Monday, January 24, 2011

On the sticky subject of book reviewing

Last night, I noticed a few comments on Twitter that were part of a larger #querychat.  I don't know how it came up, or what the other commenters had to say, but literary agent Jill Corcoran made her case for not reviewing books on-line.

She discourages her clients from reviewing books on their blogs (I don't know about Goodreads) because she believes it serves no purpose except as a possible liability.  Namely, if you don't like a book and you review it badly, and your book goes on sub to the publisher of that book, and the editor happens across your blog, what are they going to think about taking you on as a new writer?

It's a fair point.

And now it's got me wondering.  Should I be posting reviews on Goodreads?  Anywhere?  A while back, I turned myself in knots over posting a negative review of a book anonymously.  I know what goes into writing a book.  Crawling through the slushpile of countless agents.  Refining, refining, refining your manuscript.  Clawing your way onto the desk of an editor.  Getting the attention of a reader from the shelves of a bookstore or library.  The odds are incredible.  So, who am I, really, to say whether a book was good or not?

Certainly I'm entitled to my opinion.  Even the most popular books/movies/songs/fashions/what have you don't resonate with everyone.  But does it matter if I share that opinion?  

I'm not going to digress into a tirade about the Internet making everyone feel entitled, blah blah blah.  I'm blogging for God's sake, that would be nothing but flinging stones from the front porch of my glass house.

But it does make me wonder...

In the end, what is the benefit of posting book reviews?

- Liz


Kristan said...

I happened to post a few thoughts about reviews last week:

I was going to do a follow-up post about how *I* do reviews, since it's a little different from what I was discussing there. But then I didn't think people cared that much, lol.

Basically, I rate EVERYTHING I read at GoodReads, because that is FOR ME. I like looking back at what I read and seeing what I thought about it. I would make my account private, but since Twenty-Somewhere is listed at GR, I'm considered an author, and authors can't have private accounts. (Yes I could make a second one, but I've already put over 200 books on this one...)

I don't usually bother to review at Amazon, unless it's a book/author with few reviews and I have something nice to say. Then I will copy & paste from GR to Amazon.

In some cases, if I have nothing good to say about a book, I just won't say anything. At GR, if you only rate in stars and don't leave written comments, your review will go to the bottom of the list. I figure I'm doing less damage that way.

I don't really comment on my reading at my blog, except to say what's in-progress, or if I really liked a book and/or learned from it.

At the end of the day, I can understand the risks, but I think agents/editors also have to understand that not everyone is going to like every book they rep. I'm not sure I want to work with people who can't respect that my tastes differ from theirs. (But I can also understand why they wouldn't want to work with a writer who can't respect other people's work! Which is why I try to always be respectful.)

Liz Czukas said...

Really well said, Kristan!

I didn't know star-only reviews at GR drop to the bottom, that's good to know.

I always try to be constructive when I don't like a book, and I'm always careful to say that I know it just didn't work for me, but that doesn't make it a bad book.

GoodReads is my personal record as well, and I don't want to stop using it. Perhaps it's time for a name change before I have a book that ties me to a public account as an author?

More food for thought.

- Liz

Stephanie Perkins said...

Hi Liz!

I'm linking to your blog on my newest post (still working on it) for a question that you asked in my comments, so this post caught my attention. Thought I'd throw in my two cents.

Yes. If you want to be published, be VERY careful about posting books reviews. I assure you that authors, agents, editors, publicists, etc. remember negative reviews. Even reviews that are MILDLY negative! And we do hold grudges.

When I wasn't published, I only marked things on Goodreads that I thought were five-star books. Once I WAS published, I deleted even those, because it might hurt the feelings of authors whose books I've read that I didn't think were five-star books! (The lame, embarrassing truth is that most authors *hate* any review that isn't perfect. Also, every published author I know despises Goodreads. Myself included.) In other words, I don't leave any reviews on Goodreads.

I do leave the occasional Amazon review, but they're mostly for friends, and they're always five-stars.

BUT . . . I frequently talk about a wide variety of books that I've liked on my blog! I just don't bother with ratings, and I never mention things that I didn't enjoy. I stick with the positive.

So, to sum up, yes. Be careful. :)

And if anything you've written in the past is making you feel even remotely uncomfortable, I'd suggest deleting it now.

(I realize some of this may feel biased or unfair or weird, but that's how publishing works. Better to know it now and prepare yourself for it.)

Good luck!

Liz Czukas said...

Steph: Thanks for stopping by! I'm really glad you weighed in. Your honesty is rare and much appreciated. I think maybe I'll be using GoodReads just for storing my To-Read list from now on. And here I was trying to be a good citizen.

Better to learn this now. Thanks again, Steph!

- Liz

Eleven Eleven said...

Sigh. This means I have some Good Reads reviews to delete. I've been pretty ruthless in my I'm-a-nobody mode. And since I'm the hardest on my favorite authors, I can only imagine how those would misrepresent me and my tastes.

Stephanie Perkins said...

You're very, very welcome. I'm glad it was helpful!

Kari Marie said...

This is an interesting discussion. I've been debating doing reviews on my blog. Still undecided.

Phoebe North said...

Hi Liz,

I'm in a similar place as the original person who asked about this on query chat (and she linked to your post, too), and I'm leaning toward continuing to do respectful, multifaceted, qualified reviews for the time being. My reasons answer your original question, pretty well: "In the end, what is the benefit of posting book reviews?"

-I've made positive friendships and relationships among members of the YA community through my reviews. Authors--published, agented authors--have written me to told me they like my reviews, that they find them honest, refreshing, and thoughtful.

-It's given me a broader platform for my writing. Reviews have been cross-posted to feminist book blogs and I've done guest posts on reviewing for YA Highway and had opportunities to review for other blogs and in print.

-It's allowed me to continue to exercise the critical muscles I first developed in graduate school and among the academy. I'm not longer an academic; that doesn't mean that I enjoy discussing or thinking about the complexities of literature any less.

-On a hedonistic level, I enjoy writing them. I love delving into my gut responses of a work and figuring out what's really going on there. I love looking at YA from a feminist standpoint, or a sociological standpoint. I love the act of critical writing. Reviewing can be an art just as much as fiction can (just as Randall Jarrell! Or, hell, Roger Ebert), and writing critically has its own intrinsic benefits.

-It's improved my own fiction exponentially. You can't criticize someone else's said-bookisms or characters or so on without becoming aware of these things in your own writing.

-As for GR specifically: I find the best reviewers constitute an amazing community of people with whom I can discuss books. I know that GR reviewers and authors have a thorny relationship (and it goes both ways; many GR reviewers resent authors using the site to sell to them, or how authors will sometimes act out and rail against negative reviews and attack reviewers or even the rating gaming that sometimes occurs), and part of me, perhaps naively, hopes to bridge that gap by showing that a writer can be respectful of reviewers and recognize the tremendous service they provide to us by discussing our work. Yes, even negatively. I've often purchased books based on mixed reviews. Negative reviews aren't something you should fear--silence is.

That's not to say I'm not open to my feelings changing on this in the future, but it's a discussion I hope to have in the future--and a decision I hope to make--with agents or editors who I hope respect my writing enough to have a discussion that boils down to more than, "People think critical reviews are mean and won't work with you if they think you're mean." I know I might be disadvantaging myself by doing something unpopular that I nevertheless love--but I feel I have to be true to myself as I move forward, any way.

Liz Czukas said...

Phoebe, This is perhaps the most cogent and worthy response I've seen. I appreciate you taking the time. I'm delighted that you stopped by to give us all a new perspective.

I'm still unresolved on the issue, personally, and I'm not sure where I'll land as time goes on. For now, I think I'm going to pull back a bit.

Luckily, my memory is long, so I'll be able to look at my unreviewed "Read" list and remember why I did or did not like a book. That fly paper memory ought to be good for something other than catfood jingles from the '80s, eh?

- Liz