Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

Coming Out of the Closet


The question of whether there is a divide between authors and reader/blogger/reviewers has been discussed and debated here and elsewhere. To me it seems clear that it does, at least in some quarters. Some reader/blogger/reviewers, including some of my fellow bloggers here on Dear Author, have called out some authors for behaving badly. And some authors have called out reader/blogger/reviewers for being mean girls. Recently, Janet (Robin) blogged here about her own response to some authors’ reactions to the recent Cassie Edwards scandal, saying that “It felt to me (and still does) that there was a frighteningly easy shift into reader v. author discourse.”

But nowhere, perhaps, is the rift more evident than in the relative absence from the romance community of people who bridge the gap — those who are both writers or authors, as well as bloggers and reviewers.

I don’t mean to suggest that this hybrid is completely nonexistent in the romance genre. Authors HelenKay Dimon, Alison Kent and Stephanie Feagan all write reviews for Paperback Reader. Bam is a blogger and former reviewer who is now published. There have also been some unpublished writers who have reviewed for AAR, including Kathryn Smith, Marianne Stillings and Megan Frampton, all of whom went on to be published. And there are others as well.

Still, those are a handful of women out of a far larger number of published authors and aspiring authors. It is enlightening, too, to read Frampton’s comments on her decision to stop reviewing.

…I don’t think other writers would do anything close to an objective job in terms of reviewing their peers. I know when I was writing reviews AND fiction, an author told me I had to make a choice: either I was a reader/reviewer or a writer. If I continued to do both, I would face awkward situations and possibly snubbing, etc. in the authors’ community.

A little under two years ago, there was an interesting debate on this topic on AccessRomance All-a-Blog. In comment #43, author Leslie Kelly said:

…The romance fiction industry, despite the number authors, is an *incredibly* small community. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody talks. There’s a lot of loyalty between friends and catty backstabbing between enemies. Honestly, I think a reviewer-author can be shooting themselves in the foot if they rip apart the wrong book and offend that author and alllllll her friends. And, by the way, her editor! (Um, I have personal knowledge of this one. I know an editor who will NEVER buy a particular author because that author has publicly slammed the editor’s authors & basically said their books shouldn’t have been published. Uh, EXCUSE ME? You really think the editor who bought those books is going to buy you after that???)

If a good friend of NYT bestselling author A is ripped to shreds by author/reviewer x and someday author/reviewer x wants a cover quote, or wants to do an anthology, or a miniseries, or in any way interact with NYT bestselling author…hmm-what do you think the answer will be?

And in comment #47, author Julie Leto chimed in:

And I thought I’d mention here that unpublished writers or aspiring writers who trash published books are doing themselves a disservice. My editors read reviews…and those names stick with them if the reviewer has been unfair or cruel.

Leto went on to clarify her comments in comment #56:

I’m not talking about reviewing in general. I’m talking about TRASHING.

But since she also said (to author/reviewer HelenKay Dimon) “Maybe we’re talking apples and oranges. I don’t know…but maybe what you see as an honest review I’d see as an snarky attack,” and since author/reviewer HelenKay Dimon admitted in this same thread that “I’ve gotten hate mail, two of which I viewed as threats,” (comment #70) it is with trepidation that I make my confession here today.

Here it is: I write. I’ve been writing since elementary school, and in a variety of forms. I’ve written poems, plays, short stories, and movie reviews in the past, among other things; I currently write book reviews and the occasional letter of opinion here at Dear Author. But the reason for this post is that my current writing project outside of Dear Author is also my first attempt to write a romance.

Let me take a moment to also admit that trying to write a romance, and trying to write one well, is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever attempted. What a humbling experience it is to come up against the limits of my abilities on a regular basis. It has a way of making me appreciate the effort that’s gone into each and every book that I review, whether or not that book works for me.

And here I come to the crux of the matter: I am an unpublished writer who is also a reviewer and blogger.

How did I come to be all these things? Well, I’ve been reading romances since I was thirteen. I cut my teeth on books by Johanna Lindsey, Rosemary Rogers, Kathleen Woodiwiss and Jude Deveraux. Later I discovered Judith McNaught, and later still, Mary Jo Putney and Linda Howard. When, in my twenties, I found Laura Kinsale, I was stunned by the power of the feelings that her books evoked in me. When I discovered Patricia Gaffney a few years later with To Have and to Hold, it was electrifying.

But as much as I adored some books, I was also beginning to feel dissatisfied with many others. At thirteen, just reading about romantic and sexual love was thrilling, but by my mid to late twenties, many of the books I found in bookstores were feeling very familiar to me. I was desperately craving something new and different, something satisfying, but trying to find it by picking up books at random at the bookstore wasn’t working for me.

And so, about ten years ago, I hit the biggest romance reading slump I have ever experienced. For about a year and half, I read mainly in other genres and, except for rereading those few romances I loved and waiting for books from a handful of authors to come out, I became jaded where most of the genre was concerned.

It was around this time that I discovered the internet. For a while, I hung out in a reading community where people mostly discussed books in other genres, which is what I was reading at that time. Then, one day, I found AAR, and soon thereafter, TRR. I can’t begin to say how wonderful it was for me to find these sites: wonderful because for me, they re-opened the world of romance.

Through the recommendations of their reviewers, and in the case of AAR, of readers on their boards as well, I was once again able to find new books I loved — able to discover new-to-me authors like Mary Balogh, Carla Kelly and Connie Brockway.

If it hadn’t been for those reviews, I wouldn’t have plunged back into the romance genre, wouldn’t have realized that there were so many more good books out there than I’d been aware of before. If it hadn’t been for reviews and for the book discussions that have kept me so engaged, I would not still be an avid romance reader today, much less trying to write a romance.

As the introduction to this opinion piece makes clear, I am aware that in the romance community the majority of writers, both published and unpublished, don’t speak publicly about books that didn’t work for them or that they did not enjoy, and do not write critical reviews.

Perhaps if I had come into the romance community with the intention of being a romance writer from the beginning, I would not have done so either. But when I first discovered the romance boards, I did not intend to write a romance, and at first, I also had no awareness of the negative perceptions that some people in the community had of readers who examined in public what did and didn’t work for them in a book.

In hindsight, I wish now that over the years, I had stated some of my opinions more courteously. But I can’t, and don’t, wish that I’d never put them out there. The discussions of books with fellow readers have become a huge part of my love for the genre. And it’s partly for the readers who I’ve met and befriended that I’m now trying to write a romance as well. Because it’s in large part this ongoing internet conversation that’s seduced me and made me fall in love with this genre all over again.

When Jane and Jayne approached me about blogging for Dear Author, I was faced with a dilemma. But ultimately, I decided to join Dear Author because I liked and respected Jane and Jayne, because I wanted to see what my thoughts on books would look like in a more formal format, and because I wanted to contribute and give back in the same way that review sites had given so much to me.

I believed, and still believe, that there is a difference between thoughtful, polite criticism and bashing, and the former is what I have tried to provide here at Dear Author. I don’t know if I’ve always succeeded, but I do know that I have tried.

I know that even thoughtful, polite criticism can sometimes sting the author whose book is being examined. But I also know that one can’t publish something, be it a book, a review or an opinion piece like this one, and expect everyone who reads it to love it. Even Shakespeare didn’t get universal approbation in his time. Why then should we expect everyone to say they love a book, or else to say nothing at all? Doesn’t an open, thoughtful conversation about our differences of opinion also have something to offer us?

I believe that it does. A well thought-out review is of benefit to readers, because it can help them decide how to spend their purchasing dollars, and make them aware of books they would not have known of otherwise. It can also, of course, be a source of publicity for an author.

In addition, having had my writing workshopped in writing classes and critiqued by fellow writers, I know that the process of having your writing examined for flaws as well as strengths can be difficult, but I also know that I have grown as a writer as a result of this same process. Reviews aren’t exactly the same thing, but (at least when some thought has been put into them) they’re also not completely dissimilar.

And finally, I believe that discussions of what makes some books stronger than others can help strengthen the genre as a whole. If the best books in the genre (and I am not saying I am the arbiter of what is best — that is something that is up to the entire community to determine; my role as a reviewer is merely to help keep that discussion rolling) remain read and in print, examined and discussed, then they can only influence and inspire new writers to attempt to equal those books.

Despite all that I have said here, I reserve the right to stop reviewing if I come to some fork in the road. If I find I simply don’t have the time, or that I no longer enjoy it, or if I get published and feel that it creates a conflict of interest. I’m not saying I’ll feel that way in the future; I simply don’t know how I may feel.

For all these reasons, I do not judge anyone else who makes a different choice than the one I’ve made. But I would like to encourage writers and authors to think about what I’ve said here, and consider the possibility of putting opinions of books out in the public eye.

I know that some authors won’t even say what their favorite books are when asked to name them in an interview, and for that reason, I’m glad every time I see a writer or author pipe up to say why she loved a particular book, or explain why some aspect of another book didn’t work for her. Because it makes me feel less alone here in the blogosphere, yes, but also because I truly think that this kind of conversation is the lifeblood of a genre, and that any time writers enter into these discussions thoughtfully, they are making an important contribution to the community.

In closing, I’d like to return to last week’s topic of ethics in blogging. The reason I’m disclosing the fact that I aspire to be a romance author isn’t because I’ve suddenly become courageous. It’s because I have two friends who are about a month away from being published for the first time. Sherry Thomas and Meredith Duran aren’t just my friends, they are also my critique partners.

At one time, I thought that I could, if I disclosed my friendship with them, and if another reviewer offered a second opinion, review Meredith and Sherry’s books (The Duke of Shadows and Private Arrangements, respectively). But as their publication date has neared, I’ve become more uneasy with doing so. It could be argued, I think, that I have a conflict of interest, and I don’t want my actions to reflect badly on Dear Author.

And so, I have decided not to formally review Sherry or Meredith’s books, and to disclose my relationship with them so that if I comment on the reviews of their books in the comment sections, or mention that I think both Sherry and Meredith are immensely talented (as I do) you can all decide for yourselves whether or not to take what I say with a grain or more of salt. It seems to me that transparency is the best way to take an ethical approach to the situation.

And now, let me turn this over to all of you. What are your thoughts on the possibility of a backlash to writers and authors who choose to review? Is it real or, as a friend of mine suggests, merely imagined? What are your thoughts on the role of the ongoing conversation about books? What do you think about unpublished writers as reviewers, published authors as reviewers, authors commenting on books, reviewers reviewing their friends, or any other topic that came up in this post?

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.


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