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Author Camaraderie and Negative Reviews

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I've been putting off writing this post for months! Everyone with an opinion has already weighed in, and we're all sick to death of the subject, but I said I would tackle it so here I am. A day late and a dollar short, as usual.

The first thing I want to say is that I'm not changing my reviewing style here at Dear Author. I'm only going to review lesbian romance, f/f and f/f/m. Sometimes I post short reviews for other stuff on Goodreads. Most of my comments are positive, because I like to talk about good books, but if you are an author who gets offended by three-star ratings or minor nitpicking, you might do well to avoid me there.

I thought very carefully before I offered to review lesbian and f/f here at DA. In doing so, I run the risk of people thinking I'm a know-it-all bitch who likes to stomp on other authors' feelings. I might be considered jealous, or petty, or two-faced. Because I'm an author, the assumption can be made that I feel superior to everyone I criticize.

There are probably some people who think I'm bi or a lesbian, because why else would I want to read about two women getting it on?

I don't care about that last bit, even if it means a few lost sales. The other issues concern me. Not enough to stop reviewing, but enough to want to clarify my position.

My critiques come from a reader's perspective. They are never about me as an author. I might have additional insight about a certain type of characterization or writing technique or whatever, but I would not compare myself to another author in a review. For example, I once mentioned Meredith Duran's debut novel, which I loved, on my blog. I think I gave it an A-. Does that mean I rate all of my books higher, or think I'm better than Duran? No. No way! Although I can't really be objective about my writing, I would say that Duran is much more talented. Same with Sherry Thomas, my favorite historical romance author. She can write me under the table. But I still didn't love Delicious.

I feel pretty confident that neither Thomas nor Duran give a damn if I like all of their books. They will probably not snub me in person. Even so, I'm not going to write a scathing F review of any of their books. I wouldn't do that to an author I'm friendly with online, and it's not out of fear, or because I might need a favor someday. It's about camaraderie.

I'll take a minute to explain this because I've seen the debate over author-reviewing framed in negative terms like "hurt feelings" and "backstabbing." Good will between authors is essential in the romance community because so many people look down on us as smut-writing dimwits. We field negativity from all sides and don't expect it to come from within.

Criticism from another author means more.

Let me illustrate the point with one of my own experiences. Over a year ago I got an email from Maya Banks. Using the contact form on my web site, she wrote a lovely message about how much she enjoyed my debut novel, Dangerous to Touch.

I don't get that much reader mail to begin with. Reader mail from a bestselling author? I was blown away. I couldn't believe she even read my book, let alone liked it enough to send a gushing email.

Now imagine if I'd had a Google alert in my inbox instead, notifying me of a negative review from Ms. Banks. I'd have been crushed!

I'm not saying that authors shouldn't review. Obviously, I review, and I support my fellow oddballs. I'm saying that praise, like criticism, means more when it comes from a respected source. A very popular author can influence a lot of readers to buy-’or not.

Here's a more recent example of author camaraderie. The other day I was tweeting about DA BWAHA and mentioned that I bought Shannon Stacey's Exclusively Yours. She tweeted back "Hope you like it!" which is a normal author-type exchange. Then it occurred to me that my status as a reviewer adds tension to every interaction I have with my peers.

I don't want to put other authors on edge. Camaraderie is important to me.

When I review lesbian romance, camaraderie is not an issue. I'm not inhibited by any personal relationships with the authors. GLBT authors and straight authors don't run in the same circles, as far as I know. I also don't think my criticism has the power to crush a lesbian romance author. I have no problem being honest about this kind of material because the stakes are low. I'd be very surprised if Radclyffe created a #LesbianMafia.

F/f and f/f/m is a little touchier. A lot of f/f (female/female) and f/f/m ménage is written by straight authors, some of whom are my colleagues, working for the same publishing houses or editors that I do. Will that change the tone of my review? Maybe.

I disclosed my publishing connections to Eden Bradley when I reviewed The Lovers. She would probably say that I didn't pull any punches in my analysis and I would agree. If you write f/f or f/f/m, I'm going to consider you fair game. In this matter, my convictions trump camaraderie. There are very few f/f reviewers and I really feel like I'm making a difference. Honest criticism is my way of showing respect for a subgenre that goes largely ignored. I was thrilled by the response to my review of La Bonne by Michele de Lully. I doubt it would have earned the same amount of attention if I'd never posted a negative review.

I also don't think my reviews would make an equal impact if I posted them anonymously. No offense to the anons out there, but I prefer to be open. I will not act as though reading lesbian or f/f material is a shameful pastime.

I want to reiterate that I support all reviewers, published authors included. My reviewing conduct is a personal choice, not a moral judgment on my peers. I don't expect anyone to follow my lead. I'm okay with not-reviewing, too.

I also accept the consequences of my actions, whatever those may be. I understand that authors prefer to help people who haven't slammed their books. That's not an intimidation tactic, it's just business. If you are a reviewer with publishing aspirations, you need to be able to accept criticism as well as dish it out. Reviewers are not exempt from controversy. Don't be surprised by differing opinions on your reviews.

Here are my promises to you: I will never post a thoughtless or intentionally harmful review. I will never post an insincerely glowing review for a friend, or an unnecessarily harsh one for a competitor. I will always welcome author comments, counter-criticism, and respectful disagreements on my reviews.

As an author, I will not hold it against you if you post a negative review of my book.*

*There are exceptions to this, such as personal attacks. If you say something like "Jill Sorenson glorifies rape," I might take offense and comment publicly. But I won't launch a secret plot to destroy you.

I'll close by giving my heartfelt thanks to everyone who has welcomed me here at Dear Author or mentioned a recommendation of mine on Twitter. I've been treated with nothing but kindness by this community and it means a lot to me! Thanks Jane.

Guest Reviewer

28 Comments

  1. Leeann Burke
    Mar 15, 2011 @ 06:42:45

    Well said Ms Sorenson. The way I look at it, a review is a readers opinion of a book. I know as a writer it’s hard to read negative reviews about our books, but you can’t please all readers. So they either like it or don’t.

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  2. Tee
    Mar 15, 2011 @ 08:23:23

    Jill Sorenson said: “I also accept the consequences of my actions, whatever those may be. I understand that authors prefer to help people who haven't slammed their books. That's not an intimidation tactic, it's just business. If you are a reviewer with publishing aspirations, you need to be able to accept criticism as well as dish it out. Reviewers are not exempt from controversy. Don't be surprised by differing opinions on your reviews. Here are my promises to you: I will never post a thoughtless or intentionally harmful review. I will never post an insincerely glowing review for a friend, or an unnecessarily harsh one for a competitor. I will always welcome author comments, counter-criticism, and respectful disagreements on my reviews.”

    I will most likely not read your reviews because books with those particular subjects don’t interest me as a rule. However, more power to you in making the decisions you have. That tells me that your reviews will be credible to those who will be interested.

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  3. Jane Lovering
    Mar 15, 2011 @ 08:27:34

    Excellent article. I’d just like to add that I would far rather read a negative review of one of my books (and I’ve had some stinkers…) that takes the time to say what the reader didn’t enjoy or what he/she felt didn’t work for them, than a general gushing ‘oh this was lovely and fabby and the hero’s so cute’. I can’t learn anything from the latter, apart from that the reader likes cute guys. From the former I can use the criticism to improve my writing.

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  4. Christine M.
    Mar 15, 2011 @ 08:53:48

    (Slightly OT here but could someone explain to me what’s the difference between lesbian romance and f/f books?)

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  5. Jill Sorenson
    Mar 15, 2011 @ 09:05:35

    @Christine M.: Sorry for not making that clear! F/f is often written by straight authors and features characters who may or may not identify as bi or lesbian. They might be experimenting or playing out a fantasy (much like f/m/m menage).

    Lesbian romance usually has lesbian characters and is written by GLBT authors.

    Not every distinguishes between the two but some authors prefer one label over the other.

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  6. Christine M.
    Mar 15, 2011 @ 09:36:45

    @Jill Sorenson: Thanks for the explanation! The only thhing I could think of was fanfiction and I was pretty sure that wasn’t what you meant. *g*

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  7. Gwen Hayes
    Mar 15, 2011 @ 09:44:34

    I think one aspect of this subject that doesn’t get brought up enough is the difference between a thoughtful, critical review and a bashing, snarky review.

    For instance, I knew that Jia didn’t care for Falling Under because Jane had mentioned that there would be conversational style review coming because John and Jia had differing opinions. I was nervous–but when I got here yesterday, I was actually pleased with the review.

    Of course I wished she had enjoyed it more, but not once did I feel like I was being trashed for someone’s snarky enjoyment. I appreciated the criticism because it wasn’t an attack.

    A lot of reviewers don’t understand how to do that yet.

    Despite knowing that Jia felt my book was less than average on her scale, I would not hesitate to feel comfortable engaging her in a discussion or riding in a town car together or whatever it was we were talking about last week. A professional review, one that not only states and opinion but backs it up with solid reasoning, is always welcome to me–whether it’s glowing or not.

    I realize that not every author is as level-headed about reviews, but not every reviewer is as level-headed about their approach to reviewing either.

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  8. dick
    Mar 15, 2011 @ 10:24:44

    That this is even an issue seems to me to diminish romance fiction. In my thinking, the creative and critical faculties rarely exist in the same mind; there aren’t many T.S. Eliots. Authors may know the ins and outs of plotting and characterization, but that’s akin to cobblers knowing the ins and outs of making shoes. Neither makes one’s judgment on the finished product better than anybody else’s. Nevertheless, readers of reviews expect at least disinterest when reading a review, and when camaraderie is an issue, disinterest will, I suspect, be suspect.

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  9. Karenmc
    Mar 15, 2011 @ 10:27:30

    @Gwen Hayes “Level-headed” is a great way to describe Ms. Sorenson’s post. I’ve read most of the postings on this subject, and this one is so darn sensible.

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  10. jennifer armintrout
    Mar 15, 2011 @ 10:56:29

    Honestly, as an author, I’m fully aware of the fact that I can’t please everyone. If another author came up to me in person and was like, “Your book sucked,” I’m going to be pretty mad. But if they go on goodreads.com and say, “I didn’t finish it, it wasn’t my thing,” or post a negative review with criticism, I’m going to consider what they said. You can tell when someone is giving a negative review for the sake of being negative, and when they legitimately did not enjoy the book.

    That said, I try to be gentle with my criticisms in negative reviews I post, because I don’t want to have a bunch of people who can’t handle negative reviews lining up to punch me at cons.

    That might be a good way to make money, though. Instead of a kissing booth, set up a “Punch Jen Armintrout For What She Said About Your Book On Goodreads.com” booth.

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  11. Eliza Knight
    Mar 15, 2011 @ 11:04:28

    I wanted to say thank you for posting this, Jill! I too am an author who reviews. As you said, I don’t review as an author, but as a reader. I like to share with others books I’ve experienced. I started out reviewing all genres several years ago, and now I do historical fiction/non-fiction/romances only. But I have had a couple of people say to me it isn’t ethical for me to review because I’m an author. I always reply, that I was a reader first, and I’m still an avid reader. That I can be objective when reviewing, and I never use my own writing as a basis.

    As someone else said in a previous comment, you are very level-headed about it, and I think that is the only way to be.

    Have a great week!
    Eliza

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  12. kate Pearce
    Mar 15, 2011 @ 12:13:50

    This: (from Jill)
    “I also accept the consequences of my actions, whatever those may be. I understand that authors prefer to help people who haven't slammed their books. That's not an intimidation tactic, it's just business. If you are a reviewer with publishing aspirations, you need to be able to accept criticism as well as dish it out. Reviewers are not exempt from controversy. Don't be surprised by differing opinions on your reviews.”

    This: (from Gwen)
    “I think one aspect of this subject that doesn't get brought up enough is the difference between a thoughtful, critical review and a bashing, snarky review.”

    and this :)
    I realize that not every author is as level-headed about reviews, but not every reviewer is as level-headed about their approach to reviewing either.

    I couldn’t have put it better.
    Thanks Jill for such a thoughtful post.

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  13. Jill Sorenson
    Mar 15, 2011 @ 12:36:49

    @Gwen Hayes: I don’t consider a snarky review an attack. Once a book is out there for public consumption, authors have no say in how thoughtfully or constructively it gets reviewed. Nor should we. I think reviewers have every right to trash a book for fun if they really hate it.

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  14. Jill Sorenson
    Mar 15, 2011 @ 12:40:07

    @dick: I agree that author-reviews and recommendations aren’t paid much attention to by savvy readers (like those in Romanceland).

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  15. FiaQ
    Mar 15, 2011 @ 13:00:24

    @Jill Sorenson: Huh. I did not know that. Thank you for that clarification.

    Thank you for making time to write this great post.

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  16. Grace
    Mar 15, 2011 @ 16:48:40

    Probably the most objective, balanced and sensible post I’ve read to date concerning this subject.

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  17. Kaetrin
    Mar 15, 2011 @ 23:16:38

    Thx for the post Jill. I love m/f and m/m romance but haven’t dipped my toe into the f/f waters yet – what would be a good one to start with?

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  18. Jill Sorenson
    Mar 16, 2011 @ 06:20:21

    @Kaetrin: You could check out The Lovers or La Bonne; both are f/f/m and reviews are linked in the article.

    For lesbian romance, Georgia Beers’ Starting from Scratch is a #dabwaha finalist. I also really liked Radclyffe’s Innocent Hearts, a sweet historical set in Montana. Both are popular authors so you be able to find them in the library!

    Thanks for all the nice comments, everyone. I appreciate it.

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  19. Tamara Hogan
    Mar 16, 2011 @ 07:33:04

    Jill said:

    I think reviewers have every right to trash a book for fun if they really hate it

    I agree, reviewers have that right. But I, as a reader and as an author, wouldn’t find that review useful or valuable unless there was some thoughtful analysis mixed in with the snark.

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  20. Jill Sorenson
    Mar 16, 2011 @ 07:56:37

    @Tamara Hogan: I also find thoughtful, articulate reviews valuable. But a snarky review can be well written and informative.

    The focus on “trashy” reviews concerns me because I’ve seen that word used so many times in admonishment. Aspiring authors are advised not to trash-talk. But everyone has a different definition of trashing. I don’t think reviewers should make snide personal remarks about an author’s appearance, for example. Writing a scathing or snarky review–about the book, not the author–is not a personal attack or “talking trash” IMO.

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  21. Jackie Barbosa
    Mar 16, 2011 @ 09:33:35

    @Jill Sorenson:
    Writing a scathing or snarky review-about the book, not the author-is not a personal attack or “talking trash” IMO.

    I agree and have to admit I enjoy reading a really snarky review (Jane’s review of KNIGHT MOVES is priceless, for example). What I’m not sure of is how I’d react to meeting in person someone who’d written a review like that of one of my own books.

    I said on my blog that when it comes to wearing both author and reviewer hats, it pays to “do unto others.” That’s not to say you can’t write honest and highly critical reviews of others’ work, but it does mean that it probably behooves you to assess how you’d react if the review you just wrote was of your own book. There’s a difference between being fair and critical and being hurtful and critical, and although the line is in a different place for every individual, it’s probably not a good idea to cross it in your own eyes.

    All of that said, I enjoy reading your reviews on DA and I’ve never read one of yours that I’d consider snarky, scathing, or hurtful.

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  22. Jackie Barbosa
    Mar 16, 2011 @ 09:50:09

    Sorry for all the unintentional italics. My kingdom for an edit button!

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  23. Jill Sorenson
    Mar 16, 2011 @ 10:22:28

    “There's a difference between being fair and critical and being hurtful and critical, and although the line is in a different place for every individual, it's probably not a good idea to cross it in your own eyes.”@Jackie Barbosa:

    Well said. Thanks. :)

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  24. Criticism is not the enemy of collegiality | VacuousMinx
    Mar 16, 2011 @ 12:11:39

    [...] that critical reviews work against the goals of the community, I find harder to understand. In a recent post at Dear Author, Jill Sorensen made the point succinctly, so I’ll quote her here: Good will [...]

  25. Amy
    Mar 19, 2011 @ 11:35:29

    “I don't want to put other authors on edge. Camaraderie is important to me. ”

    Then stop doing negative reviews, period. *sigh*

    This rather longish post struck me as “I’d like to keep reviewing at will but I’d also like for everyone to keep loving me. I would have been crushed if Maya Banks would have emailed me a negative review (although she might have kept those to herself) but don’t take what I say personally.”

    What? In other words, I can’t take it, but I expect you to take it and be my friend, too. In fact, I will dictate the rules (a negative review is okay, unless I deem it personal and then I’ll be upset and mention it on my blog/in public). Huh?

    Part of doing and lasting in any art form is growing a thick skin. You will never, ever appeal to everyone. I guarantee that someone out there thinks the Mona Lisa = a Velvet Elvis. And Maya Banks is a hack. It’s just the nature of art.

    If do you negative reviews, don’t apologize or soften – they are your right as a consumer of art. Just don’t expect “camerderie”, too. Camaraderie only happens if you say nothing unless it’s positive or asked for.

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  26. Minx Malone
    Mar 19, 2011 @ 19:07:51

    Honest reviews are a good thing. This is business. We don’t all have to be BFF’s and braid each other’s hair. I appreciate someone taking the time to review my work, even if they hated it. At least I got a reaction.

    Nothing is worse than indifference.

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  27. Jill Sorenson
    Mar 19, 2011 @ 21:52:39

    @Amy: Thank you for saying what I’m sure a lot of other people are thinking. I do want to have it both ways. I want to review and be liked/accepted/thought of as a professional.

    But I never said that authors shouldn’t take my reviews personally. I can’t control someone else’s emotional response and I wouldn’t presume to try.

    As far as dictating rules, I don’t think I did that, either. I’ve never read a review for one of my books that I considered personal or unfair, but it could happen. Authors have the right to comment respectfully and/or feel upset. I welcome author comments on my reviews. If the author or anyone else thinks I’ve been unfair, I’d like to know. If I feel like commenting on any subject, I will.

    Maybe I shouldn’t have used the word “crushed.” That might have been overstating! Anyway, I appreciate your honest take on the issue.

    @Minx Malone: I totally agree.

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  28. heterosexuality’s just a phase – the damage of romance « Requires Only That You Hate
    Jun 06, 2012 @ 02:13:58

    [...] a genre is about the advocacy of gay rights. Anything anything lesbian is brought up you will see comments like– I will most likely not read your reviews because books with those particular subjects [...]

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