Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Reviews in Romance Land

Once again, Maureen is tackling a subject about which she has more opinions than knowledge, but I can't help myself.

From what I can discern, because newspapers and literary review journals have never, ever, taken the romance genre seriously enough to review any of the books, except very grudgingly and with much disdain, the genre, up until the past five to ten years, hasn't been subject to the same kind of critical scrutiny as has, say, literary fiction.

RT magazine (and maybe others?) filled in the gap that this snobbery created, but they're generally known to be gentle in their reviews, never issuing the kind of blistering criticism that so often hits books reviewed by Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, the NYT and other major newspapers, or even Library Journal. Yes, RT likes some books more than others and a great review there is a big deal, but they rarely tear books to shreds.

Then the internet, and particularly the one-button-publishing of blogs, came along and changed everything. Several new sites emerged to specialize in reviewing romance. Today there are many.

And from what I can tell, the vast majority of these review sites are also pretty soft on the books. Gentle. Perhaps it's because we're 99.9% women. Perhaps it's because the genre already takes such a beating in the public eye, that the reviewers figure criticizing a romance novel is tantamount to criticizing the genre they love. But for whatever reasons, reviewers on many of these sites seem to like virtually everything they read, or at least only review the ones that they like. Or find benign things to say about the ones they don't.

That's fine, if that's what they choose to do. Everyone who has a blog, or magazine, or newsletter or column, or other venue to express their opinions, is free to do so. As an aspiring author, I've chosen to avoid reviewing books, full stop, rarely do it, because I don't want friends to think that because I didn't review their book, I didn't like it. (Okay, I've actually chosen to avoid reviewing books because I'm lazy. And have no aspirations to be a book reviewer. Not my thing. Except maybe while drinking with Molly and Sinead.)

But what I don't understand, or agree with, is the backlash against a few review sites, most notably the ones which are hard on books they don't like, (like Dear Author and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and Mrs. Giggles) -- the sites where reviewers speak their opinions clearly and honestly and often with humor.

Why all the hate for these sites, as if they're doing something evil or mean? Why accuse them of attacking authors when they're simply describing why they did not enjoy a some authors' books? (Perhaps it's the humor people object too? Don't know.) And it doesn't take more than a moment on theses sites to know they LOVE the genre and LOVE some books in it. Just not every one.

Writing is very a personal process, but publishing decidedly is not. Nor is reviewing. It's not personal. Reviewers are not attacking you if they don't like your book.

As Smart Bitch Sarah said, when she visited our blog a few weeks ago and we asked her and Candy about the controversy their blog sometimes generates:
“...saying I disagree with you” very rarely means “I don’t like you,” nor does it mean “You’re wrong and I’m right.” “I disagree” are not words upon which to detonate massive bombs and shit. ... “I didn’t enjoy your book” does not mean “I deplore the fact that you’re breathing.”
Almost all writers endure tons of rejection and criticism on their way to becoming published authors. I don't get why authors can't take a little criticism after they are published. Sure, it's slightly more public than the criticism they've likely had to that point, but that's because their book is now public -- a good thing.

I've discussed this with a few people before, and was aware that there was a school of thought amongst certain romance authors that some romance review websites were "too mean", but I was appalled this week, to read Michelle Buonfiglio's transcript of an address she gave at an academic conference on romance, held at Princeton. The thesis of her address seemed to be that open honest discussion of the genre was only okay if it was "nice". Not only did she suggest that academics might look to blogs to do research on the genre (ridiculous enough in itself) but that they should only look at HER blog, because everyone posting there was nice (as opposed to her competitors' sites that were mean.

Her arguments fed into so many stereotypes about the romance genre, and the women who write and read it, that it made me embarrassed to be associated with the genre. I'm not even going to link to the transcript of her talk... but will link to the Sarah Wendell's smart response. She linked to the address if you're interested.

And here's what I think.

I don't believe in mean for the sake of being mean. Not at all. But criticism makes us stronger. Criticism makes us better. And even if we're incapable of learning from it, criticism is part of the entertainment business. Anyone who produces work intended to entertain the public -- whether they be writers or musicians or actors or poets or supermodels -- is subject to public scrutiny of their work. Putting your shit out there, means risking some people telling you it doesn't smell as nice as you think it does. Comes with the territory. If you don't want to get a negative review? Don't publish your books.

Will I jump for joy when I get a horrible review some day? No. I'm not that emotionally evolved. I'll probably crumple up into a little ball and cry, and then go get drunk with my friends to talk about how wrong the review was, maybe burn the reviewer in effigy. But then I'll get over it and either thank the reviewer for taking the time to look at my work, and/or I'll try not to think about it ever again. Even if I can't erase it from my mind, I'll know it's part of the business, suck it up, and move on.

And I'll act like a grown up and simply be glad at least someone read and mentioned my book.


Kristen Painter said...

I cringe internally thinking about getting a bad review, but I'd be nuts to think everyone will love my work.

Louisa Edwards said...

There definitely is that school of thought, too, that DA and SBTB are such dominant trend makers right now that even if they pan your book, the exposure is still good for you. I'm sure it's not easy to remember that in the moment of receiving your D+ grade, but the next morning, when the sun rises as usual and the world hasn't ended? Maybe a little perspective becomes possible.

Amy Ruttan said...

I am terrified of Mrs. Giggles, but that's just because of me knowing I would crumple into a ball if she hated it; but I wouldn't go out and berate her and call her snarky names for the review. She abhors and author I admire, and I would never stop reading the author because of it. Sometimes I think the worse her review is the better the book does. LOL.

I've been lucky, I haven't had a bad review yet. I've had mediocre, but majority has been good. I don't go searching for my reviews either.

I was also nervous about my first RT review, and it came the other day in the mail. A 4 I can live with that. Especially since they gave a few erotic NY authors some ones.

But in reality I don't write to please everyone, and that is just a fact of life.

Eileen said...

When I heard Smart Bitches were going to review my latest I held my breath. I knew they'd say EXACTLY what they thought. (the review was actually quite nice- Thank God)

Reviews can be brutal. It's best not to focus on those that are negative. Life's too short.

Molly O'Keefe said...

Reviews are reviews and I think if we want the books we love to be taken seriously outside of romance land (and maybe we don't - that's valid too -- we're happy here, making all this money) but if we want the genre itself to be taken seriously - it needs critisism - the books that are the best need tobe touted as the best, as standouts, as things that rise above a HUGELY CROWDED GENRE - we need to give people a chance, who don't like the genre, to be introduced to the best of it so they can fall in love with the rest of us.

When everyone gets five cookies, or coffee cups or flaming hearts, I think we all suffer. I think Michelle, from what I gather, doesn't review books she doesn't like. And that's a more polite way of giving someone a failing grade.

I don't like mean for mean either, and some of the stuff on SB and DA came off to me as mean. Does that lessen the power of thier good reviews? Nope. And frankly, a little controversy is good for a bunch of people trying so hard to be nice all the time.

Anonymous said...

I think these so called "mean" reviewers have the wrong end of the stick when it comes to why people have problems with their websites. They think it has to do with their honest reviews. Maybe it has more to do with ad hominem attacks, blanket refusals to print corrections for printing industry misinformation, and encouragement of rabid pileons in their comments section.

Bad reviews are par for the course, and there are LOTS of bloggers in LOTS of genres that give them, not to mention in the regular press. You never see anyone going, "Wow, the New York Times, they're so mean!" when they ravage a book.

It has nothing to do with honest or even harsh reviews, IMO.

Sinead M said...

I love those sites, but I'm not getting reviewed by them. That might change if I were.

However, I know I use the reviews and buy the books they give high marks to and usually I'm not disappointed.
I wish people outside the genre would do so, so at least they would understand why we love the genre so much and what a good romance really is.

Maureen McGowan said...


I completely agree that you don't see people saying the NYT is mean. That was my point.

And I also haven't really seen evidence of the ad hominem attacks to which you refer. Instead, I've observed authors who received bad reviews from these sites, telling others they were attacked... and all of a sudden everyone believes these sites attack people.

Sure, some of the commenters on the blogs go off point and make personal comments that have nothing to do with the books (or plagiarism, or whatever topic is being discussed) but I'm also glad these sites don't censor their followers.

Tough line to draw, though. I admit.

Maria Geraci said...

Great post, Maureen. A bad review can really sting (I know first hand, my PW review still makes me cringe!) but it's part of the business. I try to write the type of story I myself would want to read and I think if you can make yourself happy in that regard, then the not-so-glowing reviews won't matter so much. Everyone has an opinion, and the fact that your book is being reviewed is a victory in itself. It means you're being read!

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