Monday, March 7, 2011

Why I Write “Bad” Reviews and Why You Can Ignore Them

So, I see that I ran out of reviews. As I write them in advance, and they post a week or two later, you can tell that I’ve been offline for some time. A combination of work and illness means that today is the first day in a week I’ve opened my e-mail; I’ve just skimmed subject lines and senders as they went by. That’s part of why I’m behind on things like giveaways, so I’ll be playing catch up this week (and probably next; I suspect work will still be busy until mid-month). It’s been an intense time, that’s for sure.

I did peek in on the Internet occasionally over the last two weeks, though, and what caught my eye was the YA Mafia discussion--not so much the mafia part, but the discussion about how reviewers need to be nice (or not). I came to the party a little bit late, so I’m just now reading some of the germs of the conversation, and those are pretty informative when you consider how everything has played out.
If you don’t know what I’m referring to, here are some links to get you started. I started with Holly Black’s first LiveJournal post, so that’s what prompted me to spend the weekend thinking about reviewing, reiterating why I do it and how I do it, and the written and unwritten rules that organize the YA community.

YA Highway’s roundup, which might be a good place to start

Holly Black on the YA mafia and a follow up

Cleolinda on who book reviews are written for

Janni Lee Simner on why she still reviews books as an author and why she’s okay with it if you don’t like hers

Justine Larbalestier’s response to Janni

And Megan Crewe’s response

Ilona Andrews on reviewing as an author

Alvina Ling, from the editor’s perspective

Anyway, my attention to what was going on started when Holly Black popped up with a post about how there’s no YA mafia.

To start, I believe this to be true.

I think that the online YA community is functioning much like a fandom, and much like a young fandom. There’s a LOT of enthusiasm. There are a LOT of people trying to figure out where they fit in. It’s very easy to focus on what seem to be impenetrable circles and wonder why you’re not in them. And, in a weird way, it’s a too-close fandom, because there isn’t the separation that usually exists between creators and their fan base. Here, creators (and gatekeepers!) are part of the fan base, part of the audience. Here, the audience, in many cases, is interested in being part of the profession (me included). And we want to be positive parts of our communities, all of us, even if we very much disagree about what it means to be positive. That’s why reviewing, in particular, is such a thorny issue, and it’s complicated by how part of the community is paid by others within it.

To reiterate, I don’t think there is a true YA mafia, pulling the strings to get their friends publishing deals and to keep out those mean people from the Internet. I think that doesn’t give enough credit to publishers, agents, authors, and booksellers who first and foremost want to deliver entertaining reads to people who will pay good money for entertaining reads and thus perpetuate the delivery of more entertaining reads. Do I think that connections can help? Sure--this is an industry. (And Jennifer Laughran makes a good point that people look for other people with whom they’re compatible and between whom there won’t be drama to work with. I do agree with this even while I sympathize with people at the point where they haven’t gained an understanding of how private their online thoughts are not.)

Maybe there’s no LinkedIn just for people in publishing, and connections won’t replace having talent and skill, but sure, I’ll grant you that a friend’s recommendation might help you somewhere, though I think it less likely that a few negative reviews will get you blacklisted (and the more I look, it seems like people are referring to scathing reviews versus just not liking something). I’ll also grant you that it can look like there are cliques; whether you’re, say, traveling together because you’re besties or your publisher suggested that you collaborate on a book tour, you’re likely to be noticed for hanging out with successful professionals than you are for the times when you’re hanging out with someone nobody’s heard of yet.

The office water cooler examples have worked for me. It’s a big office and authors don’t know everyone (and in my mind, aren’t required to like everyone in a let’s-be-friends way), and like you and me, they find that lunch table populated with people they know, most of the time. It’s a safer space; they can talk shop; they don’t have to worry so much about request to recommend something they don’t want to; they can take off that public face for a few minutes. From the outside, yes, that can look scary, especially if you haven’t found your people yet. At the same time, I’ve been struck by how kind many of the so-called clique has been in odd moments; I nearly puked on Ally Carter at a signing once (I was feeling very unwell and I was very distracted by this guy in the audience who kept talking about how he wanted to marry her and who approached her in an unnerving way after her talk, and I was worried, but impressed by how she handled the situation...but still very nauseated), and another time, a very perky Sarah Rees Brennan chatted to me while we waited in line for coffee early one morning, and I did not even know words yet because my brain does not turn on before approximately 9 a.m., and I may even have drooled or snored or something because as much as I’d like to be a fantastic, extroverted conference planner, I’m really susceptible to working too hard, and I’ve always felt that I have an obligation to be visible as a force for organization and invisible as a personality, so just being in a conversation at all was a surprise. Those are just two of my favorite examples.

The existence of a YA mafia isn’t so much what I’m interested in as the discussions going on about reviewing and responsibility. This post, in fact, was prompted by Janni Lee Simner’s public statement about how she feels about reviews, though my more recent understanding is that a lot of this all goes back to GoodReads, a site I gave up on because I wasn’t, as I thought, privately making a list of things I’d read, and I definitely wasn’t using the star rating system to mean the same thing as other people thought it meant. I think it’s very brave of Janni and others to stand up and say “I understand that you won’t necessarily like what I write.” In turn, I think I need to say the same thing as someone who is, primarily, a reviewer. In point #4.

1. I understand what it’s like to feel like you can’t speak your mind.
Hey, I used to be a teacher. You spend all day watching your mouth, worrying about whether or not to address something, worrying--in my case--whether a student can take that subjective, critical feedback you think they need, or whether you’re going to spend all of your free time for the next week soothing their/their parents’ hurt feelings.

When I was first on the Internet, I was anonymous. I was SO anonymous. It was great. And then I got involved in administering a website, and I started having to think about being “on” and “off.” I realized that no matter how off the clock I felt I was, some people would interpret some of my statements as being on behalf of that website. Handily, I had options for making my Internetting more private, and I did that, and while I was a vocal supporter of the website, I tried to remove myself from ever being seen as (unofficial) spokesperson.

Later, I got involved in (literature) conference planning, which is really a side part of all of this, but connected enough to literature and books that I think it’s relevant. I need, and keep, a network of people to whom I can say what I think in an unfiltered way, and those folks have earned my trust, but in public, I have to be very careful what I say. I have chosen to keep silent about what I really think about a lot of things, because I don’t feel comfortable having my comments extrapolated to apply to things I wouldn’t apply the same comments to. I’ve shut my mouth about some absolutely atrocious behavior (don’t worry; if you’re reading this, it’s not you, and it’s not even within this community...and if it is you, I’m well aware that you think I’m a poopoo head). I’ve refrained from correcting misstatements about events I have/do work on because I know that, no matter how right I think I am, it’s an unwritten rule that going into someone else’s space to tell them so is unwelcome, even when they write an open letter or something like that.

I’ve had other reasons to just stay the heck away and shut up online, but they’re confidential enough that I don’t even want to use them as examples. I haven’t always chafed at the restrictions I’ve had on saying whatever the heck I want, especially because I take requests for confidentiality very seriously, but what I want to say is that I understand how it feels to be told you are no longer allowed to share your opinions. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. People in health care, in government, in law enforcement, and in ethical businesses might have restrictions on what they’re allowed to talk about and when in their profession, or they might have decided that staying above the fray is good business.

I also understand that what I say online is meaningful, and not without consequences, good AND bad. In fact, and I’m not going to single her out, an author I came across in the course of the discussion wrote a very thoughtful comment that I appreciated. I really didn’t like her book. I didn’t care to finish it. I’ve struggled mightily with drawing lines on what to talk about on this blog, especially as I chose to go real-name, and decided that I didn’t have enough positive things to say about this particular author’s book to be able to write a useful review, particularly the book is in a subgenre that I’ve never much liked. I wouldn’t necessarily have avoided this author for life--after all, one book is not representative of what someone can do, and I have a lot of respect for people whose books I don’t like as well as for books written by people whose, let’s say, opinions I don’t like--but I’ve decided to look for something else this author wrote. I think most readers are hopeful that every book they try will be the one, that next fantastic reading experience.

I struggle with boundaries a lot as a reviewer. Maybe someone I know, and respect very much, is the editor of a book I didn’t like much, even though I love alllllll of their other work; do I review that less-liked book, or not? (I’m considering right now whether or not to review a book that I didn’t like, but that I think is important. Can I do it? Can I do it without hurting personal or professional feelings?) Can I give a fair review of a book by someone I know? Do I go with the author being dead, and ignore the human being behind the story? Or do I go with the author being present in the story, in which case I’m reviewing a person and not a standalone piece of art? O Hobson, you and your choices.

2. I get the weirdness of being critiqued by your own community.
I get being on the author side, but I'm going to skip how and why because that's not what I want to focus on. The majority of my life, though not my present, however, has been centered around subjectively-judged pursuits. Maybe that’s why, even though most of my present life doesn’t get judged by the public, I can keep some distance here; I’m not presently putting my personal creative work out into the world.

But when I have done that, when I have offered up my performance or art or whatever, here’s what happened. I worked hard, just as hard as you did. I sweated and practiced and fretted and tried. And all of that still had to add up for the consumer of my art. Once I put that puppy out into the world, it became of the world. It became something interpreted by the reader/listener/beholder, whose opinion is no less important for happening outside of mine. That’s the tough, miserable, gut-wrenching thing about art. You can’t just total it up. You can’t just say, okay, here are the 250 widgets you ordered, all in good condition. You’re not entitled to any specific reaction from your audience.

If you don’t want to receive criticism of your art, your only option is to keep it private. Notice that I didn’t say this option was without suckitude!

So, I understand the awfulness of Internet not being private, of having people critique you on past performances, of knowing that their critiques are posted where it's positively rude to respond, and where posting in your own space is preaching to the choir.

3. But I’m not going to stop reviewing books, for now.
I read to be entertained. When I find that rare book that makes me wish it would never end, when I’m so caught up in a story that I stumble out emotional and changed at the end, I am more grateful than I can say. Reading stories makes me real and unreal. It makes me a person who understands more every day, who understands the world more every day. It makes me unreal, a person I am not, able to be and think differently for just a little while.

I review books because I LIKE BOOKS. I enjoy reviewing books that I really, really like. I enjoy encouraging an industry that MAKES THINGS I LOVE, and that I want to make more things. (WRITE MORE SOON! I want to buy it!) I enjoy talking about books I like and getting other people on board with books I like. I also like that there are books I don’t like. I frequently review books that I may not have enjoyed all that much personally, that may not have been what I was looking for, but that I’d like to recommend to someone else. Where I see intriguing potential. Where my problems with a book are outweighed by other factors, which might include “I can see where there’s a big audience for this.” Dude, I am only one reader; the first part of this sentence should be read with emphasis on dude. Still, sometimes I want to get the word out about work I think is important, or about an author who has my respect. Maybe I want to review something because, while the places where I can really affect what other people read and buy are not this blog, I know that there are a handful of people waiting to see what I really love, because we are book friends, or what I really don’t love, because we’re book opposites, and what I dislike is exactly what they desire.

Ultimately, my reviews are about me. I want to continue to figure out, for the rest of my life, what I really like to read. I want to spend less time with books I don’t love and more time with those I do. I want that for everybody.

The books that I love without reservation are few. Since I figured out how to read critically, it’s hard to turn that part of my brain off. I’m thinking about how the author is getting from point A to point B. I’m thinking about why this part drags or that part kept me reading. I’m crossing out a word in every sentence, placing that modifier back where it goes, re-paragraphing. You’ll notice, however, that that’s not generally what my reviews are about, unless it was the big reason I’m ambivalent. That stuff is critique, and I give it when I’m invited to do so, and when I think I can have a respectful relationship with a creator (here, author). While I don’t think one is required to ask permission before turning a review (reader impression) into a critique (detailed critical analysis of an entire manuscript), it’s not why I blog.

And since the books that I love without reservation are few, it follows that I will not 100% love most of what I read. I am okay with that! And it sounds like not everyone is okay with that. As I mentioned on Janni Lee Simner’s post (linked above), when I review those books, I see people pop up and say they’re interested in those books just as often as when I give an unashamedly fangirly review of those books that push all of my buttons in all of the right ways. And as I’ve mentioned, the people that I talk to about books the most don’t often share my taste. I do think that “bad” reviews help authors, perhaps by giving more information, or getting people curious, or getting them angry and supportive! When I browse the bookstore, half the time I don’t even remember what people said about a particular book--only that people have been talking about it, and then I do things like read flap copy and a few pages to see if it might be a good fit for me.

4. You can disregard what I have to say, if you like.
As Janni said about being okay with people not liking her books, I’m going to say that, as a blogger, I’m okay if you disagree with my reviews.

The person I respect the most disagrees with me frequently, and lets me disagree with her. That doesn’t mean it’s always a pleasant process, and that disagreeing isn’t more work than agreeing. I do, however, learn a lot from disagreement, even though I don’t like the emotions that go with it. I worry when everyone agrees. It’s creepy. If not for disagreement, I would never have gotten past my seething hatred of a very, very popular book that not only misrepresents people and places from where I grew up, but that I think reinforces a lot of creepy things. I would never have recognized how many young people became readers because of that book; I would never have recognized how many opportunities the book afforded people to talk about tricky, icky subjects that might not have come up otherwise. Thank you, teen librarians, for defending Twilight. (Thank you also, 92-year-old grandma of mine, for reading and liking books that I don’t, because it’s interesting to talk about.) I hope that if you disagree here, you won’t be afraid to say so. (Though, as I’ve mentioned before, I can spot a troll at 100 yards.)

When I’m not 100% positive about a book, I make an effort to say why, so that readers can judge for themselves whether or not my concerns are valid in regards to their tastes. I hesitate, a lot. I hesitated about putting my name on this blog. I hesitate over whether I’ve been fair in every review. Over whether I’m saying what I want to say, in a way that I feel comfortable saying it. I know that none of those “be nice” posts were about me, as I’m small potatoes, and I do try to focus on books that I love, like, or just plain respect, but I took those posts to heart--as I think a lot of bloggers did--because people in the YA community generally make an effort to be nice. I don’t think people have to be “nice,” though; it’s just a nice extra.

We’re individuals. We have different likes and dislikes. We’re struggling with community shape and direction and etiquette. We can be supportive without liking. We can like without supporting. We can disagree with choices and direction in one manuscript and cherish another.

So what I’m saying is: it’s complicated. Go ahead and disagree.


  1. This is indeed long, but not too long to read or skim--and I hope that many folks do read it.

  2. Well, I tend to be wordy when you let me get away with it. Heh. I'm not entirely sure I said what I meant to say, and I certainly hadn't done all of the reading I could have done; in the meantime, I've definitely seen some mind-boggling things and ruminated on some things that I see as gender issues as a subset of this conversation. But that's probably something I feel more than can articulate.


Related Posts with Thumbnails