When The Personal Becomes Professional
We talk a lot here about what it means to be a Romance reader, but not as much about what it means to be an author. For example, what does it mean to be an “aspiring author”? In an academic context, anyone who writes something is an author. So does it mean that the person aspires to become a “professional author”? That makes sense if the meaning of professional author is someone who writes for commercial profit. In that sense, author is one’s profession, even if it’s not the only job or career the author may have.
Still, there seems to be a lot of confusion around the word “professional,” especially as it relates to codes of conduct, ethics, and values. Beyond the basic meaning of “professional author” as “writing for money,” is there a shared set of principles with which Romance authors identify? For example, if plagiarism is a violation of professional ethics, how is it that an author like Janet Dailey could get a robust publishing contract after her incident with Nora Roberts? And if “being nice” is a professional value, why don’t we hold publishers and editors to the same standard? Aren’t they professionals within the same arena? More often than not, I feel like the personal is being interpreted as professional, and the professional passed off as personal. And I wonder what the effect of this reversal is on the genre itself and the craft of Romance writing.
Let’s start with that ubiquitous phrase, “professional courtesy.” That phrase, especially, seems to be a euphemism for “be nice” or “be quiet,” and an attempt to convert a personal reaction (potentially hurt feelings) into a professional value. For example, newly published author Elizabeth Vail, aka AnimeJune, was recently live tweeting her reactions to SEP’s Nobody’s Baby But Mine. Author Olivia Kelly (among others) was very vocal in her criticism of the live tweeting. I encourage you to read the whole thing, because it’s too long to repeat in total here, but some of her comments are as follows:
@IsobelCarr @sabrinajeffries I think reviews are fine. I think hard reviews are even fine. I think nasty, rude & tearing people down is not.
— Olivia Kelly (@OliviaKelly_) November 7, 2013
@OliviaKelly_ @IsobelCarr I see it as professional courtesy. Doctors don’t publicly diss other doctors. I’m all for honest reviews but…
— Sabrina Jeffries (@SabrinaJeffries) November 7, 2013
@IsobelCarr @sabrinajeffries Again, I didn’t stick around. So, maybe I’m wrong for that. But why would I, after seeing a few nasty tweets?
— Olivia Kelly (@OliviaKelly_) November 7, 2013
As you can see, other authors like Isobel Carr pushed back, and Kelly had to admit that she only saw a couple of tweets. Which brings up an interesting question about making judgments without considering the entirety of an opinion.
However, what I’m specifically interested in here is the question of “professionalism,” or as Sabrina Jeffries refers to it, “professional courtesy,” in regard to authors criticizing the work of other authors. Jeffries uses the example of physicians not publicly criticizing each other, but I think the more apt comparison is authors in other genres, who regularly review and critique one another. Or scholars who endlessly debate ideas as a way to deepen shared knowledge, understanding, and intellectual innovation. Or attorneys. Jane has made a very compelling argument about how attorneys make their living arguing with each other and using myriad strategies to reign supreme over their peers. Politicians routinely criticize each other’s views, and their disagreements are based on the perception of what constitutes the common good. Although cynicism has become rampant in our contemporary political environment, the US presidential debates have been around for more than 150 years as a crucial way for people to make informed voting choices. In other words, peers in many professions, especially professions involving art and ideas, have employed disagreement as a critical professional tool. So is it the professional or the personal at stake here? And why is the focus on withholding criticism rather than on engaging it productively?
Ruthie Knox addressed the professionalism issue from the opposite direction in a blog post detailing her weariness with thinking of herself as a “brand.”
So. To return to the point: I was a reader and an editor and an analyst and a writer before I became an Author. Writers write books, but Authors have Readers. Once you become an Author, you are, suddenly, a “brand.” You are encouraged, in order to sell books, to behave in particular ways. You are flooded with advice: do this, don’t do that, never say that, don’t talk about X, don’t forget to talk about Y, promote this thing on your Facebook, and hey, will you read this book and blurb it, maybe, for this person you’ve never met?
When you become an Author, you have to decide how you want to negotiate a hundred different sorts of situations. You have to consider how you want to behave and what kinds of ramifications your behavior will have. You have to think about your work and the reception of your work and the sales of your work, and at the same time you have to think about your feelings and your principles and your needs as a human being.
All of that. Every day.
Or else you have to opt to NOT think about it for your own sanity, which is also a thing you’ve thought about and decided.
Now, I am, as I said, thirty-six. I’m an adult and a professional. I’m educated and intelligent. I have thought about all of these things, and I have made choices. My choices aren’t secrets, but at the same time, I don’t believe I’m obligated to make them transparent to anyone. Ask me, if you want. Maybe I’ll tell you. Maybe I won’t. But it’s worth remembering that opacity isn’t the same thing as thoughtlessness.
I quickly want to address her last point, because I haven’t seen anyone assert that opacity is the equivalent of thoughtlessness. In fact, I don’t think thoughtlessness is really the issue, except in so far as someone may not be giving thought to the perception of a conflict of interest, which, of course, is a large part of the rationale behind disclosure. I mean, how many of us really believe that we cannot make an intelligent, reasoned, judgment about a friend’s fantabulous, everyone-needs-to-read-it book? Transparency is not an admission of bias or wrongdoing; it is information provided so that another person can make an intelligent, reasoned judgment about the recommendation. It’s not meant to be Crime and Punishment.
And again, I encourage you to read the entirety of the essay, but I think that excerpt is pretty much the heart of Knox’s position, which for me breaks down to this: I don’t think I need to tell you anything I don’t want to when I recommend a book. And you know what? I think she’s right. She has the right to disclose or not, as she chooses. However (you knew it was coming, didn’t you?), there are costs to this decision, and those costs are going to be largely unseen by the author, either because the reader does not know the author’s policy on disclosure, or because she will disagree without explanation to the author. And maybe an author who shares Knox’s viewpoint will be fine with that. Maybe she just doesn’t care that for some readers, telling them it’s none of their business whether she has a personal relationship with an author whose book she recommends is itself sufficient disclosure. But here’s the rub: the reader who trusts Knox’s recommendations has likely gained that trust because of the Ruthie Knox brand. That is, Knox has built up a certain amount of trust with readers because she has written books professionally in the same genre, and thus can be perceived to be an authority in the genre. Consequently, Knox is trading on the professional value of her brand, even when she makes what she wants others to see as a personal recommendation.
So why did the controversy about Elizabeth Vail’s live tweeting remind me of the Knox essay? Because while reading Kelly’s tweets it dawned on me that recommending a book and criticizing a book are fundamentally related (I’m tempted to say philosophically identical, but I’ll spare myself the argument here), and both implicate the personal as much as the professional. And in both cases, the concept of “professional” overlaps and perhaps even becomes confused with the personal.
Let me break that down a little.
First, I think there is a tendency to characterize recommending a book as benign – nice words spoken about a book, or a desire to share a positive reading experience, for example. However, as we know, recommendations are fraught with author politics. How many recommendations are given at the behest of an author, editor, or publisher, and therefore constitute a professional courtesy? How much does one author’s name blurbed on another’s book translate into sales, and therefore represent value and currency among readers? Then there is the paid review, which creates the illusion of authentic appreciation for a book, an illusion that must be maintained precisely because it’s not the “like” that’s important to other readers, but the implication of honesty behind it. I have seen many authors insist that positive reviews are crucial to book sales, and we have seen cases where authors anonymously criticize their perceived rivals’ books and recommend their own.
In other words, recommending books, even very nicely, is as much a professional as a personal act.
The same is true for criticizing books; it is both a professional and personal activity, and when people call it “unprofessional,” isn’t what they really mean is that it can hurt one’s personal feelings? For example, when Kelly refers to AnimeJune’s tweets as “nasty,” as “trashing,” and as “tearing people down,” I expect to see insults hurled at SEP as a person. Which I just did not see. Yes, she was harsh and snarky about the book. And yes, SEP’s name is attached to that book, because it’s part of her professional brand. But if snarky tweeting about a book is “tearing people down,” what do we make of the I Hate United Airlines Facebook page? Why does it not occur to us to defend the employee-owners of United against “mean” comments? What, in the professional code for authors, makes books a different kind of product than a restaurant, an airlines, a cable company, a vacuum manufacturer, or any other thousands of products that are routinely mocked, criticized, given poor reviews, and blamed for all sorts of consumer woes?
Olivia Waite wrote an interesting essay in which she argues that one should only “punch up” in criticism. I’m not sure I agree with her there (and her heretical disdain for The Doors is unforgivable!), but I think she hits on something very important here:
But perhaps you, fellow author, are big potatoes. Perhaps you are an author so well-known and established that I can refer to you by the three letters of your initials, or simply your first name, and people will know at once who I’m talking about. Perhaps you were a bit stung that someone from a much less rarefied position in the book world had expressed displeasure at one part of your life’s work, and you expressed that hurt publicly. You have every right to do so — speaking short, brutal truths is precisely what Twitter is for.
But I’m not part of your sisterhood. I’m going to be over here, reading those snarky tweets and gleefully agreeing with them. Not because I’m jealous of success and need to see big names cast down — but rather because I don’t believe negative reactions automatically have negative effects. Because I believe the culture of positivity is often suffocating and silencing, and I have been silent longer than I’d like. If we allow ourselves only nice things to say, we shortchange ourselves, our readers, and our genre. If we don’t talk about what books let us down, we’re going to find it harder to talk about what books lift us up. Criticism is a muscle and it needs balanced exercise.
I think it is important to note that harsh criticism can be and most often is hurtful, even for those who come from a place of substantial success. On the flip side, it can feel good personally to boost the professional success of a friend. And perhaps because of that sense of empathy, some people will hold their tongue in fear that they will hurt someone else’s feelings. But when this personal perception becomes reified into professional protocol, what are the effects on the actual professional work?
Is it a burden to have to think of oneself as a brand? Sure. But it’s also an opportunity. I know that some authors are afraid to lose readers and/or collegiality by saying something alienating. Erin Satie wrote a very thoughtful essay on her decision to no longer review negatively, and while I understand her decision, I have to say that as a reader it disappoints me. I am always enriched by the insights my own author friends have about books, because the perspective of a craftsperson has prompted me to think about a book in an entirely different way. And these new insights, in turn, deepen my appreciation for books I admire, even as they may open my eyes to issues I had not previously seen, both positive and negative.
When I think of professional values and protocol, and even of professional courtesies, I think of things that will strengthen the craft, the community, and the genre. And you know, there are personal aspects to the way people interact in a professional environment. However, so many times when I run across these discussions of what constitutes “professional” behavior, it seems more personal than anything. Take, for example, the irony of publicly criticizing an author for publicly criticizing a book. Or what about the personal recommendation that has clout because of the professional value of the recommending author’s name? Clearly there are professional issues that persist despite the assertion of a personal act.
Within this context, the confusion between the personal and professional may not seem like such a big deal. But I think they are important, and moreover, I think their importance is magnified when you move into accusations of reader “bullying.” I’m going to save that part of the argument until next time, but in the meantime, tell me: What do you think it means to be a “professional author,” and what kinds of behavior and values do you expect from authors who write for commercial profit (if any)?
When Jeffries lays down a certain maxim for professionalism – don’t criticize your peers – I wonder what authors deem to be the entirety of professional conduct. I mean, what’s the guide? Is it just “be nice.” Because the whole thing seems to foster a spirit of cronyism and favor currying. Is that the professionalism that authors should strive toward?
The other thing is that I hadn’t read the Ruthie Knox thing before and I have to ask why transparency – hey, this book is written by a friend but I love it – is so hard. Like what is she losing by revealing that?
I see no reason why authors shouldn’t publicly state their opinion of other writers’ works. I’m 100% against the culture of “Be nice,” that’s so prevalent in the erotic romance world. If I don’t like a book, I have as much right to say so as someone who is purely a reader alone.
Because writers ARE also readers; we were before we were published, after all, weren’t we?
I’ve always said that to tell authors they shouldn’t voice their opinions on other people’s books is to deprive them of the freedom of speech granted to readers and reviewers everywhere.
If someone’s so precious that they can’t stand criticism from another author, their EQUAL, they probably shouldn’t be in this business. After all, who’s in a better position to give their opinion on a romance novel, than someone who makes romance novels their very business?
I’m not going to pretend I love all erotic romance books just in case a fellow writer gets butthurt about my little ol’ opinion. I don’t. And if someone is vocal about their negative opinions, surely that makes their positive opinions and recommendations more obviously sincere?
Lastly, I just don’t trust authors/reviewers who refuse to give negative reviews. If you don’t tell me about books you dislike, how do I know you genuinely like this or that novel? How am I supposed to know what your standard of judgement is? “I will only review positively,” sounds an awful lot to me like that old bugbear “Be nice.” I’ve had 5-star reviews from people who give EVERYONE 5-star reviews, and such reviews mean nothing to me. If there’s no discrimination, how can there also be discernment?
I guess I would say the context and purpose of the mention or review of the book is very important. I write for a group blog “Lady Smut,” and we decided not to write negative reviews, not because of cronyism or anything like that. But, as book authors ourselves, we know the heart and soul that goes into writing most books and we respect anybody who does it–just because they DO it. Also, there’s such a subjective quality to reading taste. But our blog is not a review blog, per se. If we were a blog focused on reviews, there’d have to be some negative ones, I’m sure. As a writer, hell as a person, I just think it’s bad form to be publicly bashing colleagues. At the same time, I expect some negative review of my own work–realizing that it’s simply not going to be everybody’s thing. It’s just a part of the business.
This is a tough one. I was reading a book yesterday by an author I know and it was a DNF for me. I ended up removing it from my Goodreads list rather than leave a one star review. Maybe it was just me–other people at GR seemed to like it just fine. I wasn’t under any obligation to review, other than as a general reader who sometimes rates and reviews books, and I didn’t see any value in my leaving a negative review.
So, I’m conflicted. Yes, I’m still a reader as well as a writer, but I understand that sometimes it’s good to step away from the keyboard. I once had a boss who would say, “Darlene believes everyone is entitled to her opinion.” I like to think I learned from that experience and now ask myself more often, “Is my opinion on this going to add anything to the discussion?”
And there, I just gave you my opinion. You’re welcome.[g]
@Liz Everly: I know all about the work that goes into writing a book – because I’ve done it. Time and time again. I still don’t think that means anyone owes me a positive review out of some misguided sense of sympathy. No-one asks me to write the books I do and when they shell out their hard-earned cash they buy 1) my book and 2) the right to have an opinion on it. And I certainly don’t owe anyone loyalty just because they happen to share the same job.
As Jane says as long as the author is honest and there’s full disclosure in her “review” of her sorority’s sister’s wonderful book (the best thing since the Bible! Seriously!) then no problem. As a reader, I won’t take the so-called review seriously, but that’s MY perogative. All this talk about professionalism is just a lot of blah blah blah, when really what we are talking about is ethics, pure and simple. Its wrong to pass off as real reviews, those writings which are just “helping out my best friend.” I HATE that. I also hate the idea that writers can’t snark, criticize, debate, argue about other writers’ works. Please. I sometimes wonder if all this emphasis on “community” is just hugely detrimental to intellectual growth in writers. Do we want to be real authors and writers and wade into the fray or do we want to stay in our corner, snivellling and lashing out like wounded animals when anyone hurts our (or our friends’) feelings? No reader or WRITER is ever obligated to like your book, or say nice things, or be silent. Please, please authors stop trying to shush fellow authors. Engage in debate, but don’t
shut down debate with calls to niceness and “unprofessionalism.”
I find the real negative reviews by the authors to be of the immense value (because I have read some reviews by the authors which made me scratch my head and wonder whether the review was written in good faith). They know about craft so much more than I do and can point things I may not notice at all, so yeah I guess I wish more authors would review the books they disliked as well, because really otherwise their positive recommendations hold little to no value to me as a reader.
Well, my opinion on this is certainly not fair to authors, but I’ll try to explain.
When I see an author review a book, if it’s positive, that’s fine but if it’s negative, I immediately compare their writing to the author’s they’re criticizing, and if I think the reviewer is mediocre, I’ll probably think they’re jealous and/or bitter. It kinda turns me off.
I’ll give an example: there’s a specific author (sometimes commenting here) that often mocks other authors’ historical inaccuracies, inconsciously presenting herself as the queen of everything well researched. Well, I’ve read her books, and although they’re probably historically accurate ( I’m no expert), they’re also dull as rain and those Regency/Victorian novels she was so gleefully destroying are much better books.
Chuck Wendig has a post called “Why I don’t like to negatively review other authors’ books,” that’s really interesting:
@Scarlett Parrish: @Scarlett Parrish: I’m not suggesting we owe “sympathy,” I’m suggesting mutual respect. I’ve learned a lot from negative reviews and I think there’s a place for them–much depends on the context and the tone of the review.
@Donna Thorland: Love that Donna, and once again, he puts into words my thoughts exactly. (Much better than I could at this time of morning. More coffee, please.)
This essay has me thinking (and not working on my NaNo project). I come at this author thing from years in the not-for profit work world. There, professional courtesy meant you in no way would publically run down or denigrate a fellow non-profit organization or staff person. Never send an email critical of a decision regarding a museum exhibit, write a scathing review of bad labels or lighting, etc. That was left to the professional reviewers/arbiters of the field, not the fellow designers or writers of other organizations. That doesn’t meant there was no criticism, but it wasn’t put out there for the whole world to see and pass along. When the public views a museum exhibit, they are unlikely to notice the temperature and humidity gauges hidden in the corners, or note which font was used for the labels like I do. A member of the public’s impression of said exhibit will likely be vastly different than my own.
That’s where I think ‘author’ professionalism is a murky subject. As an author, I’m on my own. I don’t work for an organization that directs my work, or signs my paycheck. There’s no committee signing off on every word I write and no one else to share the heat when criticism comes my way. A reader has every right to tear apart a book, but they are unlikely to equally criticize the editors or publishing house, so it feels a bit more personal.
I accept that once I signed that contract to publish my book, it was no longer my own. It became a product to sell, a commodity just like my author ‘brand’. Some will feel they got a good value for their money, others will feel it wasn’t a good purchase.
Truly ‘professional’ authors should be able to ‘review’ other authors books and even be snarky while they’re at it, BUT this can turn into a slippery slope. IMO there just aren’t that many ‘professional’ authors out there anymore. With the flood of SPAs in recent years, many of which do not feel the need for professional ethics (ie. attacking negative reader reviews, slamming other authors’ work for personal reasons, creating sock puppets to review their own books or negatively review other authors books, etc.) it’s not possible to do much of this without tons of hurt feelings. Not to mention there’s been a few of longtime mainstream authors who have felt the need to ‘speak up’ in ‘defense’ of their craft also.
I don’t have a huge problem with recommendations by authors, of their friends books but I do not think authors in the same genres should publicly review those books as it starts to look like a shill or tit for tat. While the sisterhood aspect that seems to have emerged in the last few years with the recent wave of new authors is really, um, cute and sweet (at times), it also gets wearing to read some author blogs and see nothing but ‘recommendations’ for their cohorts books.
ETA: I can’t see the tweets and I couldn’t find them when I googled. I like a good snarkfest (even about one of my favorite author’s books) so would love to be able to see. ;o)
Every time I read about the culture of nice in writing (esp the ‘nice girl’s club) I think of this author vs author article. In writing, butthurt happens, if you can’t deal with it, then go do something else.
Authors negatively (or even positively!) reviewing authors (whether they know them or not) carries no “win” for the author-reviewer that is greater than the risk/loss that goes with it.
The analogy to the nonprofit by @Lynn Rae is apt.
Honestly? The dictum “Be nice” isn’t about professionalism OR ethics — it’s about marketing.
It pretty much comes down to “I won’t diss you, so you don’t diss me” and “If I say something bad about Popular Author’s books, her fans won’t buy mine.” Plus, a positive cover blurb gets your name Out There.
Marketing is important and necessary, no doubt, but let’s not pretend it has any sort of moral value.
@Moriah Jovan: No advantage other than their right to exercise free speech which is given to any other non-author reviewer.
TYPO: reentry = recently (I think, though reentry is funny in context).
This is key for me, but perhaps that’s because I come from an academic background (philosophy and poetry) where peers do review their fellows and where “nice” doesn’t equate to “professional”. And where, in actuality, the professional rivalries can get pretty damn nasty without anyone playing the “Mother Rabbit” card.
I’d REALLY like to see romance authors review books on a regular basis (without backlash). I’d like to see such reviews viewed as a normal part of the profession. I seriously believe that one of the (many) reasons romance doesn’t get taken seriously is that we don’t foster a professional, bookish environment. Just look at RWA, it often gets treated more like a social club than a professional organization (and yeah, this is not the first time I’ve complained about that).
And this, in a nutshell, is why most of us don’t give negative reviews. Readers who’ve never written a book are allowed to say why a book didn’t work for them, but when an author does so, she’s either a bitch punching down or it’s sourgrapes. Which puts us right back where we started with authors being dissuaded from reviewing because people (readers as well as fellow authors) find it “unprofessional”.
@CK: And really, what are authors afraid of when it comes to reviewing or voicing their opinions? That people won’t like them any more? Who cares?
That they won’t be able to sell further books to their publishers? I sold a book last week, so that puts that theory to bed.
It’s up to the individual what they do as regards reviews and being “nice” (and Lord, how I hate that word), but let’s not pretend it’s professional to keep our mouths shut. I think it’s more professional to tell stories and voice opinions without cowering in the corner, scared of retribution.
As Junne’s comment suggests, I doubt whether it’s a question of professionalism at all; it’s a matter of good sense.
@Scarlett Parrish: Just because one CAN say it doesn’t mean one SHOULD.
I’m interested in ME. I am not interested in exercising my right to free expression in romancelandia just to prove I can exercise my right to free expression in romancelandia, particularly when that may harm ME and MY interests more than it does me any good.
It’s just not that deep for me, either the principle or the act of doing it or the book itself.
I’m a huge fan of Elizabeth Vail’s blog and we’re Twitter friends because I love her brand of snark – especially her recurring satirical posts on how authors should handle negative reviews (let that irony settle in for a second…). I find Vail’s book reviews – whether “straight” or sarcastic – to be fun, insightful and honest, and I think it’s ridiculous that she should have to silence those thoughts just because she joined the Ultra-Exclusive Secret Society of Romance Authors and its unwritten Code of Conduct.
What I find interesting is that this latest flail is about a book published SIXTEEN YEARS AGO that has become part of the contemporary romance canon. This obviously isn’t the first time an SEP book has been dissed. And, unless I missed a few tweets, the snark was about the book – and the consensus appears to confirm that Nobody’s Baby had numerous problematic elements that made it an uncomfortable read for many people. These themes, e.g, misogyny in the form of deliberate public humiliation of the heroine (to name just one), appear throughout several of SEP’s titles, and continue to show up in current best-selling romance novels – which was Vail’s entire point.
These kinds of recurring problematic issues deserve to be brought out, named and shamed. Yes, Vail could have written a long, elegant essay filled with academic-speak and literary jargon and philosophical introspection. But using those kinds of hushed-up critical techniques would mute her honest reaction and suppress the passion she feels about the book and about the themes that made her squirm. Saracasm, irony, hyperbole and other forms of “negative” expression have been used in literary reviews since bad ancient Greek poetry was invented. Why in god’s name should romance authors get a pass?
I hope this doesn’t get overlooked. Olivia Kelly freely admits that she only saw “a few” tweets that floated into her rainbows-and-unicorns happy-voice-only Tweetspace. Where, exactly, was the “nasty, rude & tearing people down” portion of Vail’s live-tweeting? Why did Kelly feel it was acceptable to label Vail as “nasty and rude” after seeing only two or three out-of-context tweets about a book written 16 years ago? Why is no one calling out that behavior as unprofessional?
Going by the complainers’ logic: Established and best-selling authors making negative snap judgements about an author/reviewer based on limited third-hand information is OK, but a debut author with an established and highly-regarded review blog making negative comments about a notably problematic romance novel is BAD. Do I have that right?
[NOTE: That last bit was my attempt at using the literary technique of sarcasm to subversively call attention to hypocrisy. Was that wrong? Should I not have done that? I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.]
I think Moriah nailed it. Romance authors (because this is a genre-bound concept of professionalism, in my experience) who choose not to make critical comments about books or to review are acting in their own professional self-interest. I’m not saying that’s wrong, and it’s very hard to act in a way that is opposed to self-interest, whatever you believe about critical reviews. But I personally don’t think it’s good for the “profession” as a whole; a genre needs robust criticism to grow. Maybe authors are doing that in private, but I don’t know, because while, as Ruthie Knox says, opacity doesn’t necessarily mean thoughtlessness, since I can’t read minds, I can’t be sure it means thoughtfulness, either.
In recent discussion around this issue, I have seen a lot of authors complain that they can’t praise a book without getting the side-eye from some readers or having their motives questioned. They want to be seen as readers first, and they point out that many of their author friends are people they befriended because they admired that author’s books first–as if that guarantees their recommendation as unbiased by the friendship. But to me, that just marks the difference between the author-as-reader and the “regular” reader. If I like someone’s book and follow her on Twitter, I never expect to find myself in a personal or professional relationship with her. I will not be blurbing her books or sharing her room at RWA. That won’t happen every time an author likes another author’s books, either, or course, but it might happen. Their relationship to the book, as a reader, is different from mine because they are part of a professional community, one that’s always emphasizing the value of niceness and where authors seem to police each other’s behavior. (Is subtweeting a not-yet-published author and calling her mean professional?)
I feel like authors are trying to have it both ways, but I don’t see how you can have a professional culture of branding, niceness and opacity AND expect to be seen as “just another reader” when you recommend a book.
Thanks for a great post, Robin.
As is usually the case, Wendig’s perspective aligns with mine. And building upon what Moriah just posted about free expression… IMO, snark is, at its root, about the personal ego boost. It reveals more about me than the subject I’m snarking at or about. If I’m getting my ego needs met at someone else’s expense, it’s time for some serious self-assessment.
I prefer to put positive energy out into the world. Life’s too short, and karma’s a bitch.
I am purely a reader and I read across many genres and I find this whole negative reviewing issue in Romancelandia very frustrating (relating both to reader, blog and author reviews). Here’s the way I look at it: if any reviewer only posts positive reviews of books, then that reviewer has very low credibility for me because I have no way of assessing whether that reviewer’s tastes are anywhere close to mine. If a reviewer provides both positive and negative reviews, I have some way of assessing their opinions. With respect to authors reviewing, this is even more important because I assume that authors are all colleagues and so I immediately question whether the author is giving a positive review or is just part of the marketing machine (author blurbs on a book mean absolutely nothing to me in terms of my buying decisions). I have no problems with an author giving a negative review of a book that he or she disliked. Frankly, I believe that negative criticism from all sources can help to improve the genre and give it credibility. What really bothers me though when authors come in to try to silence a particular reviewer.
When I see authors try to silence reviewers (of whatever stripe), I get annoyed because I perceive that the author is actually questioning my (as a reader of the review) intelligence and judgment and I have dropped authors who do this. I certainly have bought books by authors who have posted negative reviews, including wonderfully snarky reviews, because I liked their “voice” and vice versa whereas reviewers who only provide positive reviews or only review books they like have no relevance to me when I make a buying decision.
@tamarahogan – so basically you are saying that if an author critiques something negatively she deserves all bad things that come her way (karma it burns). That doing something like publicly airing problems with the text of a book deserves karmic comeuppance?
And that keeping your mouth shut isn’t the same thing as working in your own self interest?
I disagree with Wendig’s position which sounds an awful lot like “Be nice.” I blogged about the subject myself here: http://scarlettparrish.wordpress.com/2013/09/17/poacher-turned-gamekeeper/
And honestly, when it comes to karma? If it exists, surely it would also apply to people who only review positively? And people who only review positively strike me as, dare I say it, dishonest.
The fact of the matter is, I simply don’t trust people who only say nice things in public. The policy of “Be nice,” doesn’t do away with negative opinions; it merely drives them underground, into secret conversations, keeps them hidden.
This may or may not be anyone else’s opinion too. But the fact I’m saying it, even just one person, shows that being nice does not always work. It offends someone – me. It likely offends others.
So it just goes to show that for every fan you gain from being positive and nice and kittens and rainbows, you will lose a potential reader for appearing too saccharine-sweet.
This x 1000.
I would also add to that list authors who unironically declare themselves to be better human beings because they’re above the need for ego-boosting sarcasm.
See, my problem with that is that an author really doesn’t know whom s/he will lose and gain or how many or why. And personal experience and/or fervent belief is not “proof” of anything.
Precisely my point.
If it’s impossible to predict how many fans/readers one will win or lose, I’d vote for honesty in reviewing every time and hang the consequences. It hasn’t done my career any harm so far. (By which I mean I’m still selling books and earning royalties.)
Really interesting essay/discussion. I think the issue with negative review is that they can be so subjective. So you have to find the person whose taste lines up with yours to be able to trust them when they say they don’t like something.
Otherwise, as someone said above it could look like professional jealousy if a lesser selling author is critiquing a more popular author. I “came out” publicly regarding my issues with Twilight and 50 Shades. (Ironically – they were the same issues.) But both those authors could laugh and dismiss my comments out of hand.
They are millionaires because of those books …. I am decidedly not because of mine.
So is my negative review really a thoughtful commentary on their work (that’s how it was intended) or is it professional jealously – which is certainly how it can be perceived. Which is why over all I prefer to keep my opinions about books offline.
However, the concern raised in the essay by Janet – is that not having these negative reviews out there in public means we’re not having honest conversations about books and what does and doesn’t work for us as authors. Which if I’m interpreting her meaning correctly – that type of discussion could improve the genre.
I would argue that we ARE having those conversations – just not in public.
We do critique. We do discuss. We do have those thoughtful conversations with our author friends and in critique groups. And those conversations are helpful. Determining what works and doesn’t work for us and why. Breaking down characteristics of successful books all of that.
So it does happen, it just doesn’t happen on line.
Forgive me. It reads to me like you put forth your opinion as universal fact.
And I think that’s great for you. I’m saying that it’s not how some other authors choose to proceed, and perhaps being dismissive of their silence and assuming it’s just because they want to “be nice” or they’re craven isn’t a fair or accurate judgment.
Maybe they just want to put food on the table like everybody else and think their best chance of doing that is keeping their mouths shut.
But more broadly, I object to the concept that an author choosing not to review is somehow damaging the genre and/or that they owe the genre (not to be confused with their readers) something, and not reviewing is a dereliction of some duty.
@Jane: No, and I apologize for not being more precise in my phrasing. I’m saying that my personal choice is to not review anyone’s books, positively or negatively. I don’t feel my individual opinion matters much in the scheme of things. During times I’ve personally snarked on a public figure, someone’s work, or such, afterwards I felt absolutely horrible about it. It left a really bad taste in my mouth. The karmic smack was to myself, due to my own actions.
Sure, I have opinions about the books I read. But my takeaway from that experience was that my limited energy is more productively spent focusing on my own work, not publicly critiquing others’ work.
Wow. I come from a scientific background where learning to both accept criticism and be critical is usually mastered before you even get to a thesis defense. It’s part of the game. If you don’t want to play, then don’t play.
I had no idea that if you write romance you’re expected to “be nice” to everyone. I know some people choose to do that, but I didn’t realize it was looked on as “professional”. Damn. I find that both appalling and sad and angrifying. Diversity and argument are signs of a healthy social organism. I’m not talking about lady on lady hate crimes, I’m talking about getting critical about content, that stuff written down on a page, that stuff that isn’t you, it’s just something you wrote and presumably you’ll write other things too and work at getting better at what you do. Even if this body of work is akin to your first born child, you sent it out into the world with the understanding that people would have varying responses to it, otherwise, why publish? Why not just write and share with your best buds who will always tell you how awesome you are?
You know what one of the main things kids need in order to “master” something? The ability to judge whether something is well done or needs improvement. One of the best ways to learn to evaluate their efforts? Peer review. What else works? Feedback from people who have already mastered it.
It was my understanding that being good at writing professionally is an iterative process that hinges on critical feedback and immense effort. I had no idea romance writing was a snowflake so special it was exempt from that process.
What an interesting discussion! A lot of writers are readers, true, but at the same time, it’s nice if writers hold back from reviewing in their specific genre. That way we all know comments are coming from reader-readers, and we can take the negative comments more seriously as opposed to passing them off as other writer’s jealousy or snark.
Now, advocating is totally different from reviewing. At the blog Liz Everly and I write for–LadySmut.com we are totally down with advocating the books of other authors. We try to be good ‘book ho’s’ as Candace Haven puts it.
And this is what I love about the professional romance world! We *ARE* nice. We are supportive of each other. At the same time we are very professionally courteous at the higher levels. Let us remind ourselves that with a 1.4 b dollar industry, there’s plenty of pie there for everybody–and plenty of different books to suit everyone’s tastes.
I understand someone’s desire for complete candor — and for even feeling incomplete if they can’t ‘say it like it is’. But I’m coming to accept for myself that this is simply what it means to be professional. You’re not jane-individual anymore, you speak from a position of power and therefore your criticisms can be much more devastating than if you were an anonymous reader/fan. I think anyone in any profession can recognize that.
@Stephanie Doyle: But positive responses to books are equally subjective, and I don’t see authors arguing for keeping those off-line. The result is a really skewed public conversation, at least from authors. And as a reader, I do see that as less valuable for the genre–public conversations about issues matter, or we’re only talking to a small circle of friends who may share a lot of our views.
I’m not saying authors have an obligation to review, or to say really negative things. But it sometimes seems that any kind of critical discourse is unwelcome to many authors, even though they say negative reviews from readers are fine as long as they’re about the book. People may not like AnimeJune’s snarky style, but her tweets were about her problems with the themes of the book, not even a criticism of the writing quality. I don’t see why anyone would take that for professional envy. The fact that even that type of criticism gets equated with bashing or tearing the author down, or that some people immediately express concern with hurting an author’s feelings when critical reviewing is discussed, or assume criticism must come from a feeling of superiority/envy, shows how much trouble some still have in Romanceland separating the author from the book, the personal from the professional. There is a lot of attributing of personal motives to criticism, as if it just can’t be done from a professional standpoint. I disagree.
The fact that AnimeJune was criticizing the book for problematic misogynist themes is central to the problem. Calls for “civility” are often invoked to silence those who take aim at privilege and oppressive structures.
Can somebody tell me if Elisabeth Vail’s book is already out? I am asking because I checked Amazon (where I usually buy) and come up with nothing on her name. I certainly want to buy it amd support the author who is doing what I wish more authors would do. Not because they have to obviously, but because as a reader/reviewer I would trust the review from the writing professional especially when they are talking about matters of craft.
I don’t know if I’m in the minority on this, but I think of authors as people just like anyone else. They’re free to have their opinions on books by other authors and are free to talk about why a certain book worked or didn’t work for them just like everyone else. The idea that an author owes something to other authors is utterly ridiculous to me. That’s like saying a doctor shouldn’t contradict another doctor when that’s what many people want them to do when they go for a second opinion. Imagine going to a second doctor to see if he/she thinks that your original diagnosis is valid and even though this doctor disagrees, he/she isn’t going to say anything because it might damage the first doctor’s reputation. That’s bullshit. Do I want someone who has read something I wrote to say that it was bad? No, of course not. But do I respect their right to say so? Yes, of course I do. They have just as much right to their opinion as I do to mine. Why should we expect different from someone just because they’re an author? Is this what we’re coming down to: no one gets negative reviews and everyone gets a participation trophy?
Also, I’ve never read anything by Sabrina Jefferies, but based on her comments, I think I’ll be avoiding her like the plague–and she has no one to blame but herself. Why should I support a bully?
@Stephanie Doyle: Positive reviews are just as subjective (regardless of what anyone says, a review is an OPINION and ALL opinions are subjective to some extent. Just because an author is a millionaire doesn’t mean that your opinion, whether positive or negative, doesn’t have merit and, if you choose you should feel free to express it. Funnily enough many people might agree with you and you might end up with more readers as a result.
As I said above, personnaly as a reader, if I only see an author put out positive comments/reviews then I pretty much ignore any opinion given by that author because I get the impression that this is just more of the “marketing spin” that we are continually subjected to – that may not be the case, but that is how I perceive it and that reduces my opinion of an author’s credibility. In practical terms if I only see positive reviews by an author and I end up disliking those books and then dislike a book that the authro writes, I’m probably going to dismiss that author’s own books pretty quickly because in my mind he/she has demonstrated that his/her tastes are nothing like mine and I’m not going to waste my time and energy reading that author’s books. If an author posts negative and positive reviews, I can better guage an author’s ability for critical thinking. I may decide, based on those reviews, that an author’s book might not be for me, but chance are if I do like the author’s way of thinking, I’m going to give her/him many more chances to impress me.
If an author chooses not to review, that’s fine, but if she/he decides to do so, be honest and respect the reader’s intelligence.
No, it’s not out yet – I believe it will be released next year.
Even after all these years, the soi-disant responsibilities of being An Author (and a romance author in particular), make me anxious and uncertain because of what Jane said in comment 1: “the whole thing seems to foster a spirit of cronyism and favor currying.” I lurch between keeping to myself and doing the whole RT, FB like, release congratulations, etc shebang because a) I’m not a naturally squeeing, jazz hands type of person and b) it really doesn’t feel organic–it feels like something an author has to do in order to network and build goodwill from other authors. Then I worry that I’m perceived as distant or unfriendly, which will hurt my professional career (since I won’t have a wide swath of author friends acting as cheerleaders for my books) and the cycle begins again. LOL
On the other hand, I guard my recommendations jealously because of my status as a history blogger and my name/”brand” being so tightly associated with the Edwardian & WWI eras. I do like to highlight books set and authors who write in these time periods because of their rarity. My endorsements are usually of the “Look at this book” variety, and when I do recommend a book, it is because I’ve read and enjoyed it. In the end, I really try my best to behave as organically as possible online because I would prefer organic, genuine connections and friendships over cozying up to or being cozied up to in an “scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” situation.
“In practical terms if I only see positive reviews by an author and I end up disliking those books and then dislike a book that the authro writes, I’m probably going to dismiss that author’s own books pretty quickly because in my mind he/she has demonstrated that his/her tastes are nothing like mine and I’m not going to waste my time and energy reading that author’s books. ”
That is so true. I recently read and reviewed (elsewhere) a book which I thought was really good and then I went to check out this author’s blog (this is the habit I try to break myself out from but am not being successful). I saw her hosting the author of another book (and I think she posted on that author’s blog too). She did not even review this book (at least I do not think so), just said that it was great. Usually it is really not enough for me to be swayed, but I was so under the aura of her book that I just went and bought the book by other writer.
Now I am stuck with this monstrocity and cannot move past chapter 2 because of horrible flowery language which I dislike and not sure whether I will move past this chapter.
If I saw this recommendation first and bought this book, I am not sure if I would ever picked up the book I loved. So I guess this is my way of saying that I agree with you and I learned another lesson to not trust positive recommendations from the authors, unless I know the author’s tastes really well. The fact that they wrote the book I loved really does not mean that I will like same book as they do.
@Kelly: Thank you!
I think if a book’s themes and tropes are problematic there is nothing wrong with another romance author pointing that out. I can’t count the number of romance books that I’ve read, which if you were take the “romance” context out, the relationship is really about misogyny, abuse, and/or rape. The genre doesn’t move past things like that if peers don’t point it out. An author might ignore a reader calling it out by saying well that reader just didn’t understand but another author saying it has more weight.
At the same time, I completely support an author’s decision to say absolutely nothing if they don’t like a book. No one owes anyone a review (be it good or bad) unless you are being paid to be a professional critic.
I think some of this is about whose dollar is valued more. Is it the author’s dollar, which she earns from selling her books? Or is it the reader’s hard-earned dollar, to be spent on said books?
All too often, and the Chuck Wendig article is a great example of this, the author’s dollar is valued more highly.
He won’t review negatively because that impacts on the author’s dollar. But a positive review that impacts on the reader’s dollar? Totally fine. I don’t think that’s a ‘professional’ position, I think it’s one that stomps all over readers.
I strongly believe that readers’ dollars are as valuable as authors’ dollars. So a negative review that saves a reader from spending her dollars on a book she won’t enjoy? That’s a win. A positive review that gets a reader to spend her dollars on a book she will enjoy? Also a win. The only review that isn’t a win is a dishonest one (or possibly an unclear one, that doesn’t help a reader make the right buying choice for them).
I think it’s more important for authors to do right by readers than by other authors. To do otherwise strikes me as unprofessional.
@Sirius: My understanding (possibly mistaken) is that the book won’t be pubbed until late 2014.
How do I do right by my readers if I negatively review a book they loved? As a “professional”? I know the answer to that one, up close and personal, and until you’ve seen the expression of a rabid fan whose taste you just trashed, it’s just an abstract concept.
Do it face-to-face to one of your fans. Seriously. See what happens.
And remember that they love YOUR books too, so what does that say about YOUR work?
There’s a lot of good points in these comments. For me, as an author and reader, I don’t leave negative reviews because I frankly don’t want to be slammed by the author or their fan base. As an author, I would never do that to another author but I know it happens all the time. If I had a fan base :), I would ask them not to attack reviewers on my books. Can’t control it but I’d sure make sure my fan base knew I didn’t think that was appropriate.
However, I wish I could leave a negative review. I’ve had some books I really wanted to criticize. But here’s the thing for me. I don’t believe we should be nice. I believe we should, as so often has been said, criticize the BOOK and STORY, not the author. Meaning saying things like the author sucks or the author must have a head full of rocks to think she could write is not fair, not professional. But to say the characters are unlikeable, the construction is fragmented or confusing and things like that, are appropriate.
But still, even with those, a lot of authors will think it’s a direct attack when it isn’t. Because we are taught that our books are our babies. I never believed that. I’ve had a lot of criticism and I have a tough skin. We have a lot of “baby” authors who just don’t–who haven’t been thrown into the ring of rejection after rejection after rejection. They haven’t learned not to take things personally.
Give me a negative review, tell me you don’t like my characters–that’s fine. It might mean I’ll work harder on my next book on characterization. Even tell me my book sucks. I’m okay with that. But in your criticism of my book, I don’t think you need to tell me I have no business being a writer. That’s personal, that’s not professional and I think that lies at the heart of this stuff (of course, a caveat is that what might roll of my back won’t roll off another–then I lead you back to I suspect a lot of those are the “baby” authors).
Boy, I hope this doesn’t sound too rambling. Excellent essay as always, because they are though provoking.
Liz, LeftCoaster and others have made most of the points I would have made. I quit Twitter in part because I couldn’t take the promo anymore. Actually, it was less the promo than not being able to tell the promo/friend-support from recommendations for books by people the recommender wasn’t connected to in some way. At this point I ignore all but a handful of authors’ book recommendations because I don’t feel like spending the time to determine whether there is a connection between the recommender and the recommendee, let alone try to figure out how that connection might influence the recommendation.
If individual authors make the decision that they don’t want to review, that’s entirely their right and privilege. The problem arises when authors AND readers punish an author who writes a critical review, whether that review is snarky or thoughtful. I just don’t see how that improves the genre or fosters a healthy environment for discussion.
@Liz Mc2: “But to me, that just marks the difference between the author-as-reader and the “regular” reader. If I like someone’s book and follow her on Twitter, I never expect to find myself in a personal or professional relationship with her.”
What about people who became friends with someone because of fanfic, though? If I like someone’s fanfic and follow them on their journal… our shared enjoyment of a fandom could easily turn into friendship, and if I like their writing, I’ll probably like their originalfic, too. (And no, I don’t mean Pulled-to-Publish fic.) And then there’s a position I’m going to be in when a friend’s novels are published next year — I met her shortly after I’d been given the task of editor (for a line of tabletop roleplaying games), got her for several pieces of work on the line, and am delighted that she’s going to get her books on the shelves.
(And then there’s another author I’ve admired since I was a teen, and now I get to play WoW once a week with her! Eeeeeeeee! Because I follow her blog, and when she mentioned some frustration with the game, I immediately went “Yes! I will group with you and help you kill things and get you glorious loot and show you all the cool places!“)
I’m willing to give a disclaimer and bend over backwards to try to say “if you don’t like X, you probably won’t like this,” but it does feel like there’s something wrong if I’m expected to Not Say Nice Things because someone is my friend… because she was on the same mailing list about a fandom… writing stuff there that made me email her and say, “Submit that! I want to buy it!”
(Which may say something about the expectations of people who grow up in a fanfic/fandom environment; there may be more pressure to Be Nice, but there’s also… more expectation that people can wind up being friends because they’re fans of each other’s work, I think? At least, over in the niches of fandom that I’m comfy in. Fandom is big. It contains multitudes.)
Pray forgive any incoherencies. I’m still fighting the dregs of a 3-day headache.
I might direct some of the squeamish authors to google Literary Feuds. You’ll find tons of famous names who reviewed books, criticized author’s works, and down right snarked over one another. Mark Twain and Norman Mailer managed to survive these tempests with some readership left intact.
Is the waggon circling by many Romance novelists because they don’t want to be perceived as mean or unsupportive? Frankly, I hope the genre can survive a few less “you go girls”, and encourage open and honest dialogue about what worked and what didn’t. Especially as Ridley points out, the offending tweets were calling out the misogynist & gender essentialist tone of the book, not slagging the author personally.
There’s no need for consensus building in book reviews. It’s your opinion, so OWN it.
@Moriah Joven and Cassie Knight: if you want to self-censor out of fear of potential irrational bullying, that’s your business. I would never tell someone they are morally obliged to put themselves in danger (financial, emotional, or physical).
However, please stop calling it “professionalism” or “ethics” or anything of that sort. To do so is an insult to all other professionals and ethical persons.
@Elizabeth McCoy: You can say all the nice things you like about anyone from your BFF through to some guy you’ve never heard of. Just disclose the relationship.
If giving someone a negative review equates to taking money out of an author’s pocket, or food out of their mouth, said author would be better served writing a better book next time, rather than bleating about karma or professionalism.
And yes, that comment of mine was rude.
Personally, I think it’s pretty d*mn rude of authors to say that they’d LIKE to give honest reviews but don’t DARE to because we readers are just too emotional and irrational to HANDLE THE TRU-U-TH!
I don’t know whether you were talking to me specifically or authors in general. However, if you were talking to me: Did I call it professionalism or ethics? No. I said it was in my self-interest not to.
Likewise, please stop ascribing to me words and philosophies I did not say nor do I feel.
@Scarlett Parrish: Exactly. No one is owed a living.
@Scarlett Parrish: “Lastly, I just don’t trust authors/reviewers who refuse to give negative reviews. If you don’t tell me about books you dislike, how do I know you genuinely like this or that novel?”
Exactly. Also, I use a reader/reviewer’s negative and positive reviews to gauge how my tastes match (or don’t) with that reader. If all their reviews are stars, rainbows and happy puppies , I can’t accurately tell if the book in question is for me.
I’m an author and I write negative reviews. Of course, I’m such small potatoes that no one likely even notices. I admit, I tend to punch upward, with my snarkiest reviews going to popular books (whose popularity baffles me) and/or those written by popular, bestselling authors. And if I climbed to a higher niche in the author food chain, I might be more circumspect about my reviewing.
But at this point, my opinion contributes to the overall discussion of books. In a market cluttered with other media (TV, movies, etc.) competing for the reader’s attention, the more often books are discussed — positively or negatively — the better.
I’ve never been good at networking or schmoozing. If I like a book, I’ll recommend it. But I’m not going to promote, tweet, FB, etc., a book just because I know the author, or because the book’s from my publisher, or because I’m trying to up my author karma.
I’m sure I’m on some author’s shit list for not adoring his/her precious literary baby. What-ever. I’m too old to give a crap about the high school clique shit.
“Doctors don’t publicly diss other doctors.”
It would be nifty if doctors would discuss, openly, the bad eggs in their profession. Ditto other professions. So analogy fail.
@hapax: This isn’t an authors v. readers schism. This is an authors-should-be-allowed-to-review v. authors-shouldn’t-review schism. There are authors and readers on both sides, as the comments here demonstrate.
@Sunita: I wasn’t addressing every comment on the thread. I was addressing specifically those authors who turned it into “authors v readers” by talking about how “mean” and “rabid” (their words, not mine) a “fanbase” could be.
I don’t care if authors review or not. I judge their reviews exactly the same as I judge any other: is it well written? is it well supported? does it address issues I care about? is it aimed at the book or the author?
Writers should write well, whether it’s books, reviews, comments on a blog thread, or grocery lists. That’s their only professional obligation.
Anything else is marketing, and should be treated as such.
I was a reader first. If I want to discuss a book or an author positively or negatively I talk to my real life friends about it. I can say what I feel and so can they.
If I’m being ‘Kate Pearce, Romance Writer’, I choose what I want to disclose to my fans, readers, peers, etc etc because Kate Pearce is a public brand. If I endorse a book it reflects on my brand, not just me so I’m very careful about who and what I choose to offer quotes for.
My brand and personal ethics also dictate how I live my whole life which is very simple– treat others how you wish to be treated yourself. That’s it. It has nothing to do with fear of peers or professionalism or whatever, it’s just that I prefer to use my limited time on this earth in a positive way. :)
@Sunita: I think it’s something different. What is professionalism. Here professionalism entails not saying anything negative about the book of your peers. It also appears to be not disclosing any quid pro quo.
Basically professionalism for authors seems to be act in a way that will advance your personal status amongst your peers.
@hapax Huh? Where on Earth did you come up with what you attributed to me? Wow. Like @Moriah said, please stop ascribing to me words and philosophies I did not say nor do I feel. Thanks Moriah, for the words.
Criticism of a work does not equal negativity. It’s defined as “the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work”.
Don’t hush people by telling them they’re being negative and rude because you can’t distinguish the difference between criticism of a work and and criticism of a person. That’s on you, not them.
Notice that within this thread, a commenter has said:
Here, Jeffries has lost a potential reader – and was called a bully, to boot – simply for voicing an opinion someone doesn’t agree with. And people wonder why some authors don’t post reviews? Need more be said?
As a reader who buys many books based on recommendations, I must say that I appreciate an honest review, whether it’s from an author or another reader.
There is an art to the critical review, a way in which the issues can be phrased so it’s not an attack. If the reviewer is just being nasty and not giving any good reasons for it, that turns me off. But if it just didn’t work for them, they didn’t like the hero, it was boring, a character was annoying…please, say something! If it’s a fantastic book anyway, other reviewers will fill the gap and I can decide for myself whether to take a chance.
As a reader, if I feel I need to leave a low review, I try to say why it didn’t work for me, then end with a note about what type I reader I think WILL like the book.
Maybe authors just need to create false online identities for themselves if they want to say anything that isn’t absolutely glowing (LOL). I have to say, though, it gets tiring reading blurb after blurb of “this is the best book I’ve ever read”, only to be disappointed.
Whoever mentioned that it seems to be a marketing issues more than a moral one…yes, I agree.
What lies at the heart of this is women’s culture – the need to be perceived as Nice, sometimes even to be Nice. Professionalism doesn’t mean being Nice. It means being accurate, truthful, as unbiased as you can be, and being clear about the dividing line between personal and professional. Comment on the underlying misogyny of a book is fair comment. Extrapolating from that to judge the author is less so. A decision on where you as an author stand on the Being Nice to Other Authors is less a moral decision than a business decision.
Not among your peers, I don’t see it like that. It’s more “what won’t alienate potential readers”. And I think, as any line of work, that it’s perfectly normal to think before you act about the repercussions on your customers.
It’s not cowardice, just common sense. Now some may think they can write a negative review and nothing will come out of it, and some may think the opposite. It’s fine both ways. I’m just saying that personnally, it will affect my judgment about them. But I think other commenters have made it pretty clear that they don’t mind it at all.
I’ve reviewed again and I think I know one part of what @hapax meant. When I said I, as an author, don’t review other authors books it’s because I don’t want to be descended upon by a fan base. @hapax makes it sound like this isn’t common when it is, in fact, very common for fan bases to descend upon someone who dares make a negative comment against their beloved author’s books. Not everyone is “professional” enough to take a criticism in stride or respectfully offer a dissenting opinion. I’ve seen the attacks on here enough to know it is far more common then not. And you know what, that’s my opinion and I’m permitted to have it as much as anyone else is permitted to have an opinion. I stick by my decision not to review based on I just don’t want to be subjected, no matter the percentage that it might/might not happen) to those who disallow I should have an opinion.
But still, I don’t get the other message since I made no mention of money at all in my post. I think you meant that for someone else.
And as far as using the word professional, I’m absolutely entitled to and know what it means. I’ve worked for lawyers, accountants, and doctors and know just what acting professional means: the methods, CHARACTER, status, etc, of a professional.
Professional groups have codes of ethics, codes of personal conduct that define what professionalism means (I can provide links if anyone is interested). Again, I’m fully aware of that of which I speak.
And I just saw @leftcoaster’s latest: “Don’t hush people by telling them they’re being negative and rude because you can’t distinguish between the criticism of a work and criticism of a person. That’s on you, not them.” I love that, thank you!!!
@Junne: I don’t think this kind of professionalism is reader focused. Reader focused professionalism would include not blurbing books you didn’t like or didn’t read. Reader focused professionalism would allow for public critique of books an author didn’t like. Reader focused professionalism would encourage free flow of ideas between readers and authors.
This is author focused professionalism which is fine. I like clarity even if I don’t agree with it.
@Anonymous: “Here, Jeffries has lost a potential reader – and was called a bully, to boot – simply for voicing an opinion someone doesn’t agree with. And people wonder why some authors don’t post reviews? Need more be said?”
Thank you! Exactly!!!!
The poster is welcome to their opinion but it’s just more proof that authors do have something to lose by reviewing or commenting. It’s an awful fine line, that’s for sure. I choose not to. But I don’t slam others for their opinions. Just, sometimes, I wish some wouldn’t be so personal about expressing them. However, my resolution is not to shut them up, that’s for sure.
I completely agree. I’m an author, and I tend not to review the things I don’t like. It’s a personal choice. That being said, I will call out sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, etc. as a criticism in the books I read because I want to see those things ended. I would also want that crap pointed out to me should I write in a royal screwup.
If another author wants to give 100% unvarnished good/bad/ugly reviews, more power to her. I dislike the idea that romance authors are somehow different and supposed to be nice because wimmens. I think that the genre must be considered at least a little bit — isn’t romance pooped on by all the other genres generally? Isn’t it overwhelmingly written and edited by women, for the enjoyment of mostly women? Yes. So when specifically a romance author is told to be nice, you can’t just ignore the historic overtones of a woman being told to shut up, lie back, and think of England.
Bad reviews for some, miniature American flags for others.
@Sunita: I disagree. To me this is very much an author/reader schism even if the authors calling for ‘professionalism’ claim it’s not about that. The underlying message is very clearly that authors better not negatively review and by extension ‘we don’t want *anybody* to negatively review because of the starving children…’
@Cassie Knight: But the issue (at least as I perceive it) isn’t whether an author SHOULD review but whether it is appropriate to dismiss an author who does review as unprofessional.
Isn’t that the crux of the problem. I don’t see Robin arguing that authors should review but that the authorial community doesn’t support the ones that do. Instead, they try to shut that down under the guise of professionalism.
In other words, under the prevailing definition of professionalism it is only OK for an author to speak in approving terms of another author’s work. The author that criticizes another author’s work is deemed ‘unprofessional’ and others hope for ‘karmic blowback’.
So it’s one thing to say authors shouldn’t have to give negative opinions but yet another to say that an author is unprofessional if she chooses to do so.
@jane: “Reader focused professionalism would include not blurbing books you didn’t like or didn’t read.”
I just want to say that an author’s failure to post negative reviews (or positive one, for that matter) doesn’t necessarily mean he/she is “lying” when recommending or blurbing other books. No one’s ever asked me to blurb a book before (and why on earth would they?), but I can say with absolute conviction that I would never blurb a book I hadn’t read/didn’t like. Ditto recommending books on Twitter/Facebook/etc. If I recommend a book, it’s because I really enjoyed it and hope other people will enjoy it, too.
I wish I had time to post more in-depth/insightful reviews, but the reality is that I’m already struggling to find enough time to write my own books. That said, I deeply admire and appreciate authors who are willing to do so and I’d like to see reviewing by authors encouraged rather than discouraged.
I don’t think it’s unfair to hold author-reviewers to a higher standard. The opinions of authors hold more weight with some readers. Authors have a platform, a fanbase, insider info, industry connections. We earn money from writing, unlike most reviewers. We have greater privileges and responsibilities. When we curse, snark, review/recommend, talk politics or tweet cleavage pics, it can be judged as professional or not professional. Because we are public figures, our behavior is up for criticism.
That doesn’t mean I haven’t frowned on the be-nice brigade. I agree with Olivia Waite that it’s stifling. Also, when author-reviewers are chastised for being “mean,” it can have a chilling effect that reaches way beyond the intended target. Aspiring authors like Erin Satie quit reviewing. Non-snarky reviewers like Jennifer RNN feel bad.
Is feeling bad or quitting a tragedy we must prevent at all costs? Well, no. But I’d prefer to encourage aspiring authors, not intimidate them. Reviewers make meaningful contributions to this community. Authors need reviews to thrive. Why stifle any reviews? More reviews=good. Less reviews=bad.
It has occurred to me that authors are pushing back against author-reviewers because it’s the last frontier. The other battles have already been lost. Authors can’t tell readers how to react. We can’t respond to reviews. The only way to control harsh reviews (and the hurt feelings they cause), a little bit, is by warning authors and aspiring authors of the negative consequences.
Which doesn’t mean that author-reviewers are special protected snowflakes. I just don’t think they deserve to be shunned or silenced. There are plenty of authors who don’t write reviews for whatever reason, but make negative comments about other authors/books, get snippy, argue, share opinions. Why is one type of behavior “safer” than the other? None of this speech is protected or above reproach.
@GrowlyCub: All authors don’t make that extension, any more than all authors want a world in which there are no negative reviews.
The problem is that as long as authors are punished for bad reviews, fewer authors will review. And I don’t see how author punishment is *necessarily* worse than reader punishment. In today’s environment, an author who is shunned by other authors but has a committed readership can basically laugh all the way to the bank.
I am very confused by the tenor of some of the discussions here. It would seem to me as if we have no concept of the idea that to be human beings, through all stages of life, that we will sometimes/often be irrationally hurt by someone else’s opinion–and that that’s okay. Someone we admired may not feel as we do about something that gives us much pleasure and it’s a huge bummer, disappointing, maybe even paradigm changing in the moment–but it certainly has not done us irreparable harm in the short or long term; that in fact, as is true in our reaction to art, it is to varying extents down to personal taste. This is all just a part of enjoying creative works, surely? It’s nothing for karma to worry about.
We are emotional beings but that’s not all we are. Once the hurt moment has passed on either side it is often quite possible to see the insight provided — whether it caused us to look at a work in a new way, often in ways that reveal things about *myself*. Maybe it is simply enough to let me know the author and I don’t share the same tastes. Maybe it can just be a good ego check–it’s never good to be coddled all the time. I want a rich reading life, a balanced one and so I find that the negative is as necessary for that as the positive. The two are vital.
If an author wishes to abstain from making any public comments on another’s work that’s his/her choice. What I do not appreciate is its elevation to “respect” or “professional courtesy”. And if you choose to only share positive thoughts then you are nothing, to my mind, than a marketer, and I treat your opinions as such. I ignore author blurbs as a rule (regardless of genre) and I do not glance at the Author Promotional posts on this site. All this pretty talk of positivity and love is nothing but biased cronyism to me and I can’t take it seriously. I am spending money, thank you very much, so I need some element of objectivity to help me decide whether or not I ought to spend it. If I have no idea what you don’t like I can’t evaluate properly what you do like and why; therefore I can’t consider you a thoughtful reviewer on my end of things.
But the reader is not avoiding Sabrina Jeffries’ work because Jeffries voiced an opinion– he/she clearly reacted to Jeffries *own* decision to support an author who bore down on a reader expressing how she felt about a book. Can you not see how a reasonable reader would absolutely want to shun an author who even mildly supports that kind of thing? It’s not at all about bearing down on author reviews.
And here’s my question: so what, if an author loses some readers? Is it really all about the money for these individuals? If it is, then why should I bother to take their feelings into account anyway if they are nothing but a commercial brand out to maximise profits and silence criticism even among their peers?
“Frankly, I hope the genre can survive a few less “you go girls”, and encourage open and honest dialogue about what worked and what didn’t. Especially as Ridley points out, the offending tweets were calling out the misogynist & gender essentialist tone of the book, not slagging the author personally.”
I’m sure that the genre would benefit greatly if there was more critical discussion between readers and authors and authors-as-readers and if some authors stopped pouncing on reviewers, whether authors or not, to stop that discussion from happening. What I am taking away from some of the comments by authors is that they are “afraid” to say anything negative or only post positive reviews because of fear of a backlash. If that is the case, what a sad commentary on the state of the genre and Romancelandia in general. Good, robust discussion by authors and readers about the genre and the books in the genre, including critical commentary on the “classics” is what will make the genre continue to grow in a vibrant manner. If that discussion is stopped by the “nice police”, the genre will stagnate and readers will leave to pursue other genres or forms of entertainment.
I have a few comments here. I’ll start with the points I think are simple and see how far I get.
—-An individual review may be positive or negative, but the aggregate matters as well. AnimeJune/Elizabeth Vail has written some vicious reviews, but the overwhelming impression I get from following her blog is of enthusiasm & love of reading. The takeaway, for me, is very positive.
—-It’s a privilege to be able to walk away from negativity and outrage. I acknowledge that. Sometimes, the press of other people’s hurt and anger makes me feel oversensitive and furious and tired. I have to walk away or scream.
So I understand all the responses that end with: don’t need to add more negativity to the world.
But going back to my first point. The net, aggregate effect of AnimeJune/Elizabeth Vail’s reviewing is positive to me. Invigorating and fun and–well, the adjectives you use to mean that you’ve been revved up rather than drained.
—-I am very aware of the fact that my reviews will have less persuasive power now that I’ve halved my range. I agree that is the correct and inevitable effect.
When your range of response is “good to great” there’s no contrast. The picture is muddy. It’s not crisp or clear or powerful anymore.
—-I think it’s inevitable that we tend to focus on winning (or losing) the favor of people in our immediate proximity. So, in this case, a bunch of authors trying to win one another over. To find friends and allies. (Until they don’t need them anymore, and start building tall fences to keep away the flood of requests for help–this poem Margaret Atwood wrote to turn down blurb requests popped up in my Twitter feed this week: http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/margaret-atwood-rejects-book-blurb-requests-with-a-poem_b79774)
Broadcasting negative opinions will definitely lose you friends and allies. That’s just…a fact of life, in every arena I have any personal knowledge of. But it might gain you a different set of friends and allies. Will the readers you gain (from honesty, from transparency, from being less bland) compensate for the friends you lose? How many readers does it take to make up for one lost potential ally? Would that potential ally ever turn into an actual ally, if you’d kept your opinions to yourself? How much information do you need to make that call with any confidence?
I strongly suspect that by the time you have a good answer to these questions, it’s time to start building fences.
There’s a blindness that comes from seeing only what’s directly in front of you. Chasing the approval of peers. It’s short-sighted. But much, much easier than seeing far and clearly.
First off, an apology — I re-read my comment @56 and I phrased that poorly. The specific “you” in the first paragraph was NOT meant to be identical with the implied “you” in the second paragraph, although any sensible person would have read it that way. The subject of the second paragraph should have been “authors who appeal to ‘professionalism’ or ‘ethics’ ” and I sincerely apologize to readers of this thread in general and Mariah Joven and Cassie Knight specifically.
That said, I will make my position very clear:
Authors who choose to review honestly because they think it’s good for the the genre and profession to have open critical discussion = “professional”
Authors who choose to review honestly because they think it improves their own or the other authors’ craft = “professional”
Authors who choose to review honestly because they think it’s fun and they do it well = “professional”
Authors who choose not to review because they think open criticism and discussion harms the profession = “professional” (although I disagree with them, it’s not a settled fact)
Authors who choose not to review because they prefer to devote their energies into writing books well = “professional”
Authors who choose not to review because they don’t enjoy it or don’t think they can do it well for whatever reason = “professional”
Authors who review dishonestly (e.g., recommend/criticize books they haven’t read or attack the author instead of the book) = “unprofessional” (although perhaps smart marketing)
Authors who choose not to review because they fear “backlash” from readers (either their own or another author’s) who disagree with them = neither “professional” nor “unprofessional” (but definitely smart marketing)
Authors in the later two categories who under their author brand name proclaim on a very popular readers’ blog that they care more about their fellow authors than about readers or are afraid “some” readers will act irrationally and immaturely …
… well, let’s just say you’re not impressing me with your marketing savvy.
@Sunita: I pretty clearly said ‘authors calling for’. Naturally, not all authors do or we wouldn’t have this discussion to start with. However, I’ve seen a lot more ‘powered’ bigwigs express that opinion than I’ve seen advocate against it. I think that’s a problem worth talking about and I think that’s what’s driving a lot of discussion and frustration here and on twitter.
I’m about half way through the comments and thought I would ask one thing. When did professional courtesy come to mean not saying negative things about other professionals? When I first ran into it meant professionals giving deep discounts or waiving fees entirely to other members of the profession (or the professional class). The benefactor reciprocated by providing services within his/her profession at the same discount.
Not saying anything negative about another in the same profession when presented with evidence of incompetency is not “professional courtesy” and may even get you in hot water later.
@Jane, I’m with you but maybe not clear. If an author chooses to leave a review, they should not be dismissed as unprofessional for so many reasons as given above. If they leave a negative review, then their work should not be under the gun as if they don’t have a right to review (I think someone said that if they know an author left a review, then they’ll scan that author’s work to see if their work has issues).
Most (all?) authors are readers at heart. Most got into this business as a reader first–because we love books, love stories. I think that makes us intimately qualified to review books as a reader with our writerly “expertise” thrown in sometimes.
One of the reasons I don’t write negative reviews or talk smack about other writers is because, as a romance writer, I’m selling love and hope and happiness. Reading buddies buy my stories because my stories make them happy. They follow my tweets or friend me on Facebook because they hope my tweets or posts will make them happy. That trust is a gift and I don’t mess with gifts.
She didn’t lose a reader because I disagreed with her; she lost a reader because she decided that she had the right to police what people say and do. AnimeJune had every right to say that she didn’t like SEP’s book because she didn’t like it, and yes, Ms. Jefferies had every right to say what she said. However, when one’s words are used to deny people their rights, then it is my right to say I won’t support their work (just as I choose not to watch Mel Gibson movies or read Janet Daily or Cassie Edwards). I didn’t say no one else should read her books, just that I won’t. The reason is simple. I don’t like bullies, and in this case, she was a bully. She decided that she didn’t like what AnimeJune said because in her world authors are supposed to be nice to each other and never criticize one another (I guess Mark Twain missed that memo when he wrote essays criticizing James Fenimore Cooper). The irony, though, is that in the end what she said was worse than what she accused AnimeJune of doing. It smacks of middle school antics and is something that as a grown woman, she should know better than to do. It certainly wasn’t “professional” in any way.
“Authors who choose not to review because they fear “backlash” from readers (either their own or another author’s) who disagree with them = neither “professional” nor “unprofessional” (but definitely smart marketing)” Well, this would be me and I’m glad you called it neither professional nor professional and I think you meant “not smart marketing based on your previous comments). But, I had a thought. Maybe I start giving reviews and risk the backlash–who knows, I could be controversial and get lots of people buying my books so they can slam them. I could love with those sales. Tongue-in-cheek and all but hey, this is my position. I’m just choosing to stay out of any potential scope.
“Authors in the later two categories who under their author brand name proclaim on a very popular readers’ blog that they care more about their fellow authors than about readers or are afraid “some” readers will act irrationally and immaturely …
… well, let’s just say you’re not impressing me with your marketing savvy.”
@hapax, what does this mean: you’re not impressing me with your marketing savvy”? Are you saying that it’s a good thing to post reviews on other authors and that’s a good thing? Why? Besides the fact that reviews aren’t the be all and end all to selling books, how does me not choosing to leave reviews for other authors and announce that I’m choosing this affect my marketing strategy?
I’m curious, really. Have my comments turned off anyone or make them say, I’m not going to buy a Cassiel Knight book? Have my comments made anyone go, hey, I’m going to go check out her books? I don’t think I’ve been mean but maybe someone has been offended by what I wrote. But I’d bet that NO ONE has said they’ll go check out my books despite being here and commenting.
So, if I’ve turned off anyone (other than possibly hapax) because I said I will not review other authors books, I’d love to know that. Might have to review my position and risk the backlash. As I said above, maybe I’ll get more sales. But honestly? That’s not the way I want them. I love readers, I’m a reader. I love authors too because not only am I one, I edit them. But to say I choose authors over readers because I won’t review another authors book? I don’t get the connection. But I’m open to understand it.
Great discussion! I’m not on every available social media outlet, but I do follow quite a few authors on Facebook and Goodreads and I have yet to see any author give any other author’s work anything less than 5 stars. Is it because each book is 5-star worthy? I doubt it and I seriously doubt that authors only read books that they connect with on that level. I think they’re probably damned if they do and damned if they don’t – if they post a negative review or experience with that book, it’s given more weight/exposure because of who they are as authors (and potentially alienates other publishers). If they give a glowing review, people (like me) take it less seriously because all they give are glowing reviews to each and every book they post about.
@Cassie Knight: Nope, I meant exactly what I said. Refusing to review because you are afraid of reader backlash that might hurt your sales is a VERY smart marketing decision. It isn’t either “professional” or “unprofessional” because there’s no code of conduct involved, just a business decision.
However, once an author has made that decision, I think it’s very BAD marketing to tell readers (via this blog) “I am not posting reviews because some of you are crazies and I don’t trust you not to punish me if you disagree with me.”
If you’re doing this for business reasons, make your decision and stick by it, but don’t trumpet it all over the internet. Otherwise, you’ll end up like those gas stations that say, “Pay before you pump.” Maybe they have good business reasons for those signs, but I don’t patronize establishments that tell me up front that they think I’m likely to be a thief. That’s my choice, and my right.
Whether or not I’m right, of course, is up for debate. [shrug] I’m not a marketing expert, and those gas stations still seem to be around.
Whether you PERSONALLY have “turned me off … because [you] said you will not review”, no, of course not. I said, quite explicitly, that I don’t care if anyone reviews or not. On t’other hand, to be blunt, your statement that you are afraid of “some” readers, while it’s probably reasonable, hasn’t particularly turned me ON, either. I shan’t seek out your books; but if I see a review of one that intrigues me, I’ll still probably pick it up.
I picked up a couple of Moriah Jovan’s books because her “voice” in earlier comment threads was interesting (although I disagreed with much of what she said), I read her blog and many of her posts were well-written and provocative (ditto), and most importantly, she gets good reviews from reviewers I respect. One book I liked, one I didn’t. I’ll probably pick up more. I’ll probably keep reading her blog, although I will look at it with a different perspective now that I understand her to say that she sees it more as a marketing tool than a venue for personal self-revelation. (Once again, I’m not saying this is wrong; I think it’s very wise, in fact).
P.S. Moriah Jovan, I think I owe you another apology. After the third reading, I think you meant worried more about potentially hurting readers’ feelings by disagreeing with their tastes than that you were afraid of their anger? Is that correct?
I mean, I’m still not thrilled with being lumped in with the likely Speshul Snowflakes who can’t handle not everybody loving what they love, but I guess it’s better than being viewed as a potential unhinged threat. (We just had an all-day seminar on Preventing Violence in the Workplace, and I’m afraid I’ve got gun-toting lunatics on the brain)
Ah, you’ve made some excellent points. I don’t know whether I will change my mind and start reviewing author books (I know this isn’t your intent) and I’d still love to hear if the fact that I’ve posted I don’t read author’s books and so on has made people turn their nose up at me, but I understand where you are coming from. Excellent discussion, thank you. I mean that, truly. This has made me think and anything that makes my 49 year old brain think is a good thing.
Yes. Exactly. Sometimes I’m too pithy for my own good. I blame Twitter.
Let me explain. These labels, “professionalism” and “ethics,” particularly when it’s applied to this awful mashup of art and business, have zero meaning to me. It’s not about being professional or ethical, so long as you’re not stealing somebody else’s words and passing them off as your own.
I also don’t give a rat’s ass about whatever author’s club there is because I’m not a part of it and I don’t want to be. I’ve been the outlier in publishing and romancelandia since I first decided to self-publish, and I don’t feel a need to self-censor because of “professional courtesy” or whatever.
Now, I DO have friends who are authors and authors who’ve become friends, so I’m careful. Say one of my friends writes a crap book. If s/he doesn’t ask for my opinion, I’m not going to give it. If s/he does ask for my opinion, I’ll say it’s a crap book, but I’ll do it very carefully and attempt to be constructive. But I’m also not going to whap my friend in the head with “this is a crap book” in public with or without a head’s up. I just won’t say anything at all to anybody.
Because what I don’t want to do is hurt people’s feelings, particularly readers’. I know it’s unavoidable, but if I hurt someone’s feelings, it’s not intentional.
Each and every reader I get is precious. So when it comes to them, the minute you start giving bad reviews to authors YOUR readers like or even LOVE, then you’ve hit the rocks. I’ve managed to somewhat salvage that relationship I spoke of before, but the look on her face was just…I’d just broken her heart. She is never going to see my work in the same way. In that moment, I betrayed her. It’s something I’m never going to forget or stop regretting.
I’ve read most but not all the comments. I agree with Ridley and Leftcoaster’s comments.
I personally think that one can be professional while addressing problems within one’s profession – like a romance author criticizing misogyny in a specific book. In fact, I think that kind of criticism is essential for the health of a profession. I don’t think it’s particularly “nice” to let misogyny (or racism, homophobia etc) slide. I sympathize with some of the “be nice” responses – I was raised to be nice and not make waves, and sometimes snark makes me uncomfortable. But I think in this case, the snark was serving to point out problems we should be talking about.
I’ve thought about how to define or redefine “being nice” a lot. I teach art and design and part of my job is to teach college freshmen how to deal with criticism. We talk about cultural expectations about being “nice” or “respectful” and about how it’s not particularly nice or respectful to let someone think their work is great when you see a weakness in it.
@Cassie Knight – I agree with hapax. No author should feel compelled to review, either negatively or positively. One aspect of only giving recommendations is that your recommending power may lose effectiveness with readers.
I think what hapax and I are saying (amongst others) is that why is it “unprofessional” for an author to review negatively or speak out about tropes s/he doesn’t like. A very well regarded author tweeted that she didn’t like/read RLee Smith because her books normalize rape. I disagree but I don’t think that the very well regarded author is unprofessional by giving that opinion.
Chiming in again with something I forgot to mention earlier. Some publishers I have dealt with make it clear in the contract process that they do ‘check up’ on what authors post and how they behave on social media. It’s part and parcel of meeting deadlines, returning email in a timely fashion, and in general not behaving like a nit-wit.
I think we have all been amazed at the scandalous and self-incriminating posts of young people regarding their personal lives and have heard the ‘once you put it online, it’s there forever’ argument. It’s only wise to use restraint and, dare I say it, ‘professionalism’, when it comes to interacting with others in real life and in this virtual realm.
When I was first published, I shied away from posting reviews on Goodreads. At some point about a year ago I deliberately reversed that decision.
I’m a pretty critical reader, and I follow the Goodreads descriptions for the different star ratings (eg. 2 stars means “it was okay”). So my average rating is 2.89. Pretty low, I know.
But I don’t feel like I’m tearing people down when I leave reviews. I’m often critical of the books, but not of the authors, either as writers or as human beings. And I explain my ratings pretty clearly, so I hope they don’t seem vindictive or arbitrary.
Do I worry that this will hurt my writing career? (Maybe that’s what it means to be professional – worrying about your career!)
I do, a bit. But then I tell myself that people who like books with alpha-hole rapist heroes probably wouldn’t like my books anyway. I tell myself that maybe I could actually gain readers. Not in a coldly opportunistic way (like, I’m not trashing someone else to make myself look good), but because if someone else had the same problem with a book that I did, maybe that person would read my review and know that they could be safe from whatever the problem is if they try one of my books. Probably not, but maybe.
Mostly I just want to point things out. I want us all to get better. I’m fine with people writing critical reviews of my books (especially if they explain what they didn’t like – I really appreciate that) and I guess I hope that other authors will feel the same way.
I don’t know. It’s a bit of a gamble, I guess. But it’s fun!
Also (I meant to say this earlier), thank you for the apology. It’s very much appreciated.
As for my blog, I started it with the intention of marketing, but then I ran out of things to say.
Lately I’ve been contemplating the Zen of dusting knickknacks.
This is such an interesting discussion! I have to say, I’m disappointed though by how many people denigrate “bad” reviews as just snarking or ego-boosting or generally a bad thing to do.
Most writers I know have been avid and voracious readers long before they were published authors. We learn our craft from reading critically and acquiring those skills. The idea that any negative impression of a book is built on jealousy is a little bit patronizing and insulting – to readers and author/readers alike. Because how many reviewers are writers who just aren’t published yet?
Reading is something that we want to discuss, and for me, when I finish a book, I am FULL of thoughts and feelings and ideas and I want to write them down — because that’s what I’ve done for years, long before I ever finished writing anything.
And I write romance, but I feel like we romance writers want to be taken seriously and as a real genre of quality but at the same time we are a lot less likely to critically engage in it. Just an observation.
It’s a sticky subject and I think in the end, while I enjoy reading reviews, I am just as likely to pick up a well reviewed book as a negatively reviewed one. I’ve given 5 stars to a book that had an average rating of 2.3 on goodreads, not because I was asked for a review or wanted to support the author (another very famous one) just because I loved the book. And I’ve seen thousands of the most glowing reviews for books where I couldn’t get past the first page. Right now I am reading a book that my best friend (another writer who’s opinion I value hugely) sent me because she loved it so much I just HAD to read it and I hate it with every fibre of my being.
Reading is personal and reviews are interesting, and helpful, but I’ve often actually bought a book because someone reviewed it badly but I could glean from the review that what they hated is something I might enjoy. So… we really have to stop pretending like giving bad reviews is a terrible thing. It’s not. It’s just being a human being who enjoys books – because if you do that, then you will feel ecstatic joy and crushing frustration and both are valid.
I have to agree with the essay above though, that this term “professionalism” is tossed around too much. And I would question whether publicly criticising an author for publicly criticizing another is more professional than the inciting incident. Those tweets left me with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.
So did incidentally other authors’ reactions to the fan-rage over the Allegiant ending.
It’s all fun and games and 140-character snarkery to be RT’ed over and over until one day, you find yourself sitting at a writing luncheon and that same author is sitting next to you :). Or, you’re signing next to her and there is silence while other authors are chatting with the other authors next to them. Or, your editor hadn’t asked you and went ahead and asked said author to give you a quote for your next book. Or, she’s sitting in the taxi you’re sharing with the group because you’re in the same club/publishing house/etc holding the RITA/award she just won for the book you had so much fun live-tweeting/commenting about. And she’s smiling back at ya.
Not that you can’t or shouldn’t do it. All the above happened to me and vice versa, except there was no tweeting or FB’ing during my time. Just understand, life can serve you some funny moments.
Nowadays, I still do it with movies and TV shows. The chances of me being in a taxi with a movie star, though, and being recognized by said celebrity, is much, much slimmer, heh.
I only publicly review/promote books I enjoyed. Not because I think it’s unprofessional to do negative reviews, but I just don’t find leaving negative reviews worth the potential drama. It’s a risk vs. reward thing. It wasn’t a decision I came to easily because sometimes I feel like bursting because I want to discuss a book so badly. But I’ve learned to just reach out to my friends and discuss it in a non-public forum. Or I make my husband listen to me vent about wall-banger books, which I know he mostly blocks out. To me it comes down to–Who wants those awkward moments at the next conference? Some people may not care (more power to them), but I loathe that feeling, so I’d rather just not say anything than deal with it. Maybe that’s cowardly, but it is what it is.
Having said that, I’m against talking up a book just because I like the author or am friends with them. I have this inability to fake things *insert dirty jokes here*, so I don’t mind retweeting someone’s announcement of a contest or their book release to help them spread the word. But I won’t say I like a book if I didn’t. And same goes for blurbs. I stress when someone asks me to blurb because I know if I don’t like it, I’m going to have to tell them. I have declined to blurb more than once after reading a book. So if anyone sees me talking up a book, it means I honestly loved it. I do a Must-Read Monday feature on my blog and I looked back over this year–not one book I featured was by an author I personally know. They’re just books I’ve run across and enjoyed as a reader. And I skip that feature on the weeks I have no good books to share.
So yes, it’d be nice if we could all just talk openly and honestly about things and be cool with it, but there’s still too much gunk that comes along with it–having other authors take it personally, accidentally offending your readers because you pan a book they thought was the best book ever, having others see it as you being jealous or vengeful, etc. So I’ll stick to praising what I like in public because I love chatting about books I enjoyed, but if I didn’t enjoy something, I’ll save that for private discussions.
@Gennita Low: This all just sounds so alien to me. I do civil litigation – so at least two – three times a week I argue motions and maybe once or twice a month conduct a trial (our trials last couple hours but those are regular trials otherwise). When I argue motions – both myself and my adversary take a particular delight in pointing out what is wrong with our papers. Of course this is not the only thing we argue (there are also questions of law and fact heh), but sometimes winning on technicality (usually finding a mistake in what your opponent did) is the only way to win. Next day we laugh with each other, exchange stories, etc. Why can’t you (generic you) handle being face to face with somebody whose book you reviewed negatively? Unless your review was somehow dishonest or was trashing the other author as a person, why not? This is something I always wanted to understand, but never could.
From my own perspective, I find the idea that authors cannot review hilarious for a very particular reason – one of the most popular inappropriate responses to a negative review is “how many books have YOU published?” or “as someone who’s never been published, you can’t POSSIBLY UNDERSTAND how hard it is to write a book” or “you’re just jealous and bitter because your own stuff hasn’t been published!”
So you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you’re “just” a reviewer, you’re obviously not qualified enough to truly understand a great author’s work. But if you ARE an author, you’re taking an unfair advantage and betraying the secret sisterhood of travelling pantsers.
The only thing I can really do is be authentic to myself. Writing words makes me feel powerful – but therefore I have to acknowledge that my words have power, and with power comes consequences. So some people won’t like me. And some people will. But nobody likes a kiss-ass so trying to temper myself to suit another person’s preferences rather than my own won’t succeed anyway.
For me, I treat my reviewing as I do all my writing: it’s about expression, not confrontation. I never @ an author in negative tweets, I never make reviews personal, I never engage the author in anything negative. But I don’t sugar-coat why I hate a book .
And if I want to make a review comedic because the act of doing so is a cathartic and entertaining palate-cleanser for having to endure yet another barren heroine getting a miracle baby out of the womb the hero MacGuyver’d for her out of a deflated football and some experimental cat hormones, than I will. And I like to think that the readers I’ve accrued over nine years of reviewing know and appreciate that about me.
I got into reviewing because the people in my life don’t read romance novels or YA , and, in fact, dislike or look down on such genres. I’ve never had anyone in the IRL sphere of my life to discuss these books with – and more importantly, to discuss the things I sometimes HATE about the genre without getting the exasperated “This is why you should read REAL literature” comeback. So I found an awesome community online. I’m not going to give that up just because I’m an author now (or going to be – no exact release date yet).
@Sirius – that’s kind of where I come from too, obviously. I was just reading an expert witness report where the doctor said something like “I respect Dr. Y as a doctor but disagree with every opinion he wrote and here’s why.”
I write. I also read a lot and like to share my book experiences, and that includes reviewing. Disclosure of my relationship with another author, if any, is now part of my reviewing – so for example, if I “know” them as a fellow member of Romance Writers of Australia, in goes that fact.
I was going to stay out of this discussion, but have keyboard, must share! Actually, I wanted to make a more serious point about why my reviews concentrate on positive things. The negative stuff, the constructive stuff of analysing what didn’t work and why, is what I consider critiquing — and I find it very hard work and something I only commit to for pre-publication books. It’s about making that book better, not a future work.
Other reviewers are more skilled than me and more generous with the time they give. I’m “nice” in my reviews because to be “constructively nasty” requires more of me than I can spare.
As a reader, this discussion has been enlightening, but not, for the most part, in a good way.
The idea of “professional courtesy” among authors is pretty dismissive of (paying) readers. I don’t believe authors should have to remain silent or police their words about other authors’ books. But if they’re that sensitive, maybe they shouldn’t say anything at all. That would certainly be more ethical than feeling free to offer up (therefore essentially valueless) glowing cover blurbs/reviews/promos/etc. without providing more critical (and possibly negative) views to provide a more balanced perspective. To be more blunt, the whole “professional courtesy” thing reeks of hypocrisy and cronyism.
As an author who is constantly mining the personal for the professional (relationships, experience, history, family – you name it I’ve mined it) this post hit home for me. I wonder if this topic and it’s off-shoots will ever stop being a moving target.
I loved Ruthie’s essay on her stance on reviewing and recommending books and found it solidified a lot of the choices I’ve been wrestling with in the last few months. There is a sense of “damned if we do or damned if we don’t.” That at some point we just have to decide we don’t care about – or that we do.
There are a lot of the comments I totally agree with – writing reviews that add to the discussion – I find it really hard and far outside of my skill set. I also don’t finish a lot of books I don’t like – there just isn’t enough time. Great discussion.
@Jane: Yeah, I deal with doctor peer review reports a lot and they disagree with their peers on a regular basis. Funny thing is when in court I can see doctors testifying for plaintiffs and defendants chatting together then going to testify for the opposing sides, and not biting each other heads off afterwards.
Coming in very late to the conversation, I think part of the problem is that when you call out a book’s misogyny or other themes (there are some very, very racist and homophobic romance books out there!) is that a lot of people have a massive disconnect between “You wrote a racist thing” meaning “YOU ARE A RACIST AND A HORRIBLE PERSON”. Same goes for misogyny, and it’s often worse because it’s so internalized the response is “How can I possibly be misogynistic if I’m a woman?”. Again, the response isn’t this was a thing that was misogynistic, it’s translated as YOU ARE this.
A lot of people just can’t grok the difference between the two. I think it took my husband several years to go from “These guy say racist things that makes them horrible racists and I do not like racists because that would make me a bad person so clearly these guys didn’t say racist things” to “Wow, what they said there was pretty messed up, I don’t like what they said there but they also do many good things, it’s like human beings are complicated or something”. That’s just a transition I was able to watch and actively participate in, and I’ve seen it in friends as well. The knee-jerk reaction to “you said something problematic” is generally way out of proportion to how it SHOULD be, which brings in all the calls of bullying and being mean and such, but it’s definitely not just limited to Romancelandia.
I read authors who gush about how much they love other authors and working with them, or how much they love other authors but just don’t enjoy their books, or about how they can’t stand someone but wow can that person write, or who very diplomatically do not comment… and I like all of them for it. Some people are going to become unhinged over critical-but-not-mean reviews, some people are going to be nasty and petty and attack the author and not the book — I don’t think either of THOSE are professional, but I frequently have to remind video game professionals to wear clean clothing every day and that dead baby jokes are probably not appropriate for the newspaper interview, so I don’t even know what level of professionalism I expect authors to have.
Loved this essay and have found all the responses and counter-responses fascinating. The entire discussion brings to mind an issue I’ve had with the wonderful world of romance since forever – where is our short fiction market? Does it not exist because the genre doesn’t lend itself to the short form or because of this fear of honest criticism?
I began reading romance at an early age. Loved it – until I didn’t. I dropped the entire genre because it felt stagnant to me. Didn’t touch it for more than a decade. Fast forward to a couple years ago when I was looking for escapist fun. What I found was DA and SBTB. Both blogs were such a breath of fresh air up some pretty stagnant petticoats and both renewed my love of romance because of their honest (and yes, snarktastic) reviews.
So why does horror, sci-fi/fantasy, and mystery get such great incubators of talent and fresh approaches to topic like Nightmare, Clarkesworld, Apex, Shimmer, and many others? These short fiction ezines commonly publish stories by hugely successful authors (popular urban fantasy authors along with traditional epic fantasy and horror royalty) as well as brand spanking new writers no one’s heard of yet and there’s no fear of trying new things and failing. They’re never mediocre. They’re spectacularly fantastic or spectacularly terrible – and good or bad, have a freshness that is still largely missing in the romance genre right now.
Sorry to head so far afield of the original issue, but it’s been a frustration for me and I now think that this desire to be all things nice could be one of the reasons such a venture hasn’t succeeded in romance. How is the genre to grow if honest criticism is stifled? I was completely put off by the tweets of Kelly and Jeffries. If this is how experienced authors respond to criticism, by playing the you’re mean card, then I suspect the genre will continue to be thought of as precious and backward and those of us that find enjoyment in it will continue to be condescended to by those with more rarified literary tastes and it really pisses me off.
If authors don’t want to review, fine. If authors don’t want to review negatively and only give positive reviews, fine but they won’t hold any weight with me – just so much toilet paper. If authors review honestly I feel like they are doing their profession, the genre, the genre’s readers, and the authors they’re reviewing a huge service and that is as professional as you can get in my opinion.
Also, if there is a short fiction romance ezine or other source out there please let me know! I can’t find a thing and I’d subscribe in a heartbeat. I’m a reader not an author – but I’d love to see more growth in the genre, more courage to try new things (and no I don’t mean the dino-porn books), and some modern attitudes about craft and criticism. I’m always looking for new authors so engage me and others like me! Elizabeth Vail, you’ve won yourself one more fan.
@Gennita Low: In those situations, I agree there’s unprofessionalism. On the part of the author whose book was reviewed. If she can’t bring herself to make polite conversation with another author who didn’t like her book, then I don’t think she’s acting professionally at all.
@Jennifer: I’m afraid the only short fiction romance magazine I know is The People’s Friend and, well, it’s not exactly cutting edge. ;)
I’m responding to your question about the romance short fiction market. You might be interested to know that the free Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly (http://www.scifiromancequarterly.org/) will launch 11/15/13 (this Friday) and will feature an SFR short story in each issue. A tale by Kim Knox will be included in our first issue.
The Quarterly will also feature in-depth reviews of SFR titles, balanced as well as no-holds-barred (to qualify, the reviewers are by readers, not authors).
>try new things
That’s exactly what the team behind this new zine is attempting to do! (In the interest of full disclosure the team is KS Augustin, Diane Dooley, and me.) And the Quarterly is a paid short story market.
For more SFR short stories, you can try out the TALES FROM THE SFR BRIGADE anthology for free: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/329144
“These guy say racist things that makes them horrible racists and I do not like racists because that would make me a bad person so clearly these guys didn’t say racist things” to “Wow, what they said there was pretty messed up, I don’t like what they said there but they also do many good things, it’s like human beings are complicated or something”.
Respectfully, it’s not enough to gloss it over because “they do many good things”. That’s an excuse that’s been used far too many times, especially if a complaint if lodged. It’s the old “he/she can’t be ____. They’ve got a ____ friend!” or “But they’re so nice! I’m sure this was just a one time thing/lapse of judgment”
It’s being used right now in the Miami Dolphins bullying case, where Richie Incognito, as well as some of the black players who decided he was an “honorary brother” let him use the N word around them like running water. Their reasoning? The locker room is a whole different culture. Trouble is, Richie also went public with his use of the word (TMZ has a tape of him going off in a drunken tirade on of his teammates with the N word) there’s also a 2012 complaint lodged against him for molesting a female volunteer with a golf club, yet
some people are arguing that Incognito’s behavior is trivial in light of his skills on the football field and all his good deeds in the community.
Is Richie a complicated man? For sure. But part of him being complicated may include his views on minorities and women that show a serious lack of respect, whether he’s drunk or sober.
I’m not saying I disagree with you, because yes, there can be good in people who act horribly, and vice-versa. But because pointing out where someone may have crossed the line is uncomfortable for some people, then an offense is either covered up with excuses to justify the behavior, or the person offended is looked at as a “Big Weirdo” and made to feel as if they should just let it go.
Taking this back to the subject at hand, I recall prior discussions on Amazon regarding the BDB, specifically on why Trez and Iam were being utilized as glorified valets for Rev in some of the earlier books. A few authors as well as readers chimed in with valuable points on how these characters contribution to the popular series were uncomfortably like domestics of old. I don’t know whether this reached the ears of the author, but I’ve noticed in later books their roles have been altered.
Anyway, I’ve read the entire thread, and I’m enjoying the posts. I actually got into self-pubbing because I vehemently disagreed with what a high profile author had written.
I got backlash along the lines of “give her a break! She was trying to do a good thing!”
to “but other black people didn’t object.” I decided the best means and method to voice my personal objections, and went for it.
I must say, I really like the idea Jennifer had about a short fiction romance magazine as an incubator of new romance talent, especially if the offerings feature diversity.
@Jane: I agree with hapax. No author should feel compelled to review, either negatively or positively. One aspect of only giving recommendations is that your recommending power may lose effectiveness with readers.
I think what hapax and I are saying (amongst others) is that why is it “unprofessional” for an author to review negatively or speak out about tropes s/he doesn’t like. A very well regarded author tweeted that she didn’t like/read RLee Smith because her books normalize rape. I disagree but I don’t think that the very well regarded author is unprofessional by giving that opinion.”
I absolutely agree. No arguments here. The only time I noted unprofessional is when people target the AUTHOR not the book. I’m pretty sure that you all at Dear Author support that given your stand on comments–“We ask that when you are commenting, you address the content and ideas and not the commenter.” THIS is what I mean. Address the plot, characters, even craft but don’t say the author sucks. THAT is unprofessional in my book.
As I’ve said, authors are readers too and we should be able to review books without backlash from other authors. Absolutely.
I submitted a comment in response to Jennifer about 40 minutes ago. Was it lost in the aether? :)
@Heather Massey: It landed in the pending folder. I dug it out.
@ Ros: Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll check it out while keeping your description in mind. :) Their wiki page says they include knitting and sewing patterns. Dammit, I do knit. I am the cliche.
@ Heather Massey: Huzzah!!! Yes, yes, yes. *rubs hands gleefully* I’ve bookmarked it and am now officially awaiting the launch and watching the countdown page. Thanks for the antho link too.
@ wikkidsexycool: Yeah, it seems such markets foster an environment where fresh ideas and formats can be tried without fear – whether it’s racial/cultural diversity and themes or experimental story-telling formats. And yes, they sometimes fail horribly. But even those stories that fail still move the genre forward. I find myself thinking that’s brilliant just as often as WTF?
Thanks for the responses! Am so happy a zine is coming, ‘specially a sci-fi romance zine. Back to lurking and reading.
Thanks for your interest!
This has been an interesting, thought-provoking discussion. Like the actual Twitter conversation that sparked the post, this discussion highlights how easy it is to take Twitter conversations out of context.
If you read all of Sabrina Jeffries’ tweets, you’ll see she didn’t bully anyone in her Twitter comments. She spoke in an abstract sense, saying, “Civil discourse should actually BE civil.” I find it difficult to argue with that principle on any level.