (sometimes money) and haven't demonstrated they'll produce any actual reviews.

Some other places are now going with the policy that you have to produce a certain number of reviews for them before they'll get you the arcs.

I don't have a stable of people, and I'm tired of babysitting.

PLUS, I prefer reviewing over being asked to blurb. Why? Because when you're asked to blurb, your favourable opinion is inferred in the request. It's actually far more difficult if you don't like the book, because you've been approached directly, and more than likely the person will follow up with you, or take it personally if you don't provide a blurb.

I know I assume anyone asked to blurb who doesn't get back to me doesn't like the book unless they tell me otherwise.

Reviews are about providing a service to readers, not to authors. And if I get a review copy from the publisher or publicist, the author doesn't know if I abandon the book because I don't like it.

And, uh, I believe Ali was the one who wrote the endorsements for Tattoo on TRS...

Ali Karim said...

ROFL Jo -

I do indeed write for TRS and the articles you mention were written by me.....And that proves Sandra's point about the vagaries of taste -

And for my money the two big debuts [so far] in 2008 are -

STIEG LARSSON'S 'THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO'

and

TOM ROB SMITH'S 'CHILD 44'

Sorry that Larsson's book didn't engage you - taste is not universal / but for my money Larsson's book was very fresh and made me stand-up to attention -

Some people use certain reviewers for looking at future reading, as they may share similar tastes -

Anyway, just wait till you get a load of CHILD 44..........I read it Friday night....a brilliant debut that had me clutching the book with both hands as if my life depended upon me completing the book in a single sitting.....Reviews to follow and again I am interested in other peoples opinion because sometimes I question my sanity due to sleep deprivation and excessive reading....

The debate has now gone full circle

;-)

Ali

Sandra Ruttan said...

You know Ali, I think the experience of reading is the experience of reading. Sometimes I'll give a book that doesn't hold me a second chance, because I know at the time I was distracted, or sick, or tired or whatever. So I'm willing to take a book that's not holding me and sometimes be open to the idea it's me. I mean (ahem) EXIT MUSIC fell short of all the glowing praise for me... but considering what was going on in my personal life at the time I read it, that may very well be down to me not being in a frame of mind to enjoy anything.

But I don't think any of us can really will books along if they aren't great. I mean, I look at how well read you are and if you see a festering pile of do do, you aren't going to call it a rose or tell yourself to stay up all night believing it's a rose. There may be times we're more open to the positive experience, but that still doesn't make a crappy book great for us.

For my money, you haven't steered me wrong yet. Doesn't mean I pick up every one of your recommendations right away, but I certainly note them. Your passion for books is contagious, and that's a wonderful thing.

norby said...

I don't mind reading a negative review as long as it comes across as an honest review and not just an attempt to slam the author.

I can think of plenty of books by name authors that deserved negative reviews because they were bad books, but because they were name authors, every review pointed out how great the author was, never saying a word about the quality of the book.

I'd rather hear about the book.

Barbara said...

A few scattered thoughts...

It's too bad that readers don't trust reviews by readers who happen also to be writers because they assume those reviewers will be sucking up. It's too bad that writers sometimes do suck up - or shut up to avoid not sucking up.

I think writing reviews under an assumed name to protect your reputation as a writer would be dishonest. And any writer who takes a bad review personally should really look for alternate work for the sake of their own sanity.

It's true there's a lot of rubbish being published in this genre, but there's more than enough really excellent crime fiction being published.

Doesn't that mean we need honest reviews more than ever?

And by the way, I don't decide whether to buy or avoid a book on the basis of a single review. I know too well that caviar to one is disgusting squishy fish eggs to another.