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One question I’m always coming up against is whether, once you make the transition from just-reader to author-who-reads, you should continue reviewing other people’s books. I’ve seen many different answers to this question, so I thought I’d write down my own thoughts and hopefully get a discussion going.
First, I want to make a couple of things clear. This isn’t going to be a discussion about how reviewers should behave in general. It’s my thoughts on how authors who are also reviewers should approach reviewing. Once you become an author, it becomes tricky to voice your thoughts on reader (or book blogger) etiquette without sounding adversarial, and in my opinion the day I became an author I forfeited my right to tell readers what to do. (OK, that’s conjuring up a picture of my reader-self refusing to do what my author-self tells her because I’m not the boss of me, but you get my drift.)
Next, if you’re an author and the very thought of reviewing books makes you curl up in a little fetal ball of fear and loathing, don’t do it despite anything you may hear about the benefits of reviewing. That oft-repeated (by me) advice that you should get on Goodreads and similar sites as a reader is no use to you if you hate writing about other people’s books, and if that’s your case then I’d advise you to blog or do Pinterest or Instagram or Quora or whatever you like doing. Or none of them if you just flat out can’t stand social media. (Of course if your publisher’s insisting you go on social media, you may need to hire someone to do the nasty job for you. You’re not going to be successful on Facebook if you fear and despise Facebook and all it stands for.)
Finally, I’m pretty sure I’ve made almost all the mistakes I’m outlining below at some time or the other. Sorry about that, and this post is about what I’ve learned by screwing up from time to time. I didn’t spring onto the scene completely formed as Saint Jane The Ethical or anything like that. I’m far from being the shiniest Girl Scout on the planet. I just think ethics are something authors need to discuss, and I’m willing to engage in that discussion.
Truthful reviewing doesn’t have to be all sharp pointy bits
Many, many years ago I was an editor in a large European law firm where all the young lawyers had English as their second or third language. As English was our working language, this meant that a lot of editing had to be done to make the documents we were producing readable. Also, these were baby lawyers still making basic mistakes like mixing up the party of the first part with the party of the third part.
In my job as editor, I found it was more productive to go easier on the newest lawyers, acting in a sense more like a writing coach and mentor. The more experienced attornies could withstand a tougher approach, although they usually didn’t need it because they’d learned from their mistakes and grown in expertise and confidence. After I left, I was told by slightly distraught former colleagues that my replacement was a brash New Yorker who reacted to the badly-written newbie documents by throwing them back with a snarl of “This is crap! Rewrite it!” I’m not at all sure this approach was helpful in ensuring the clients got their legal writings in good time.
Nowadays, I only make sure my teeth and claws are well-sharpened when dealing with authors who’ve been around long enough to know better and whose publishers should also know better. And even then, I do recognize the dilemmas that crop up in the book world—a publisher can’t, as a business, pass up on an author who guarantees them a hefty profit, no matter how bad the book, and authors are frequently rushed into deadlines that don’t allow them to do all the work they’d like to do.
When it comes to debut authors, I remember reading that back in the days when reviewers were an elite body of literary critics who really could make or break careers, they had a tradition of going easier on debuts—possibly because they were mostly authors themselves who went just a little cold all over when they thought of their own first efforts. The “tsunami of crap” that’s flooded the market due to the boom in self-publishing is composed largely of debut authors, and it’s quite possible that these aren’t just the first books those authors have ever published—they’re the first novels THEY EVER WROTE. If they’re debut authors who’ve made it into traditional publishing, they’re almost certainly not getting anything like the editorial support and mentoring they might have received twenty years ago.
There’s a way to be truthful and incisive as a reviewer (and remember, I’m talking to author-reviewers) without overdoing the snark. I’m not saying don’t criticize—I firmly believe that the literary world is healthier when we can critique each other’s writing without fear of the critiquee (does that word exist? If not, I just coined it) throwing a wobbly about it, and I do believe that if you put your writing into the public sphere, you have to grow a thick enough skin to withstand public criticism. What I’m saying is, don’t use your reviewing platform as a space from which to launch large ballistic missiles of unkind jeering and sneering at your fellow authors. Don’t be the “This is crap!” lady. It’s unproductive and professionally discourteous.
If you find you’re selecting novels to review BECAUSE they’re crap, consider your motives. Why are you reading crap? Are you trying to make yourself feel/look better as an author by laughing at what else is out there? Or are you trying to save the literary world?
You can’t save the literary world
This is very closely related to what I just said, but I think it’s worth making it a separate thought. You’re not going to be the author who single-handedly saves Literature from the Tsunami of Crap. However many craft books you’ve studied, however much blood you’ve expended in mastering your craft, and however many creative writing degrees and MFAs and heaven knows what else you’ve paid thousands of $$$ to acquire, the only writing all those wonderful achievements are going to improve is yours. Laying down the law about what makes good writing doesn’t result in a good review. You might, on the other hand, consider teaching writing courses or critiquing unpublished work, and thus make your hard work pay off AND help other writers grow. Or simply put all that knowledge and wisdom into your own books (but learn enough about marketing and business to ensure you can achieve some visibility for that wonderful writing).
Reviews aren’t essays or lectures—they’re not there to showcase your brilliance or put other people right. You’re offering up your own subjective reaction to a book in the hope that it’ll persuade other readers to try it (if it was good) or tell them the good and the bad that you found in the book so they can decide for themselves. If you find you’re getting really prescriptive in your reviews, you might consider writing craft books. Perhaps you’re just a born teacher rather than a reviewer.
OK, those were my warmup remarks. What I’ve been discussing above is more a matter of common sense and courtesy than ethics. The real problem, ethically speaking, with reviewing as an author is that you might end up rating or reviewing a book as a means to an end. Examples:
- You give a friend’s book five stars to boost their ratings.
- You give an author’s book one star because you think she’s a bitch.
- You give an author’s book five stars because a reader unfairly gave him one star and this “evens things up.”
- You agree with a bunch of authors to give each other’s books five stars.
- You agree with a bunch of authors to give another author’s book one star to teach her a lesson.
- You get your fans to go give an author-friend’s book five stars.
- You get your fans to go write negative reviews about someone else’s book because she’s said something nasty about yours.
- You write a glowing review about your friend’s book even though you didn’t like it all that much because hey, he’s a friend.
- You rate an author’s book five stars because that blog you like says she’s being bullied and bullying is bad.
- You rate an author’s book one star because that blog you like says he’s a bully.
- You know your spouse/best friend/writing group are doing any of the above on your behalf and you do nothing to stop it.
And I could go on . . . . Look, it doesn’t matter what readers or bloggers or other authors are doing. You’re a professional and you’re not going to do any of these things, right? Don’t review with an ulterior motive. And for crying out loud, if you’re reviewing a book because you’ve been asked to, disclose the fact. If the other author’s a friend, disclose the fact. Don’t write a review as if you’re just another reader, because the day you put your name on a book as its author, you’re representing more than yourself. You’re representing your brand, your publisher, your genre and the organizations you belong to.
So what do you think? What other advice can you give? Do you agree with my thoughts, or do you think I’m wrong in any way? I’m prepared to listen and to learn.