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That Sounds Like Something I’d Hate

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It is commonly accepted wisdom that controversy sells books. Many people believe that negative reviews can sell books. But what we talk about less is how whether and what the effect might be of this controversial discourse on the genre itself, especially in cases where a lot of the controversy is propelled by those who have not read the books in question.

When I was relatively new to the Romance community, several debates popped up on the AAR boards over what were then controversial books – Her Secret, His Child by Paula Detmer Riggs, and Public Displays of Affection by Susan Donovan. The Riggs book contained a controversial, possible date-rape scene, followed by a secret baby, and Donovan’s book featured an anonymous sex scene between the heroine and a stranger, which occurred while the virgin heroine was on her way to pick up her then-boyfriend from the airport. I haven’t read the Riggs book (although I bought it when the controversy was going on ;D), but I was surprised by the number of shunning comments both got from readers who had not actually read either book.

The heroine in the Donovan book was called a “slut” and the book derided as promoting cheating and loose morals. Ironically, the scene in question occurred between the hero and the heroine of the book. The heroine did go on to marry her then-boyfriend but he died unexpectedly before the main action of the book begins. A young widow with two sons, Charlotte Tasker had led an exemplary, selfless life, with the exception of that side-of-the-road insanity, which she indulged in out of fear that she would never be able to experience thrilling, take-no-prisoners sex with the man she knew was getting ready to propose to her. And, as it turned out, she was correct.

The controversy over the Donovan book was interesting, in part because the book went out of its way to make Charlotte the most giving, upright, self-sacrificing wife and mother possible. She has no idea that the handsome, mysterious man who moves in next door is the guy from the side of the road (but he definitely remembers her). But by making him the hero of the novel, one could argue that the novel is actually containing promoting a more conservative sexual value by containing Charlotte’s sexuality within a second marriage to her first sexual partner. Regardless, there is an interesting ambiguity there that gets missed when you can’t even get past the back and forth of dismissive charges of immorality and sluttish infidelity and fannish defenses of the author, often by those who can’t actually engage the details of the book because they haven’t read it.

As readers, we make judgment calls like this all the time, and we often use reviews and comments by friends and other readers to do it. It is part of the book selection process for many of us, and in a time when readers feel bombarded by author promotion and books from all corners of the writing and publishing marketplace, perhaps it has become an even more common coping mechanism for under-impressed and over-marketed readers. I do feel that there has been a general increase in reader intolerance since self-publishing started to accelerate, in tandem with a diminished tendency to give an iffy sounding book the benefit of the doubt. I struggle with this myself. In fact, I’ve actually had to stop reading samples and excerpts, because some of the books I’ve enjoyed most would have been a no-go had I just decided based on a short, disembodied stretch of text. Sometimes pre-judgment means that we’re going to miss a book we’d actually enjoy, but other times the negative verdict will be justly made.

Let me also say as clearly as possible that I absolutely do not think readers should refrain from positively or negatively commenting on books they have not read. I do not think readers in general have an obligation to read a book before judging it. Nor do we have an obligation to authors to understand books the way they intended to write them. Reading creates a relationship between text and reader that may be wholly different from the relationship the author has with her book – which is part of the alchemical magic of reading and one of the reasons we can endlessly discuss any particular book.

But I do think there’s an increased tendency to reject or dismiss books out of hand these days. And I think it’s especially common when we’re focused on certain types, trends, and patterns in the genre. I recently read a piece written by an author whose books I’ve quite enjoyed, and her argument was based in part on a book she freely admitted she hadn’t read. And I strongly disagreed with the judgment she was making about the book, which in turn affected the way I approached her larger assertions. We ended up having a great discussion about her general argument, but it was in spite of and not because of the example of that unread book. I’m not going to link to the post, because I don’t want to put the author on the spot; as I said, I think we all engage in this behavior to some extent, and I don’t think it’s wrong.

Still, this tendency to judge books without reading them is an aspect of the genre community I’ve always been uncomfortable with, especially because so often the judgment is based on an issue that has political or social importance beyond a single-book portrayal. Take the Donovan book, for example, which implicated the boundaries and “rules” for female sexuality and the double standards men and women face in so-called standards of morality. These are issues we return to again and again in the genre, and they are an important part of our book-based discussions, because Romance is about love and sex and what constitutes a “good” relationship.

The Romance genre is built on all sorts of ethical, moral, social, and political values, which, as readers and authors, we are always in dialogue with. And when we bring books into the shared space of critical discussion, we have the opportunity to reflect on these values – to think about their utility and their appropriateness, their desirability and their limits. And it is often the most complex, important, and troubling issues that require the most careful, detailed, and mindful discussion.

All of which is part of why I wonder what impact these kinds of judgments we sometimes make about books without actually engaging their content have on the very issues we find to be the most vexing.

As we’ve seen over and over, overzealous positive reaction to an author or a book can shut down thoughtful discussion with frighteningly impressive speed. But so can dismissal of a book without actually engaging it. First, it is virtually impossible to talk about a book with someone who hasn’t read it and is convinced it’s a certain way. And second, if the issue is one of great importance to the person making the judgment, there is no real opportunity to ground discussion of that critical issue in textual examples that would a) allow for informed discussion and understanding, and b) create an opportunity for mindful contemplation of that issue’s importance as it is represented in actual books. And the more comfortable we become with judging books without actually engaging them, the further we may fall away from the types of discussions we need more, not less, of.

I don’t have clear answers here. But I do believe strongly that critical debate and analysis is essential to the way the genre shifts and evolves. Not only are so many Romance readers also authors – and active within the community – but I think critical discourse can uncover those otherwise unexamined corners of the collective consciousness in a way that allows us to think about some of our most commonly held and reiterated perceptions about How The World Works and What People Do, and Who We Are, and What We Want To Be, and How Love Works, and How Women and Men Think, etc. Examining these issues in context allows for the kind of deep, specific examination that can challenge assumptions, provoke new insights, and lead to new ways of seeing — and new ways of writing and representing.

Still, I get that we don’t owe it to any book to read it, let alone talk in a shared public space about it. I can also see a version of the boycott argument being made here: that is, we’re not going to read books that are insulting to who we are or what we believe. I will defend that as a reader’s prerogative.

But at some level I wonder how much we can criticize a genre for not being more sensitive to certain issues if we refuse to engage the actual books.

In other words, are we contributing to the very problems we see in the genre by refusing to read the books we judge guilty of perpetuating them?

ETA: Comments have made me realize that I did a very poor job distinguishing between levels and types of judgment in my post.

What I’d call a more passive level of pre-judgment is more along the lines of a tragedy of the commons to me. And it’s more analogous to the example of creating new law I made in my response to hapax:

One of the biggest issues in US law right now is the lack of new law being made from legal issues being tried in the courts. In addition to legislators making law, trials set precedents that themselves become a form of law, often a very important one (think about copyright law, for example, and how outdated it is to our current circumstances). This lack of new law being made is partially a result of 99%+ of cases being settled before they even go to trial. Now, should every plaintiff carry their case to trial for the sake of legal precedent? Of course not! People routinely make the decisions that they perceive to be the best for them. However, our individual choices do have costs associated with them, and that’s what I’m trying to get at here — what are the costs at the general level, are we aware of them or even thinking about them, are they, in fact, working against what we perceive to be our individual interests, and are they ultimately worth it to us?

Then there is a more active level of judgment, where those who haven’t read the book make those judgments publicly, often in forums where the book is being discussed. This is the kind of judgment that I was referring to with my Donovan example and in the first paragraph of my post where I talked about controversy over a book driven in part by people who haven’t read it. That kind of judgment can interfere with critical discussion,depending on the circumstances, as I noted in my post and my reply to Ridley.

In both cases, these judgments may be validated by actually reading a book, or they may be challenged. Not everyone reads the same book the same way, which is one of the reasons I think critical debate about specific books is so important. And as I said a number of times in the post, I don’t think any of these judgments or even the comments are wrong (after all, choice itself is an act of judgment, and we all do it). At the same time, judgments are not without cost, and that’s really what I’m interested in unpacking here. What are the costs, and are we aware we’re paying them, and are they worth it to us?

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

45 Comments

  1. mari
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 06:52:40

    “when readers feel bombarded by author promotion” ?? I have to admit, I am not one of them. I don’t friend authors on FB, follow them on Twitter, pay attention to the ads on DA, or even read the author interviews here. The only time I ever go to an author’s website is to find out about new books they’ve written or reccomended series reading order.

    As a reader I trust none of these promotional tools to point me to quality books. I only trust reviewers who are as critical and bitchy and me, ie, Dabney and Jane here. Not to say anything bad about anyone else, but as a reader, finding reviewers with good (read: MY ) taste is a Godsend.

    As far as commenting on books I haven’t read….I do it all the time. I often make judgements based on tropes or themes the reviewer brings up. For instance, folks commented here on some of the misogyny present in a m/m romance and it confirmed some of my owm fears and stereotypes about this subset of the romance genre. Based on these comments , I probably will never read m/m. Is it fair, is it right? Dunno. Don’t care. But there are things I won’t write/say even if I think them, for fear of being perceived as homophobic or racist. I guess you could say with all the political correctness and concerns along these lines, there has almost been (for me anyway) a stifling and lack of wanting to say anything..

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  2. DB Cooper
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 07:26:21

    First of all, I just want to say thank you once again for reminding us that our individual opinions and stances are valid, while at the same time feeding us an article (and a position) that prompts us to think about our relationship with romance. These are always wonderful reads.

    Now while I understand this leads us into the argument, and isn’t quite the argument itself:

    But by making him the hero of the novel, one could argue that the novel is actually containing promoting a more conservative sexual value by containing Charlotte’s sexuality within a second marriage to her first sexual partner.

    I found that this caught my eye the most (perhaps because you mentioned that the book was accused of promoting cheating and loose morals, and I wanted to shout “Go book! Go Charlotte!”). I think it’s a matter of perspective really (and I don’t doubt that you’ve had many perspectives on this). Maybe it is a way of promoting a more conservative view of it, because the excitement is ultimately caught up in a second marriage… and maybe it’s just the story bowing to the morals and the conventions of the time knowing it couldn’t get away with telling the tale of the wild woman who wild roadside sex to someone outside of her marriage. And I’m willing to put money down that somehow, those are two sides of the same thing.

    I’ll admit in my own mindset, my immediate thought was that this outcome reflected the conventions (maybe a covenant, even?) between romance authors and romance readers. End-of-the-book nuptials are one of the rewards given to the “true hero” of the story. Moral pressure or not, it also relieves a certain tension between book and reader by–and in doing so waves that little flag that allows readers to feel “safe” about the once anonymous man and his (I’m presuming) “best orgasm he ever gave her” sex.

    Of course, really, I’ve not read this book–and to your point, here I am making speculations and judgement surrounding it. :)

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  3. Patricia Eimer
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 07:50:40

    Personally I always make judgement calls on books I haven’t read. I tend to paraphrase it with “I haven’t read this book but I’m pretty sure it’s not for me because of XYZ reasons” and I happen to think it’s the exact opposite from your question. By not buying the books that have stereotypes we don’t approve of we’re doing what I always told my economics students to do — voicing our opinions with our money. Or voicing it by not spending our money in this case. If books that perpetuate negative stereotypes such as rape aren’t being bought and potential readers are making a strong case of “I don’t want to read a book that glorifies a rapist” you can be darn sure that a publishing company is going to take it into account. Authors are artists but publishers are straight up business.

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  4. Merrian
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 08:17:06

    Both actions need to happen, that is: books need to be read in order to be discussed and critiqued but if a description of the contents of that book suggest it takes an approach through tropes, plot-line and characterisation that is demeaning or diminishing or triggering then that it does those things and consequently won’t be read is part of the facts if the matter too.

    I have a right to choose not to engage with the text. It is hard, even debilitating work to read a text that diminishes your Selfhood and life experiences in its depiction of characters and the situations they find themselves in. I also trust many of the reviewers that I follow (for many years in some cases) so when Jane is disturbed by the racial name calling in Joan Swan’s novel ‘Fever’ I don’t feel I have to read it to understand that points she made or why it was problematic for her and by extension likely to be so for me i.e. not something I want to read but now a book I will talk about as an example of what I don’t want to read.

    I am not always strong in my energy and so able to do that reading of a difficult text nor able to take on the seeming concomitant expectation that because of my identity I will be a voice for education and change in the genre. That expectation sometimes seems dangerously close to pushing the responsibility for education and genre change back onto the marginalised person/group.

    When your life and Selfhood is framed by a particular situation or set of experiences shared by people like you, the identity that arises from that means a text will always be read and understood through that identity-lens. It also means that reading a difficult/problematic book costs each of us differently. This difference in standpoint and cost is not something that ‘discussion’ will ever disappear.

    It is important that these identity-lens are part of the broad discussion, development and writing of romance genre texts but how many times do I have to be in that discussion or make those points? I’ve been doing it for years and maybe I’m tired of being the other; not normal, a squeaky wheel and maybe life is just too short to read a problematic book when there are others to give me pleasure.

    Maybe – and I am still thinking this through – reading romance has always been an act of privilege and being required to read a book before having standing in any discussion that is about how people like me are represented is the ultimate in enforcing that privilege.

    Because it arises from a place that values difference perhaps greater willingness by readers to say they will not read certain books is a feature and not a bug in the evolution of the romance genre. Nor do I think it unrealistic for authors striving for authenticity in character representation and experience, or for readers approaching a book to educate themselves about the issues of representation. Part of that education is understanding the book in the context of the wider genre. Do romance writer conferences have panel sessions on representation?

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  5. Helen
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 08:41:56

    I don’t know, I think it is one thing to choose not to read a book because of personal preferences about particular topics and another to blast a book for having a particular trope when you (reader/s not you personally!) haven’t read the actual book you are criticizing. Obviously readers (and anyone else of course) can say anything they want about a book but why hate on something you haven’t read? Save the vitriol for books that actually made you angry when you read them. IMO anyway.

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  6. hapax
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 08:44:59

    I dunno.

    I have a lot of friends who avoid certain foods (for reasons of health, philosophy, or taste), and they all speak wearily of people who keep trying to force them (or worse, trick them) into eating something containing the ingredients they avoid — either on the grounds of “I know you don’t usually eat {X}, but THIS is DIFFERENT!” or “How can you say you don’t like {X} if you won’t try it?” or even “See? You just ate {X} and nothing bad happened!” (i.e., the person didn’t immediately drop dead, never mind that they will feel queasy and disoriented for the next week)

    I know that Janet here has strongly asserted readers rights NOT to read. But comments like

    Examining these issues in context allows for the kind of deep, specific examination that can challenge assumptions, provoke new insights, and lead to new ways of seeing — and new ways of writing and representing.

    feel to me awfully close to the sort of things well-meaning cooks keep saying to my friends.

    Time is the most precious, limited resource that I — that ANY person — has. I don’t have enough for all the books that marketing, reviews, and experience indicate will be pleasurable and/or inspiring and/or thought-provoking. Why should I spend any on consuming books that marketing/reviews/experience indicate will be painful or enraging or stupid? Because in some nebulous way it will “uncover those otherwise unexamined corners of the collective consciousness”?

    Reading should not be a duty. I don’t have an obligation to improve humanity or reform society by engaging with problematic texts.

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  7. Robin/Janet
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 09:18:16

    @Patricia Eimer: By not buying the books that have stereotypes we don’t approve of we’re doing what I always told my economics students to do — voicing our opinions with our money.

    Yes, I think this can be an extremely important tool for readers to express their opinion. I used it liberally during the agency pricing era.

    Where it gets complicated for me is a) when the buzz about a book is partially being driven by people who haven’t read it and therefore don’t actually know it’s a certain way, and b) when not every reader *agrees* it’s a certain way. For example, The Book Smugglers recently reviewed The September Girls (http://thebooksmugglers.com/2013/06/september-girls-by-bennett-madison-not-a-sexist-book.html), and noted at the beginning all of the reviewers who had dismissed it as sexist and anti-feminist. They go on to say:
    Needless to say, I had to see for myself.

    And I am SO glad I did. My own take? I love it. I agree with those who say this is a feminist book. I think September Girls is not only NOT sexist, but also quite the opposite: I think it challenges sexism directly in a myriad of ways but also does so metaphorically. It questions patriarchy, the idea of “manhood” very explicitly and it does so in a beautifully written, languid, thought-provoking story. It’s absolutely one of my favourite reads this year.

    As readers, we are under no obligation to “see for ourselves.” However, there may be other, broader costs to that choice, costs we all share in some way, even if it’s a perfectly valid choice.

    @Merrian: Maybe – and I am still thinking this through – reading romance has always been an act of privilege and being required to read a book before having standing in any discussion that is about how people like me are represented is the ultimate in enforcing that privilege.

    You offer many great reasons for readers to steer clear of certain books. I don’t disagree with you at all about the way we need to take care of ourselves by making careful choices. As I said in my post, we all vet books this way, and in no way am I suggesting that everyone should read all the books.

    I tried to make this clear in my post, but if I failed, I’ll try again here: readers make decisions all the time not to read certain books, as is our absolute right. No one can or should read all the books. My issues are more with how conclusions about what a book *is* that are sometimes driven by people who haven’t read it (that was the point of my Donovan example) can shape the way books are read and discussed by others.

    As for the privilege issue, I’d just add that the novel itself is a creation and a celebration of privilege — of a class of people who finally had the means and the mobility and the technology to produce it. For me this can cut both ways. That is, it can become an instrument of entitlement and hegemony, or it can be a means to interrogate unconsciously accepted power structures. Some of that interrogation may be in the reading and critical debate. Which, again, doesn’t mean everyone needs to read every book. I’m just saying that for me this is a place where our individual needs and rights may be in conflict with other “goods.”

    @hapax: I’ve addressed some of your comment in my responses above, but I’ll add this: one of the biggest issues in US law right now is the lack of new law being made from legal issues being tried in the courts. In addition to legislators making law, trials set precedents that themselves become a form of law, often a very important one (think about copyright law, for example, and how outdated it is to our current circumstances). This lack of new law being made is partially a result of 99%+ of cases being settled before they even go to trial. Now, should every plaintiff carry their case to trial for the sake of legal precedent? Of course not! People routinely make the decisions that they perceive to be the best for them. However, our individual choices do have costs associated with them, and that’s what I’m trying to get at here — what are the costs at the general level, are we aware of them or even thinking about them, are they, in fact, working against what we perceive to be our individual interests, and are they ultimately worth it to us?

    @DB Cooper: I’ll admit in my own mindset, my immediate thought was that this outcome reflected the conventions (maybe a covenant, even?) between romance authors and romance readers. End-of-the-book nuptials are one of the rewards given to the “true hero” of the story. Moral pressure or not, it also relieves a certain tension between book and reader by–and in doing so waves that little flag that allows readers to feel “safe” about the once anonymous man and his (I’m presuming) “best orgasm he ever gave her” sex.

    I don’t disagree with this at all. In fact, I think that’s part of the point I was trying to make with the Donovan example: that for all the calls of “slut” and the accusations of immorality made against the novel (often by people who had not read it), the book was a pretty traditional Romance in the end, one that brought the heroine right back into the genre fold, so to speak. Now I do think there are other issues around how her sexuality is contained by the hero being that guy, but again, to me those cut strongly against many of the judgments made about the book.

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  8. Virginia Kantra
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 09:57:44

    I completely agree with the statement

    Nor do we have an obligation to authors to understand books the way they intended to write them. Reading creates a relationship between text and reader that may be wholly different from the relationship the author has with her book.

    As a writer, that’s why I never comment on reviews of my own books. Even the good reviews. If the reader didn’t get what was in my head and heart from the words that actually made it onto the page, then no amount of explanation or apology after the fact will suffice.

    As a reader, I definitely avoid certain tropes – judging with my pocketbook, as others have said.

    But @Helen got it right when she said,

    I think it is one thing to choose not to read a book because of personal preferences about particular topics and another to blast a book for having a particular trope when you (reader/s not you personally!) haven’t read the actual book you are criticizing.

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  9. Ridley
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 10:12:58

    I hesitate to even wade in here, but I have to arch my eyebrow at this.

    If I skip something because it sounds like an enraging mess of stereotypes, I’m pre-judging books and making critical discussion difficult.

    If I try to read something to see if it is, indeed, an enraging mess of stereotypes, I’m a hate reader using privilege as a naughty stick.

    Can’t win for trying, can I?

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  10. Keishon
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 10:15:47

    I’ll bite. I agree with Helen. I’m not going to go off and make a judgement on a book based off of other people’s opinions unless it’s an opinion I trust and respect. Who’s to say that these opinions are correct? How would you know how you would react if you haven’t read the text? I’m not saying that I’ve never participated in these types of debates but I stopped. Readers have the right to do whatever they want and I have the right to ignore them (like many will ignore this comment hahaha which is fine by me).

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  11. Janet
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 10:22:04

    “Skipping” a book doesn’t make “critical discussion difficult” because it is an act of avoidance. Entering a discussion about a book and insisting that the book is “[insert judgment here]” without having read it can interfere with and even derail critical discussion (it doesn’t always have to, but it can, depending on the substance of the comment and the level of insistence, aggression, persistence, etc. of the commenter).

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  12. Sirius
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 10:35:12

    Can I agree with both hapax and Helen? Yes, absolutely time is the most precious thing I have and if reviewer I trust and respect says that the book was full of homophobic stereotypes for example ( or any other reason I agree with), I won’t touch this book ever – even if had I read the book I could disagree with the reviewer. I am okay with passing on the book which could be good just because the chance that it is not good is high enough and I do not have time to waste. But precisely because I have not read it I won’t discuss what I have not read, I won’t express any strong statements, etc. I do not have my own opinion to state and for that reason I won’t go any further than not reading a book. I hope so anyway – maybe there would be a review where quotes show the book in such offensive to me light that I will get angry despite not wanting to .

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  13. wikkidsexycool
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 10:39:10

    “I think it is one thing to choose not to read a book because of personal preferences about particular topics and another to blast a book for having a particular trope when you (reader/s not you personally!) haven’t read the actual book you are criticizing.”

    Well, the thing about the internet, is that there are more than enough reviews and also long excerpts that may be available for individuals to make a decision.

    In the last part of Helen’s statement (which I’m not saying I don’t agree with, I’m just offering another perspective) I’d like to give an example. There is a debate going on about the merits of George Zimmerman’s father’s book. Now, some are down voting it without buying it (some state the excerpt was enough to warrant this). While others, after reading the reviews by those who support the book, find phrases and terms used in the book (for example, the term “Black Grievance Industry”) offensive, and that while the book claims its stating the “truth” complete with facts, it’s really offering an opinion favoring one side. So for some, the book is falsely advertising something it doesn’t deliver.

    While the book isn’t in the romance genre, I’m using it as an example in this case because with so much coverage on the Trayvon Martin killing and George Zimmerman’s trial, opinions have already been formed, and some would argue that these opinions have enough published information from different sources to do so.

    Perhaps a reader doesn’t want to put any money into the author/publisher’s pocket, and they’re voicing their displeasure by not buying or buying into the premise.

    I didn’t buy the 50 Shades trilogy after reading all the excerpts, though I can understand why many others enjoyed the novels.

    My reasons were my own. So I guess what I’m trying to say, is in this age of technology and with sites like Dear Author and others where you can read a good portion of a book, sometimes you can form a reasonably informed opinion about a story in lieu of reading the whole book.

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  14. Ridley
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 10:55:18

    @Janet: So you’re arguing that the damage is in saying why you’re skipping something? We should just skip books and keep our reasoning to ourselves?

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  15. Kim
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 12:04:06

    I agree with Helen. I can understand avoiding certain books if you feel it’s a trope or plot that you dislike, but I’m always a little uncomfortable in denigrating a book that I haven’t read. Just because Reader X takes away a certain POV about a book, doesn’t mean Reader Y will feel the same way. So when we pile on in criticizing a book we haven’t read, are we perpetrating a possible biased narrative?

    For example, Mary Jo Putney, Lisa Kleypas and Kathryn Shay all wrote contemporary romances about spousal abuse. If I was asked in general, whether I would ever want to read about spousal abuse in a romance novel, I would say absolutely not. No one has the right to abuse someone, so who wants to read something that dark in a romance book? Once I read the novels, however, I found they were not only well-written, but also thought-provoking. I can see how a comment thread could easily devolve into vitriol if someone hasn’t read the books, but are basing their opinions on the general topic and not on how that topic was handled. That said, others probably have read these books and come to the opposite opinion. It’s an informed opinion though based on their interpretation and not on hear-say.

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  16. Liz Mc2
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 12:10:33

    I have really mixed feelings about all this and will try to be brief. I appreciate your clarifying the different levels of judgment–obviously we can’t read everything, not even everything we’d like, so we have to make some snap dismissals of books without reading them. To what extent we can join in a critical conversation about a book we haven’t read is more complicated. I’ve become much more careful about what I say about a book I haven’t read, and if my comments are just based on reviews, samples or excerpts, I’ll say so. But I don’t think I can’t say *anything* based on that information. (I find samples are helpful in telling me if I’ll like an author’s voice, and I reject books based on them all the time, but a small part of a book isn’t a fair way to judge its overall portrayal of a character or issue, IMO).

    I’m not really persuaded that there is a problem here. In my few years in Romanceland, I’ve really only seen one book where thoughtful discussion seemed almost entirely shut down by non-readers, and where the book seemed to be consistently misrepresented: that was 50 Shades, which is an outlier in pretty much every way. And a year later, when the furor has died down, I’m seeing more thoughtful responses.

    Are the criticisms of Kristen Ashley heroes by non-readers shaping critical discussions of her books? Probably, but who can say what the conversation would look like if those non-readers stayed out of it? The hero type seems of interest to many readers, too. And while I’ve seen a lot of uninformed dismissals of her, I’ve also seen tons of thoughtful reviews and commentary, including your own posts on extreme romance. In that case, it seems like uninformed dismissal has led to *better* critical discussion (because I’ve seen some reviewers moved to explore their own responses more deeply in response to criticism).

    So yes, I completely agree that we can’t have really thoughtful, nuanced, in-depth critical discussions unless we’ve read the book. But I also think people who say “ugh, stereotypical/awful slut” or whatever other dismissive comment, without reading the book, may drive critical conversation forward as much as they hold it back. And a book getting buzz like this will gain a lot of readers drawn by the controversy, just as it will gain more people who consciously choose not to read it, so there will be more voices in the conversation.

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  17. Kelly
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 13:53:21

    I’m not one to read something just because it’s “controversial” – but if it’s already in my TBR or on my wishlist, those discussions will immediately make my Book Anxiety flare up.

    One recent example for me was A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn – it was tops on my TBR, but after reading the reviews and comments about romanticizing colonial Africa, it took me weeks to get past the first chapter.

    As @Liz Mc2 said, that criticism made me read the book in an entirely different way. While I agree it was problematic, I didn’t find those touchy issues to be blatant or careless. Those who didn’t read the book missed out on Raybourn’s attempts to address the cultural imperialism through backstory and dialogue with secondary characters, and they didn’t experience how the use of first-person POV made some of that self-centered, rich-white-girl privilege more palatable. I don’t think the book was successful in overcoming all of the inherent problems, but it reassured me that the author was fully aware of the baggage with the setting she chose.

    But then again, I was already a big fan of Raybourn and trusted her storytelling abilities – if it had been a new-to-me author, I probably would have tabled it indefinitely.

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  18. MrsJoseph
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 13:53:34

    @Ridley:

    I *think* she is saying that if you [general "you"] have not read something…you CAN make a judgement call as to if you should read or not…but you can’t have a true critical discussion about the book.

    Basically – make a decision. Do you want to discuss the book critically? This will require reading of the text (and quite often CLOSE reading of the text). Or do you want to skip the book due to possible rageyness? If you choose to skip, you mostly forfeit your ability engage in a critical discussion.

    I think the key word here is *critical.*

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  19. Isobel Carr
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 14:00:23

    I’ve read this three times now, and I’ll admit I’m utterly confused as to what it is you’re trying to say. I’m especially baffled by the part where you say sampling isn’t enough for a reader to make a critical judgment. A sample is not “a short, disembodied stretch of text”. If an author can’t hook me in three chapters, why on earth would I give them more of my valuable time?

    Also, I’m not sure I agree with your assertion that there is a “diminished tendency to give an iffy sounding book the benefit of the doubt”. It seems to me that with free samples, readers are MORE inclined to give iffy books (or controversial ones) the benefit of the doubt and at least try them. In reader discussions, I see a ton of “tried it, didn’t like it” comments and then discussions of why said reader DNF’d the book. I rarely see people saying they are making an out of hand dismissal of something (unless it has a trigger they just can’t expose themselves to).

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  20. Ridley
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 14:23:31

    @MrsJoseph: I disagree, then.

    Non-readers can absolutely participate in a critical discussion. They can offer insight from their lived experience that can give readers a better idea of how a book handled a portrayal or ask questions that help readers sharpen their criticism.

    Honestly, this essay is at best a solution in search of a problem and at worst a not-so-veiled swipe at those of us who have recently objected to problematic content in books reviewed on this site. Considering how the post’s title mirrors a comment I made on the Shelby Reed review, a comment I was scolded for and summarily dismissed for making, I’m leaning strongly towards the latter.

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  21. Maggie
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 15:09:21

    Perhaps I am approaching this topic from [too much of] a legal standpoint, but I think the contrast you are trying to draw boils down to use of “evidence”, so to speak.

    If you’ve read the book, you can point to specific textual references that are problematic, or prima facie evidence.

    If you have not read the book, for you to point to any problematic aspect, you have to (a) base it on a third-party’s specific textual references while recognizing that anything subject to interpretation can be very damning out of context (erm, statutory interpretation? I think I’ve beat this metaphor to death); and (b) approach it from personal experience on the overarching topic, as opposed to a personal effect the text had on you.

    The latter may not be as persuasive, but I don’t think it’s less valid.

    I’ve had this very argument with my dear friend and reading pal regarding 50 Shades on numerous occasions. She realllllllllllly wants me to read it so we can talk about it; I realllllllllllllly don’t want to. At first, I raised all of the non-reader “evidence” I could: That Jane and Smart Bitch Sarah said it sucked, that its been continuously reviled by other reviewers I like, that the excerpts I’ve read just do not grab me, that I don’t particularly enjoy books with young protagonists or billionaires, and, particularly, young billionaires.

    We had rather good discussions regarding all of these tangential issues and whether or not they were valid arguments against reading something. But what it comes down to is, I have a limited amount of time and money and I am choosing not to spend it on this.

    That in no way means I should be excluded from commenting on the larger issues surrounding the book, particularly when those issues require evidence other than only textual reference, which, after high school English, is pretty much ALL issues.

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  22. Janet/Robin
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 15:36:46

    @Ridley: If I had wanted to call you out on a comment you made in a review, I would have done it in the comment thread to the review. Like I did in the Deanna Raybourn thread. It just honestly takes way too much time, thought, and energy to write a blog post to make it about something that minimal.

    In fact, it was the Raybourn threads that initially gave birth to this post, not because of your comments there, but because so much of that discussion was occurring among people who hadn’t read the book, and IMO the stakes of that discussion were especially high, precisely because of the racial issues in the book and the conflicting reviews of it (there was even a brief exchange between Aisha and Jane about whether one needed to read the book to talk about it). But this has been a loooong-time concern of mine, and I’ve commented on it less formally many times over the years. Because I feel it’s gotten so much worse of late, I decided to blog about it. The reasons I didn’t include the Raybourn link were 1) I didn’t want to make anyone feel like it was “about them,” especially since we all do it to some extent, and 2) I didn’t want to derail the general discussion with a rehash of the Raybourn debate.

    Non-readers can absolutely participate in a critical discussion. They can offer insight from their lived experience that can give readers a better idea of how a book handled a portrayal or ask questions that help readers sharpen their criticism.

    I agree that non-readers of specific books can make valuable contributions to these discussions. I do think that not reading a book creates a limitation, however, in terms of how much the non-reading participant can contribute to the discussion. And when you’ve got a somewhat inflammatory subject (this often happens with forced sex issues, for example), getting non-readers into the mix can blow things up rather than focusing them down on the text itself, especially when people who haven’t read the book insist on drawing and then asserting conclusions about the book from second or even third-hand accounts. 5o Shades, which Liz mentioned in her comment, is a perfect example of that.

    @Isobel Carr: I’m especially baffled by the part where you say sampling isn’t enough for a reader to make a critical judgment. A sample is not “a short, disembodied stretch of text”. If an author can’t hook me in three chapters, why on earth would I give them more of my valuable time?

    Actually, I limited that statement to myself. *I* generally don’t find samples (which are not universally as much as three chapters) adequate to decide on a book. And especially when you’ve got initial chapters, I find it even more difficult, because those are so often the ones that have been polished to a high sheen for submission. For me, I’m not sure which is worse: having a promising book drop off at the beginning of chapter 4, or missing out on a great book that had a weak beginning.

    It seems to me that with free samples, readers are MORE inclined to give iffy books (or controversial ones) the benefit of the doubt and at least try them.

    I agree that this is the way it’s supposed to work. But I’m not convinced that’s happening across the board. I’m starting to wonder if readers aren’t feeling more overwhelmed and more likely to strike out beyond Romance to other genres.

    @MrsJoseph: I *think* she is saying that if you [general "you"] have not read something…you CAN make a judgement call as to if you should read or not…but you can’t have a true critical discussion about the book.

    I would amend this a little by saying that I think one can participate in a critical discussion (both in the sense of the rights that any of us have in these semi-public spaces of book talk and in the sense of contributing to the discussion), but that one’s ability to participate is going to be limited if they haven’t read the book(s) in question. For me it would be like walking into a classroom and telling my students, ‘Hey, I know a lot about this subject, but I haven’t read the texts I’ve assigned you.’ At some point it becomes problematic, because you end up having to make assumptions about books based on what other people said, which as @Kim pointed out, creates a “biased narrative” — or, at the very least, an incomplete and possibly uninformed one.

    @Liz Mc2: I’m not really persuaded that there is a problem here. In my few years in Romanceland, I’ve really only seen one book where thoughtful discussion seemed almost entirely shut down by non-readers, and where the book seemed to be consistently misrepresented: that was 50 Shades, which is an outlier in pretty much every way. And a year later, when the furor has died down, I’m seeing more thoughtful responses.

    I don’t know if you remember the controversy over Bitch Magazine’s list of “100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader,” which is summarized by Foz Meadows here:
    http://fozmeadows.wordpress.com/2011/02/02/bitch-magazine-feminist-ya/. Unfortunately, the creator of that list didn’t actually read all the books she recommended, and, well, pandemonium ensued (http://bitchmagazine.org/post/from-the-library-100-young-adult-books-for-the-feminist-reader#comment-45896), because one of the books, Sisters Red (one of the books she hadn’t read), had some major controversy around it regarding the question of whether it promoted rape culture. So, yeah, I think this is a real issue with real implications for the genre.

    In regard to 50, I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “outlier,” because that book has had such a massive impact on the Romance genre and community. Not only does it employ some core tropes, character types, and devices, but it kind of started the P2P parade, crossed-over into mass culture popularity, influenced the content, titles, and covers for so many Romance novels, fractured (or at the very least polarized) the Romance community online, and took what I’d argue is more like two years (it was pubbed in 2011) for us to be able to have anything like a critical discussion of it. Although I think it’s an extreme case, I think it’s also a great example of some of the issues I’m trying to work through, precisely because it’s so overt and far-reaching in its influence and impact.

    And a book getting buzz like this will gain a lot of readers drawn by the controversy, just as it will gain more people who consciously choose not to read it, so there will be more voices in the conversation.

    Maybe. I hope so. Although I think some people have become so frustrated with the polarization that they just don’t talk at all. And, as I said, I think some of this is just natural and inevitable. But I do think there are hidden costs, and they’re hidden because they’re cumulative and diffuse, and we tend not to think or talk about them too much.

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  23. Erin Satie
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 15:58:19

    It sounds to me like the don’t-read-and-discuss crowd is pretty happy with their decision to avoid certain books, and discuss where there is discussion to be had. That makes sense because, in both of those cases, they are making exactly the choices that they prefer.

    But it also sounds to me like the read-and-discuss crowd may not be quite so happy with the same discussions. I’m thinking of Maggie’s comment in particular (#21) — her friend wanted her to read 50 Shades, she chose not to, she thinks their discussions were very good anyhow.

    And I thought to myself: would her friend agree? Did the friend walk away from those discussions as satisfied as Maggie did?

    Because if I were that friend? I wouldn’t feel so content. I’d respect my friend’s choices, for sure. But I’d also feel like I’d wasted my time. Personally, I have never had a really satisfying discussion about a book with someone who has not read the book.

    I think one problem here is that reviews provoke different kinds of discussion. Discussions about themes, tropes, trends, etc. Discussions about the review. But only rarely does a review provoke discussion about the book itself, because discussion about the book…requires multiple people who’ve read and finished the book.

    Anyhow. Just because one party to a conversation is satisfied with with the conversation doesn’t mean all parties are.

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  24. Lindsay
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 15:58:44

    Regarding certain elements (homophobia and spousal abuse being mentioned above) I am extremely grateful for warnings that they are in a book, because I know there is likely no way for that book to be comfortable for me to read, nevermind enjoyable. It might be insightful and well-done but it’s still likely not something I want to read in my free time.

    Those elements may not necessarily merit say, 1-star reviews simply because those elements exist, but because they’re things people feel so strongly about, I can see what you mean Janet/Robin, about it polarizing discussion. For a lot of people, there are things written about in books that aren’t just fiction but someone’s reality, and that’s where it can get really hard and people start to disengage when they’re told they’re wrong for not finding something that happened to them romantic or titillating (and they likely can’t see how anyone would find it either of those).

    I love the discussions in the comments on Dear Author and am grateful for people who are willing to point out problematic elements in books they have read/have heard of, because I would much rather know going in than be blindsided by it. My DNF’s all come from rampant hate speech (one was an ARC I was supposed to review and promote at the bookstore, hoo boy) and I’d rather know going in that there might be things there that I won’t enjoy, and decide for myself if I want to devote the time and effort into it instead of a nice warm bath read. I can understand not wanting discussion of problematic elements to take over the conversation — but again, I’m grateful that people call them out even as possibilities.

    Nobody is going to read the same book the same way, it’s why I look for reviewers (and authors) with similar tastes, but arguing someone is bad for liking a book is a step too far (unless it’s The Game).

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  25. Jenny
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 16:00:30

    I think I have actually said “it sounds like something I’d hate.” Not only have I said it, I also don’t think it’s a big deal or that it will be the downfall of the romance genre.

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  26. Liz Mc2
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 16:51:34

    @Janet/Robin:

    When I say 50 Shades is an outlier, I mean it was a giant best-seller and got so much attention in the media–everyone and their grandmother had an opinion on that book–that that bled over into Romanceland discussions and generated a lot of extra heat. So I don’t think it’s a very helpful example, even though I raised it, because so many factors were at play that often are not in a book discussion.

    I do remember the Bitch/Sisters Red thing. I guess I’m not clear on what you see it as an example of or what impact it had on a genre (on YA?). Is your concern that discussion about the book is now only about rape culture? But those concerns were raised by readers, as well as by people who only knew it through critical reviews. There were plenty of uninformed opinions in various comments on that book and how the list was put together, but there were also *readers* with a variety of viewpoints weighing in, and so there was, as I recall, plenty of thoughtful critical discussion amidst the noise.

    I think the title of your essay is distracting. “Sounds like I’d hate it” is surely just as valid a response to a review as “sounds great! Just bought it!” I’ve never seen anyone object to the latter. “Sounds like I’d hate it” does not pretend to be a critical judgment, just a statement of individual taste, and you say you’re not objecting to that kind of rejection (which we all do and have to do). Is a negative judgment of this kind any worse or more problematic for discussion than a positive one? I can’t see how.

    I think what you’re actually objecting to is comments from non-readers like “Sounds like the portrayal of the gay/disabled/Asian character is problematic; I won’t be reading it” or “Sounds like the hero is an abusive asshole.” I agree that these are more problematic comments, and may ensure that certain issues dominate a conversation and that we lose nuanced readings when those voices are the loudest. I prefer that non-readers ask questions or raise concerns rather than making pronouncements, and that they listen to readers with open minds. Obviously that doesn’t always happen. But it takes two poles to have a polarized discussion, as you acknowledge. Readers who won’t engage with concerns/questions or who remain silent aren’t contributing to a strong critical culture either. Again, no one has to, but I think there are multiple issues at play here.

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  27. Jane
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 17:24:15

    Actually one of the best examples is September Girls. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before. September Girls has the whole YA world in turmoil because some early reviews say it is so anti feminist. The book and the author received a ton of pre pub hate even though many didnt read it.

    Thea and Ana of the Booksmugglers read it and thought it was super subversive. The whole book was an inversion and examination of sex as power.

    Anyway, so many of the reviews and discussion around that book are from people who haven’t read it. But clearly reading the book is important because the whole of it determines what you think of the text and, I guess, the author in this case.

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  28. Maggie
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 17:30:52

    @Erin Satie:

    I suppose I should clarify that my friend wanted me to read 50 Shades so I could firsthand experience the crazysauce, not so much because she loved it and wanted me to share in that with her.

    Though I do take your point that had the situation been different, had she actually really liked it, it may have been hurtful or discussion-ending for me to dismiss it out of hand, but then, I probably wouldn’t use quite the same language to demur…Indeed, I may have, at one point said, “I’d rather watch Fox News, non-stop, for 24 hours.”

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  29. Erin Satie
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 17:58:29

    Maggie — that makes more sense then.

    Though, really, your comment just helped me identify the asymmetry that I’d noticed as I read the other comments. The people who are happiest to discuss books they haven’t read are the people who…haven’t read.

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  30. John
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 19:37:28

    My general opinion on this for a long time has been that, in order to judge a book to the best of one’s ability, one must read it. This does not mean one has to read the book. This does not mean one should read the book. However, I do think that reading the book gives a more developed understanding of what the book does or does not do for one’s argument. I think people that are non-readers give brilliant insight because they can often point things out that are as simple as an issue with the book’s set-up or marketing that would cause discourse that a reader may ignore. Readers have their own biases because they have spent time with the text. This can also mean that readers get overly harsh because they have spent a large amount of time with a disliked text. So, non-reader discussion is important.

    However, I don’t think it’s wrong to admit that, as a reader, I prefer hearing it from the perspective of someone that has read the text to some degree beyond the cover copy and the title. It can still be an issue of interpretation – September Girls is very much that based on what I understand. Hell, I had my own issue of interpretation while reading The Selection and The Elite, another popular YA series. It’s intriguing to discuss those novels when one has read the text because the discussion can really get deep into what the text intends and what it actually does. September Girls had clear intentions that some readers felt were not done well, while others felt that the way they were done made the book amazing. That discussion could not have gotten as complex and enriching as it did if readers hadn’t actively read the book. @Jane: That was a great connection to this post, IMO, because of the recent divide in the way readers have perceived this book.

    I’ve actually read Sisters Red myself and can say that, as a non-reader, I would have either said the book was feminist based on its concept or completely un-feminist because of the negative review examining how it promoted rape culture. Having read it, I can safely argue my point that it does promote rape culture but, more importantly, the intention was feminism gone awry. That book actually had a heap of issues for me: the rapists were always men, the victims always women. There was no crossover, and the metaphor of rapists being werewolves struck me as problematic because it implied an animalistic tone that may have readers believing that the urge to rape/attack is not controllable. My analysis of that book would not have been so enriching for me if I hadn’t read it, but it also wouldn’t have been quite so enriching if I had avoided non-reader and reader discussion prior to it.

    Basically, we need both. There’s no shame in either. I just don’t see why it’s a problem to admit that limiting one’s exposure to text limits certain points of discussion. That doesn’t mean one can’t discuss it well, but it just means that one may find trouble discussing specific aspects without cited examples or emotional reactions to the text. Do readers have the right to say, “Hell, no, I’m not reading that,”? Yes. Do they have the ability and intelligence to figure out if another person’s reaction and thought process would resemble their own in reading? Yes. Does that mean that it’s the same as reading the book for themselves? Probably not. As long as we make it clear that discussion in either case is of equal value regardless of its perspective, then I think we’ll be fine.

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  31. Brie
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 19:57:30

    I think that serious critical discussions do require reading the book first (the September Girls example is a great one). But ultimately, everyone can join the conversation, especially when it’s addressing broader issues that are part of the book. If someone hasn’t read the book, but has personal experiences that may enrich the discussion, offer a different point of view and shine light onto problematic issues that others might have missed, then we should welcome those voices.

    Also, most of these discussions originate as part of a book review, and one of the goals of reviews is to offer information so that people can decide whether to read the book or not. It’s not the only goal, and perhaps not even the main one, but it’s certainly part of why we review (at least part of why I do it). So to me “that sounds like someone I would hate” is an expected and valid reaction.

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  32. Nae
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 20:40:10

    I just wanted to add my 2cents in here.

    I’ve found as ebooks have trended that I judge books (to read or not?) quite differently. I used to go to the library, look at covers and blurbs and pick things that I might like. I might take them home and read them, or I might leave them. I didn’t follow authors or new releases.

    But now I find myself thinking that there is so much out there that I don’t have time in my life to read books, that I don’t find pleasure in reading. I think I’m a harsher judge now. I’ve found myself reading more recommendations from trusted friends and bloggers, I don’t read teasers and most times I don’t read the blurb. I follow my ‘trusted’ authors and their series and I find it very hard to ‘trust’ my reading pleasure to a new author that hasn’t been vetted through my processes.

    re: Judging books I haven’t read. I don’t usually participate in conversations about them because I haven’t read ‘the book’. I don’t want to put my judgements on why I haven’t read ‘this book’ out there. I really like making my own choice on what to read and I don’t want to discourage others from it, because I haven’t read whatever book and I don’t feel that my opinion should be trusted like that when I haven’t read it.
    (I hope that made sense). :)

    This is a very thought provoking post, great work.

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  33. Janine
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 20:53:12

    I’ve definitely been known to say “That doesn’t sound like my cuppa” or “I don’t think that book is for me.” And while I don’t disagree that there is a tragedy of commons there (love that you’ve given me that term) I also agree that we can’t take away the validity of such a response.

    What I wonder is how much the human need for connection plays into this. Because I know I’ve been in conversations (especially on Twitter) where someone else was ranting about a book I had not read, and partly because their description of it was unappealing, but also partly out of a desire to commiserate, I’ve said something like “I don’t think it’s for me” or “Doesn’t sound like my cuppa.”

    Maybe I’m second-guessing myself too much, but I know that it’s often my instinctive response when someone else is upset, to say something that makes them feel better.

    And conversely, when I love a book I know to be problematic and one that will offend some readers (it’s happened to me with Pacat’s Captive Prince and with Gaffney’s To Have and to Hold) it can take a lot of emotional energy for me to stand my ground and say why I loved the book.

    And when I do the latter, it’s often because I’m convinced that if I loved a book so much others will as well and I want those others to know about the book and to find it and read it.

    Lately I have noticed that this is getting harder for me — probably because of the contentiousness you’ve mentioned.

    I myself bring up problematic aspects of books all the time, both in reviews and in other contexts. And I don’t want the freedom to do this to be taken away from me, or from anyone else either. So I’m not sure what the solution is.

    But it’s a dilemma for sure, because you can’t take the need for a sense of connection out of a community, since that’s what makes for a community in the first place.

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  34. Jill Sorenson
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 21:00:46

    I don’t think it’s possible to predict a reader reaction with any accuracy, no matter how trusted the reviewer. It’s easier to find a good book through a reviewer with similar tastes–this is true. But you never know for sure. I’ve hated books that many of my top reviewers loved. We’re all individuals and no one’s tastes align perfectly. My best friend and I might love 9/10 of the same books, but we also might have opposite opinions of a book like September Girls.

    Is there any such thing as literary intuition? Because sometimes I feel quite strongly that I will hate a book, based on reviews (positive or negative). Usually it’s a combination of “trusted” reviewer and text excerpt. Often a reviewer cites evidence I find persuasive. Other times I’m unconvinced, and view the argument as one of many possible interpretations.

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  35. Kaetrin
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 22:23:35

    @John: Well said John, I agree.

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  36. Kaetrin
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 22:39:01

    @Brie: Yes, I find the most helpful reviews for me are the ones which give me enough information to help me decide whether or not I would like it. There are so many books out there, reviews from trusted sources are something of a gatekeeper for me. There are plenty of times I’ve said “nope, not for me, thanks for the review.”

    While I understand Robin’s point that “our individual needs and rights may be in conflict with other “goods” “, I don’t feel any particular obligation to read a book which doesn’t appeal to me (not that I think Robin is suggesting I (or anyone) ought to, merely pointing out a possible consequence). I accept the trade off that if I haven’t read the book, I may not be able to participate in discussions of it to the same degree/in the same way as if I had read it. I agree with the general comment that the opinions of both non-readers and readers have value – the relative value will depend on the nature of the discussion I think – I don’t think the value is static.

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  37. Ren
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 06:53:48

    I wonder how much of the Read-It objection Didn’t-Read-It involvement is related to the DRIs responding to what the RIs have said rather than to the book, which makes it a much more personal discussion–you show up to talk about worldbuilding, and five comments later, your own worldview is on trial, and you can’t redirect the attention of a portion of the crowd back to the safety of the book because the book never had their attention to begin with.

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  38. Jane
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 09:58:15

    @John – that’s a great point about the discussion around the book enriching our own reading of the book. There are definite turn offs for me in a book and when I see those triggers in a review, I’ll often avoid the book entirely. I’ve made comments before to wit: Ugh, I can’t stand this storyline.

    But beyond having an emotional response (negative or positive) to elements of a book I’ve seen in reviews or comments, I don’t feel like I can contribute to a book’s meaningful examination without having read it.

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  39. hapax
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 13:12:51

    Appropos of this discussion, I just came across this charming list:
    http://bookriot.com/2013/06/19/the-25-most-hated-books/

    Absolute anecdata of course, but I’m willing to bet that a fair number of these “hate” votes were for books the person hadn’t actually read.

    But I’ll bet that even MORE of them were for books that the person *had* read (and even read intensively) but under unfavorable circumstances: e.g., being “forced” to read a book for a high school English class or book club.

    Which makes me think that “reading the book before criticizing it” isn’t as useful a distinction as all that; for example, even if forced at gunpoint I doubt I could read, say, SAVE THE PEARLS (no link, Google if you *must* know) for any purpose other than ammunition to more thoroughly trash it.

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  40. Janet/Robin
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 13:27:20

    @John: Your comment reminded me of when Claiming the Courtesan was released and the backlash in the Romance community from those who felt it promoted rape. Some people who read it felt it did; others (like me) felt it did not. But I do think the controversial signal was boosted, so to speak, from people who had not read it, but who had heard it had forced sex. And, as I’ve said, I think a lot of that is normal reader behavior. But it’s interesting to see how individual voices accumulate, and how the accumulated signal can, in its own way, substitute for a discussion of the actual book. Like you, I love book discussion, although I certainly don’t think everyone who participates needs to have read the book.

    But since the publication of 50 Shades, especially, I do feel like there are fewer book-based discussions in the Romance community, even though we are often still talking *about* books (if that makes sense). I’ve heard from more than a few people that they feel the same way, and some have backed away from the community because of it. And we could have an interesting discussion on what the effects of this have been on the *community.* One of the reasons I focused my post on the *genre* is that I don’t know what the effects are/are going to be, and yet, given the fact that the community seems more fractured and frustrated right now, I can’t help but think that will ultimately echo into the genre itself, especially since so many authors are immersed in the community, in part as readers themselves.

    @Liz Mc2:

    When I say 50 Shades is an outlier, I mean it was a giant best-seller and got so much attention in the media–everyone and their grandmother had an opinion on that book–that that bled over into Romanceland discussions and generated a lot of extra heat. So I don’t think it’s a very helpful example, even though I raised it, because so many factors were at play that often are not in a book discussion.

    Ah, okay. Thanks for clarifying. I still don’t think I agree, because the book started getting “a lot of extra heat” way before it became a mega-bestseller – before it sold to Vintage, actually. Initially it was derided because it was P2P, and that really got people pissed off. So it may have gotten even more so once it crossed over, but for me just makes it one of the most obvious examples, not an exception.

    I do remember the Bitch/Sisters Red thing. I guess I’m not clear on what you see it as an example of or what impact it had on a genre (on YA?).

    I don’t know what the ultimate effect(s) of that incident is or is going to be. What I think makes it relevant is that a prominent magazine that people trusted as intellectually responsible used second-hand information to put a book list together which was meant to be representative and even advisory (for feminist readers, which also makes it of political importance). Then, when told about the controversy over several books, it pulled those books off the list. That, for me, suggests a comfort level with substituting other people’s judgment about books at an extremely high level, in ways that bloody the water around the books themselves, and earnest, thoughtful critique of them apart from that controversy.

    And I think that incident is reflective of some of the things that have been happening in Romance. Namely, that we seem to be having more conversations about issues and fewer conversations about books (even this op ed is an example of that!). And there is a substantial and substantive difference between conversations about issues and conversations about books. I’m not ranking them in value; I’m just saying that IMO the community has gotten more comfortable substituting one for the other, even though we often appear to be talking *about* books.

    I think the title of your essay is distracting. “Sounds like I’d hate it” is surely just as valid a response to a review as “sounds great! Just bought it!” I’ve never seen anyone object to the latter. “Sounds like I’d hate it” does not pretend to be a critical judgment, just a statement of individual taste, and you say you’re not objecting to that kind of rejection (which we all do and have to do). Is a negative judgment of this kind any worse or more problematic for discussion than a positive one? I can’t see how.

    I understand your concern about the title. I did think about it for a while — did it reflect what I wanted it to — and I ultimately decided to use it because I wanted to start out by emphasizing how common these judgments are, and that on an individual level, they appear to serve us in many productive ways. As I said to John, though, it’s how/when/in what ways individual choices and comments accumulate, and how/when/to what effect those cumulative signals resonate back into genre books that I wanted to move toward in the piece itself.

    I think what you’re actually objecting to is comments from non-readers like “Sounds like the portrayal of the gay/disabled/Asian character is problematic; I won’t be reading it” or “Sounds like the hero is an abusive asshole.” I agree that these are more problematic comments, and may ensure that certain issues dominate a conversation and that we lose nuanced readings when those voices are the loudest. I prefer that non-readers ask questions or raise concerns rather than making pronouncements, and that they listen to readers with open minds. Obviously that doesn’t always happen. But it takes two poles to have a polarized discussion, as you acknowledge. Readers who won’t engage with concerns/questions or who remain silent aren’t contributing to a strong critical culture either. Again, no one has to, but I think there are multiple issues at play here.

    Oh, I agree that there are many issues in play; I have not argued otherwise.

    But this isn’t really about “objecting,” but rather of asking questions about what happens when we shift away from reading and talking about books, and then, mixed into that, talking about issues that are in books, without actually examining the books themselves. As I said in my post, “I do believe strongly that critical debate and analysis is essential to the way the genre shifts and evolves,” and yet it’s often the book that have the most controversial — and therefore important — devices, tropes, characters, etc. where you see a lot of that controversy being boosted by people who are not engaging the actual book. And I so get it; I get the frustration, I get the ‘no fucking way am I reading that’ reaction, or the ‘I’m so sick of X’ lament — because I often feel that way myself. But I also think that what are completely valid reactions and choices on the individual level accumulate and resonate through the genre itself. Are the effects easily discernible? I don’t know. But I do think the next five years or so are going to be interesting, given the numerous shifts and eruptions in the community. Will there be some positive effects? Most definitely. Will there be costs? Most definitely. Will we be able to easily measure the costs? Maybe not. But let’s just take one of the most obvious manifestations of this disengagement, i.e. when you’ve got certain issues in the genre that readers feel have not historically been handled well. That, in turn, can lead readers to disengage from other books with those issues, which sets up a dilemma. Because those, IMO, are the books — and the issues — that benefit from the most careful, text-based critique. Are readers *responsible* for doing that work? I don’t think so. But there may be costs associated with not doing it that play out in the genre itself. Authors and publishers tell us over and over again that readers drive the market. And if that’s even a little bit true, I’d say it’s not at all unreasonable to start asking some of these questions — if only to decide whether we’re happy with how everything is (both in terms of books and the community).

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  41. Molly O'Keefe
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 19:27:18

    I do this so much more than I used to – probably because the criticism and review of the genre has reached a whole new level. But I am bothered when a conversation gets derailed by a bunch of us who haven’t actually read the book. I am guilty and bothered.

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  42. Melissa Blue
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 21:42:55

    I was just thinking Claiming the Courtesan was a good example of this. There was great loud noise when that book hit. What I remember most were the discussions about it. What is forced seduction? Is still rape? When it is ok? Is it ever ok? Now I’m a fan of historical romance. I cut my teeth on the old school ones where rape was used as a device to make it ok for sex to happen. I’m still trying to remember the Catherine Coulter book where the heroine rapes the hero to consummate the marriage for their own good. Yeah.

    So, after reading most of the discussions, I walked into that book braced for some graphic, horrible and mind-numbing rape scenes. Now having cut my teeth on those romances of old, I walked away with my own perception. I could understand why some people would never read the book. Why some could never condone it. But, honestly, the discussions of the book surrounded around that one thing and the book was so much more than that.

    Now, if not for those discussions I don’t think I’d have ever heard of the book. I probably wouldn’t have been curious enough to see for myself what was the big whoop. But, I see your point in that, after having read it, I want to talk about the book and I can only do that with other people who have read it. I don’t want to go round for round about forced seduction. I want to talk about the hero’s redemption arc. Was it enough? Did you buy because I did. OMG, did you love the heroine too?

    Both discussions are important and vital. Yet, sometimes you want to talk about the actual book and not the book that people believe it to be. There’s a big difference in I hate that trope, this doesn’t sound like my cuppa and I wanted to burn my kindle when I got to that one scene, I mentally wrote the author a love letter at this line. I am troubled at the belief that we’re starting to discuss books more at a conceptual level than being right there on the ground floor, because publishing is an ecosystem.

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  43. Lia
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 23:13:53

    Robin/Janet, once again: you rock the topic. And thanks for making me think about books — about romance.

    You used a couple of books as examples, and I’m going to base my response to my initial impression of them — I’ve read neither, BTW. The Riggs book sounds abhorrent, and no, I would not read it. Last night, I sat in a committee room listening to women give tearful testimony about being date-raped and then seeking out abortions; so it’s the combination of a violation of the law of the land coupled with the realistic outcome of this situation (in real life) that triggers a big “Hell, no!” on this one. Objectively, rape is quite harmful. Objectively, rape is illegal. Objectively, (most) women do not want to bear their rapists’ child.

    The Donovan book, OTOH, makes me curious; the way you describe the heroine is such that I perceive her infidelity as part of the flawed human condition — an isolated mistake borne out of desperation, perhaps. I find that I want to know more about her. I want to know why she would agree to marry a man she didn’t find sexually attractive. What’s that story? I may or may not like the book, but I’d be willing to give it a read because nothing about it is too terribly offensive. Of women’s many hurdles to achieving equality with men — respect among men — marrying Mr. Milquetoast hasn’t been one of them, IMHO.

    I think that “Something I’d Probably Hate” is arbitrary and highly subjective for the most part. When I consider the plot devices in books that might be controversial, I ask myself if it promotes/glorifies issues that a large number of women have an ongoing struggle with (date/acquaintance rape) or if the issue is more benign, such as that in the Donovan book. But that’s just me. :)

    Again, thanks for the great think piece!

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  44. GrowlyCub
    Jul 04, 2013 @ 22:21:50

    @Lia: The Riggs book is actually an excellent emotional read about perception, guilt and things young people do that leave them horrified with themselves.

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  45. Willaful
    Jul 09, 2013 @ 19:00:32

    I’m reading the Riggs right now and pretty disgusted that the heroine talks herself into believing that what happened was inevitable and thus okay. I’m down with forgiveness, but that really burns my toast.

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