Thursday, April 02, 2009

My Golden Rule

So I'm hesitant to post this because I really don't want to seem like I'm whining (because I'm not a whiner), but it's been on my mind lately, so what the hell.

Part of being an author is getting reviewed. We know that. Sometimes, we might not like it, but we know it all the same. In fact, as the years have gone on, I've more or less numbed myself to reviews (after the first initial weeks of a book's release when you really don't know what the reaction will be). I mean, some people are going to like it, and some people aren't, and that's life. Really.

But I've made it a point, on Goodreads, for example, to only highlight books that I've enjoyed. Why? Because I know that authors are out there reading their reviews! And I'm always sort of surprised that some people can say such terrible things so publicly about an author or his/her works. I KNOW this sounds weird. I know it! I know that negative reviews serve a purpose to steer other people away from wasting their time reading said book. But still! I still find it negative reviews to be shocking, I don't know why.

Maybe it's because, as an author, I truly believe that it's an accomplishment to write a book, much less get it published, and so I'm not going to disparage what anyone else does. Could that be it? Yeah, maybe. Or maybe it's just that I don't like tearing someone down when I know the hard work that goes into it, and I also understand that, as noted before, if something isn't my cup of tea, that doesn't mean AT ALL that it won't be anyone else's. Maybe it's because, unlike a TV show or a movie, which are collaborative efforts and have a lot of cooks in their kitchens, a book is really the work of ONE person, and I think it's gutsy for that ONE person to put him/herself out there in such a vulnerable way. But regardless of my reasons (and obviously, I'm still mulling them over), I simply will not critique another author in public. It is my golden rule. I don't see the service of it to anyone. (Again, yes, steer someone clear of it, I get that, but isn't it also just as productive to instead point them toward something you like?)

I don't know. I don't know what my real point is here. Ha! I just read a review (not of my work, I'll note) that I thought was fairly rude and disparaging, and I thought, "I'll bet dollars to donuts that the author sees this," and had a momentary pang for her. I think part of the problem is the anonymity of the web: people write terrible things - not just about books, of course, but about celebrities, in blog comments, all over the place - that they're not accountable for. And I'm not talking about middling or lukewarm reviews. I'm talking about the really eviscerating ones that sort of raise your eyebrows and think, "WOW!"

Anyway, I really don't want to come off as sounding lame/whiny/ungrateful for this job that yes, exposes me to criticism, but offers some wonderful other benefits. It's just sort of me talking about this out loud and wondering if people realize that authors really do see your blog reviews/Amazon reviews/etc. I'm not suggesting that anyone alter their review to spare the author's feelings...really. That's part of this biz. But...I dunno. Am I making sense to anyone????


Philip said...

What you say makes perfect sense to me. I think what motivates a lot of people to be negative is the sheer volume of positive comments and endorsements that get plastered all over books (especially in the U.S.). I talked to a U.S. editor at a major house a little while back who told me that a for a book to be brought out in paperback (i.e. for its second, mass market, outing) it needed to have at least a couple of dozen glowing reviews on the back, front, and inside. I've seen paperbacks (soft covers) where the first seven or eight pages are taken up with lengthy excerpts from reviews and endorsements. Imagine then that you pay the money, read the book and then 'discover' it's really nothing special, or worse. You might feel it's time someone set the record straight.
In other words, I'm suggesting that hype and overselling lie behind these harsh reactions.
That said, I'm with you on respecting the effort that goes into producing books; and in recognising that your response to a book, whatever your qualifications, ultimately comes down to personal taste.

Maya / מיה said...

I totally know what you mean. And it's not limited to authors, actually... I learned the hard way not to check what students post at I think the web frees people to be cruel with no consequences, and I think that's not a good thing... it is almost impossible to develop skin thick enough not to mind. I also think that we don't see authors (or even teachers) as real people too much of the time... I think YOU feel for fellow writers as real people because you are one, but others probably have no idea that authors will actually read these reviews and might be hurt by them. Ah, well.

Btw I just won a writing contest over at! I know it's a really small contest and not that big of a deal, but I'm really excited just the same. :) PLUS it means I won a $25 gift certificate to Amazon, which I plan to use to assuage my guilt at the high shipping fees to Israel and order your books!!

S. Krishna said...

I've lurked for a long time, but have never actually left a comment. I review books at my blog - I actually reviewed TOML and quite enjoyed it - and I have given negative reviews before.


I always make it a point to point out the positives of the book first. No matter how much you hated a book, there is always something good to point out.

When I do get to the negatives, I am gentle. I don't think there is any point to making disparaging remarks or personal comments about the author. I think it's horrible when people are vicious in their negative reviews, I think it shows a lack of respect. Whether you liked it or not, someone worked hard at writing the book you read.

I also always make it clear what audience I think might enjoy it, even if I didn't.

Jenna said...

You're making sense.

I do think when you are a writer you review differently because you know what an accomplishment writing a book is.

"I still find it negative reviews to be shocking, I don't know why."

I think negative reviews are shocking when they are ignorant and/or angry. You get ignorant and angry reviews from people who didn't like something about the politics or religion or author's beliefs that entered the book. I also think you get ignorant and angry reviews because of jealously--either the author had success with an idea they didn't or is making a boatload of money off great stories with mediocre writing.

I ignore 1-star or 2-star reviews that are ignorant or angry. But, if I find a very intelligent, insightful review that is 1-star or 2-stars I take it into consideration.

"Again, yes, steer someone clear of it, I get that, but isn't it also just as productive to instead point them toward something you like?)"

I started a women's fiction review site last month so I've been really mulling this over. At first I thought I would read new releases and post ratings and be brutally honest if I needed to be--but then the unpublished writer in me dared me to look at the site another way. I realized what I wanted to put out there was recommendations, not just reviews, I wanted to dig into the new releases and find the gems and use my blog to give said gems some exposure.

And you're right, the sense of anonymity people have on the Internet doesn't force them to stop and think, "Would I say this to this person's face." This has been my mantra since I started looking at books to review/recommend--if I couldn't say it to the author's face then I don't write it.

jen said...

For me, because I write memoir, bad reviews feel like personal attacks. I stopped reading Amazon reviews a couple of months after my first book came out and haven't been back since late 2006. Didn't matter how many nice things people said about my writing, I only focused on the negative reviewers... and then started Googlestalking them and subsequently making myself crazy.

I also NEVER Google myself, nor do I check trackbacks on my website. (I do use Factiva, but that only records media mentions.)

It's not that I don't take and accept criticism from other sources, because I'm always open to ways of improving. However, I'm aware of my limitations (and ego) and know personally that I shouldn't go looking for critique.

Because I will find it.

In spades.

Kathleen Murray said...

I agree that some of the really mean-spirited personal attack kind of reviewing is unnecessary, particularly given the effort that goes into writing any book. For the most part, I tend to only review books I like. That said, I do agree with Philip that a lot of the negativity comes from the incessant over-hyping of ok books and the reader's subsequent disappointment. If I'm told on the cover that a book is "going to change my life," then it better do more than just bore me to a predictable and not particularly memorable end. I'm all for writer's supporting each other -- and have I number of writer friend's who cheer me on and critique my own work. But as a reader I hate to be fooled, so I appreciate honest reviews good and bad. Like Jenna, I think you can usually spot the vitriolic posters who have an ax to grind...

LarramieG said...

For some reason I have yet to discover, most individuals simply like to complain.

Brenda Janowitz said...

YES! thank you for saying what i've been thinking for so, SO long!!!

Julie Kibler said...

Honor among thieves. :)

Actually, I do believe it is a code of honor, especially when it's an author reviewing or commenting upon another author. It would be like Leo De Caprio saying, "Yeah, Brad Pitt ... he's just not a very good actor." Imagine the chaos in Hollywood and the world! Even if it were true. (And I picked those two actors out of a hat, by the way, simply because they are kind of the golden boys, not because of my actual opinion.)

There are critics, and there are cranks ... or something. :)

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

You and I share this part of our brains. I do the same thing on all three of the book networking sites, as well as on my blog. For the same reasons -- and one more. There's so much negativity in the world (and the Net). I don't want to contribute to that. I want to be known as one of those people who follows the old maxim: If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Just thought of this, too:

When I review a book, even if it's horrible (and I've had some real clunkers come my way), I try to find the good in it to balance out the bad. And also to put the bad in a constructive light, as much as I can. Even if the author doesn't see it or agree, you never know who it'll have an effect on -- hopefully a good one.

Anonymous said...

I write about the positives in reviews but if I didn't like the book, I explain why. If I continually tell my readers that I like books that I don't than I am compromising myself.

It's got nothing to do with being positive or negative. If you commit to reviewing a book, it should be an honest review.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you. I think if you are going to give a negative review at least do it tastefully. I have read some and thought my goodness! A book written and a publication and they told them THAT!! Yeah I see what your saying 110% Nice post!

Anonymous said...

I'm not even published yet but I decided a while back to post only positive reviews on Amazon. (If I don't care for the book, I don't review it.) Partly because I know how difficult it is to write a book and I wouldn't want to hurt the author's feelings if their work simply wasn't my cuppa. But partly because I don't want to be critical of an author's book and then run into them at a conference someday. Or find out we share the same agent. Or maybe my editor thinks this author would be a good candidate for a blurb. Self-serving? Yes. But the idea of publicly disparaging another writer's work also feels icky to me. (I do dish privately with my writing friends, of course.)

Eileen said...

As a writer I only post reviews of books I like. I have no interest in getting into a cat fight with another writer. I don't mind negative reviews, but I do dislike the snarky/mean review. It smacks too much of someone trying to look clever.

Anonymous said...

I am so right there with you. J.A. Kontrath also had a great post on this topic. I had a drive-by review on my Amazon page last month and it was SO clear to me that the person who wrote it had not bothered to read a single word of my book.


Further research of his reviews indicated major sour grapes toward both traditionally published authors (that's me) and women (ditto).

And yet, I have no recourse. If I confront the person I will come off as defensive. And yet it feels so wrong not to defend myself. I can tell from a review if someone has read my book or not. Of course I can. I spent a year writing it.

What I typically do instead is e-mail a few friends and vent. Frankly, I'd rather confront the &(*&*&%^&$. But I don't. That would be stooping to his level.

But let's face it, there are some people who should be in therapy using the Internet to do damage. Apparently they have not heard of karma. But I'm counting on it. Oh, yes I am.

kate hopper said...

Allison, I totally agree. I think it's as you say--if you know the work that's gone into writing and publishing a book, it's difficult to say really mean things about it. I do think that reviewers can say what they don't like about a book as long as they don't make it a personal attack on the author. (And many people seem to do this.)But frankly, I don't review books on my blog if I can't say something nice.

Wendy Orange said...

This is my second try so excuse me if this comment is rushed. I had two things I wanted to share (and did and didn't get posted because I forgot my google password).

1) If it's your byline it's wrong to have someone else's words. I worked for a magazine for about 6 years, many articles, most long. I had a great editor and we could hassle for hours over a phrase but that made the writing better and it was mine, with her help. I think changing your words and using your name is almost as indecent as horrid reviews.

2) I wrote a book in 2000 that I still think is pretty great. I had a famed publisher and editor and she agreed though I somehow never got PR nor reviews, not many. One night, it was about midnight in Manhattan I saw my name on some magazine that had three reviews, and was so elated I ran home to sit and read it. Three reviews. One was by a more famous editor who wrote a book much like mine only not really well-written, the highway not the scenic tour if you will. His book had two pages of all praise. The next review was a full page of a book that was poetic but vague. I'd read both of them carefully. Turning the page and trying to keep my excitement in check I saw one little graph at the end suggesting readers do NOT buy my book. The reviewers short sentences said mainly, "Look she never learned Hebrew. Need I say more?" I was so crushed. That was five years of my life and good writing too. Then, about two months later, after wanting to kill his first born, of course I did nothing, I went to google and found a four month old article about how he and his wife couldn't master Hebrew!!! I was amazed. It was only then I realized that my book was probably too 'left' for him or his publication but to accuse me of something he too had not mastered somehow lessened the hurt. The End From Wendy

Kristan said...

I'm with you on this, though I wasn't always. I used to think an honest opinion should always be given, even if it wasn't the one that was wanted. But now I ask myself, What is really gained by that?

("This product will kill your baby" is a little different from "I hate this movie because it sucks" -- just want to clarify.)

So now I practice Thumper's golden rule from Bambi: If you can't say something nice, then don't say nothin' at all.

Sometimes, if constructive criticism is called for, I will also employ the feedback sandwich: say something nice, say something critical, and end with something nice. Most artists/writers/whatevers eat this up just fine, at least in my experience.