Reviews, Impulses, and the Mental Censor Button

January 8, 2012 at 12:00 pm (General, Industry) (, , , )

So there’s been a kerfuffle recently (isn’t that a surprise). Bookalicious Pam has a good recap of it, including a link to the review and a screenshot of the rant that started it all. Long story short, a blogger posted a review of a book she disliked, the author freaked out on her, and the internet exploded.

It’s got a lot of people talking, mostly for the positive. A lot of what’s come out of this is authors reminding each other to cool their t**s and reviewers supporting each other. Plus the authors supporting the bloggers and the bloggers supporting the authors, which is one of the amazing things about the YA community. Sometimes the drama makes me feel like I’m back in high school, but the overall support system can’t be denied.

Last week I talked about my resolution-ish-type-things for 2012.

Now I’m going to talk about a few things that go deeper than resolutions and are meant for far more than the coming year.

Reviews are, when pared down to absolute bone and blood, opinions. Everyone who reads a book forms an opinion about it. Some of us share those opinions with friends, or with customers, or with people in a book club. Some of us share them with the internet. Sometimes we gush, sometimes we skewer, sometimes we analyze, we go over books in every possible way, but the method of sharing never changes the fact of what we’re sharing: opinions. Everyone is entitled to them, and everyone is entitled to share them.

It is an actual impossibility for every person to love or even like every book they read. Anyone who says they’ve never disliked a book obviously hasn’t read enough at all. People who read inevitably find books they don’t like. Maybe even books they hate. Books that leave them with a lingering sense of ‘meh’. This is a thing called “life”. Just as everyone won’t want to be your friend, not everyone will love every book.

And for authors, this can be heart-wrenching. By the time a book gets into our hands as readers, authors have put their blood, sweat, and tears into the thing for years. This is their brain-child, their baby. This is all the most vulnerable pieces of themselves, bound and packaged for your convenience. When an author puts a book on the shelf, it’s like tearing their heart out of their chest and putting it on display.

And as readers, we judge that.

We judge the books, evaluate them for merit. We compare them to other books by that author, to other books by other authors. We compare them to our expectations, to the hype, the reviews. We compare and we judge.

THE BOOKS.

A good reviewer, a good blogger, judges THE BOOKS. Not the author.

A review, even a negative one, is not a judgement about the author personally. We may mention something publicly available about the author (like the fact that Maureen Johnson is absolutely crazy in the best possible way on Twitter) but we are not addressing their worth as a person. We are not insulting them, we are not challenging them, we are not stomping all over them. We’re talking about the book.

I hate Wuthering Heights. Hate it with a passion, and I can go on and on and on about all the reasons I hate that book. One of my best friends from high school? LOVED IT. As I Lay Dying? I loathed it. She put quotes from it all over her backpack. She and I had differing opinions about pretty much everything we read for classes. Even the ones we both liked we liked for different reasons. Same for the ones we both disliked. And we’re just two people. Here’s the thing, though: when I told my junior English teacher that Going After Cacciato wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on, I wasn’t saying anything about Tim O’Brien. When the only thing that made me finish House of Spirits was the very real need to get a good grade in that class, I wasn’t leveling insults at Isabel Allende. Maybe a few at my teacher for making me read it. None at the author.

I read a lot of books. A LOT. Between new reads, re-reads, and manuscript reads, I read almost 300 books last year, in addition to a full time job, starting the blog, and researching/writing/editing/querying. I do a review a week. The math isn’t difficult- I read a hell of a lot more books than I review here. I pick and choose what I review, and because of that, I’m able to make a few choices about what I want to review.

For the most part, the books you’ll see reviewed on here are ones that I liked, really liked, or loved. I don’t tend to do negative reviews for a very simple reason: with all the books that I enjoyed to talk about, why would I waste my time talking about books I didn’t like? I’m a reader and a writer, but I’m also a bookseller: when I’m talking about books at work, it’s generally for the purpose of making a sale. I’m not going to try and convince someone not to buy a book.

Well, sometimes, but usually only because I’d rather they not give an eight-year-old a book with a graphic blowjob in the first sixty pages. And then I hand them a different book.

When I do a negative review, I try to make sure it’s balanced, not just because I like to be fair but also because if I’m spending the time on writing a negative review, it’s because there were other pieces that I really, really liked. Because I really wanted to love the book and there parts that did win that love, which made it all the more frustrating that I encountered pieces that didn’t work for me. A recent example of this? Legend, by Marie Lu. I really wanted to love that book and there were a lot of things about it that I do love, and because of that I hold it to a more exacting standard.

It’s that whole school thing again. A teacher expects more out of the students who routinely work hard and get good grades. A student who always gets Cs? It’s not going to cause any surprise or unexpected or strong emotion in the teacher. A student who always gets As and then gets a C? Then the teacher isn’t just surprised- they’re disappointed. Because they expected more. Because they know everything that student has to offer, because they’ve seen it before. Because they expect to see it again.

I don’t do many negative reviews. There are so many other books to talk about that I just don’t spend the time on negative reviews unless I can give equal attention to the things that blew me away, not just the things that disappointed me.

That’s a personal choice, and I fully respect the choice of others to do negative reviews. I learn a lot from other people’s negative reviews. And the thing about a negative review is that it doesn’t necessarily stop me from reading a book. Sometimes if a person’s general taste runs counter to mine, I find that what they dislike I’ll probably like, and vice versa. Sometimes the dislike comes down to a specific point that I don’t mind. There are only two conditions that lead me to not read a book based on a review:
1. It’s one of a slew of reviews, from people whose taste I generally trust, that all dislike the book. Maybe it’s just that there’s comfort in numbers, but if a number of people I usually agree with don’t like it, chances are decent that I won’t either, and I’d rather put my time towards books I’m probable to like.
2. I’m already waffling on the book. If I’m looking into a book and I’m leaning more towards not reading it, a negative review is only reinforcing the idea I already have. It’s not planting the seed.

When I post a negative review, I’m still only talking about the book. When I discussed what I didn’t like about Legend, I wasn’t calling Marie Lu any names. I was not making rude comments about her antecedents or background. I wasn’t being personal. It’s just about the book, and about my reaction to it.

And not everyone will agree with it. I understand that and more, I respect that. Even more, I like that. What a boring place book communities would be if everyone thought the same things! So when I post a review on Mastiff and people comment about how they really didn’t like Farmer, I’m not taking that as an insult on my ability to review. It’s not that I’m wrong. It’s not that the commenter is wrong. Guess what, there’s isn’t a right or wrong answer with this kind of thing. Sometimes a comment agrees with me and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s fine either way.

As long as the comment isn’t an attack about me or the author.

There are people who can skewer books so thoroughly I can’t safely drink anything in front of the computer for fear of sneezing soda over the keyboard and screen. Cleolinda, for example, whose Twilight recaps make me giggle and snort in public, can be absolutely merciless when it comes to the books. THE BOOKS. I lack the talent to be that funny so I don’t try. I stick to what I do well, which is talk about books I love.

If it’s a review I’m proud of, on a book I loved, I’ll usually tag the author on Twitter. They’ll either read it or they won’t. If it’s a less than glowing review, I don’t tag them. Why would I? That’s just being hateful. But remember the whole “book as baby” concept; just as mothers really love to hear that thier children are cute and wonderful, authors really love to hear that people enjoyed their books.

But every time an author clicks on a link to a review, it’s a crap shoot. Positive? Negative? Fun? Mocking? Glowing? Hateful? An author never knows what they’re going to get if they click on that link. Being an author, being published, doesn’t change the fact that an author is a person, with all the normal instincts and reactions as all the other people. It doesn’t matter that the negative things are being said about the book; it’s still their baby, and it still hurts. An author is a person with feelings that can get hurt by what we have to say.

But an author is also a step removed from a person, in that an author is also a business. People who review books? Buy books. People who read reviews? Buy books. As readers, we are directly playing into the continued life of an author’s career. As a business, authors cannot publicly rant about bad reviews. Not convinced? Check out the fairly recent drama with Ocean Marketing. It’s the oh-holy-hell-I-probably-shouldn’t-be-laughing-but-this-is-unfrickingbelievable story of a man who decided to piss all over someone buying his product. And, of course, given that this takes place in the real world in which we live, it’s also about the consequences of such an act.

Authors are a business, a name brand and a product and a public image. They’re still people, but ranting and pissing and moaning about negative reviews? Need to be private. Not public.

Because the simple truth is, reviews aren’t written to flatter the author. That’s what Twitter is for, to gush and to compliment. That’s what events and signings are for, to be able to walk up to an author and say how much you love their book. To them. Reviews are meant to share opinions about a book, and they’re meant for other readers. They’re meant for people who may not have heard about a particular book, who may be curious about the book, people who aren’t sure whether or not they want to read a book, people who want to talk about a book they’ve read. Reviews are for readers and for booksellers. Not for authors.

As a reviewer, do I love when an author reads my review and likes it? ABSOLUTELY. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, like a Hallmark card. But I’m not writing the review for the author. I’m writing the review because I have an opinion to share about a book, because I want to share that opinion with fellow readers, and because I hope other people with share their opinions with me.

As a writer, I understand the pain of negative reviews. I’ve gotten negative reviews for fanfic, and some of those negative reviews are so badly written they’re practically a joke, easy to brush off, but the ones that are even-keeled and calm, the ones that are well-written and intelligent and well supported from the text…those can hurt. Even if the person isn’t being hateful. It hurts when someone doesn’t like what you’ve labored so long and so hard to create. When someone dislikes something you’ve put your whole heart into, it feels like they’re disliking you personally.

But it’s NOT PERSONAL.

And shooting off at the mouth as if it was- ranting and insulting a blogger who may have just put hard-earned money towards your book- is the same as telling people you don’t want them to buy your book.

In retail, one of the first things we’re taught is the Rule of 3 and 30. The average person who has a fantastic, amazing, above and beyond customer service experience in your store? Will tell three people. The average person who has a crummy, insulting, or generally negative customer service experience in your store? Will tell thirty people. And in the age of facebook and blogs and twitter, that can quickly multiply to hundreds or thousands. People talk more about the bad experiences than the good ones.

So when an author rants about a blogger who gave their honest opinion about a book (and in my opinion, wasn’t hateful or inappropriate at all), the end result isn’t that people think that blogger must be wrong.

The end result is that people think that author is an asshole. And then choose not to buy that author’s books.

Everyone is entitled to an opinion. Everyone is entitled to share that opinion, and while it could certainly be hoped for that people will share that opinion politely, it’s not mandatory.

Reviewers are allowed to write and post a negative review.

Authors are allowed to feel hurt by a negative review.

But take a moment, take a few deep breaths, and conquer that impulse to rant and rave about it in a public space. Call your best friend, your parents, your significant other. Write a journal entry. Bake a cake and write the words in frosting. But keep the reaction in a private space.

I call it my Mental Censor Button.

It’s the thing that keeps me from getting fired. When I have a PITA customer, the Mental Censor Button is the thing that keeps me from informing them that they’ve just made my day hell. The censor button is what allows me to smile (however strained it may be) and tell someone to have a nice day in a voice that at least approaches sincerity. it’s the thing that lets me bite my lip against cracking an inappropriate joke when someone doesn’t realize how they just misspoke. It’s the thing that lets me be polite and sociable, it’s the thing that lets me give stellar customer service even to the people who piss me off beyond the ability of words to describe.

And it’s something we all need.

So I’m making you a promise: my reviews will never attack an author. Whether I love the book or hate it, my review will always be focused ON THE BOOK. No matter what I think of the final product, I respect the time and effort that went into crafting it, and I respect the author for having the courage to put it out there, for having the determination and drive to pursue their goal past all the obstacles. I respect the strength it takes to put themselves out there. I respect that, whatever my opinion, it is just one opinion, and that there will be others who disagree with me. I respect the opinions of my fellow bloggers, whether I agree with them or not, and I respect a person’s right to post a negative review.

Fortunately, this is the standard. The drama happens because one or two or a handful of people on either end misbehave, but we’re lucky to be part of a community that, for the most part, fully embraces the wide range of opinions and the right of people to express that in whatever way they choose.

And I’m grateful for it.

Until next time~
Cheers

Added 1.10- a really good, insightful post about the author/reviewer positions on Dear Author.
-a fabulous post by Veronica Roth over on YA Highway.

Added 1.11- Stacia Kane weighs in from an author’s side of things as well, in a series: Something in the Water; Freedom of Speech ; and I’m Not a Reader

Added 1.17- a post from Maggie Stiefvater in response to the Guardian’s ridiculosity.
-Cleolinda’s take on reviews
-a rather hysterical take on the drama- TONGUE IN CHEEK– sarcasm doesn’t always come across in writing, so please don’t think this author is actually advocating the behaviors portrayed.

Added 1.20- a post from Lisa Schroeder

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YA Mafia and Other Sour Grapes

March 4, 2011 at 8:56 pm (Industry) (, , )

There are a lot of places you can find mention of the YA Mafia right now. Follow a YA author on Twitter or blog chances are you’ll run across it at least as a passing reference. It’s a Really Big Thing.

And in my opinion, it’s kind of ridiculous.

I don’t say that to belittle any of the players involved- obviously it’s something about which people are very passionate. It touches on a number of sensitive topics that start when we’re in preschool and somehow just compound along the way to maturity adulthood.

What it boils down to, for anyone who’s missed the wildfire in the past two days or so, is that some people believe in the existence of a YA Mafia- an uber-clique of Young Adult authors who are all friends, blurb each other’s books, freak out over bad reviews, and somehow exercise the mysterious ability to either ruin people’s careers or even prevent them from ever getting started. This shadowy mob despises newcomers- seeing them as competition- and they’re out to destroy book bloggers who say anything negative about their published treasures.

If you switch around a couple of words, doesn’t it sound like the House Committee of Un-American Activities?

The thing is, like any Big Deal, this has some- SOME- foundation in fact.

Fact One: many YA authors are friends. Um…duh. These people are colleagues, they co-panel at conventions, share stops on tours, cheer each other on, and celebrate the victories. Like in any group of people that comes together with similar interests and personalities that fit together, friendships form. The thing is, they cheer on YA as a genre, as the embodiment of the fact that teenagers (and a large number of teenage minded adults) are reading. In this day and age, when there are so many other things vying for attention and time, that is always something to celebrate. They support each other in the way that friends do, and get excited for word counts and email answers and all sorts of things that don’t meant anything to the general public.

Fact Two: they blurb each other’s books. When a publisher is trying to attract people to a new series, or a new author, it’s smart business to ask for a blurb from an established author with a dedicated fan base. If it’s a YA novel, it makes the most sense to ask the favor of a YA author. So yes, they blurb for each other. And yes, as with any favor, blurbs are a matter of personal taste and preference. If an author doesn’t actually care for your book, why should they lie and say it was amazing? And if you’ve attacked them as an author, why should they even do you the favor of reading it in the first place? A blurb is a selling point, a way to catch someone’s attention and make them say “Hey, I really like this other author, maybe I’ll like this one too”. It’s like using someone as a reference on an application. If you have thoroughly pissed them off by attacking the work they do, are you really going to ask them for a positive reference?

Fact Three: book bloggers can feel pressured to only post positive things.

For me, this is one of the stickier parts, probably because it has more to do with¬†common sense than anything else. No book is perfect. No book is so utterly amazing that there aren’t places it could have been improved. No sensible person expects there to be only gushing in a review. A review is a balanced critique of a book, a measured account of what- for you- worked or did not work, what the author did well or not well enough. There are good points and bad points and meh points that all factor into an overall opinion of the piece.

It’s not a rant.

We’ve all seen these kinds of reviews, full of venom and vitriol that shred not only the book but the author and the industry with the questionable taste to publish it. It does not take into account dissenting opinions and may even attack anyone with the temerity to question it. Heaven forbid you be foolish enough to actually attempt an argument or discussion. Even the most negative reviews focus on the book. In a rant, the book is only the starting point.

Another thing a review is not? A platform for bitterness and jealousy. On this one I speak not just as someone who enjoys reviewing books (and a bookseller who’s expected to do so on request), but as a writer not-so-patiently slogging through the mass of work on the way to the magical place of Getting An Agent/Editor/Shiny-Happy-Book-On-Shelf-Emotional-Breakdown-Day. As a writer, I kind of get this one. Kind of. We’ve all read awful books, books that make us cringe with every page and it’s a contest of wills (or maybe a point of principle) to force your way through to the end. The characters are flat stereotypes, the prose limps along like an afternoon drunk, and the story has about as much direction as the aforementioned drunk, and the entire time you’re battling reading this book, all you can think is “how does crap like this get published when my wonderful, amazing, LIFE-CHANGING novel lives neglected on my hard-drive?!”. We’ve all had the dark, nasty thoughts. But before you go running off to the blogosphere, there are a few things to think about.

Thing One: that piece of crap in your hands? That author thought the exact same things about his/her novel that you think about yours. Some agent saw it and was willing to put his/her reputation behind this book; an editor saw it and was willing to put money into this book to produce and publicize it; a bookstore buyer saw it and was willing to put money into it to get it in stores and on shelves. And- here’s the kicker- you saw that book and thought there was something interesting about it, or you wouldn’t have started reading it in the first place. People were willing to stake money and reputation on this book not being crap.

Thing Two: this is your opinion. This is not a commandment from God. I have friends who worship at the altar of Faulkner. They think As¬†I Lay Dying is the most genius thing ever written, can quote half the book, and expound- at length- on exactly what was so stellar about it. I hated it. I cringe when people ask me for that book at work. There are hours- days, even- of my life that I will never recover and the only reason I pushed through to the (very) bitter end was because I was a grade riding on it. I loathed that book. So who’s right? Well…none of us. It’s an opinion- it’s not really right or wrong. It can be unfounded, unreasonable, uneducated, maybe even hard to swallow, but it’s an opinion, and everyone is entitled to one.

Thing Three: if you’re reviewing in the blogosphere, it’s not because you want a private notebook to reference when you need to find a new book. You’re reviewing in the blogosphere because you want people to see it. What do you want them to see? The unrestrained, rabidly frothing rantings of a juvenile mind? Or a well-constructed critique that’s honest without being a) timid, b) tactless, or c) totally useless? You don’t have to dance aorund or lie about your feelings for a book. If I’m coaching an employee, I’m not going to start the conversation with “Okay, this is why you suck”. Um…no. I’m going to approach it as “this is what you’re trying to do, this is why it isn’t working, here’s some ways we can fix this”. A review should be approached in the same way.

Thing Four: if you can get established as a reliable reviewer in the blogosphere, people will want to send you free books. Free. Books. Just to keep doing what you were already doing anyway. Do you really want to jeopardize that for a temper tantrum you can scream at your wall instead of posting?

Thing Five: why aren’t you published if such-and-such can manage it? Well…are you trying? Are you crafting a novel, writing it, finishing it, polishing it, giving it to others to rip to shreds so you can put it back together better, polishing it, researching agents who represent what you write, crafting a query (package), getting query critiqued, polishing query, sending queries, sending queries, sending queries, dealing with rejection, sending queries, oh my God an agent wants me now the real work begins! and all that jazz? Or are you sitting on your blog waiting for them to discover you?

Hate to tell you this, kids, but Cinderella was only one girl at the ball. Bet you anything, most of the other girls saw the prince falling all over himself at the cute new girl in the shiny shoes, marked him off their lists, and went right on to the next good chance. This is called working for what you want. As a society, we’re so entranced by the Cinderella stories that we forget that they’re NOT NORMAL. We hear about them because they’re rare. Everyone else does this thing called legwork. So, if you’re not published, do you race to your blog to rant about those who are, or do you sit down and really try to figure out why you’re not?

Writing is a hobby.

Publishing is a business.

In a business, there are certain professional standards to be maintained. It doesn’t mean you claim to love books you loathed, it doesn’t mean you don’t point out the parts that don’t work. I once read a professional review where the book was described as having “prose so purple it’s nearly incandescent”. Um..OW. But the reviewer never attacked the author, and each negative point was supported by examples. And you know? That book has been on the bestseller list.

I almost wish the YA Mafia did exist. It would be so much easier to blame a shadowy cabal than to knuckle down and do (HARD) work. But- and here’s the REALLY BIG THING- the ONLY person with that much control over your career is you. You are the one who can put in all the (HARD) work and patience and frustration and passion and- finally- accomplish something amazing. You’re also the one who can screw yourself by treating it like high school instead of a business.

Until next time~

Cheers!

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