Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Should Authors Be Jerks? Should Reviewers Be Friends With Authors?

…and a story from evilkev.

The last night of Harrogate, I didn’t go to bed. Instead, I found myself ready to pass out around 3 am from sheer exhaustion, but I needed someone to sign books. So, I was waiting. And it was a solid 5 am before he finally gave up on the conversation we were embroiled in.

Which had to do with reviewers not writing honest reviews.

The person who’d raised the discussion hasn’t been writing. Whether or not they will start now, I don’t know. So, their view was as a reader at the festival. The one thing they didn’t like was seeing all the reviewers and authors schmoozing together, because they felt that too many reviewers were trying to stay in favour with authors and therefore failing in their responsibility to be honest to readers.

Of course, then I went on DorothyL and read a ton of comments about reviews. And decided to write out a negative review, with a challenge. The post is too long for DorothyL and the conversation there has moved on. But I’ve promised to post it here Thursday, and there will be a challenge and chance to win a special prize.

An ARC of my debut novel. (The ARC won’t be available until September, but still. You win, you get one.)

Anyway, the conversation was an interesting one, and I won’t rehash the whole thing for you, but it did make me think. One of the things I said was that I was actually in the worst position of all, as an author also writing reviews. By nature of my dual roles, that means I’d be more inclined to want to keep authors on my good side, as peers, wouldn’t it?

I don’t particularly like writing negative reviews. I know how much time and trouble an author puts in, from my own writing I imagine how important their book is to them. And how personally they’ll take it. But at the same time, I don’t ever intend to be dishonest. Which means walking a very fine line in how I phrase what I say in reviews. I used to read a book, like it, then review it. Always books I bought for myself. Now, I get piles of ARCs. Chances are, I won’t like some of them.

So, I’m trying to be fair and balanced. To qualify what is a matter of taste, to clarify who the book would appeal to (unless I’d venture to say nobody but the author’s grandmother). It’s hard. Yes, I worry a bit about hurting feelings. Truthfully, I could be out of the reviewing side of the equation tomorrow and it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest.

I recently came to a hard conclusion, and that’s that there’s a group of people I can’t review books for. It isn’t because I doubt my ability to be fair and objective. But because of the nature of my relationship with this group of people (not good) if I were to write anything less than a positive review, it would be seen as a personal attack. Now, in this group there are only a few authors anyway. So it isn’t a big issue in my life, except that by nature of association with this group I feel I’d have to turn those authors down if they approached me, although none of the authors have been involved in my conflict with the group’s administration.

I’ve always maintained nobody would believe it was objective if I wrote a positive review of a Rankin book, or one of Val McDermid’s, come to think of it. Which is why I haven’t reviewed books by either of them. I’m thinking about reviewing a book by Val, but haven’t decided.

Not that it matters much to them if I review their books anyway. They get tons of reviews.

So why put myself through the grief?

And it still doesn’t address the initial question. Should reviewers meet/be friends with authors? Does it throw their objectivity into question?

Have you ever read a review and discounted it because you know the author/reviewer are friends?

I know, I know. All these heavy questions. But I wear three hats, guys, and I do worry about this stuff. To the point where I don’t read submissions that come in from people I know, just so that I’m not put in an awkward position. Although it’s still my job to type the rejection letters…

Now, this niggling question about reviews is still bugging me, and if you know me, you know I’d be happy for any excuse to stop reviewing. But on the other hand, there are a lot of authors out there who are great writers who aren’t getting a lot of reviews who can benefit from the exposure.

Opinions wanted. And I won’t consider any of your comments to be partial. Even if you’re an author I’ve got an ARC from.

And does anyone know agents who specialize in overseas sales? I suppose I should be doing something about my unsigned rights one of these days…

Oh, and evilkev will really want to know what you think of his story. You can send the fan mail to thethorninSandra'sbackside@artistwhoneedstobeflatteredconstantly.com

Cozy Noir Contest

It isn’t cozy. And it isn’t noir. The premise is simple: a cozy story featuring a noir protagonist or a noir story with a cozy protagonist.

There are sample stories here and you’ll find they cover a fairly wide range of styles.

We haven’t actually decided how many winners we’ll pick, so while it says you’ll receive one book as a prize by one of the authors listed, that’s actually a lie. In some cases, we have more than one book by the author that we’re giving away (three by Ian Rankin, for example) so sharpen those pencils and get writing!

Entry deadline is September 5, 2006.

And yes, we’re still taking regular submissions. We won’t be looking at them until September either, though.

Affirmative Action

by K. Robert Einarson

I knew it was going to be bad when I found the head at the bottom of the stairs.

“The neighbors reported hearing a scuffle, then a scream, then nothing.” The uniform paused to flip the page in his notebook. “Then they said they thought they saw a tall man with dark hair running off.”

I climbed to the top of the stairs and examined the body. She was wearing a long housecoat and other than missing a head, looked rather peaceful. There was some evidence of the reported scuffle, a broken fingernail and some bruising on her wrists and what was left of her neck.

“Detective Taylor, we’ve found something.” I walked toward the Crime Scene Tech in the adjoining room. He pointed to a six-inch butcher knife on the floor. A thick layer of blood coated the knife. As I looked up, I noted the broken window and the splintered glass underneath the window frame. It was starting to come together.

“Well, it looks like the perp entered through this window and…”

A shrill meow behind me broke my concentration and I instinctively looked back. A uniformed officer was holding a black cat, a gold badge dangling from his neck.

‘Son of a bitch.’

“Lt. Puss Puss, I didn’t know you were coming down here”

Merrooow, Meow, Meow.

“Sir, I think it is too early to question anyone, we don’t even have a suspect.”

Hiss, Meow, Merrooow.

“I understand it’s the mayor’s daughter, but we need to take our time to be certain we get the right person.”

Merrooow, Meow, Meow, Merrooow, Meow.

I turned away. ‘Fucking affirmative action. What kind of idiot would think that we don’t have enough cats in management positions? I mean the last crime that fucking cat solved was the great tuna caper.’

“With all due respect sir,” the sneer was evident in my voice, “ I find it hard to believe that she was killed because of an argument over a catnip mouse.”

Hiss, Hiss, Merrooow, Hiss.

“Insubordination! I’ll show up fucking insubordination!” I grabbed Lt. Puss Puss and threw him out the window. “Let’s see if you can fly, you little fucker.”

Well as luck would have it, Puss Puss landed on the murderer, who was hiding out in the bushes under the window. After a brief struggle, a seriously scratched up perp was arrested by two uniforms.

Lt Puss Puss was given a medal for heroism for catching the murderer and promoted to Captain.

And my reward? I now walk a beat in bum town and think of all of the ways to skin a cat.

And evilkev and I watched the Foul Play from Harrogate last night and enjoyed a great laugh. Stella and Mark... Too funny. I think Laura and Shane should have followed up on the war wound and discharge a bit more. Glad I got that on video.


Sela Carsen said...

LOL Evilkev! Poor widdle Puss Puss. What a big mean man fwowing you out the window!

Sandra, I've reviewed a few books, some for friends, some not. I hope to high heaven that I've been fair in all of them, but it's tough. I only review occasionally anymore and I try to limit the books I choose to people I don't know -- just to ensure that extra smidgen of objectivity.

Tracy Sharp - Author of the Leah Ryan Series said...

Not many people know that the phrase "skinning cats" refers to cat fish. I just learned that a couple of years ago.

Tracy Sharp - Author of the Leah Ryan Series said...

Oops, that's catfish

Steve Allan said...

I don't think it's a big deal with reviewers meet authors; but being friends, that is being beyond acquaintances, can be dangerous because you can lose objectivity and credibility.

That being said, I love to read reviews by people who have a bone to pick with the author. Kathryn Harrison and Maureen Dowd, or Christopher Buckley and Tom Clancy. They're so much fun.

Anonymous said...

I think reviewing a book written by a friend is pretty dangerous, just like reading a manuscript written by a friend who's trying to get published. I lost a friend that way, and I went into it kicking and screaming and didn't even give a completely honest critique. Maybe you could make the argument that something like that shouldn't break a friendship, but it does.

I've read books by people I've met and liked (not necessarily a good friend) but if I don't like the book, I just keep my mouth shut.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Sela, sounds like you choose books wisely. And Kevin liked your comment!

Trace, I don't think that's the kind of skin the cat Kevin had in mind. Doesn't it also refer to a game girls play with string on their fingers - isn't there a move called skin the cat?

Steve, it's an interesting point. What if reviewers are also interviewers? You begin to blur those lines. I barely knew Simon, Mark and Stuart when I reviewed their books last year. I was scheduled to interview Stuart, but hadn't at the time I wrote the review. And never even let him see it before it went online either.

Karen, I've had some rough experiences. I've also had some great ones. And now I might be in a position to end up on a panel with someone I'm reviewing, although I don't know them, it gives it the same appearance. Now, Val McDermid reviews Ian Rankin and maintains objectivity. And they remain friends, so obviously it's possible to do it. I think a lot goes down to the maturity of the people in question.

Unknown said...

I am not a professional writer, but as in any "commentating" dynamic, it is all about the perspective of the one giving out the opinion, and a lot of things come into play when someone is expressing their opinion on something. I give critics credit, but I always like to form my own opinion. I think people should take critics for what they are and what they offer, but critics opinions should not discourage people from reading a book or watching a movie.

Steve Allan said...

Sandra, regarding your question about reviewers also being interviewers: I don't think it matters. Both jobs require one to be objective. However, if an interview or article seems to be a hugs and kisses excercise, I'd be a little weary of a review.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Tanginika, I would agree, personally. I don't put much stock in reviews. It's just an opinion.

Steve, you mean I could have spent that hour hugging and kissing Simon? Well, damn. Although I did drink during our chat, so I wonder if that clouded my judgment?

Seriously, I think I get what you mean. Good point, too.

JamesO said...

Authors can be reviewers, reviewers authors, and even the cat can give his ha'porth for all I care. If you write a review that's petty and vindictive, or just simply negative and unhelpful, then you deserve any opprobrium you get, and if you do it to a friend or acquaintance, then you are also a fool.

That's not to say you shouldn't pan a book for being bad, whoever has written it. But you've got to say why it's bad, or more importantly why you think it's bad. And you've got to be prepared to admit it if someone else points out how and why you are wrong and makes a compelling case.

It's far harder to write a good 'bad' review than it is to praise a book to the heavens, which is why so many reviewers seem to think that it's all right just to say that a book's a load of mouldy old dogwank and leave it at that. Or worse, turn to vitriol. That way rancour lies.

As an author, I'm always open to constructive criticism. Even someone telling me they didn't like it but couldn't pin down exactly why. At least that's honest. But as a reviewer, if I'm going to put my opinion on record about something, then I feel it's only fair to justify that opinion as fully as possible.

And if a friendship can't stand that honesty, then it wasn't much of a friendship to start with, really.

Damn you, Sandra. You've made me rant again!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Ah, my work here is complete. James is ranting... LOL!

Jack Ruttan said...

I'm totally thrown by the sentence where the officer is holding a cat, with a badge hanging on _his_ neck. What? What?

(Far-off relation, for others wondering)

Sandra Ruttan said...

I think Kevin means that the officer is holding the cat, and the cat has a badge dangling from his neck (should say collar, I guess?).

And I need to catch up with you - do I owe you an email Jack? Geesh. Well, everyone, check out Jack's blog! He's a fantastic artist and disgustingly talented.

He makes me sick.

Unknown said...

Evilkev loved your story...nearly died laughing!

As for reviewers being friends with authors I have no problem with it. If you don't like a book and are writing a negative review don't go off the deep end just trashing it. Say why you didn't like it, where it failed for you.

If your friend is a true friend they will still be your friend even if you write a negative review as long as your review is fair and balanced and not just a trashing of their book and them.

I think you can be objective and still be friends with authors. I'd like to think most authors can deal with negative reviews...I'm sure it sucks to get one but in the end it's just someone's opinion. :) And I'd like to think that most reviewers can still be objective even when schmoozing with authors. :)

Mindy Tarquini said...

Kevin - Fab story.

Sandra - Authors should still not be jerks. Reviewers should not review their friends' sucky books, only their friends' really good books.

My head hurts.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Thank you for your kind comments.

I feel there are not enough hard boiled cat stories. I think it would be great to see Puss Puss play bad cop at an interview with a suspect:

"I ain't talkin' to you cop"
Puss Puss jumps across the table and scatched the shit out of the suspect, then is removed.
Puss Puss's partner then says "My partner is alittle upset today. He just got neutered last night"

Lisa Hunter said...

New York magazine used to have a feature called "Logrolling," which exposed authors who had effusively reviewed/blurbed each other's books.

A journalistic reviewer -- unlike a name novelist writing the occassional review -- has to recuse herself if she has a strong personal connection to the author. But the literary world is small, and people tend to know each other socially. Who else should be writing the reviews? Non-writers who aren't in touch with what's happening in the field?

I think it's a delicate balance for both the reader and the reviewer. The first thing I do when I see an established writer praising a debut novel is google the author. Guess how often the reviewer has been the novelist's MFA instructor?

JamesO said...

How long does it take to hard boil a cat?

Jack Ruttan said...

Sandra wrote: And I need to catch up with you - do I owe you an email Jack?

I don't know, but I've lost track. Not that I've been terribly busy lately. I did link to you, though...

Geesh. Well, everyone, check out Jack's blog! He's a fantastic artist and disgustingly talented.

He makes me sick.

In a good way, I hope! :)

Jack Ruttan said...

Actually, that was Spy Magazine that did the "Logrolling" feature. Always fun to have a little nasty dish about authors.

A feud or a tasty scandal or two involving authors helps drum up interest, and makes it feel as if there's a literary "scene." Could use more of that that in Canada. Haven't heard much from _Frank_ magazine lately. Maybe there's a good rumour-churning literary blog out there?

Sandra Ruttan said...

I don't know, Jack. It could be interesting. I suppose most people love a bit of mud-slinging!

And yes, you make me sick in a good way. I wish I could draw with even half your skill.

Instead, I've got some impressive stickmen here!

Sandra Ruttan said...

And Lisa - interesting. I suppose to people outside the community, they don't notice at all. Or do they? Does it bug them?

I mean, as it's been said, the writing community is a small one, particularly within the genre of crime fiction. It's inevitable you'll know people. If not the author then perhaps a publisher or publicist or editor...

And James, I have no idea!

Mindy, I tried to go easier on you today. But the pain in your head is supposed to distract from the pain in your back. See, I'm being helpful!

anne frasier said...

i've been reading blogs but not posting too much this week.

i wanted to hold up my cards for kev's story:

3 powerful snorts
2 very loud guffaws
1 long chuckle with the addition of some shoulder movement

in case you're uaware of my rating system -- that's really high.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Anne, he'll be so pleased to know!

I completely understand the not commenting much... I'm still playing catch-up!

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

I guess I really don't have an answer to your question, but at least I know two things i don't want to do at the same time...write and review books!

Anonymous said...

Great question. Don't have an answer but admire your ethics in raising it for discussion.