Monday, July 11, 2011

Good manners with an odd cost

I was asked recently what I thought of authors contacting me to respond to a review. An author who is one of the most gracious correspondents I've ever had the pleasure to meet wanted to know: do it? Don't do it? Do it but privately? The right answer is – it's complicated.

I can see reasons for each of those ways, and I’ve had all three sorts of responses. None that’s led to an author meltdown, thank God. On one hand, when the review was positive, it was very pleasant and I enjoyed the exchanges with the author and was left thinking what a very nice person, and if it wasn’t a totally glowing review, I was thinking gee I wish I’d been more positive about her book. Or I wish I could have been more positive about her book.

That’s multiplied by about a zillion times when the review wasn’t very enthusiastic. Sometimes really nice people produce less than fabulous stories. I had the horrible experience recently of writing a very low-ranked review on a book by someone I know through social media. That's all the closer the contact is but still it's kind of hard because I’m pretty sure she’ll read it. It's not like I enjoy hurting anyone, but sometimes there just isn't a lot of positive.

So, yes, responding is polite, and I’ve seen it done very graciously but in a weird way, it gets in the way of the next review, because honesty and politeness get all mixed up. The practical aspect is that if someone's kind to me, I'd like to return it, and at the same time, I am reviewing books, not personalities. What happens when I read the next one and can't be enthusiastic? Do I hurt someone's feelings? There are people on the other end of this reviewing thing who can be hurt or happy because of what I write. This happened once, the author was charming, and I couldn't give her next story a glowing review and still be honest. So it ended up costing her a review.

My understanding with Dark Divas is that you can hand a book back without finishing it only if the spork is already stuck in your eye. I could be wrong on this, but "you chose it, you complete the review" isn't unreasonable. It does mess with the "back away slowly" option. This is where I have to grow a thicker skin.

I have reviewed stories where the authors have contacted me privately, which seems like the best response, because they weren’t having to put on their public face. They could be just honest. We could talk a little about the points I didn’t care for and no one else had a reason to chime in, which is where it seems like trouble starts in the big internet messes. If I've made an error of fact, I'd like to know it, I have great respect for facts. I have learned things from authors' comments, and I am always glad to do that. Some of the most charming people I've met on the internet have come to me just this way.

I've also had authors mix some scoldings in with the thank yous, because I "didn't get it." Thank you very much, I got it just fine, and calling a leg a tail doesn't make it so. I read what's on the page, not what's in the author's head. While not planning to commit the 'nincompoopery' (I have been reliably informed that this is the correct term) of attempting lit-crit when not qualified, I can and do notice logic fail out loud. A discussion is welcome, a brow-beating is not.

There’s a review on Smart Bitches Trashy books that was middle of the road, and the author showed up in the middle of the discussion, maybe 30 posts in, and said something really witty and gracious and all of a sudden the comments went from 'I’ll pass' to 'I have to read this just because she had such a nice attitude.' The author had everyone eating out of her hand before the thread ended. That was something I really don’t think everyone can manage. We've all seen when responses go wrong.

So I don’t mind if authors comment, either publicly or privately, but it does affect the detachment between the reviewer, the author and the book. But I really think I’d rather get an email.


  1. It is a fine line to walk and I'm not very good at it. LOL I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. Sigh. When you love a book it's great when an author stops by and publicly says "Thanks, glad you enjoyed it" and sometimes I ask questions like "I wonder if secondary character X will get a story?" and that's always nice to hear a yes, no, or hmmm, maybe now that you mention it.

    I've never had a nasty e-mail or really anyone who e-mailed me and said "you don't get it." One author has commented and tried to clarify in the comments and it was done in a nice manner so I'm okay with that. I'm knocking on wood that my day for some giant nincompoopery is still well into my future.

  2. Very intereting! And a bit frightening as well. I think in-depth reviewing may be on its way out -- not just because it's so time consuming, but because of the tensions you mentioned (knowing that you could be hurting someone's feelings) that can make reviewing so unrewarding on top of time consuming. Add to that the occasional author who gets snotty over a review, and it gets even more unrewarding for the unpaid blogger, who is already coping with the highly competitive blogosphere in which it can be very hard to build blog traffic.

    I really enjoyed your paragraph on, "I've also had authors mix some scoldings in with the thank yous, because I "didn't get it." Thank you very much, I got it just fine ...I read what's on the page, not what's in the author's head."

    Absolutely. I have zero patience with authors who get snippy because the reviewers can't read their minds and fill in the material that failed to make it to the page. That's valuable feedback for authors as well as being a totally accurate critique.

    Great post, Cryselle!

  3. Well, I've said before that you're much braver than I am. I never post a review unless it's of something I loved, so I never have to worry about hurting anyone or someone getting defensive. And I think reviewers who actually review a book probably are beginning to suffer the fallout of authors' reactions to reader reviews, which a lot of the times aren't actual reviews but reactions to whatver baggage they brought into the book with them.

    I just got a 1-star on Amazon because the guy who left the 'review' was convinced that I had issued gender roles to my characters. He based this solely on the fact that one character is physically smaller than the other. Now, regardless of my own obvious bias on the matter--and yes, I am definitely aware that I have some--this guy really did miss the point. So, if someone else came along and wrote an actual balanced review in which they found legitimate evidence that I had somehow feminized this character, I might just roll my eyes and think, 'oh yay, another one'. See the correlation?

    Reader 'reviews'--though sometimes very nice to get--aren't always actual reviews. Readers don't have the constriction of breaking down the elements of the book and explaining what worked for them and what didn't, like you do. They can just say, 'It was the best thing ever!' or they can say, 'Ew, stay away!'

    And because reader reviews are becoming more prevalent and in some cases can drive sales up or down, what you do is getting thrown into the mix in authors' minds. It shouldn't, but I really think it is.

    If I got a 1-star from you, I'd really have to sit down and think about what I might've done wrong. I'd probably want to discuss it with you, to see if I'd failed that badly, or if we just didn't see eye-to-eye on some particular point. Because I know you and respect your opinion. I couldn't be angry with you because you didn't like it--I think I'd be sad because I'd disappointed you. Nobody likes to disappoint someone whose opinion matters to them, and especially not with something as personal as writing.

    But if I got my feelings hurt every time someone didn't like something I'd written, I doubt I'd still be sharing my writing with anyone but the ghost who lives in my hard drive.

    It's a constant struggle for authors between thick-skinned ambilvalence and soul-crushing angst, and reviewers are always going to be taking the chance that their review hits an author when they're dipping down into the soul-crushing end of the tug-of-war. I have huge respect for any reviewer who puts themselves out there like that, but I have no shame in saying, 'Better you than me, love'. ;)

  4. Hugs to you all you guys. I admire both Tam and Val and have learned a lot from reading your work. You're honest and can say what works, what doesn't, and I hope no one ever goes ballistic at you for that. Or explains how you missed the point.

    If I did commit the silliness of lit crit, everyone could and should run away from a reviewer pretentious enough to discuss reconstructed deconstructed metaphorical subtexts outside a classroom,even if all that IS in the book. I just try to say what makes it a good read or not.

    @Carole -- I saw that review, and think the last line identified the real problem. I don't think you could write a 1 star grocery list, even with brussel sprouts.

  5. I've come to the conclusion that unless an author gets an email from a reader, s/he should not comment on reviews at all. Answer questions and respond to personally directed comments -- yes, by all means. But haunt Goodreads and Amazon and each review site in the genre, making one's presence known at every turn? Yeesh, NO. That seems so divalike and amateurish and just plain neurotic.

    You can't begin to imagine how many writers whine about reviewers "not getting it." Honestly, you've only seen the tip of the iceberg. I was guilty of the same thing when I first began writing m/m romance because I wasn't used to the visibility, but I've since slapped some sense into myself. Now I don't read any reviews unless I happen to stumble upon them or am alerted to them. It helps keep me from going stark, raving mad. :)

  6. If what I've see is the tip, the rest could sink the Titanic. I'm sure there's grumbling galore in authors loops and other behind the scenes places, but honestly. Maybe the site haunters are having fanfic feedback withdrawal? It might be hard if you're used to getting a lot of strokes from people who know you somewhat, and then boom, it's strangers with their own agendas. Some of the Goodreads reviews come across as "I didn't like this book because he's wearing leather shoes and I'm a vegan," so yeah, hanging around to be slapped like that doesn't make good sense. Others leave really thoughtful comments, so there's worth, but you have to sort out which is which by looking at all of it. Has to be hard on the ego.

  7. Oh my! Some of my favorite writers and reviewers are here! *Waves furiously and squees like a fan girl!* A-hem. Okay, now that that's out of my system… As a reader, I'm thrilled whenever a writer responds to my comments and think, "What a great, down-to-earth, approachable person." I am more likely to buy their books if they're more than just a name to me. Of course, I do realize that they're incredibly busy, and that answering comments takes a lot of time. Still, I cherish hearing from them.

    And I visit review sites faithfully, and have for a long time, to get the scoop on the latest books to add to my collection, read some really interesting blogs by my favorite authors, find out what readers want in their stories, see what lovely pic Crys has posted for her Thousand Word Thursday, or check out the kitty pictures and Misadventures in Stock Photography at Stumbling Over Chaos. I saw a review of an Andrew Grey story just this morning that struck my fancy. I may be an author, but I remain a dedicated reader. If I see a review for a friend's book I'll dash off a quick email of congratulations.

    Donning my writer cap, though, I can say that the part of me that wants to fine tune and write the best books I possibly can appreciates well-thought-out and well-said critique, for it can help me achieve my goal. I have engaged reviewers (in a positive manner) and walked away shouting, "Ca-ching!" for the handfuls of literary gold I'd just been given, being relatively new to authorship and with much to learn. As far as the more glowing reviews? I do like to say "thank-you" when someone pays me a compliment, but that's how I am, whether I'm in writer mode or on my day job. I've met some great folks that way.

    While I've seen numerous posts on this topic from authors, this is the first I've read from a reviewer's perspective and it's proven a great eye-opener for me. Thanks for providing the fuel for thought.

  8. Hmm, I've responded both as an email and as a comment, but then, I've been fortunate enough to get smile-making reviews, so no one has any reason to get cranky. Goodreads reviews I try not to even read, because I don't like hovering over people's shoulders,though others have said they've had some great dialogs. Some authors really aren't getting any other source of feedback so reader comments are precious, even if painful.

    @Carole -- you already know what I think of that 1 star on Amazon, and 'missed the point' was almost the least of it.

    @Crys -- write me a one star review and I'll steal all your black pens.

  9. @Eden -- Thanks for making me think about this topic.

    I guess the whole issue comes up because we are sitting in the middle of the spectrum between fanfic where it's all a community and you're expected to interact, and New York publishing, where you most certainly are not. We have a pro environment but the ability to interact as a community, and some people don't have much of a brain to mouth filter, as Pam called it.

    @Pam, steal my black pens and you are the lucky duck who has to read blue ink once it's been through the scanner. AND I'll shoot rubber bands at you. Write well to prevent this workplace terrorism!

  10. It seems like you have to have a thick skin if you take part in any 'public' discussion of a book whether you are the author, the reviewer or the reader.

    As a newbie author I was told that a polite acknowlegement of a review was the way to go - a simple thank you for reading - but I have seen where that goes wrong. The temptation to question or explain is very difficult to resist.

    When I first started using Goodreads to keep track of what I had read I never expected anyone else to bother reading my 'reviews' which were more personal reminder notes than reviews. That resulted in me feeling very guilty about not being nicer about 'friend's' books - even if I didn't know them when I read it.

    As a reader I prefer not to know the author or get to know them. (I do realise that this is a strange reaction and most people want to know about authors.) I want to enjoy their work and that has nothing to do with who they are. I have lost that enjoyment in a couple of mainstream authors because they came across as people I wouldn't want to know on their websites or blogs.

    If I know the author socially then I do find it difficult to be objective about their work and I don't want to say something nasty that would upset them.

  11. I have to admit, I've decided not to ever publicly comment on reviews again, for the same reasons you've given against it, Cryselle. I've even pretty much stopped writing proper reviews of what I read over on Goodreads - I only post 4 or 5 star ones and they're much shorter these days.

    It is difficult to be critical about someone's writing when you know them, but at the same time, I love talking about good books and that's what the reviewers do, so I do want to interact with them too. It's a minefield, it really is. I think I'll just turn off my Google alerts when the novel comes out and stick my head in the sand ;)

  12. All this time commenting on Blogger sites, and I've only just noticed the "email follow up comments" button. Doh!

  13. Th other day I gave a book a 1 star review because it was filled with stereotypes about something I know a lot about and the author (whose books I usually like) wrote an entry on her LJ, lamenting readers who "don't get it". Another author called me - and others who didn't like the book either - "nitwits", thereby ensuring that I'll never read a book of hers.

    The whole incident strengthened my resolve never to "friend" authors at GR. Although most of my reviews are positive, I will give a book 1 or 2 stars if I think it's really bad.

  14. Well, people have to be reading this because I've gotten emails recently re reviews, and every one the soul of charming, so... Thanks to some lovely people.

    @Enny -- I think a little grumping is understandable,but not in public and not with that kind of language. That's just rude.

    @Mara -- I think I know who you mean, and yeah, nothing like TMI to make you read the books a little differently. Or not at all.

    @Josephine -- Stars are optional if you just want to keep track of stuff. It's gaming the system but there's ways to use the tools to accomplish what you want.


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