There are those who try to live by their convictions. And there are those who live by convenience.
Today marks a sad day, as it marks the beginning of a year in which we may not see the return of one of my favourite bloggers. I’ve thought about Anne’s words a lot, The thing that's been really frustrating is that I can't talk about what I want to talk about. Shortly after starting this blog, I found my locked lips so frustrating that I started another semi-anonymous blog where I vented and talked about my personal experiences in publishing. A fellow writer ended up reporting me and the blog...to somebody. After that experience, I pulled the plug on my "secret" blog, but wow -- I would have had some interesting and unbelievable stuff to post there.
Almost every day I think of something I want to blog about, and almost every day I think I'd better not say that. Even topics that on the surface seem fairly harmless. So anyway, rather than go on and on about me and my boring life, I'm going to close my blog at the end of this year.
Does the fact that authors feel gagged from talking about real and valid concerns and issues not speak volumes? It does to me. Now, before anyone misunderstands or connects the wrong dots, I’m not suggesting Anne lives by convenience. Anne has a standard of integrity that few match up to. Her decision about blogging was just one of the dominos that fell, that ultimately led to this point for me, and this post.
There were other dominos. One had to do with a comment a reviewer made, about not reviewing some authors because of their blogs.
I had the feeling my name was on that list.
It left me to wonder, Should it be? Is that fair? What are the rules for reviewing?
The National Book Critics annual poll gives some benchmarks.
68.5 percent of book reviewers think anyone mentioned in a book's acknowledgements should be barred from reviewing it.
64.9 percent think anyone who has written an unpaid blurb for a book should also be banned from writing a fuller review.
76.5 percent think it's never ethical to review a book without reading the whole thing.
And 52 percent think it's not okay for a book-review editor, in assigning books for review, to favor books by writers who also review regularly for that editor's book section.
Wait a second… back the train up. “64.9 percent think anyone who has written an unpaid blurb for a book should also be banned from writing a fuller review.” Uh, does that mean if I bought my blurbs it’s okay for the blurbers to write a fuller review?
Let’s see a few more.
Should a book review editor assign a book to a friend of the author? 84.3% said no.
Should a literary blogger review the book of another literary blogger to whose blog she or he links?
Yes - 33.3%
No - 23.3%
Not Sure - 22.7%
Other - 20.6%
Phew – talk about margin for error.
Given that some companies -- payperpost, blogvertise, reviewme -- pay bloggers for reviews of products and services, should any book reviews commissioned in that way be identified as arising out of commissions? Yes - 76.3%
The question they didn’t ask, and I’ve always wanted to see answered, is what people think about reviewers who join organizations and exclusively review authors who are members of said organizations. I know what my opinion is.
And what if I belonged to organizations with other authors? Would it be okay to review them, even if I reviewed non-members as well?
There are other questions, as well, that haven’t been addressed. Should the standards for blog reviewers and volunteer reviewers be the same as the standards for those who get paid, the professionals? I have to admit in my mind, I hold the “pros” to a higher standard. When you get paid to do a job you do your job. It’s about words on a page, not the author’s politics, personality, sexual predilections or anything else. Of course, I’ve been a supervisor. I’ve liked staff members I’ve had to discipline. It’s professional, not personal, and anyone who’s an adult has (probably) had to deal with that.
And yet within the survey and the results, we start to see the double standards. Bloggers who are paid for a review should declare that, while it’s presumed everyone reviewing for a newspaper is a paid employee, and that’s not always the case. What if the payment was that the reviewer got a free copy of the book they get to keep? Not every reviewer gets to keep those arcs, as some places sell them.
(Edited to add: What about the other standards for reviewers, or people in organizations? Should prominent MWA members already be publicly declaring who they think should with the Edgar, when the nomination lists weren't even finalized? Or what about the reviewer who went on Sarah Weinman's blog a few years back, when Tess Gerritsen was nominated for an Edgar, and said "WTF?"
Appropriate behaviour for a reviewer?
Should aspiring authors even be reviewing? When they start the agent/publisher search, or sign a deal and need blurbs, could it taint their objectivity, entice them to be more favourable to a book by a prominent bestseller to curry favour to get a blurb from them?)
The very suggestion that people have to make declarations about their reviews suggests the real problem that underscores the process: People don’t trust their authenticity. They’re willing to believe there’s an angle in it for the reviewer.
I keep going back to the comment of that reviewer, and I’ve finally figured out what it is that annoys me about it. There are only a couple authors I don’t want to review. The reason is public fights over reviews. They take their opinions and fire away on DorothyL and other lists… and even over positive reviews! And even if the reviewer knows 100% that their review was their honest assessment of the work, those direct public fights where an author or representative of the author goes after a reviewer by name threaten to undermine that reviewers credibility. If I suggested Andy Bananaramy lacked the capacity for intelligent thought and then the next week Bananaramy ripped apart my book in his review of it, how many would think it was sincere, and how many would think it was payback? And it presumes Bananaramy even knows what I said about him. Yet we’ve been trained for skepticism. My own feeling is that when people are volunteering of their time to review, they do have the right to avoid unnecessary conflict if they so choose.
And I feel you have to stand or fall by your own integrity, and at the end of the day be able to look yourself in the mirror.
But what does that have to do with dropping by someone’s blog and deciding not to review their book?
It’s the equivalent, in cyber terms, of saying that you felt an author drank too much at the latest convention so you aren’t going to review them. If professional, paid reviewers are going to allow personal feelings to colour their judgment, they aren’t being professional.
And perhaps this is why reviews are disappearing from traditional sources. In an interview with a very successful author (I’ll only narrow this by saying it was in the last three years) they told me off the record about a reviewer attacking their work for personal reasons. In the context, if you knew all the facts, there was no doubt about what the reviewer was doing. I realized if I ever wanted to be reviewed and not get completely shredded by that reviewer I’d need to smile sweetly, offer no strong opinions and maybe show a bit of cleavage.
In other words, getting that review was contingent on behaviour, not on the books. And that left me wondering, Who wants it?
Unfortunately, we authors can’t snub our noses at any potential review, especially one with the reach of that particular reviewer. And how frustrating is that? Very.
Draw the line back to what Anne said, about blogging. On display with nothing to say…
You see, nobody made you come read my blog. And I’m not asking anyone to change their political views, to change their opinion about anything. People presume blogs are strictly marketing tools authors use to entice potential readers – well factor this: I had my blog long before I had a book deal. How does that connect to promoting my books? I rarely talk about my books in my posts, if you go by percentages. Again, how does that fit in with the marketing tool?
Answer: It doesn’t. My blog started off as part of the discipline to write a little something every day, and to try to focus on one topic. It was actually to help with my short story writing, because I love love love my tangents, and with short story writing you have to stay focused. I’m like Luke Skywalker flying toward the target, but instead of wondering about the tie-fighters I’m saying, “Oh, but the subplots!” and the voice says, “Stay on target.”
“Stay on target.”
I have always tried to be open and sincere here. When I’m pissed, people know it. When I’m happy, there’s no doubt. And when I’m sad it seeps through. Sometimes I just need to vent a bit, and then I’m good.
But how can you have sincerity if you spend your time second-guessing what you’re saying, wondering if that off-hand joke or comment will mean reviewers are crossing you off their lists because they don’t like your politics or don’t have the same favourite colour?
Answer: You can’t.
I remember one instance, I made a mistake and when I realized it I said, “I was having a brain-dead moment.” I was ripped a new one for that very politically incorrect statement. Didn’t I know people who had loved ones with brain damage might take offense?
Didn’t get to tell her about my grandmother, falling from a high chair as a baby and hitting her head… What they called back then “slow”. But she still taught me to make my bunny ears as a kid so I could tie my own shoes.
And it got me thinking about the wonderful hypocrisy of it all, because so many of the blogs are about image. They’re carefully measured, deliberately chosen elements to show a potential readership in order to maintain a favourable and appealing public persona that will entice them to try the author’s books.
In other words, they’re fake.
Oh, but we’ll review them, because they know how to smile just right, how to keep the blouse unbuttoned just low enough, how to pucker up and kiss ass.
It sometimes seems that in nothing anymore do we reward people for attempting to be honest. We reward those who play politics within the business.
We’re becoming a bit Hollywood. What does it say about us when we’re talking about deliberately marketing books with scandal?
The wave of the future. If you can offend the Catholics enough to be denounced by the Pope, get the evangelicals to fire up the barbecues or spark a debate on sexual orientation you’ve got publicity in spades. And then, who needs the reviews?
A favourite author of mine once said the appeal of authors was that we aren’t like other celebrities – we’re real people.
Should have said we used to be. Now, you can’t be too real. You’re being groomed to be presentable. (Agree or disagree?)
I’m not suggesting people go get sauced at the next convention and hit on every reader in the bar. I’m not saying that you should do whatever you want, consequences be damned.
But I am saying that honesty will often not get your rewarded in this business. As Anne can attest to.
I’ve said it so many times, on forums and discussion lists, can we not still be people instead of walking advertisements for our books? The mega-marketers take it to the extreme, the ones who are nothing but a promotional tool for themselves.
Me? I still love it when I read something I genuinely get enthusiastic about, and just have to tell people. An endorsement you couldn’t buy, because I have to believe the sincerity shines through.
And that for the people out there who still have some appreciation for the wonderful complexity of what it is to be human – to be a little too outspoken sometimes and have to eat your words, to be passionate in your defense of a friend or a belief, to tell someone off when they are being a complete and utter ass (especially when they’re being an ass to a friend of yours) to feel, and sometimes not have that measured by reason but just be a reaction to everything you’re dealing with, to –yes- make mistakes – will appreciate that.
I know I do.