There’s been quite a hullabaloo in literary circles of late about the love/hate relationship between reviewers and writers. I don’t like to make knee-jerk comments on issues that are this highly charged. Letting them stew tends to allow the language center and the limbic system of my brain time to mesh with each other.
And I think my opinion on the subject comes down to integrity.
Before I dive in too deep I want to make it explicitly clear that this post is in no way pointed at anyone specific. These are general observations and ideas for/about the industry as a whole. Moreover, REVIEWERS ARE AWESOME!! Also, AUTHORS ARE AWESOME!! We are, however, also people. And sometimes people just suck. No getting around it.
But integrity can help us be true to our awesome natures. In fact, I’m reasonably certain that might be a functional definition of the word. In a situation like the one The Guardian reported on in recent weeks, integrity on both sides of the story would have eliminated the bizarre circumstances and made the whole thing evaporate. And there were plenty of places along that journey that an act of honesty would have neutralized what became such a controversial and chilling story.
Since I am one, let’s start with authors.
When you write a book, you want to make sure it is successful. You have a vested interest in it performing well and in it being represented fairly. The first step to this is write a GOOD book. And then be honest with yourself about what you wrote. If you are putting a bunch of teenage sex on the page, you are inviting your reviewers into conversations about rape and slut-shaming and all kinds of other dicey topics. So don’t be shocked when they engage in such discussions. Even if you are thinking to yourself, that’s not how I meant it, that’s not how I see it, you work in a subjective industry where other people get to make up their own minds about what the author presents. You don’t want people to say that you are making light of a certain disease/group/social issue? Don’t write about it. HOWEVER, if you feel like you really need to write about that topic, then be realistic with yourself about the potential for others to take your words out of context. Their own experiences are going to color the way they see your story. Deal with it. Move on.
That, however, does not mean you role over and take abuse. There are channels and means available to authors to push back against unfair and inaccurate reviews. Report the bad in the way recommended by the site. Rally your troops to go review your book in positive terms with lots of stars!! Do the due diligence of marketing by getting your book into as many hands as possible so that you can (hopefully) drown out the haters with positivity. Do not engage in online debates about your book, let other readers who get your vision do that. And if there is no one standing up for you, then maybe it is time to admit that this book wasn’t a great offering. Maybe you need more study/practice/editing for the next time around.
STALKING THE REVIEWER IS NOT COOL!! MAKING PEOPLE FEEL AFRAID FOR EXPRESSING AN OPINION (regardless of how idiotic or vulgar) IS NOT THE BEHAVIOR OF GOOD, CIVILIZED PEOPLE!!!
Writers need reviewers. They help our readers find us. They make us more visible. If the good ones start going to ground because we authors cross the line in terms of retaliation at the ones that just suck, then how will we build a following or expect anyone to give us the time of day? Part of having integrity as an author is knowing your own limits in terms of what you can handle reading about yourself and what you can’t. Maybe you need someone to check Goodreads and Amazon for you and present you with only the most glowing sentiments. Or maybe you just need someone to say, “Ok, brace yourself, this one’s a bit harsh.” Perhaps you should eschew all interaction with the outside world and just write the next book. (I know I’m seriously considering digital isolation).
Reviewers, however, are not off the hook. Posting a review for a book you have not read is dishonest, unethical behavior. Yeah, I said it. I don’t care how busy you are, I don’t care how much you hated the cover, if you are not giving the book a complete read-thru before offering a review then you are acting without integrity. And that includes a five star review.
Look, everyone likes seeing those shiny, five pointed shapes next to the title of their book, but if they aren’t earned then they are a lie to the reader. Giving someone a five star review if you haven’t read it is just as wrong as tossing one star out at a book whose title fonts rubbed you the wrong way. In a similar vein, remembering that you are telling other readers what to expect and what you (really) think, should be at the forefront of every serious reviewer, particularly those that build a blogging platform and internet presence on such. I would think, that in the interest of other people taking reviewers seriously, the integrity of the honest opinion would be a high priority. Too many bad reviews to books that were actually ok, or five stars on every book you ever review regardless of quality will eventually drive people away from you. They will know that you are not being forthright about what you are reading.
Moreover, for heavens sake, be honest about the content you encounter. If there is a legitimate issue with a book’s content, then rate it accordingly and describe the issue in fair and informative terms. Reviews are not merely an expression of opinion (or I suppose in my own opinion they shouldn’t be). You are informing other readers about what reading the book did or didn’t do for you, and vulgar, expletive laden reviews don’t make you more right. They just make you vulgar and covered in, well, you know.
GOING AFTER THE AUTHOR PERSONALLY IS NOT A REVIEW OF THE BOOK!!! AND IT IS NOT COOL!! SAYING THAT A WRITER IS DESERVING OF VIOLENCE OR CALLING THEM AWFUL NAMES FOR WRITING A BAD BOOK IS NOT THE BEHAVIOR OF GOOD, CIVILIZED PEOPLE!!!
Posting a troll of a review in an attempt to get the author or other reviewers to engage in a petty online debate is not ethical or polite. It is selfish, divisive, unproductive behavior that only serves to tell others you aren’t worth interacting with. And when you engage in any of the above behaviors you make writers afraid to post and put themselves out there. You make it harder for us to interact online with fans and reviewers alike because we have to be ever more cautious, lest we say something that will be taken out of context and used to ruin our careers, or at the least make us persona non grata in specific corners of the digital world.
On a personal note, my favorite review of The Accidental Apprentice so far was from Matt Ely. It was posted to Goodreads as 4 stars, but the original was posted at JC’s Book Haven as a 3.5 stars- Better than Good. It is my favorite because it is completely honest. It is the perfect example of integrity in reviewing. I get to feel great about the stuff I did well because I know he is being honest about them since he includes, in very clear terms, the things he struggled with. I now have some great input about how to improve in the future. And I hope Matt will grace future works with similar honesty.
I love all those that have given me a review. And I am so grateful for every review I get. It tells me that the book is getting out there. It tells me that I have made (a very tiny) impact. And it gives others who may be passing by a heads up, “Hey someone actually read this book, and thought something about it.” Sometimes that’s enough to make a fellow reader curious about picking it up.
So conclusion? Writing and publishing books is a subjective field. As a result, like every other industry, it only works if all those participating do so with integrity. Honesty about how well/poorly a book is written, how interesting/boring it is, and treating each other with dignity (as well as behaving with dignity) are the only way we can trust each other. It’s the only way this relationship works. And if that wonderful give and take breaks down, what is left will never be as true to our awesome natures as it could be. And the loss of that potential, rather than a ranking on some social media site, is the real casualty.