Monday, September 23, 2013

We need more thoughtful criticism. Not less.

As romance writers we can no longer in one breath bemoan the romance genre’s lack of credibility, cry that no one respects the books we write, hate the fact that they are considered trash/mommy porn at worst, escape/beach reads at best, and then in the next breath complain about bad reviews. “Mean” reviews. Critical reviews.

It sucks getting a bad review. There’s no question about it, it’s debilitating and some of them can be snarky and personal and the ones with the gif’s…? Oh, it’s a stab to the heart that can send me right back to bed.

But our genre’s path to credibility and respect is through more thoughtful criticism. Criticism from people who love the genre, who read all across the genre, who write their reviews with an understanding of context and history. Who can explain why a book works – not just emotionally but technically - and more importantly why it doesn’t. Reviewers who understand a genre that has deep ruts but at the bottom of those ruts there is still gold to be found.

If the New York Times Book Review is the epitome of credibility, then we need reviews and reviewers that hold our books to the highest standard. Men and women who can write a great review, even if it’s a bad one.

But in order to get those voices, we need to let all the voices talk. Obviously, there are reviews that cross a terrible line; reviews should be about books, not about authors. Personal attacks against authors because you don’t like the books he or she writes, have no place in the romance community. And the same can absolutely be said for authors who go after reviewers who give “bullying” reviews.

And frankly, I’m glad I’m not in any position to have to monitor a community, be it Goodreads, or a chat room or a blog. Talk about a thankless job, but I think there are ways to do it that are fair and equitable and civil, to both readers and writers.

Buying reviews or review sites that only hand out glowing reviews – these things aren’t going to serve us in the long run. If we want to be taken seriously in the literary world, we need to take ourselves seriously and behave professionally and that means sucking it up when those gif reviews come in. There are reviewers out there who only review books they like – and I completely understand this. In terms of the way I talk about books on-line, this is the camp I fall into. But there is a difference between a discerning good review and a generic one.

Reviews don’t change the way I work. Or how I view my books. I don’t expect reviewers to appreciate in any way the work I’ve put into the book – that’s not their job. I have a book out in October and the bad reviews will come. They always do. But I’ll take a well-written bad review if it takes the work seriously and elevates the discussion about romance novels. In my opinion that should be part of our collective goal – discover our next great stay up all night book to read and raise high this genre we all love.


Kristina Knight said...

great points, Molly! Although I read across the genre (and write contemporary romances), I've never put a ton of stock in reviews. Before I was published, I relied on recommendations from trusted friends...and I do the same thing now. And it isn't just for books: I'm more apt to rely on recommendations for laundry detergent or jeans or lunch box ideas from friends rather than the Internet at large. I agree, though, that thoughtful criticism, be it for books or new eye shadow, is more likely to influence my purchases...

Maureen McGowan said...

Very well said, Molly.

While I think there is "bad behavior" on the internet from both authors and reviewers/readers, I think many authors confuse thoughtful and/or scathing criticism as bullying, a personal attack, or simply mean.

If you don't like a book, it's not mean to say so, any more than it's mean to say you don't like a movie or the food at a restaurant.

And if authors publish books -- whether it be through a publisher or self-publishing -- they are inviting comments--good or bad. If you don't want anyone to criticize your writing--don't publish.

Yes, in the "old days" one could rely on the editors of magazines and newspapers, which carried reviews, to hold the reviewers to a high standard and to correct factual errors if they were made... But those days are gone.

Anyone can review now and we have to take the bad with the awesome. And there is a lot of awesome too.

Nothing beats the feeling of having readers tell you they loved your work. And while it stings to have them say they hated it... I think we often forget that in the "old days" hearing from so many fans was also rarer than it is now.

We have to take the bad along with the good.

Maureen McGowan said...

And FWIW, I don't ever post bad reviews. But it's not because I'm taking some moral high ground, or don't want to be "mean"...

For me, it's more professional courtesy. As well as some more self-serving thoughts of wondering if I'll ever meet, or worse need a favor from, an author whose book I didn't enjoy.

If I were a chef with my own restaurant, I wouldn't post scathing negative restaurant reviews for the restaurant across the street from me. It's almost impossible to come across unbiased when you're in the same business, and that's the reason I don't post bad (or even very many good) reviews of books.

But if I weren't publishing? I'd tell it like it is, like I do often with movies.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Ditto what Maureen said.

Plus I'll add -

1. I'm done with the word "bullying". Like everything else we've overused it so now anytime someone "feels" bad about something they've been bullied.

2. You can't "attack" someone with a review. It's a few sentences on a website, not a knife in a dark alley. Can reviewers get personal, sure. But usually those types of reviews are immediately identified by anyone reading them as not valid because they focus on the author and not the work. Does it feel great to have someone say negative things about you as a person? Nope. It sucks. But GET OVER IT.

3. Authors will attract 3 types of readers. Fans, haters, somewhere in between.

Fans you should adore, haters you should ignore because they will most likely not being buying your books. And if the somewhere in between folks give you a negative review - then isn't it worth reading that critique and maybe learning something from it? Or if not, then that's fine too.

4. Any author who responds to a negative review in anyway other than... "hey thanks for your insightful review." needs to stop publishing. Because if you can't accept that people will say things you don't like in this business, then you are not cut out for this business.

Feeling very ranty today....

Eileen said...

Hoo, boy! This is a loaded one. I'm not crazy about the unregulated review situation. As authors, we have few enough ways to protect ourselves as it is. I'm pretty sure I've never ever heard anyone advise an author to respond to a negative review and I've only ever seen it go well once (Pregnesia, anyone?).

I've heard some nightmarish stories about Goodreads. One in particular where people were advocating physical violence against an author because she had asked a question. Not cool, kids. Not cool.

I do pay attention to at least some of the reviews. Let's face it, sometimes they have a point and it's something I can address in future books. That's actually helpful.

OTOH, I had one person say my book was crap because someone in the book is diagnosed with cancer and she was tired of cancer books. Not much I can do with that. I was writing about my personal experiences and cancer loomed large. it does for a lot of people.

She didn't say she didn't care for my book. Or didn't recommend. She called it crap.

Do I think the review should be taken down? Nah. It doesn't reach a level of malice that would warrant that. Was it hurtful? You bet. Was it helpful to other readers? I doubt it. Does that reviewer realize that I felt sucker punched? Probably not and she probably wouldn't care if she did.

I guess what I want is more civility, not just in reviews but on the Internet in general. Remember there are people behind these avatars whether you're reviewing a book or commenting on a news story.

Apparently, that's actually too much to ask.

Ooh, Steph. You're feeling ranty I'm going all Eeyore.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Eileen - I will add to your point about civility though. Because I do think we've lost some of it. I was watching Bill Maher and he was actually talking about the concept and what has caused it. He quoted tweets that were so awful they were funny...

Is it social media? The idea we can now express our opinions immediately with the world behind the protection of an avatar or twitter name or reviewer label? Does this give us some free pass that's made everyone want to spew the negative?

I was following the Twitter feed during the Naval Yard shooting and the level of vitriol between people over the "gun" debate was so stunning to me I had to stop reading it.

So it doesn't surprise me that book reviews... seriously FICTIONAL BOOK REVIEWS... have also become filled with a level of acrimony that seems unprecedented (not all... just some)

I guess that's why I'm saying we just have to toughen up. The poison is out there... for whatever reasons. We have to stop letting ourselves get sick from it.

Simone St. James said...

I come from the world of TV production. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is snarked on the internet like TV. There are entire sites dedicated to mean, snarky recaps. Great shows, that took years of work and millions of dollars from creative people at the top of their game, like Game of Thrones, get ripped regularly by snark.

Even the most sensitive authors love to rip up TV.

In twenty years, I never met anyone in TV who cared. I never met anyone in TV who even reads those sites. These are people who do creative work and put their names in the credits, and often their faces onscreen, just like authors. Writers who took years to get a script made. If you said you were upset over a bad review, they'd just look at you like you were out of your mind.

I'm still getting used to these review dust-ups in the publishing world. They just seem strange to me.

Eileen said...

So true, Simone. There's a lesson there. Keep your head up and keep working.

Maureen McGowan said...

I admit I'm kind of on the fence about the goodreads thing. I think the policy sounds right, but they should have given the offenders a chance to change their reviews/shelves.

I too would like there to be more general civility on the web... but kind of like how I hope for world peace.

Maureen McGowan said...

I just realized I said I agreed with the GR policy changes... but I have to admit I haven't read them and concede that they probably have issues (I've certainly read some valid arguments against them on blogs) and that they aren't being applied consistently...
But shelves like "author should die", and bad reviews based on not liking an author or their politics, without having read the book, seem wrong to me.

If you don't like an author's behaviour (or politics) then don't buy their books. No need to downgrade their review rankings, IMHO. Book reviews should be about the books... Whether you love them or hate them.

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