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Negative Reviews and Me

We have Anne Rice to thank for the latest flap over negative reader reviews. The grandmother of all things paranormal waded into the author vs. reader cess-pool on the author’s end, publicizing her support for a petition to Amazon to force reviewers to post under their own name—her cure for the plague of “parasites” and “anti-author gangsters” who are “gratuitously destructive to the creative community.”

Instead of wasting time expounding why I think this is a horrible idea I’ll just refer you to K. J. Charles' terrific blog post, along with a hearty, “WHAT SHE SAID!” For those who haven’t read my earlier posts, suffice it to say that I am totally on the reader’s side of this conflict: reader reviews are a fact of life and assuming they don’t violate the law or the terms of service of the sites where they are posted, no one should have the right to dictate what counts as legitimate in other people’s reviews. (Credit goes to Debbie Spurts for this tidy formulation.)

That being said, it was inevitable after all the brouhaha (which I have contributed to with my own posts), that I would eventually train my finely-honed critical mind on my own reviewing practices, and take note of the irony that my personal policy has long been not to review books I hate.

I decided on this long before the current controversy, immediately after I joined Goodreads in the summer of 2012. From the beginning, I had two primary reasons for my policy. The first is that I almost never finish books I dislike and arguably it’s unfair to rate or review books I don’t finish. The other reason is Karma. Despite reading infinitely more than I write, I still think of myself as an author and I feel a camaraderie with authors’ struggles to write and publish and sell books. A lot of authors whose names I no longer remember helped me with advice and encouragement when I first published The Heartwood Box, and it just doesn’t sit well with me that I might go crap on their efforts. As I explain on my Goodreads author page: “Unless the book is very popular and my views won't make a difference, I avoid trashing stuff since I now appreciate how hard it is to publish a novel.”

I think my reasons are legitimate as far as they go, and other novelists I respect, including the great Heidi Cullinan, have argued forcefully that authors should be extremely cautious about what they say online, and especially avoid any kind of trashing. (Though for what it's worth, I have author friends I respect just as much who write extremely scathing, brutal reviews.)

But as I was researching material for my essay series, I came across a piece on the blog, Three Rs, “Why I Write Negative Reviews,” which included the following:

Thinking about it that way, those people who refuse to write negative reviews are real bastards, aren’t they? They’d rather let countless other customers be duped the same way they were than say an “unkind” word in a review.

I’ll admit that one stung. One of my most filthy, disreputable secrets is that I am a natural-born wuss who’s prone to panicking when I think I’ve hurt someone’s feelings. I speak from experience when I say this kind of personality trait can easily become a pathology. And no question, scathing reviews hurt. (I needed a few stiff drinks after an Amazon reviewer labeled The Heartwood Box “sleaze” and had to delete it from her Kindle due to its apparently unprecedented awfulness. Which, by the way, is emphatically not an invitation to my legions of rabid fans to go harass this reviewer.)

The problem is that none of my considerations has a thing to do with the books themselves or what I’m doing as a reader. I probably start 300 books a year and finish roughly 250 of them, virtually all of them in erotic romance, specifically the subgenre M/M. I just posted my 200th review on Goodreads. Beyond the sheer amount of time and mental labor this represents, the simple fact is that I care about books, I care about this genre. Without indulging in grandiose notions of my own importance, I think it’s worth taking a little bit of time to figure out what I’m doing when I read and review.

Part of what impressed me with Three R’s essay and the blog itself is that the author has a very clear idea of what she’s doing when she reviews. As she says in her “About” section:

I think that readers today are too easy to please, and have been conned into believing that’s a virtue… We, collectively, need to raise our standards as consumers. Give me a little time, and I’ll show you what I mean.

She is understandably troubled by the disappearance of any kind of quality control or editorial standards that has been one of the consequences of the self-publishing revolution, and is angry about authors who con readers with sock-puppets or glowing fake reviews.

I don’t agree with everything she writes. For one thing, I read M/M and erotica not YA, and the last thing I want is some Big Six publisher deciding what falls within the bounds of propriety or what is too risky or dirty. (Indies apply this pressure too, by the way, leading authors like Lisa Henry to self-publish or tone down their more risky offerings) And though I would always urge authors to painstakingly proofread their books, some of my favorite authors have lousy copyediting and I’ve just had to learn to live with it.

Most of all what I admire about Three R’s blog is that reading and reviewing for her is a thoughtful, active process. She has an agenda, not in the bad sense of a bias but in the good sense of a purpose. The word I would normally use for this sense of purpose and awareness is “critic,” though I mean it here to represent a mental attitude rather than some sort of professional credential.

Unfortunately for my wimpy nerves, it’s pretty hard to be a critic if you refuse to criticize. I’ve been putting boatloads of time into writing these blog pieces on erotica because I think the genre itself, not just specific books or authors, is important. It matters when it is misrepresented or misunderstood or undervalued. And I strongly believe that critical reviewing, including negative reviews, are essential if the genre is going to develop healthily. We need a community of thoughtful critics who take their roles seriously and are willing to do the hard work of developing critical concepts and standards for evaluation.

Whether I embark on a campaign of writing scathing reviews has yet to be decided, though I’m planning to bring it up with my therapist. Fortunately for my self-esteem, I have far fewer inhibitions writing about negative reviewing itself so stay tuned.

(Note: since this was written, Three Rs blog has been deleted, which is why there are no links to her essay)

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