Thursday, April 14, 2011

Moving Target: Who are Book Reviews Really For?

I did my column for Jessewave this week, and the topic was the new -- and not always healthy -- changing relationship between reviewers and authors.

Now the purpose of the column was not to hurt anyone's feelings -- these columns are never intended to hurt feelings, but merely to introduce a topic of discussion that I think needs...discussing.

Anyway, it quickly became clear that many reviewers were hurt/resentful/indignant -- or just plain surprised -- at the idea that authors might not read their own reviews.

And in a way this gets right to the heart of the conflict. Reviewers say that they write reviews for readers, not authors. When authors unwisely respond to reviews that seem unfair or inaccurate or malicious or whatever, the authors are generally slammed with the Crazy stamp, reminded that reviews are for readers and not authors, and sent away to bed without supper.

You see what I'm getting at?

You can't justify writing anything you like, no matter how unfair or offensive, based on reviews-are-for-readers-not-authors but then be upset at the idea authors might choose not to read those reviews. You can't insist that you don't need any qualifications or credentials or standards or anything but your personal opinion, but then be outraged if authors dare to suggest they aren't going to listen to you.

We've got this nutty conflict where we want authors to regard our reviews as they would regard a review in the New Yorker, but we don't want to be restrained or inhibited in anything we say -- nor is the author allowed to respond. Any response is considered a flagrant violation of the reviewer/author rules of conduct.

But those rules of conduct are changing because reviewing itself is changing.

And you can't have it both ways. You can't insist that you're free to write anything you want without any restriction because you're "writing for readers not authors" but then be angry or hurt if authors choose not to read and interact with you. Or if we do interact in a way you don't like, throw the, er, book at us for violating the Code of Conduct.

It was very clear from the comments to the post that many reviewers do write partially for the writer, and that they hope their reviews will have some effect for good on the writer. So I suspect that we all need to stop pretending that reviews are only for readers because in this new reviewer/author paradigm, some reviewers are most certainly hoping to influence authors. Why are we pretending otherwise?

Now what does that ultimately mean for all of us? I have no idea. It's the starting point of the discussion, not the answer. I think it means we all need to be a little more self-aware of how we're interacting and what our real expectations are.


  1. I haven't yet read the post on Jessewave (due to time), but I know I write reviews because I want to help--whether it's a reader deciding to buy the book or an author looking for feedback. Maybe it's because I'm small time, but I don't really expect anyone to read my reviews, so I'm pleased with whoever does (and whoever takes the time to comment). Maybe I'm too zen about the whole thing, but reviewers acting like they can't be wrong (err, misguided) in their review is the same as authors thinking their books are perfect/shouldn't be given negative reviews.

    No one wants their creative endeavor torn into, but if someone can't handle it, then they probably shouldn't publish it for public consumption. It'd be nice if everyone could be respectful in their reviews/responses, but it's not going to happen. As long as what's being said isn't false, then I think some people need to calm down.

  2. We write for different reasons but we all publish because we want to share our work -- be it fiction or non-fiction. And it's great when other people appreciate what we do, but that appreciation is never universal. And anyone who expects universal praise for anything in their life is doomed to disappointment.

    Even those who love us best find things to criticize. Let alone those who don't know us except through our creative endeavors.

    There's room out there for all kinds of reviews. Informal reviews and formal reviews and interpretative dance routines. And while I can offer my opinion on how reviews should be written, and reviewers can offer opinion on how my books should be written, basically we're all going to do what we want, what the creative spirit drives us to do.

    All we can hope is that we do the best we can and that we're professional -- or at least self-aware -- in our actions.

  3. I try to make sure I don't type anything that I wouldn't want to be used as a quote. Once you put something in writing (especially in cyberspace) you no longer control who sees it or the context in which it's placed.
    The printed word doesn't have the benefit of facial expression or tone of voice to soften it's impact. Reader's can't always tell if the writer is being sarcastic or going for humour.
    Both authors and reviewers need to step back from these flame wars. A little professional courtesy can go a long way.

  4. Thanks, Pender. I think a great rule of thumb is...just give people the benefit of the doubt. A little tolerance goes a long way toward peaceful interaction.

    Sometimes people who spend a lot of time on the net have a tendency to live for the drama and the blowups, and often there really isn't a lot to get worked up about if you stop and consider the other person's viewpoint for just a few seconds.