Burying the hatchet

31 07 2010

My first editor was a morose sort of chap who used to intone gravely “there’ll be tears before bedtime” at moments of conflict or stress. But he gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever had – don’t get too close to contacts, or it’ll compromise your ability to be impartial.

It’s once of the reasons as a reviewer that I’ve kept my distance from writers and musicians. I don’t go to meet and greets or signings, and tend to avoid conventions and writing festivals. It’s much easier to be honest about a book or an album if you’re not worried about hurting a friend’s feelings. That’s not to say I’d want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but reviewers who aren’t honest make me grind my teeth. I always want to shout: “You’re a reviewer, not a PR person for the author!”

In 25 years of reviewing, I’ve only written a handful of reviews where I couldn’t think of a single positive thing to say about the book or album. Usually there’s something good you can clutch on to like Linus and his comfort blanket to soften the criticisms.

Most authors are refreshingly pragmatic about less than glowing reviews and keep their thoughts to themselves. A few, though, send ranty or hurt and doggy eyed emails about how you’ve clearly misunderstood their opus and how everyone else liked it . . .

I have a prepared response now: “Thank you for your email, but I don’t enter into discussion about reviews I’ve written.” I mean, do they think I’m suddenly going to say: “Oh, silly me, I clearly can’t recognise classy writing when I see it, you’ve shown me the errors of my ways, so let me go and change my review . . .”?

I had a classic this week, with capital letters in the subject line and half a dozen pars of whining about my review. The irony was, I hadn’t completely trashed the book and had commented that I’d probably read something else by the author. I resisted the temptation to respond with the observation that if she thought I’d done a hatchet job then she’d have a surprise when she saw a totally negative review. I deleted the email without responding – it had the feel of a missive written to get something off someone’s chest. Maybe I should send her the bill for therapy . . .

It was in stark contrast to a very gracious email from an author whose first book I really hadn’t rated. She’d sent a polite ‘thanks for reviewing it’ note at the time and then got back in touch to say her second book was out, if I was interested. Coincidentally, my review copy had just arrived, so I picked it up, started reading and 100 pages in am enjoying it a great deal more than the debut novel.

When it comes to the next book from Ms Whiner, though, I shall be too busy watching paint dry . . .

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14 responses

31 07 2010
Ayo Onatade

Really good! You have said all the stuff that keeps on going round and round in my brain.

31 07 2010
lartonmedia

Thanks, Ayo! It’s been in my head for a while, but the email this week persuaded me to commit the thoughts to print!

31 07 2010
bookwitch

If it’s bad I tend to either not finish the book (life IS too short) or not to review it. But yes, having befriended a lot of writers I now suffer in fear of what to do if I don’t want to read their latest book, or if I didn’t like it.

Too late to change that now, though.

However, I’m friendly with some very good authors. So it’s not all bad. And I was recently thanked profusely for a review I’d not written.

31 07 2010
lartonmedia

The same editor hammered it in to me that you finish a book if you’re reviewing it, so I am incapable of putting it aside and reviewing something else! And I always feel a reviewer should warn the reader if a book sucks!

I’m friendly with some lovely authors. I now decline to review their books on the grounds of conflict of interest . . .

31 07 2010
Fionnchú

I’ve rarely gotten e-mails from authors, but the few times via Amazon US that I did have confirmed your own experiences. One author clarified a question I’d raised in my review and I acknowledged his comment and revised the post. That was great. A few others have left brief thanks in my e-mail, which pleased me. Some have asked me especially if abroad via, say, FB, to send on my reviews from my blog / Amazon US to them, but they have not usually followed up to reply to my reviews. Which as you may agree may be just as well. The distance is important to keep for critical honesty, as commenters above seem to also have found.

There’s a blessing for me in obscurity, even if it means I lack the “street cred” to get review copies, I must wait for library copies and by then, whatever I review’s behind the curve. That relates to a difficulty that perhaps another blog post of yours might address: how “big” must a blogger be before he or she gets the clout to be treated like a “traditional” print or now web-aggregate media-noticed critic? And, what dangers might this bring?

(Also on FB, I sent on this paragraph:) I always suspect (as w/ Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story” reviewed this week), that the first negative ratings on Amazon for any less-than five-star gush are from the author and his/her publicist, and their allies. I see this trend of negative ratings that push down to “less helpful” status any decent reviewer measuring praise. As I rarely give any title 5 stars, am I paranoid, or realistic about such patterns?

31 07 2010
lartonmedia

Hello John! I actually feel quite uncomfortable with an author does contact me, which is why I tend to keep any response short and polite.

The question of how big bloggers must get is an interesting one. I know quite a lot of crime fic bloggers get review copies. My perception is that a lot of them then won’t criticise a book in case their free supplies dry up.

We’ve always made it abundantly clear that http://www.reviewingtheevidence.com is not a blog (we turned down an award the other day!) and that it’s an independent review site. Again, I have a pre-prepared line for authors and publishers approaching us — that we never guarantee that a review will appear, or that it will be glowing.

I avoid Amazon reviews — there’s been ample evidence that a lot of the gushing reviews, or clicking on ‘unhelpful’ comes from authors and their mates.

31 07 2010
bookwitch

Fionnchú – getting review copies isn’t all that hard. You need to have something to show first, so they can see you are serious and that you cover a similar area to what they publish.

What’s hard is keeping up and being able to say no to books.

I also try to make the point that I’m not a newspaper or similar, and I feel it’s more useful to write a good review for a good book, than to say bad things about a bad novel. Because I’m not being paid or promising to review, I don’t have to finish reading anything, if I don’t want to.

One of the longest weeks in my life was when trying to finish a book by GP Taylor, and it’s not an experience I want to repeat.

31 07 2010
lartonmedia

This is where I know we disagree, Ann! I will review a bad book and I’ll say it’s bad. I know a lot of that is down to newspaper reviewing where you finished what you were told to review! I also think it’s unhelpful to readers if they only read positive reviews. I once suggested to a reviewer that she offered reviews elsewhere — *every* review (and she produced at least one a day) was gushing. She seemed very surprised when I asked her if she ever read a bad book!

31 07 2010
bookwitch

I am, of course, in the blogging business to blog. Not necessarily to review. That’s just a side effect.

Fully aware that I’m not good at real reviews I try to get round it by doing it differently/entertainingly.

I think the post below was written when I had read my way through a very long new children’s book, which, while not bad, wasn’t one to recommend. I was determined to stick it out, only to be ‘rewarded’ by the discovery it had two more parts coming.

http://bookwitch.wordpress.com/2009/01/10/so-if-i-dont-want-to-read-this/

I get news of so many contracts for new authors for six or nine books in a series, and there is nothing exciting even in book one. How is it going to continue?

I’ll consider the negative review. Again.

31 07 2010
lartonmedia

That’s a really good point, the fact that reviewing isn’t the sole purpose of your blog. I’ve toyed a few times with including reviews over at Dead Guy, or maybe here, but decided not to. That way I can confine reviews to RTE. And by the same token we’ve kept RTE for reviews and the ‘Sixty seconds with . . .’and not for news and updates. At least once a week I have to explain to a publicist, who clearly hasn’t checked the site properly, that no, we don’t carry news stories and no, I won’t upload their press release!

Interesting post. And I’m a fan of Declan Burke!

5 08 2010
nick2209

Delighted to see you starting a new blog Sharon! I know we have discussed this topic before and you know that I take a rather different line – I am always pleased to be contacted by an author who I have given a positive review to and have made at least one good friend this way. No doubt this does impair my objectivity to some extent, but as they are writing in the same style and manner which delighted me when they were just a name I don’t think it does so to such an extent that my judgement becomes questionable.
The issue of meeting authors whom I have given negative reviews to (and as you also know there are several of those!) is more difficult; I am off to St Hilda’s next weekend and may have to do some dodging behind the shrubbery
:).

16 08 2010
lartonmedia

Thanks, Nick! And I know we’ve talked about this before. I don’t think there’s the slightest doubt about your impartiality when it comes to reviewing! I know a few reviewing friends think I’m overly cautious about the whole thing. I do wonder if things would be different if I lived in London and could go to more meet and greets. I suspect not!

So how was St Hilda’s and did you hide in the shrubbery much? :o)

16 08 2010
nick2209

St Hilda’s was excellent thanks Sharon – a lot of really thought-provoking papers, including at least a couple which have made me think about some of the habits I have fallen into when reviewing – always good to be challenged.
And not too much shrubbery hiding! :). Though I did make my usual faux-pas – I was talking to an author and knew I had read her book so I said that I liked it – when I got home and looked at my review on rte I saw in fact I had been pretty critical! Just have to hope she doesn’t bother to look or remember me or the name of the site :).

19 08 2010
lartonmedia

Hi Nick. Glad St Hilda’s was interesting. And glad you weren’t dodging in and out of the shrubbery too often!

I had a useful conversation the other night with a friend about reviewing and about writing style. I feel a blog entry coming on!

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