Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Just A Different Kind of Whoring

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.


John McFetridge said...

Hey Sandra,

You might be interested in the book, "Will the Vampire People Please Leave the Lobby," by Allyson Beatrice. It's mostly funny, but she also has a few things to say about what goes on online.

Christa M. Miller said...

Wow, Sandra. You didn't mention it, but throughout this post, I couldn't help but think of Ken's Murderati post today (well, all of Ken's posts, since his honesty inspires so much rage).

I'm probably too Pollyanna, but what you say is the exact reason why I only stay in things I enjoy and don't worry too much about consequences. I enjoy book reviewing (the limited amount that I do, anyway), and I'm really fortunate to have gotten good feedback even from authors whose works I was critical of.

Same with blogging, and I have actually ticked people off with some things I've said, and I'm also afraid of alienating potential agents and editors. The reason I don't blog more often isn't just the lack of time - it's the lack of time I have to pull a post together that is honest but inoffensive but also not obviously inoffensive (so as to avoid being tepid). Ugh.

That's one reason I've turned to book reviews - I see them as more concrete for some reason. There's no "he said/she said" or subjective interpretations of actions or voice tone or even third-party nonsense. I guess, after having had my parenting criticized by people who don't even see me for the bulk of time I spend parenting, getting criticized for a book review is small potatoes....

Anyway, I don't do reviewing with the same frequency that you do, but your post stands as a warning and a reminder that for me, the enjoyment has to stay at the forefront. It would be so easy to be blinded by the paycheck or the prestige otherwise.

Graham Powell said...

I think that all of us would say things to our friends in private that we wouldn't say to strangers in public, and we think things that we wouldn't say to anyone (unless sufficiently inebriated). I try to choose my words carefully at all times, because I only want to offend those I intend to offend.

As for professional reviewers, if they feel they can't be objective then they should decline the assignment. And I believe most would do exactly that.

...and maybe show a bit of cleavage.

A good idea in any situation. I've done it myself!

Lyman said...

Censorship comes in many forms. This is just another way our words get taken from us and even used against us.

My grandmother, who never made it through sixth grade, taught me some of the most important aspects of self-expression. "If you're truthful about yourself then screw anyone who doesn't like it." I paraphrased but that's the general message.

If who I am offends then I don't want those people in my life. If my career is hurt through my self-expression, I'll find another profession. Life is too short to be something you're not.

I'm sorry Anne felt compelled to close her blog. The bastards sometimes get their victories. But, if we all refuse to listen then the bastards will have no voice and will eventually be seen for their true nature.

We're people first, writers second. Viva la liberte d'expression!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Sorry, I've been out all day, and will probably come back to this later, but I'll ask this:

Graham, what do you think Roger Ebert's bosses would say if he said, "Nah, sorry, not going to review any Francis Ford Coppola or Clint Eastwood movies because I don't like them?"

I think they'd tell him they hope he likes his new job.

In fact, it may have been John who told me the story about Ebert smiling about one of the directors being a total ass at a film festival, and saying it was proof jerks could make great movies.

Self censorship is one thing, but it's gone way beyond that in the blogging with authors, and with reviewers and to all ends, and if we can't have the same objectivity as a film reviewer then we're all amateurs, paid or not.

My 2 cents. Admitting there are times I've had to cleanse my palate after someone's been an ass, but that won't stop me reviewing their book if it's within the spectrum of what I cover. And that's even as a volunteer who buys most of her books.

Josephine Damian said...

In order to review a book I need to finish it; in order to finish it, I have to love it, and there are VERY few books I love.

Which is why I started a "Why I Stopped Reading (This) Book" feature on my blog, and my "Naked Emperor Award" which I give to the REALLY over-rated books.

My intention is honest discussion and opinion, nothing more; it's not personal if I give a book a positive or negative review, it's about the writing, not the writer.

My motto: And this above all else, to thine own self be true. If someone finds anything I say offensive on my blog, my reply to them is: Don't read it! You want to respectfully disagree with my review of a book? By all means, say so in the comments section, I welcome intelligent debate.

If a writer got a bad review from me and wants to slam me or my writing on their blog or somewhere else in cyberspace? Go ahead! Good or bad, it's all opinion, and therefore needs to be kept in perspective. I don't google myself because I see it as an exercise in futility and a total waste of time - you can't control or change what someone writes about you, good or bad, so why bother knowing, or worse, wonder about their motivation or specualate on some "hidden agenda."

Don't let the bastards get you down, Sandra.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Josephine, I love your philosophy on the reviews. And I agree, completely. If a reader strolls by, takes offense to something and decides not to try my book, then that's one thing. If a (professional) reviewer strolls by, decides they don't like my philosophy on reviewing so they decide not to review my book, that's unprofessional and childish - and does leave you to wonder how many of the people they reviewed they then know and like, since dislike of something on a blog will keep them from reviewing something. That reasoning behind that decision smacks of making it personal, and if you make it personal in what you exclude you probably make it personal in what you include as well.

I read a book recently I considered quite over-hyped, and now I'll be checking out your blog to see if you've read it and what you thought!

Steve Allan said...

Great post. I think this is something we (bloggers) all think about when we're posting something. I know I've been criticized from time to time - and sometimes rethink some of my own posts.

And for the record, Andy Bananaramy is a total prick.

Barbara said...

I like the sound of "why I stopped reading this book" and "Naked Emperor" reviews - particularly when they lead to interesting debate. I may totally disagree, but it's interesting to know what effect a book has had on someone - and why.

One thing I've learned from participating in discussions at 4MA is that the same book can be despised or loved by people who I respect, who can articulate good reasons for their opinions. And that helps me when I write reviews - I know there will be alternative ways to read the book, and nobody should take my word on it alone. That's very freeing, somehow.

As for biting one's tongue and not being honest when blogging (or anything else) - I think it's a real mistake to shape any interaction with other people as if it's "another marketing opportunity." I may be put off by someone being excessively opinionated or harsh or mean-spirited, but I'm just as likely, if not more so, to be put off if I think I'm being manipulated or viewed as "another consumer" - or bored because the only subject is thinly disguised reasons why I should buy a particular book. I don't read blogs to be hustled. And I don't, honestly, choose books on the basis of authors I like personally, because there are often times I like someone enormously who doesn't happen to write the sort of book I enjoy. This, or course, applies to my own writing - I admit, I go all gooey inside when people say they like my stuff, but I can't be upset when they don't - because people like different things.

I do suspect there's the same kind of risk one runs venting about publishing as when blogging about any workplace (my boss is a complete moron, my coworkers suck, I got screwed). I don't fault anyone for protecting themselves by keeping those conversations private. But a critique of the industry you work in - whether it's publishing or libraries (my other identity) or whatever should be not only fair game but encouraged. How else will things get better if nobody's talking about the issues? Even when I disagree with someone about the issues, I don't fault them for raising them. I just find them interesting people.

anne frasier said...

publishing is such a strange world. it's kinda like being at a huge party where everybody is wearing a mask. you think you're getting people figured out when the lights go off, everybody switches masks, the lights come on and you start all over again.

i'm not sure that made any sense. :D

something that is true one minute can be a lie the next, and the person who is patting you on the back telling you everything will be okay, might really be positioning his or her hand to give you a shove. :D

thanks for the kind words, sandra.
and even though i'm a bitter hag, i still have high hopes for 2008.


Sandra Ruttan said...

Anne, I would never call you a bitter hag.

Totally loving what Barbara said as well.

In fact, all of this might inspire another post. Eventually.

Anonymous said...

The reality is we have to self-censor. I once wrote a tongue-in-cheek post about how to be a bludger at work and get away with it. Never posted it though. I need a paid gig and can't take the chance someone at work will read it and I'll be at risk with my job.

But I'm also really tired of self-censoring. I feel like I have nothing valid to say because anything interesting gets deleted while my brain is drafting it.

Now that I have a publishing contract I'm freaking out even more and my blog has undergone a whole new level of boring.

Why do I keep it up? Because it is a marketing tool. There have been a lot of great things that have occured with the blog and a lot of cool experiences with people I've made contact with.

I really admire you Sandra for wading into the thick of it and being so brave. While there are back-lashes you don't let it hold you back. You write with integrity and passion and this is the reason your blog is my daily read. In fact it's the only blog I check every day. I think my resolution is going to be to blog like Sandra.

I've been involved in a few flame wars with people having a problem with my short stories. The first time it was a shock because I didn't have any idea it would cause controversy. So sometimes you get into the shit without trying because you can't please everyone. So maybe it's just a matter of not caring!

In real life I'm really brave. I'm one of those people who says things others are too scared too. I'll get into confrontations and have been called intimidating by some. Yet in the blog world I've taken on a fake personna. And the reason I've done this is because my writing is so important to me and I know that if I'm published people will go through my blog posts and use them against me. What to do?

Josephine-just checked your blog and you're going to be on my daily list. Love your resolution to write about books you don't finish and giving out the Emperor Award.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Amra, it is such a delicate balance. I totally understand, and there's another difference for you, as a YA author. I mean, what if parents stumbled across your celeb porn post? I could completely understand taking it down. I think it's very tricky, but, well... I'll save those other thoughts for part 2, if it comes together intelligibly in my mind.

Anonymous said...

To do list-go through posts and delete some. I'd forgotten about the celebrity porn post!