Friday, July 23, 2010
I don’t write book reviews. As an author, I’m uncomfortable publicly reviewing other authors’ work. But I read a lot of book reviews, and sometimes (depending on the genre and the reviewer), a book review will influence whether I decide to read a book or not.
Romance reviews, and romance review sites, usually come in one of two flavors – sweet or snarky. To name just a few: Romantic Times, Coffee Time Romance, and Bitten By Books are sweet – and by sweet, I don’t necessarily mean that they never give negative reviews, just that their reviews aren’t snarky, sarcastic, or unkind. Smart Bitches Trashy Books, Dear Author, and Mrs. Giggles lean to snark.
I’ve been thinking about the issue lately because a book review panel at RomCon, held in Denver at the beginning of July, generated a lot of talk. You can read Smart Bitch Sarah’s impressions of the panel, and the opinions of the SBTB community, here. (Note: SBTB comment threads, where I hang out a lot, can get very snarky. And funny as hell.)
A lot of authors, and a lot of readers, are uncomfortable with snark. Personally, I love snarky book reviews as long as they’re genuinely funny and stick to the actual story. Other than that, I see no reason why a reviewer shouldn’t write a review in any manner in which s/he sees fit.
Some people in the romance community – both authors and readers – feel that reviewers have an obligation to be considerate of an author’s feelings. As someone at RomCon put it, reviewers should remember that a book is the author’s “baby.” Someone else suggested that every review should include at least one positive comment about a book, because writing a book is hard work, and the author’s efforts should be appreciated.
I couldn’t disagree more. Not about the fact that authors work hard to write their books, of course – most do. (Come on, we all can think of authors who don’t seem to put much effort into their stories, and other authors who seem to write the same damn story over and over, changing only the names and physical descriptions of the characters). But here’s the thing – authors work hard to write their books because that’s their job. An author’s book isn’t a baby – it’s a product, and the author is asking people to spend money on it. People whose hobby or job is to review that product have a right to give their honest opinion about it, and people contemplating purchasing that product have a right to expect honesty in those reviews.
Sometimes a review is badly written. Sometimes a reviewer seems to be reviewing an entirely different book – maybe the book they thought the author should’ve written, instead of the one that was actually published. I’ve actually seen a negative review of a novella based solely on the fact that the book was too…short. Sometimes a reviewer has an axe to grind with the author. This happens a lot when Famous Author A reviews Famous Author B. These reviews are fun to read. I tend not to feel too badly for Famous Authors when they get bad reviews. They’re famous, they’re rich, boo frickety hoo. (That was snarky, wasn’t it?)
Sometimes the reviewer is a failed or frustrated author himself, and the review just seems to ooze with jealousy and bitterness. Sometimes the reviewer is a pretentious twit more intent on demonstrating her own supposed wit and learning than actually discussing the book. This phenomenon is usually found in the New York Times, the Times (of London) Literary Supplement or the Guardian, so it’s not really relevant to romance reviews.
And ultimately, of course, all taste is subjective. No matter how many books Famous Author A sells, or how many Bookers or Pulitzers or Nobel Prizes he’s won, there will be people who think he sucks, just as there are people who don’t like Citizen Kane and others who think Hudson Hawke wasn’t that bad.
None of that matters. A reviewer has an obligation to the people reading her review, but she has none at all to the author. When an author writes a book, she does so – or should do so – in the full knowledge that if it sees the light of publication, anyone who wants to write about it or talk about it or tweet about it is free to do so. It’s very, very scary, and it’s part of the job.
I can understand an author’s dismay when she gets an unfair, ill informed, or dumbass review (several of the NNN’s have suffered this recently). But, again, it’s part of the job. Writing isn’t for sissies. Besides – and I don’t think this is a controversial idea – there are some genuinely awful romance novels out there. There are genuinely awful books in every genre out there, and there always have been. No one expects a reviewer to include at least one positive comment about a mystery if they don’t like it, and no one expects a reviewer to give a spy thriller an A for effort.
I don’t think the “above all, be nice” attitude does the romance genre any favors. Romance already suffers from numerous false stereotypes. Way too many people don’t think romance authors are “real” writers. Suggesting that reviewers should always be considerate of the romance author’s feelings just reinforces that stereotype.
I feel the same way about romance blogs, where the discussions can get heated and the comments downright mean. It’s not pleasant, and I tend to avoid the really nasty threads, but such is life on the Internet. Romance readers are vehement about the books they like and the books they hate, and they have a right to express their opinions however they want.
That’s why I was appalled when Romance Writers of America refused to renew Jane Litte's membership. Jane can be extremely caustic, as anyone who’s followed her #RomFail on Twitter can attest. But RWA’s excommunication looked prissy and petty, and it reinforced the author-as-diva stereotype of romance writers. I was even more appalled at the readers who approved of RWA’s action. Whether you like Jane’s style or not, she’s a passionate and articulate defender and promoter of the romance genre. She gives a lot of valuable exposure to authors, and the Dear Author commenters buy a lot of books. Kicking her out because sometimes she’s “mean” is absurd.
One of the commenters on the SBTB thread quoted above said, “I can’t believe that in 2010 women are still trying to shame and manipulate each other with “nice”. It holds back the genre, and frankly it holds us back as people. Instead of “nice” let’s try “honest” for a while and see where that gets us.”
I think it's a good idea. What do you think?
Posted by Kinsey Holley at 6:00 AM