Wednesday, July 6, 2011

When an Author Writes a Review

Posting a book review on Goodreads or feels fraught with moral dilemmas now that I'm a published writer and most of my friends are writers.
  • It's not classy to criticize one's competition. 
  • I'm not sure I can be objective about other people's writing now that I'm a writer myself. Awkward phrasings,  poor grammar, and bad structure spoil my enjoyment, yet most readers don't even notice such things.
  • It's my obligation as a friend to help my writer friends get more exposure and sell more books. Writing a bad review could undermine someone's career.
  • Sometimes when I go to post a review, I see that trolls have  undeservedly insulted a book. I feel an obligation to be extra positive to counter the trolls' bad ratings so that a potential reader gets an honest overall impression.
  • I've seen how much pain that bad—or sometimes even neutral—reviews cause my writer friends, particularly when  the reader had no business reviewing the book (because they clearly had only skimmed it or they state outright that they dislike the genre). I don't enjoy being cruel, and I don't think it's right to hurt a writer with careless or spiteful words.
As a result, although I post a GoodReads review for everything I read and I'm honest in everything I say, I do not give bad reviews. If I can't give a book at least four stars, I usually don't give it stars at all. When mentioning a book's flaws, I word my comments neutrally yet try to give enough information that a potential reader can guess whether the book is right for her or him.

You may say I'm not being moral, but being a coward. You may say that readers deserve to know my full opinion of a book and that I'm being deceptive by focusing on a book's positive attributes or by not saying anything that would discourage people from buying a friend's book. You may say that I'm trying to give people a good impression of me. Motives are complex; you may be partly right.

Still, this feels right to me. As the number of my friends who are writers or musicians has grown, I have become more and more aware of how often reviewers have an agenda that they impose on a book or CD,  how often reviewers don't read a book or just skim it (as shown by their making major errors in the plot summary or by getting the protagonist's sex or age wrong), how often reviewers are purposely cruel or make fun of a book or an author, and how often reviewers cheat the potential reader by spending most of the review giving a plot summary or a discussion of the book's genre. I at least commit none of those flaws. I read the books I review and write thoughtful, careful reviews.

What do you think? Are my moral arguments right, or am I practicing self-deceptions to justify boosting my friends' careers and my own? As a writer, what do you think you owe to your fellow writers when you review their books?

Our scheduling here at NovelSpaces has changed. I'll now be blogging on the 6th and the 21st of each month. I'll see you again on the 21st, when I may tackle our NovelSpaces blog question of the month, which was suggested by KeVin Killiany: "No one would be charmed by a romance between a man and a sheep -- so why are vampire/human romances popular?"

—Shauna Roberts


Charles Gramlich said...

wow, you've capture the whole set of feelings I have myself on the issue in a nutshell. It's such a delicate line. I do review it all on goodreads but on Amazon and Barnes & Noble I typically only review positive books, except where I have a sort of axe to grind. It's a tough situation.

Shauna Roberts said...

CHARLES, I have a similar policy: Review everything on Goodreads; Review only my friends' books and books that blew me away on Amazon.

Goodreads feels more like a closed community of well-meaning people. On Amazon, there are clueless people who base their star rating on how fast the box got to them and people who post several "reviews" a day, every day, and people who call the other reviewers names. I'll post a review to help out someone whose book I loved, but otherwise I don't want to get involved in the noise.

KeVin K. said...

Sounds like a good policy, Charles. I have eschewed reviewing since books with my name on them began appearing on shelves. Couldn't think how to go about it without appearing to be biased and/or compromising my own standards. (Though I have been known to plug a friend's book on various forums.)

Liane Spicer said...

When I started my blog four years ago I decided I'd review books by authors I didn't know and post interviews of those I did to be supportive.

I once posted a review of a friend's book on Amazon - but only because I wrote the review on my blog before I knew the author. I write more reviews on Goodreads but there too I avoid reviewing friends' books.

Review friends' books and feel guilty about your bias, or don't and feel guilty about not being supportive. Can't win.

Terri-Lynne said...

I'm with you, Shauna. It's VERY hard to post a review, especially after you've been reviewed yourself. I like your method--voice your opinion in a fully objective way and let the readers decide if the book is for them. Isnt' that pretty much what we do as writers anyway?

Shauna Roberts said...

KEVIN, that sounds like one good way to the appearance of conflict of interest.

LIANE, I agree it's a no-win situation. Still, every reader has biases that affect whether they like a book or not. Writers just have more. I suppose another option is to write good reviews of your friends' books but add a disclaimer that you are friends.

TERRI-LYNNE, I'm less confident than you that all writer-reviewers put aside spite, jealousy, and personal dislike when reviewing another writer's book.