Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Pragmatism, Honesty, or Back-Scratching

For a long time now I have been thinking of the idea of publicly sharing opinions on books and have even drafted a number of posts on the subject. But I have never felt as if I have arrived at any kind of a well-defined stance. Domey's post at the Lit Lab the other day made me think about it again, and instead of trying to come up with a solution before writing a post, I have decided to explore the subject here. In writing about it, I hope I can clarify my thinking further and hopefully I can get a conversation going on the subject.

Writers writing public reviews: what are our responsibilities? What is our role? Which considerations matter?

A little while back, there was the loud but thankfully short fury in response to a supposed YA mafia whose members provide glowing reviews for one another and black ball those who dared to say they didn't like certain books.
Many writers chimed in to share their decisions with regards to writing negative reviews. Some writers choose not to post negative reviews for fear of creating bad karma for their own work. Others do so because they don't want to hurt the feelings of the authors, Yet others feel that honesty is the best policy and do not shy away from negative comments.

I understand the fear of having my own work being panned because of revenge, and obviously I am aware that behind every work is a person who loves their work.Yet praising something I don't like is not an option either.

My solution so far has been to review mainly books I liked. If I did choose to mention what didn't work, I made sure I provided specific examples to back up my points. Occasionally, I would discuss what I don't like about a book without mentioning its title.

This seemed like a safe thing to do.

But I am not contented with safe anymore. Domey is right; being only nice and quiet all the time isn't a good thing to do. Maybe I have been cowardly. Maybe my basic motivation has been fear.

So. Providing honest, objective reviews that are helpful to readers, without being nasty, without external agendas: surely that is an achievable goal?

And since the reviewer role is now shared by so many grass-roots reviewers, one review isn't going to have as much an effect. My hope is that I can provide helpful reviews to my readers and fair to the authors.

Keep me honest, won't you?


scott g.f.bailey said...

I think a lot of writers are hesitant to post honest reviews because of the fear of some kind of reprisals. But I think that fear is totally unfounded. On my blog I admitted that I didn't like Jonathan Franzen's bestselling "Freedom." On the Literary Lab I admitted that I thought Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz's "Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" was nothing but attitude without substance. I also talk about books I like. The thing is, who the hell am I? Who do I think is going to come along and read my little blog posts about books I've read? Do I think that a negative book review on my blog is going to keep me from getting published? No, I don't. That's just silly.

So be brave and honest. Just don't be one of those folks (and they're out there) who only write negative reviews out of some sort of perverse need for attention or whatever. I don't get those people at all. But you're nice, so we can expect balanced and thoughtful writing!

Domey Malasarn said...

Yat-Yee, we can both hold each other to the same standard of simply being honest. That's going to be my goal from now on.

The Golden Eagle said...

I do think it is any achievable goal; I probably wouldn't review things if I didn't!

Kelly H-Y said...

I think your take on reviews sounds completely reasonable and fair!

Yat-Yee said...

Scott: you asked who is going to be affected by your opinions on books. I, for one. I remember your not liking Oscar Wao and have in fact asked you to clarify your stance. I noted your recent take on Freedom as well. I file these things away and when I am at the book store browsing titles, they inform my decisions. Word of mouth: one of the most powerful way to highlight a title. I would go so far as to say that some bloggers' recommendations weigh more than reviews from professional reviewers, say from the NY Times because I know more about the bloggers through regular interactions on topics more than just the one book.

So now you know why Junot Diaz's sales have plummeted and Jonathan Frazen had better be prepared for Freedom's inevitable dip in sales.

Yat-Yee said...

Domey: The days of playing nice-nice are over! I am thinking of how I want to write my Tiger Mother review, so this discussion has an immediate impact.

Golden Eagle: I am eager to read your reivews.

Kelly: thanks! Isn't it funny how something that seems so simple and reasonable can take so long to arrive at?

Domey Malasarn said...

I didn't realize how much power Scott had. I'm glad he's on my team!

Laoch of Chicago said...

I think that in the end being honest is your best calling card.

Yat-Yee said...

DOmey: do not underestimate your own power. :) This is not going to make you hesitate making your opinions known, is it?

Laoch: I like that. Calling card. That's exactly what we need to preserve, our integrity.

Domey Malasarn said...

I won't hesitate. :) I'm going to be brave and honest.

tanita davis said...

This is actually ... a pretty relevant topic to me. Sarah and I are having a hard time finding writers to interview for the Summer Blog Blast Tour, because we've committed to doing books we're excited about. We're both reading a lot, but the excitement is not being found.

I'm looking forward to reading your reviews. I've been of the "if you can't find something good to say" camp for a long time, and so tend not to review novels which bug me, or which have issues... however, I can see things changing, if I could write articulately yet compassionately about why something strikes me a certain way. The problem is that many of us are lazy, and saying bland "nicey" things takes so much less thought...

Truly, looking forward to this.

Domey Malasarn said...

I want to add that honest, critical reviews often make me want to read a book much more than easy, nice reviews do. The critical review makes me want to engage in the discussion of a book's merits and weaknesses. So being honest might be more helpful to the writer anyway.

Yat-Yee said...

Tanita: you and Sarah do a good job of reviewing books at Wonderland. I never felt you said only nicey things. But you're so right. One of the reasons I don't write reviews on books that I like but not quite is that it is so difficult to write something like that.

Domey: I will be drawn to books by reviews that have critical things to say when I feel as if the arguments are presented well, or is something about it intrigues me and I want to see for myself. So yeah, basically what you said.