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Ethics of Reviewing vs. Objectivity of Analysis

When I was a baby graduate student, my future dissertation adviser said in class one day, “I don’t care whether a text is good.   I care whether I can say something interesting about it.” I was horrified, absolutely convinced she was wrong.   How can one not care about whether a text is good or not?! What’s the point of getting a literature Ph.D.?!? But seven years of graduate school, seven years of learning how to be a literary critic, taught me that she was right.   In fact, as a literary critic, I read all of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley completely fascinated because I was looking for representations of male dress and its relation to nationalism and masculinity–and trust me, there was a lot there to work with–only to realize when I was done how unutterably BAD the damn book was.   I wrote a chapter of my dissertation on Hannah More’s 1809 best-selling novel (outsold only by Byron) Coelebs in Search of a Wife, the worst book–aesthetically speaking–that I ever hope to read.   But the way in which its narrative structure interacts with its construction of masculinity and femininity is fascinating–to me–and I managed to pull off an innovative analysis of a text that is rarely studied.   In fact, the reason I looked at it in the first place was because I am convinced that studying popular books–aesthetic worth notwithstanding–is important to our understanding of an historical era. One might question Brittney Spears’ talent, after all, but one shouldn’t question the importance of her constant re-inventions to an understanding of what kind of society would produce her in the first place.

So why am I reviewing on Dear Author? :) Why didn’t I stick with Teach Me Tonight?

I resisted reviewing for a long time. I’ve never felt that I was particularly good at it–my inclination, finely honed by too many years of graduate school, is unrepentant, spoilerific analysis.   The point, for me, IS the narrative structure, the ending’s interaction with the beginning and the middle, so I’ll spoil away with impunity when I analyze (don’t read TMT, for example, if you’re not a spoiler whore). I admired the ability of the Dear Author reviewers and the Smart Bitches to write honest reviews that discussed theme and imagery in analytical ways, if appropriate, but that managed nonetheless to still be reviews, concerned with telling readers whether the book was any good, whether it was worth reading.   That is precisely the one thing I’m not concerned about as a critic: it doesn’t matter to me whether a book is good, after all, just whether I can be interesting about it.

But then I read Anah Crow’s Uneven, a book so good–aesthetically–it made me cry, a book so perfectly real, so perfectly true, that every one should read it. And a book I knew would not receive the exposure it deserved. So I wrote to Jane and asked her if I could review it, because while I will analyze it–it’s going to be the center-piece of an academic paper I’ll write next semester–I also just wanted to let the world know how good it is. Because, I’ve discovered, in the end, good does matter.   As it should.

Now, however, I have a number of moral dilemmas that I’m sure all baby reviewers go through as they learn (hopefully) how to be good and ethical reviewers. If I request review copies of books that intrigue me, what is my obligation to review them?   If I review them, I’ll review them honestly–I understand my obligation there to the integrity of the Dear Author brand and to our readers–but what is my obligation to review them at all if I receive them for free? What about if I think they’re “bad” (and let me tell you how disconcerting it is, as a post-modern literary critic, to use that word in relation to a novel)? I received a free book, after all–if I thought it blew great big dingoes kidneys, what is my moral obligation to say so…or not?   I’ve got a book now, for example, by a popular author, that I’m halfway through that I’m finding positively painful because, while the story is interesting, I’m finding the writing very immature.   What is meant to be edgy and modern just sounds sophomoric and stale.

But then, is my moral obligation to the writer and publisher who gave me this free book in the first place, or the audience of Dear Author, the romance reader?   Don’t they deserve to know whether a book blows unpleasant chunks?   If I’ve been intrigued by a cover, a blurb, an excerpt, only to be disappointed by the book, surely someone else out there has been, too, and deserves to know what I think of it before they spend money on it?

While these are questions I can answer pretty easily in theory (Previous paragraph: The reader. Yes. Yes.), in practice, they’re a little more complicated and, to be honest, unexpectedly overwhelming for someone who has spent so long analyzing novels.   But then, as my students struggle to understand, analysis and review are very very different things.

Then again–and here’s what really intrigues me–I’ve received feedback from an author whose book I have reviewed here who explicitly said that reading my review as analysis, precisely because I am an English professor, made it palatable, even acceptable, in ways that it couldn’t have been as a review. And that there?   That’s truly fascinating.

Sarah F. is a literary critic, a college professor, and an avid reader of romance -- and is thrilled that these are no longer mutually exclusive. Her academic specialization is Romantic-era British women novelists, especially Jane Austen, but she is contributing to the exciting re-visioning of academic criticism of popular romance fiction. Sarah is a contributor to the academic blog about romance, Teach Me Tonight, the winner of the 2008-2009 RWA Academic Research Grant, and the founder and President of the International Association of the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR). Sarah mainly reviews BDSM romance and gay male romance and hopes to be able to beat her TBR pile into submission when she has time to think. Sarah teaches at Fayetteville State University, NC.

38 Comments

  1. LizA
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 05:00:57

    I think it helps to keep in mind that you do not really get a free book – you get a book for the obligation to write about it. So it is a trade. A lot of people focus on the seemingly “free” copies and forget that writing a review is work – even if you do it for free, it is still work. I used to review professionally for many years and I never felt any obligation to the auhor, the publishing house etc BUT to write an honest review. That’s it. I feel that, by trying to make people feel thankful for their “free” copies, a bias is created towards the giver of gifts. And that’s bad. Just my opinion of course!
    And I feel that romance reviews could do with a dose of analysis sometimes – there seems to be a lot of resistance out there to actually interprete themes, topics and structure (for it is only fantasy you know! personal preference! right), not necessarily here on DA but in general. Good luck!

  2. Kimber An
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 07:45:40

    Hmm, I just read books I like and tell my Blog Buddies what I liked about them. My only goal, besides enjoyment, is to help readers find books they’ll love.

  3. DS
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 08:05:01

    A favorite old Zebra romance (with one of those interchangeable Zebra Romance titles with “Love” somewhere in it) turned a friend off because in her view it failed as a genre romance. I kept trying to convince her that I thought the book fascinating because within the paradigm of the romantic relationship it detailed the decay of the idealized view of the knight and the rise of the middle class.

    I was wasting my time. She wanted to know if the book fitted her needs. So there’s room for both and if they can be combined to a degree it is even better.

  4. JC
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 08:37:11

    Oh, it’s good to see you here! I’ll be excited to see what your contributions are – your writing over at TMT is always so insightful, I’m sure that it will carry over to your reviewing.

  5. anon8
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 09:03:14

    I think if you are choosing to review that it should be honest. Many things that don’t work for you might work for another reader. If you pull your punches, then in a sense it’s contributing to the standard review trope. Honestly, when I go to someplace like Amazon I look for the negative reviews first. Not because I want to look at an accident waiting to happen but because I want to know why the book didn’t work for the reader and whether or not it’s going to push any of my book reading buttons.

    But when I come to DA or SB, I read all the reviews. The difference is that DA and SB give me more information and insight into why a book did or didn’t work for them AND it’s about trust.

    Even so that doesn’t mean that I will decide to read a particular book. What it does mean is that the review helps set my expectations of the type of story I will receive if I decide to read the book.

    After all, some times it’s all about my expectations going in that determines my reactions to a particular story. Okay, not always but…

    I guess I kind of equate books to food. Say I really really want Thai and I’ve been craving it for days and waiting for the weekend to have it. Oh, joy, oh joy. Today’s the day! Yippee! Turns out my dining date had different ideas and brought over Italian instead. It’s good Italian and on another day I might even think it’s great Italian but today all I wanted was Thai and I didn’t get it so the Italian was kind of meh. It didn’t ruin my evening but it did cast a certain level of ‘mehness’ over the evening.

    Maybe not a great analogy but for me it is about managing those expectations. If I decide to open up a Stephen King novel, I expect to get a certain type of book. If I open up a Nora Roberts book, I can expect to get a different kind of book. But what about those authors I’ve never read before?

    I go by the cover, the spine genre, the blurb and section of the store all for cues if I’m in a book store. If I’m online I look at the reviews from places that have established my trust.

    And that’s is what it’s all about for me. Trust. I may not agree with a review after I read a book but if I purchase on a book regardless of whether or not I did so because of a review, I’d like to think that reading that book didn’t cause my ‘trust’ to be broken.

    Let me be clear here: I don’t have to agree with the review or the opinion given after I read the book, but I do have to believe that the reviewer wasn’t motivated by anything more than giving an honest opinion: whatever that opinion may be.

    And to be brutally honest, although I understand the sentiment of not bothering to review books a reader didn’t enjoy, my ‘trust’ of the reviewer gets downgraded if all the books they talk about are great. Why? Because then I can’t measure their preferences against my own. Same thing with grades. I want them because I’ve read reviews where the reviewer gushed and gushed about a book or the opposite nitpicked (and I found the insights in both entertaining and informative) but the grade seemed to reflect something else entirely.

    Turned out it didn’t when I read the books. So all you readers who post reviews but don’t grade them, sorry, you’re not my favorite review sites even though some of the reviews are outstanding. Why? Because sometimes I have to work too hard to figure out how well a story resonated with you and many times I don’t have the time to go find multiple reviews of a story I might be interested in. So when it comes to quick and dirty decisions, I go with reviewers who grade that have established my trust. Yes, it’s true sometimes I’m very lazy and want my reading fix now. It’s worked out most times (not all).

    Sorry for the long post and my tangent but thanks for the post.

  6. Jane
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 09:07:11

    Obviously the fact that you even fret about the ethics of it evinces your desire to be fair (and ethical). It is hard to say whether you like or dislike a book because on the one hand you are encouraging someone to part with their money and on the other hand you are potentially discouraging a purchase, although I think the former is more likely to happen as a result of the review.

    I think that most people know that when they read a review, it truly is only one person’s subjective opinion. We can see that in the disparate reviews for Victoria Dahl’s book which SB Sarah and I saw as sex positive and fun and RT saw as oversexed and AAR said was shallow and stupid in describing the heroine.

    Part of the challenge with any review site is finding someone’s whose tastes closely match yours. When AAR was one of the only review sites in town, I waited for each and every AAR Rachel review. She hardly ever steered me wrong, from YA to chick lit to straight fiction. Susan Scribiner (sp?) of The Romance Reader also recommended some great books.

    I appreciate those who go out on a limb and recommend books that I would not have read.

    But I also appreciate reviews because they can help affirm my feelings and they can help me articulate my dissatisfaction. They can serve as a greater starting point for conversation which I also appreciate.

    Your reviews are wonderful to read because you bring with you your education and training. I hope you keep contributing, both the positive and the negative reviews because I believe that helps readers in discerning whether your tastes are close to theirs.

  7. Janine
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 09:45:27

    I've got a book now, for example, by a popular author, that I'm halfway through that I'm finding positively painful because, while the story is interesting, I'm finding the writing very immature. What is meant to be edgy and modern just sounds sophomoric and stale.

    But then, is my moral obligation to the writer and publisher who gave me this free book in the first place, or the audience of Dear Author, the romance reader? Don't they deserve to know whether a book blows unpleasant chunks? If I've been intrigued by a cover, a blurb, an excerpt, only to be disappointed by the book, surely someone else out there has been, too, and deserves to know what I think of it before they spend money on it?

    When I first came on board DA, I struggled to finish a few books, and wasn’t sure if I should forgo reviewing them or review them as DNFs. What I ended up doing was writing an opinion piece on the subject, “The DNF Dilemma.” I asked readers their opinions, and the majority felt that I should write DNF reviews. My rule of thumb with a DNF review is that I have to read at least one-third of the book. Less than that and I probably won’t be able to write a decent plot summary.

    But I think if you’re halfway through the book you are reading and struggling to finish it, and if you don’t think your opinion will change if you persist, you can stop reading and do a review centered around the reasons why you found it hard to keep going.

  8. anon8
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 09:48:40

    PS. The time it takes to read the book and write a cohesive review is more than the cost of any ‘free’ book. Actually one might say that real people getting something for free in this exchange are the audience of this blog.

  9. Keri M
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 10:00:26

    I feel that anybody posting a review of a book they have taken the time to read should be honest about it. Because if your aren’t eventually people will pick up on it and won’t take the time to even read what you wrote. (can you say Harriet Klaussen sp) At least for me that is the way it is. An honest review isn’t going to keep me from buying a book that I want. I know that it is your thoughts about the book. Alot of times, I go look at reviews after I have already bought a book just to see if my feelings about a book aligned with others.

    A case in point is Linda Howard’s Blair Mallory series, I hate those books and feel that they are some of the worst books that LH has ever wrote and that is painful for me to say, because she is absolutely one of my favorite authors. I read the reviews after I bought the book and found that I was in agreement with about 1/2 the people I looked at. It is a series you either love or hate, but the reviews were honest in the face of a well loved author. My mom read the books after me and she loved it. I told her she had poor taste in books…lol and we argue about it still. :-) I look forward to reading your reviews.

    Sorry for the long post only to repeat what Thomas Jefferson said: “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” :-)

  10. rebyj
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 10:13:57

    I agree, that book isn’t “free”. You’re working for it!

    Regardless of how you review, more analytical or not, reader’s taste is all over the board. What bugs you about a book may cause a reader to say “YES that’s what I love about that author’s books” and they’ll buy it regardless of what you’re actual rating of the book is.

    As a regular DA reader , I say be as honest and analytical as you want to be. Agreeing with reviews is fun, disagreeing is days worth of posting , discussing and seeing lots of different opinions and more F U N!!

  11. Maya M.
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 10:25:45

    Valid questions.

    I’ll add another layer: how should an aspiring writer review? From the readerly side, giving an honest opinion of the weaknesses of a book along with the strengths? Or from (semi)professional courtesy side, stressing the positive aspects and leaving it to the review audience to read between the lines about flaws?

    (This isn’t a rhetorical question. If anyone has stumbled on aworkable solution, please share. I’m all ears. Eyes. Whatever.)

  12. Jill Sorenson
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 10:47:01

    I don’t think you have any obligation to write a review, positive or negative, for a book you’ve requested. Authors give out review copies with no expectations, least of all a glowing review. (Don’t we?)

    There are some books we don’t have strong reactions to, good or bad. I’d rather a reviewer let it pass than force a review they aren’t “feeling.”

    As far as critical analysis, I’m not looking for that in a review. I want reader response. You can dissect anti-feminist undertones or postulate on Marxist theories all you want, but if you don’t tell me whether you liked or disliked the book, and why, as a reviewer, you’re wasting my time.

  13. Zoe Archer
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 10:56:07

    I would concur that the demands of the reader who approaches a text as a means of entertainment rather than critical discourse (see, Jane, you’re not the only one who can use grad school speak!) has different needs and expectations from one who might engage with a romance text as a vehicle for cultural or artistic analysis. We’ve discussed at length here such things as “guilty pleasures,” which provide visceral gratification but are, perhaps, not the most sociologically or intellectually advanced.

    For myself, perhaps because I do come from an academic background and consider myself both a participant in as well as a critic of the genre, I would welcome analysis of my work either in lieu of or as a supplement to a review. I make deliberate choices in my work which some might consider subversive, or reflective of a particular socio-political consciousness. Whether or not I succeed in my goals is a subject of ongoing interest to me.

    The dialogue which emerges following a review (or analysis) is a substantial part of the genre, since romance has long had a considerable engagement with its readership, and I welcome whatever dialogue my work engenders.

    Okay, that was my return to grad school moment for the morning. Back to writing about adventure and magic!

  14. Lori Borrill
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 10:58:46

    I am an author who submitted my book to both this site and SBTB, knowing full well that if the reviewer didn’t like it, she’d say so. In fact, worse than that, because of the blog format, it was highly possible that an entire conversation could ensue over the many ways my book sucked. It’s why I gave it some thought before submitting the request, but in the end, I had to stand by my belief that for an author, any discussion about a book is better than no discussion at all.

    I’ve seen a number of authors publicly state that if a person doesn’t have anything good to say, they shouldn’t say it. Some go to extremes and proclaim that their careers are at stake, as if a single opinion has the power to control a book’s success. I have a really hard time believing that. Sure, you will always see the occasional, “Thank God! I was going to buy that book but now I won’t.” But I tend to think that for every one person who doesn’t buy the book, there’s three who will, at some later date, pick up your books because they recognize your name.

    So, while my opinion may not be universal, I would rather have a reviewer talk about why my book didn’t work for them than opt to not discuss my book at all.

  15. Robin
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 11:43:07

    LOL, Sarah, my first grad school advisor (whom you and I both know) told me I needed to start thinking of myself as a folder rather than a person. Also painful, also true. He also told me it was a bad idea to keep on in grad school merely for the love of literature, because the love won’t always be there, and then what will sustain you? Ironically, it was the love of literature that kept me going when the love of academia was dead, buried, and almost completely decomposed, but I think the gist of the advice was true — love alone is never enough.

    For me it’s the same with reviewing. As much as I love to read, I have a basic commitment to reviewing as something that I do regardless because I want to see more *evaluative* conversation in the genre that’s also *analytical*. So I make an attempt at contributing to that, which makes me feel a bit better about wanting so much to see more of it. Plus I really like the challenge of talking about a book without giving away too many spoilers, as well as trying for that balance between the “is it good?” and the “what is it?” questions.

    As for feeling an obligation to review a book, if I request it explicitly (beyond asking Jane to send me something she’s received unsolicited), I make a point of reviewing it, even if I’m sloooowwww about keeping up. If someone sends me something to review, whether that be author or Jane, I do my best to review, but I’m still really slooowwww in keeping up (I have several books that I’m still trying to catch up on from months and months ago, so if you’ve asked me to review a book, I’m working on it, lol). Any book I review eats up at least five to six hours of time, maybe more if the book is long or the issues extensive, so it’s no small commitment for me, despite what it may look like in the end product. ;)

  16. K. Z. Snow
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 12:06:21

    As a reader and as a writer, what I find more irksome than a thoughtful, negative review is a thoughtless, positive one.

    I have a background (degrees in English, teaching and editing experience) that’s conditioned me to be curious about precisely why a book is deemed good, mediocre, or bad. Far too many romance reads, regardless of subgenre, get four- and five-star ratings (or get thrown into the B-to-A range) with far too little examination. An author’s mastery of the elements of fiction is overlooked, and inordinate emphasis is placed on how much the reviewer could “connect” with the characters and how compelling s/he found the basic storyline — both highly subjective judgments.

    Standards do exist for quality prose. A rip-roaring tale does not always a good read make. Imagination, like a wayward child, requires constraints to fulfill its potential.

    I’m not trying to diminish the role personal taste plays in any reader’s reaction to any given book. That role is certainly a big one. I just wish more online reviewers thought a little harder about why, exactly, they liked or disliked a work. (For example, what often puts a book over the top for me is the author’s artistry with language. An engaging story told in a workmanlike way can be pleasing but forgettable. An engaging story told with unique stylistic power can be a stunner.)

    Damn, I’ve sure gotten windy! Sorry, all.

    Anyway, I think the reviewers at DA are some of the best in the business. And I say that with sincerity. So don’t fret, Joan; your approach seems just right!

  17. GrowlyCub
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 12:26:58

    For example, what often puts a book over the top for me is the author's artistry with language. An engaging story told in a workmanlike way can be pleasing but forgettable. An engaging story told with unique stylistic power can be a stunner.

    But see, that may work that way for you, but not for every reader. The only time I notice the language is if it keeps me from getting to the story (Kathleen Eagle’s books are endlessly frustrating to me because I cannot get past the language to the wonderful story that I *know* is underneath).

    So, when I review it doesn’t occur to me to mention language as a determining and positive factor in my evaluation, because it isn’t.

    I certainly like to get more than ‘this book was fabulous’ or ‘this book was awful’ in reviews, but not all of us who are readers and occasional reviewers are of the same analytical inclination and ability to write page long reviews without giving away the whole story.

    DA reviews make me green with envy because they so often put into words what I can only intuit and have trouble getting across.

    SarahF, one of the reasons why I ended up not doing the site-affiliated review thing was exactly the question you raised. The first batch of ‘free’ books I requested via the coordinator was nowhere near as good as I had hoped or were not what I expected and I got so pretzled up with worry about whether to just dash off a few lines leaving out the ‘bad’ stuff because after all I had gotten to read it for free, I started feeling like this was work instead of something I wanted to do. I hope you won’t decide that way because I enjoy your opinions on the books you’ve read.

    Now I review (really it’s more like stream of consciousness) on my LJ blog some of the books I buy or read through the library as the mood strikes and don’t worry about writing these reviews any more! :)

  18. Susanna Kearsley
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 12:37:04

    Let me just add my voice to those of the other authors here and say that I don’t feel reviewers owe me anything. Whether the reviewer has actually requested a free copy of a book, or I’ve just sent one off with fingers crossed, I realize it’s like rolling dice. The book might get reviewed, or not. The reviewer might like it, or not.

    You shouldn’t feel a “moral obligation”, as you call it, to a writer like myself. Your prime concern should be the readers of DA, and how to share with them your thoughts about the books that you’re reviewing.

    The readers here will come to know your tastes and your opinions and your style, critical analysis and all, and they’ll assess your views accordingly, so just be you.

    As Jane said above, as readers we all tend to search for reviewers whose tastes are a close match to ours. (For example, I know that Jayne’s dislikes and likes are a lot like my own, so I read her reviews knowing that, if she recommends something, I’ll probably like it, too.)

    If I've been intrigued by a cover, a blurb, an excerpt, only to be disappointed by the book, surely someone else out there has been, too, and deserves to know what I think of it before they spend money on it?

    You betcha. Which is why you shouldn’t worry about anything but being honest.

    Welcome to DA!

    (And I know it’s completely off topic, but I just have to share this with someone who’ll understand why it’s so cool — the RNA has just announced it’s longlist for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award 2009, and I’m on it! Yay!) http://www.rna-uk.org/index.php?page=article&id=155

  19. Susanna Kearsley
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 13:02:27

    Oops, I meant its longlist, of course. :-)
    Forgetting how to spell in all the excitement…

  20. Janine
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 13:06:58

    Congrats, Susanna. When does RNA announce the winner?

  21. Susanna Kearsley
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 13:13:10

    Thanks, Janine.

    The shortlist is announced on January 13 (at a champagne breakfast in London, yet!) and the winner is announced on February 10.

    All the details of the award process are here: http://www.booktrade.info/index.php/showarticle/18876

    (Sorry to divert the thread — I’m off now to pick up my kids from school anyway, so everyone can get back to the topic at hand!)

  22. Jessa Slade
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 13:57:19

    Maya, as a writer myself, I only talk about books I love, not because I’m trying to avoid speaking hurtful truths, but because I rarely finish anything BESIDES books I love. There are so many great books out there and so few hours in my day to read that if a story loses me I’ll probably never get another chance to try again with it. So my GoodRead list is all and only my beloveds.

    That’s why I need Joan/SarahF and the rest of the crew here & at SB: To read the other stuff :) Thank you BTW.

  23. Karin
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 14:48:27

    This is definitely an interesting topic. I have definitely done more on the academic analysis side than on the reviewer side, so as a reader I tend to read reviews more for the information on the book than on the opinion of the reviewer, though it is sometimes hard to separate the two.

  24. anon8
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 15:01:48

    What about the entertainment value of the review & subsequent conversation? Aren’t these posts a written product ultimately served to maintain and grow DA’s audience share?

    So if (and that’s a big if in my mind) there’s any obligation at all, wouldn’t that obligation lie with fulfilling the audience’s expectations of the type of reviews found at this site rather than the author’s/publisher’s?

  25. K. Z. Snow
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 16:11:10

    But see, that may work that way for you, but not for every reader. The only time I notice the language is if it keeps me from getting to the story (Kathleen Eagle's books are endlessly frustrating to me because I cannot get past the language to the wonderful story that I *know* is underneath).

    I do know what you mean, Growly. Sometimes it can get in the way.

  26. XandraG
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 17:27:06

    This is an excellent question. As an author, I want to know why a reviewer liked my book or not. The more specific, the better. One of the most frustrating things I can think of is when a reviewer doesn’t like the book, but hasn’t articulated why. As an author, I’m left wondering if I didn’t get the mechanics right (an improvable condition) or if I just didn’t “touch” the reviewer right and s/he didn’t “get” the story (nothing I can do about that).

    As an aside, the most frustrating thing I can think of is having my story play straight man and straw dummy to a reviewer’s rapier wit. I’d have to ask myself if the story really sucked that bad, or was it just the likeliest candidate to fit the humor theme of the day. But I understand that there are sites out there like that, they play to their audiences, and it’s me that needs to avoid them rather than the other way around.

    As a reader, I lean more towards the analysis type of review. Maybe it’s my undergrad English Lit background, maybe it’s the science fan in me that likes taking stuff apart (books included). Most of the time, I don’t mind spoilers. Chances are, if it’s something I’m intensely curious about, I’ll deliberately not seek out any reviews or commentary until I’ve had the chance to read/see/play/experience. Also as a reader, after I’ve had the chance to read/see/digest, I want that analysis because chances are if I feel strongly enough about something, I’ll go look to see if a.) I’m not the only crazy person out there, or b.) if a is true, then is there a crazy person out there better able to articulate what made me love/bugged me about the book.

    To me, to read reviews and hope to eventually determine whether or not a reviewer has the same tastes as I do seems inefficient–I’d rather read analysis, find out if the measurement criteria is important to me and if it is, then I’m on board. Even if it isn’t, it’s hella interesting to read.

    One of the peculiar things about reviewing romance is that I’ve noticed there are two distinct classifications of “fan” (for lack of a better word). One of them seeks out, reviews, rates, classifies, or avoids romances based on the content of them–more specifically, the sexual content, at least in erotic romance. I don’t recall ever hearing a large segment of science fiction fans, for example, declaring that they absolutely won’t read books with, say, insectoid aliens in them. Yet I have encountered large segments of romance fans who will absolutely avoid any and all books with F/F sex in them, or BDSM sex in them, no matter what the rest of the story is like. I find it fascinating that romance tastes seem to be so much more…I dunno, personal, maybe, than SF, mystery, or plain old literature. Analysis reviews will hopefully help noodle out why that is…or if my perspective is skewed.

  27. Susanna Kearsley
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 20:25:42

    There are, though, different kinds of analysis. In my view, the reviews here at DA are analytical — what drew me here in the first place was the depth and care and insight that the Ja(y)nes showed in exploring why a story worked or didn’t work for them.

    I think the point is simply that Joan’s academic analysis will be lending a welcome additional viewpoint, because diversity of opinion is always a good thing, and because Joan has interesting and informative things to say.

    But — and I may be wrong in this — I think I see an argument developing here that there are reviews (subjective) and analysis (objective), which I don’t think is what Joan was saying herself in her post.

    And as someone who majored in politics at university, a lot of which involved the detection and dissection of personal bias, my own view is that no analysis of a book can be truly objective, because what we carry with us in ourselves will shape the things we see.

    I once had a good friend (who did study English and worked as an editor) tell me how she really liked one section of a book of mine, and how I’d made a certain thing a metaphor for something else, and she went on and on in minute detail, praising everything…I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was unintentional, whatever she was seeing.

    Which is not to say I didn’t find her commentary interesting, or that I didn’t value her opinion. But she’d read what I had written through the lens of her own viewpoint. As we all do.

    Jane said it best:

    I think that most people know that when they read a review, it truly is only one person's subjective opinion.

  28. Joan/SarahF
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 20:43:24

    Whew, you guys are wonderful! So sorry I haven’t been around. I’ve been in nine straight hours of phone interviews (on the interviewING side, thank the dear baby Jesus, not the interviewEE side), so I’m about done. I was champing at the bit to get on here all day, but it just wasn’t happening.

    First of all, CONGRATULATIONS!!! Susanna–that’s wonderful. And what’s good news without someone to squee!!! with about it?

    Everything that y’all are saying here confirms for me what I feel I’m doing here. I love having sites like this where we can have these types of discussions and have them mean something. To us, at least! :)

    I’m looking forward to writing many more reviews! Bad reviews ahoy! Or at least, reviews of bad books.

  29. Susanna Kearsley
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 21:34:34

    Thanks, Joan. Hope you don’t have much more interviewing torture to endure.

    (And yes, I have to squee with all of you, because my dog and children are Supremely Unimpressed…!)

    Looking forward to reading your many more reviews — bad books or otherwise.

  30. Shiloh Walker
    Dec 16, 2008 @ 22:15:26

    I’m heading to bed after this, so I’m not going to read comments…if I do, I’ll find another reason to stay up, and I really need some sleep.

    Anyway, Joan/Sarah F, I have to admit that while the writer in me flinches when I read a bad review ~ namely the thoughtful, critical ones that take time to explain what the problems were~I shudder to think there are authors out there who actually think that just providing a book for free means they get a good review.

    I flinch even though I know bad reviews happen-I do my best, take a deep breath and try to see if there’s something I can fix for the next book. But just because I flinch doesn’t mean the reviewer isn’t entitled to an opinion.

    Expecting somebody to praise a book they thought sucked? It kind of takes away the reviewer’s right to an opinion. *G* I’m a little opinionated so when people try to take my right to an opinion away, it irritates me.

    Nobody should feel pressured into saying they loved something if they didn’t.

    Something I have had lots of practice in…and I’m sure to get more before too long, since Christmas is almost here and very few people understand my taste in clothes. Now I’m going to bed before my tired brain can ramble off in another direction.

  31. Robin
    Dec 17, 2008 @ 00:20:49

    my own view is that no analysis of a book can be truly objective, because what we carry with us in ourselves will shape the things we see.

    Which is why I would replace the word “objective” with “transparent.” There is no such thing as pure objectivity, not even in the hardest of science, but there can be transparency, and that may be better, IMO.

    What I mean by transparency is that good analysis provides a blueprint of the person’s thought and logic process, a revelation of suppositions, connections, and conclusions that allow others to know how the conclusions are arrived at, how the suppositions affected those conclusions, and what connections are and might not be logically derived from the suppositions (and therefore might skew the conclusions). So while no one can be without bias, illustrating the path of one’s thinking can, IMO, offer more to the readers of that transparent analysis by giving them an opportunity to rebut, agree, or revise their own conclusions.

    IMO good analysis is transparent, which is why it can be so complementary to evaluation, in, for example, the review context.

    I once had a good friend (who did study English and worked as an editor) tell me how she really liked one section of a book of mine, and how I'd made a certain thing a metaphor for something else, and she went on and on in minute detail, praising everything…I didn't have the heart to tell her it was unintentional, whatever she was seeing.

    IMO, regardless of whatever attachment an author has to his or her work, and regardless of whatever the author believed that he or she accomplished in the work, once that work enters the public sphere it is open to valid interpretations that may go well beyond and afield from where the author believed it to be.

    I don’t think this is the case merely because the work is removed from the author’s control, but rather that no matter how conscientiously an author may construct a novel, not everything can be controlled in the process of writing. I am constantly amazed at things I write unconsciously that someone else will point out to me that make me go ‘wow!’ — it’s so cool. That doesn’t mean that every reader’s perceptions are going to gibe with every other reader’s perceptions, or with the author’s perceptions, but I do think that writing functions on many different levels, not all of them conscious. And then there is that phenomenon you discuss, whereby the reader interacts with the text and vice versa, setting off a reaction that can sometimes exceed the elements provided by either author(text) or reader.

  32. Ann Somerville
    Dec 17, 2008 @ 02:47:10

    Which is why I would replace the word “objective” with “transparent.” There is no such thing as pure objectivity, not even in the hardest of science, but there can be transparency, and that may be better, IMO.

    This is the reason I admit upfront if I have any innate prejudices against topic, author, whatever, or if I read it while ill, etc – hardly academic, but relevant.

    But doing that gets me accused of intruding myself into the review, which then becomes all about me! I think objectivity is a myth too, but I believe honesty is a virtue even if you bring baggage to the story you’re reviewing.

    @Susanna Kearsley:

    I didn't have the heart to tell her it was unintentional, whatever she was seeing

    I actually think stuff that’s unintentional – I’ve had the same experience as you – comes from the same place as the intentional stuff, and can be analysed and praised just as legitimately. We are, after all, artists (hopefully) and part of what we do is somewhat unconscious or instinctive – or else everyone would be able to write well with training, which we know isn’t true. I firmly believe, however, once the book leaves my hands for the last times, then its interpretation belongs to everyone, and no one’s opinion is less valid than mine. Unless of course they’re wrong ;)

  33. Susanna Kearsley
    Dec 17, 2008 @ 08:20:09

    IMO, regardless of whatever attachment an author has to his or her work, and regardless of whatever the author believed that he or she accomplished in the work, once that work enters the public sphere it is open to valid interpretations that may go well beyond and afield from where the author believed it to be.

    I firmly believe, however, once the book leaves my hands for the last times, then its interpretation belongs to everyone, and no one's opinion is less valid than mine.

    Thank you, Robin and Ann. This is kind of the point I was trying to make, only I did it rather clumsily. :-)

    All I meant was that readers may all see things in our work we didn’t see or intend to be in there, and each reader may in fact see something different based on what they themselves carry into that reading, so reviews and analysis are, by their nature, subjective.

    And I heartily agree with what you both said about transparency
    vs. objectivity. We’re on the same page — you’re just being more eloquent!

  34. MCHalliday
    Dec 17, 2008 @ 18:55:13

    My quandry over ethics vs objectivity:
    In order to be objective, one might need to be unethical.
    To be ethical, one might suffer objectivity.

    As much as I love the logical, rational, functional, analytical and objective, and dilemma warms my cockles, I adore that which resonates with my wave frequency and hits my pendulating vibration…

    Love,
    be fruit
    not tree.
    Handsome,
    though the bark
    might be.

    © MC Halliday

    Go with your heart, Joan. Be it subjective whimsey or objective analysis, I’ll read your reviews and have a good ponder over them.

  35. LindaR
    Dec 18, 2008 @ 00:27:00

    I’m late to the party, but how about this:

    Your obligation as a reviewer is to yourself.

    Based only on this post, I believe you value your ability to analyze works.

    I think if to thine own self you are true, we who read you will be the happier. And long into the future, you may regret something you wrote; but it will never be because you served the wrong master.

  36. Mireya
    Dec 19, 2008 @ 11:40:13

    Objectivity is not a term that can be associated to reviewing. No matter how hard a reviewer tries to remain “objective” a review is nothing else than an appraisal and personal opinion on something. That being said, do your best, but don’t sweat the small stuff. Anyone that is reading your reviews understands this simple fact. It is YOUR opinion.

    As to ethics, publishers and authors give away ARCs hoping that they will be reviewed, but it is not an expectation. They know full well that a book submitted for review may or may not be reviewed. That being said, if you choose to accept books for review or request them, you should certainly do your best to try and review them. It’s the ethical thing to do. As to requests you receive, learn to say no whenever you feel that you are overwhelmed, are going through a reading slump, real life has you distracted, etc. Given the analytical nature of the reviews here at Dear Author, it is obvious that quite a bit of time is put into writing the reviews, so learning to say no every once in a while should be included in your list of reviewer skills if you don’t want to end up burned out. That will also save you a bit of aggravation in some instances.

    Regarding a comment I read pertaining lack of detail in reviews, I would like to say that not all readers seek the same thing from a review. There are readers out there that would rather read a shorter review, than a long, analytical one. Not everyone is a writer, not everyone is an English major, not everyone has the time to read long reviews, etc. I agree that some short reviews are way short or even just an expansion on the synopsis of the book, no argument there; but a review that is short but yet covers plot, characterization, pacing, potential “hot buttons”, and sexual content (erotic romance is my specialty) briefly and concisely is not less valuable than a 2-page long analytical review. The same way that there is such variety among the romance audience, there is variety among reviewers styles.

  37. Virginia
    Dec 28, 2008 @ 07:39:03

    I think it’s fair enough in a review to write, if it is the case, “The prose is clunky, with a two-page ‘As you know, Bob’ infodump in the very first chapter.” That’s scarcely demanding more of the genre than it can reasonably be expected to offer.

  38. Ethical Reviewing: Transparency, Consistency, and Community | Dear Author: Romance Novel Reviews, Industry News, and Commentary
    Feb 17, 2009 @ 04:00:38

    [...] blogged about ethics and reviewing in previous articles. We’ve discussed bias. We’ve talked about the [...]

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