Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Just Don't Go Out So Much

Kelly Herold's blog led me to this piece by Meg Rosoff about why she doesn't like to write negative reviews. I have to say that I don't find writers to be the best reviewers, because they tend to be too sympathetic and too focused on being "encouraging," as if the author were the primary audience for the review rather than the potential reader. There is also a tendency in the allied children's book fields to be "nice," which isn't good for literature and can also unfortunately short-circuit when the strain of being friendly and polite all of the time becomes too much and what might have been simply a quiet demur instead gets ugly. But Rosoff's example of a reviewer feeling bad after meeting the author of the object of her scorn is just plain chicken. Far more than in adult literature, there's a lot of contact between children's book authors and their reading communities, which I think leads to a lot of soft-pedaling--I've had reviewers turn down assignments of mediocre books by authors they will be having dinner with, and I remember a fellow member of a book prize jury deflecting criticism of a particular book because the author, the previous evening, had explained to the member --while they were dancing--why the book was the way it was. The author-reviewer relationship is unavoidably adversarial: one is judging the other. To have it otherwise means we should just all go work in publicity.


Kelly said...

Love the title of your post, Roger.

There is another alternative--run a blog, or your own publication. Then you can review how and when you like.

I have disliked many a book. But, instead of reviewing them, I keep a "black list." My list contains, simply, titles and ill-formed paragraphs as to why I disliked the book. Sometimes these reasons are personal (a recent YA with a scientifically lame presentation of dyslexia, for example). Sometimes the book is, simply, not as good as its predecessor (a 2007 picture book). Sometimes the book is just universally bad (too many to count). If someone wonders which books I DIDN'T like, I'll provide it to them provided their reasons make some sort of sense to me. But, I don't have to spend the time writing the review.

Two cents from a blogger. I do agree a publication like Horn Book has a different obligation. (When I review for professional journals, my charge is to review the book in front of me, whether I like it or not.)

Anonymous said...

I have always said-- and here I am, saying it again-- that manuscripts should be read (for publication) without the author's name, and books should be reviewed (impossible, I know), the same way. Then reviewers and publishers would be paying attention to only one thing: the book itself. Once the review is done, names can be returned to their rightful place.

It's a step in the right direction.


Suzy said...

Great post, Roger. I competely agree. The only problem with blogging reviews about books you loathe are the writers who are too busy "googling" themselves rather than writing quality novels! (I've had some angry authors visit my page!)

Anonymous said...

Reading the article, I'd say the problem may be not that the review was negative, but that it was negative in a certain way: she calls it a "very funny, very negative piece," which implies to me a certain amount of prodding and witticism at the author's expense. Rather, I think negative reviews should be, whatever their length and ultimate judgment, a constructive and informative discussion of a book's strengths and weaknesses. There are not many books that deserve to slammed. Perhaps "mixed review" is a better term than "negative review" much of the time. But there are quite a few books that deserve to be recommended with detailed reservations, or judged as weak with acknowledgement of inherent (but insufficient) assets. Those reviews may hurt an author's feelings, but they are respectful, honest, and professional, and shouldn't be a source of shame or (and now I'm just being naive) virulent contention.

GraceAnne LadyHawk said...

Feh. Some books are really really terrible, and I think it is crucial that we (reviewers) say so. Sometimes I say it privately, for journals that do not publish reviews of non-recommended titles. I tell my editor very carefully why the book is not good. In other journals, I get to be a bit anonymous, and I am not really interested in being gentle. In thirty-plus years of reviewing, I have not yet had to write a really negative review with my name on it anywhere but the pages of the New York Times (Nonfiction in Brief, 1983, you could look it up).

We can't think about the author,or her feelings. We have to think about the book, and its audience.

Emily said...

For me, writing negative reviews--rather than merely neglecting to review the books I hate--is important to me. Not because I am gratuitously mean, I like to think. When I was in school (by which I mean middle and high school) I got a good dose of "if you don't like it, you don't understand it." And I also got a dose of "you shall analyze a book without resorting to such foolish things as emotions."

I feel like I want to speak up for the right to detest books. The right to say, "this book got up my nose," whether you have a reason or you don't have a reason. The idea that being passionately for books will occasionally entail being passionately against certain others.

Would that I could do that without stepping on the feelings of writers who are for the most part doing the best they can--assuming they're not writing Spongebook Squarepants chapter books, and I don't review those anyway. But a pain in the ego is the price you pay for ego-googling.


Anonymous said...

Well, to go out on a limb, and weigh in on the opposing side, I think you need to remember this: a review is simply one person's opinion. It is not the definitive truth. It is totally subjective. It is one individual's take on one book, at one point in time. Critics have tremendous power, but often they are simply wrong-- as often as they are right.

Unfortunately, people reading reveiws grant power to those writing them, as thought they rank supreme. The fact is that reviews that skewer books can seriously harm authors and illustrators in ways that you might not figure on. While a good review might mean that a series will continue, a bad one may be the kiss of death to an author's relationship to a particular publisher. And, really, how many tmes have you read a review of a book that you completely disagree with? Still the damage is done.

I have often read reviews of books I am familiar with and say to myself, "This person totally missed the point." I also find that it is remarkable how many reviewers feel qualitied to comment on art when they have little or no background in it. That leaves me totally mystified most of all.

In the end I think there is a strong case for avoiding saying anything if you can't say something nice. At least you have not harmed someone. And make no mistake. You CAN harm.

Unless that is the intention all along.

Emily Jenkins said...

I agree with you, Roger. When I write reviews, I try to remember that my review is not constructive criticism for the writer. My review is analysis and evaluation for a potential reader. The way I write a review is very different from the way I evaluate my students' writing.

I do try to keep my awareness that I am only one opinion in the foreground. When writing a negative review, I try to be up front about my tastes and biases. I try to make it clear where I'm coming from, which gives that potential reader a chance to disagree with me, even before he looks at the book in question.

Nonetheless, I feel it is my job as a reviewer to give an educated opinion (and I don't review things about which I know nothing), to contextualize the book in relation to an author or illustrator's other work, and also, yes, to write something interesting and entertaining in its own right.

sdl said...

It is not entirely true that a review in one of the major review journals is one person's opinion. My reviews are primarily my opinion, but if the editorial staff at The Horn Book disagree they will certainly say so, and I may end up rewording to accommodate their thoughts. Occasionally a book will even move from the magazine to the Guide if Mr. Sutton feels that's where it belongs.

I also am on the purchasing end of the book business, and am frequently dismayed by how mediocre some of the picture books are that we end up buying based on reviews. Reviewers do hesitate to say negative things, and because of that the reviews end up sounding very enthusiastic. My own reviews once they end up in print sometimes startle me because I will sound like I LOVED a book that I really only liked. But it's hard to articulate that without being negative.

Alex Flinn said...

Obviously, reviewers, unless they review for one of the "recommend only" journals, aren't required to like everything or praise it. I certainly don't think they need to consider the author's feelings. However, I do think they should put themselves in the shoes of the target audience for the book, and this is something I often see reviewers fail to do. Not everything is great literature, and not everything should be reviewed in comparison with Walk Two Moons . . . i.e,, if it is Captain Underpants or Artemis Fowl (whose publisher ran a hilarious ad, quoting Kirkus's "pure dreck" review), it should be reviewed in light of the target audience for those books. Many writers I know have had the experience of having a review which completely blasts the book, then concludes with some sort of sentence saying, something to the effect that teens (or sports fans, or chick lit readers, or whatever) may like it (presumably because teens are not as smart as the reviewer thinks he is). But isn't that all that matters?

Sara Z. said...

When I used to do community theater in the Bay Area, there was this sense that papers should give community theater only positive reviews--because, you know, we're just trying to keep the art alive and have enough money in the budget to put on yet another performance of YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU next season.

I get a little bit of the same feeling about kid lit - we are the underdogs, we serve the community, don't kick us when we're down, it's for the children, etc. However, one complaint I often hear (esp. among us YA authors) is that we're second-class citizens in the greater writing community, not appreciated for what we do, surrounded by people who say, "Oh, maybe I'll write a YA novel, that seems easy enough," what we do isn't literature and the like. But if we want to change any of that, we have to be willing to withstand tougher criticism, I think. OTOH I agree with what Alex is saying about remembering the audience - we're not all writing Great Literature. But this is the same in adult fiction as well - cozy mysteries and romances and sci-fi are reviewed differently than, say, John Updike.

As an author, I might get my "feelings hurt" if not everyone loves my book, of course, but it's a passing feeling and, in the end I'd rather feel that the review has the integrity of the writer behind it than just have my ego stroked. Even if I disagree, at least I don't feel like a kid whose mom just let him win at checkers. The great messages from the kids via email and on MySpace make up for the "remember the audience" question to an extent. It's not like teens are reading Kirkus, anyway.

B.E.M. said...

Ladyhawk, what a curiously mixed message!

On the one hand, you encourage reviewers not to be afraid to say why a book is bad, but, on the other, you congratulate yourself for being able to do so anonymously.

Next, you implore us to think only of the audience for the book, but then you invite us to look up a review you yourself wrote for the New York Times nearly 25 years ago.

Whose ego are we discussing here?

Roger Sutton said...

Lots of good points are being made here, so thank you. I have to add that anonymous reviewing, whether positive or negative, bugs me, first because it makes it too easy for a reviewer to disguise an agenda or conflict of interest; second because it implies a corporate point-of-view ("Kirkus says," "PW says") that rests more on the brand than on the acknowledgement that a review is one (edited, per SDL) person's opinion. It's kind of grandiose.

While it's true that it's not fair to compare every book with--well, Alex goes to Walk to Moons; I'll go with Holes--it's also not enough to predict whether readers will enjoy it or not. That's the easy part (although you can screw it up, too, as when I told the WSJ that the Lemony Snicket books were going to be a big flop!). And fans of an author or genre can be both forgiving and nit-picky in ways that the reviewer needs to stand apart from. I think both mediocre fantasy and formulaic junior chicklit get in general far too easy a pass from reviewers because we know that readers who like those sorts of things won't care. It's the reviewer's responsibility--and privilege--to say that even if a book may have hordes of happy readers, it can still be crap. That's part of what gives them the compass to say "hey, THIS book is terrific." Unless you're going to say that popularity and merit are the same thing--which I think is the unavoidable premise of Alex's argument--you've got the grant the reviewer the right to make his or her judgments. It's up to the reader of the review to decide what that judgment is worth.

I was wrong about the popularity of the Lemony Snicket books, but their success doesn't make me like them any better. It just makes me rather disappointed in children ;-).

Anonymous said...

(1) A bad review can destroy a career. That's a fact.

(2) Many reviewers have admitted years later (especially in the movie world) that they misjudged a work and on a second reading (or viewing) were completely wrong about it.

(3) By then it's too late.

(4) This isn't about hurting feelings. This is about power. Reviews are necessary, and reviewers are necessary, but they must always temper that absolute power with wisdom and, yes, compassion. You can be brutally honest without being brutal. That's the mark of a good critic.

Emily H. said...

But the power that the Horn Book or Kirkus or SLJ have is far different from the power a C-list blogger who doesn't even read ARCs has, and I think that's worth taking into account.

Anonymous said...

I think very few people like judging in general, but judging is a necessary profession, and, as in the legal world, he or she who sits in judgment of others must indeed do so wisely, and with much deliberation, never taking this work lightly, and realizing the tremendous impact of his or her decision, and, in the end, render a "fair" verdict.

Alex Flinn said...

No, I don't think that popularity and "literary value" (I'm not going to say merit, because I think there are all sorts of merit, and popularity may, indeed, be a form of merit) are the same thing. However, review journals are a selection tool for librarians and booksellers, not just a predictor of awards . . . and librarians are looking for all sorts of books, not just award winners. I think it is possible to review a book in light of the likely audience, while still distinguishing the popular fiction from the Newbery candidates. For example, a popular book might be "funny," or "a great light read" or "edge-of-your-seat-exciting," or "fun," saving words like "brilliant," "important," "unforgettable," and "life-changing" for the award contenders. But not all non-life-changing books are equal. There are still good chick lit books, and bad ones, for example. It's like the frustration I feel, as a parent, with movie reviewers. If my kids want to see a Hilary Duff movie, I want to be able to look at the review and tell whether it is good compared to other Hilary Duff-type movies (which is to say, is it at least better than Lindsay Lohan movies?), not compared to The English Patient because my kids don't want to see The English Patient. I know it's not going to win the Oscar. I just want to know whether I'm going to be able to watch it without poking my eye out with a stick! Likewise, people know those pink books aren't going to win the Newbery.

As far as Snicket, I'm shaking my head. As an adult, I thought the premise was clever, the jokes funny, the plots interesting. My older daughter did too, and I've noticed that it's pretty much the smarter kids at her school (which is one of those "every child is gifted" types of schools) who read them. I would, however, be willing to concede that both my daughter and I lost interest well before the series ended . . . but that is also true of Harry Potter.

Anonymous said...

Sure, negative reviews have a reason to be, the author-reviewer relationship is by nature adversarial, and reviews are useless to readers if every book is the ubiquitous “tour-de-force.”

That said, what Emily J wrote is key: “I try to be up front about my tastes and biases. I try to make it clear where I'm coming from, which gives that potential reader a chance to disagree with me…Nonetheless, I feel it is my job as a reviewer to give an educated opinion (and I don't review things about which I know nothing), to contextualize the book in relation to an author or illustrator's other work, and also, yes, to write something interesting and entertaining in its own right.”

Do I believe that all reviewers are as scrupulous as this? Hmmm. I’ve read too many reviews that made me wonder if the reviewer read more than the flap copy or perhaps was treated badly by the writer in the 7th grade. Sometimes you get a reviewer who understands what you’ve tried to do and does his/her best to judge whether you’ve done your job well. And sometimes you get a reviewer who hates sci-fi/humor/bunny rabbits/elves/teenagers/fill in the blank and doesn’t get why you, hack that you are, bothered to fling your dreck into the universe. Luck of the draw.

But this doesn’t bug me as much as the inability of a writer to question stupid reviews — and there are as many stupid reviews as there are stupid books; see Roger’s post about Michiko K. below — without the automatic assumption that all writers are whiners with fragile egos. If anything “gets up my nose,” that’s it.

Oh, and a word about “ego-googling.” Like most writers, I maintain my own website and do most of my own marketing/publicity. If I didn’t search, I wouldn’t know about three-quarters of the press my books have gotten and then couldn’t update my site, create publicity materials, etc. I’d LOVE to have someone else do this stuff for me, but so far I haven’t been able to talk the cats into it.

Laura Ruby

Roger Sutton said...

Re L's suggestion that in a perfect world, books would be reviewed like academic articles, judged by critics who have no idea who wrote or published, etc., the book. I like it but see two problems. First, reviewing is as much journalism as it is criticism--that, say, Katherine Paterson has a new novel out is something readers want to know, and review journals need to tell them that. Doris Lessing's trivial experiment in writing under a pseudonym proved nothing: who writes a book does matter--not in terms of how good the book is, but the necessity of comment upon it. Also, with illustrators and some writers as well, their fingerprints are all over their work, so the anonymity of the review copy would be moot.

As to "a bad review" wrecking a career, and reviewers changing their mind later: I don't think the first point is at all true in children's books, unless you mean a writer whose fragile sense of self was destroyed by a cruel remark and decided to never publish again. But there are too many, often conflicting, established review sources to allow a single one to break a book so badly its author can't recover.

Of course reviewers change their minds later, because by later, they've read more books, thus changing their own personal universe of Books Read and the relative positions of the inhabitants therein. And while I have frequently changed my mind about a book in retrospect, do not labor under the suspicion that the change has always, or even most often, been to the book's benefit.

Sara Z. said...

What Laura R. said about "ego-googling." If I didn't maintain a Google alert about myself and book, I would not have at all a good grasp on who is reading my book and why - info I think every author should make it her business to know.

Anonymous said...

"And while I have frequently changed my mind about a book in retrospect, do not labor under the suspicion that the change has always, or even most often, been to the book's benefit."

Wow. When I a read a statement like this one, I just have to take a moment and seriously question my decision to become a writer.

Let's see: near-complete isolation, very low pay, soul-bearing, quite hard work, the ever-present threat of public humiliation . . . and now I learn that, years in the future, when I might be innocently watering my plants, Roger Sutton may be out there thinking, "you know, that book wasn't really as good as I thought." That is, if I am lucky enough that he thought it was any good in the first place.

Yeah, I guess I'll stick with it.


Roger Sutton said...

Any writer who is worrying about what or if Roger Sutton thinks about their work is definitely in the wrong business, as R. is, I think, pointing out.

Anonymous said...

Yes -- exactly.

(If I weren't allergic to them I'd put a little smile-sign here.)


Anonymous said...

"Any writer who is worrying about what or if Roger Sutton thinks about their work is definitely in the wrong business, as R. is, I think, pointing out. "

Er, then why reassure Mitali Perkins in the next thread?


Roger Sutton said...

Knowing Mitali visits this blog, I thought I was just being polite.


Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Regarding writers as reviewers - I state on my fledgling blogspot (The 3 R's) my own reasons for keeping my comments positive. (Basically, I’m a wimp and also not so objective.) Having said that, we writers often have opportunities to critique each other. When we do we’re most often eyeball to eyeball with the person we’re critiquing. (or swapping email critiques which is fairly direct stuff too!) We generally try to come up with positive statements first and then move on to the “critical”. In many ways I think our task is to support each other. But support also means doing what we can to keep each other from failing. And that involves saying hard things!

For many reasons, I suspect it’s a good idea for writers to critique other writers before publishing (when we have the opportunity) and leave the reviews of published works to those who don’t perceive themselves as either friends or competitors.

As for feedback from the pros - of course we fantasize about rave reviews. However, by the time we're published we should be used to both "positive" and "negative" feedback. Hopefully we've learned to take the whole package!

rindawriter said...

I'm always AMAZED at how closely other writers seem to identify their personal self esteem with their made-public words. To me, once a written piece is made public, it assumes its own life separate from myself and my creating. It needs to stand or fall or succeed or fail or be liked or not liked or even hated by readers on its own merits. I frankly enjoy honest negative comments on my work, even from people who may not know much about it, because they are trying to be honest! It's their opinion. They're FREE to have it. And I rejoice every time a timid person can say openly, frankly, honestly, I didn't like this about your work! Because they are becoming free to express themselves. And that self expression is a precious thing. They're free to buy or not buy what I write, to read or not to read, to ignore or to praise, to trash what they've boguht and or even to burn it, as far as I'm concerned! It's their right as a reader and/or buyer of my work. They don't hvae a right to burn, trash, or destroy books that are other people's property or to pick and choose books for other people to read. But they, in their own choices, in my arena, are free--to hate my work, to love it, to critique it. I would smile delightedly and say, "do that some more! You said something intersting. A good point. Something to consider!"

You HAVE to let go as a creatoer. You have to. You have to let your baby grow up and go to school alone one day in a sense. Perhaps this is easier for me in the sense that if one work is done, out in public, I'm too busy conceiving and raising more babies and trying to make them even better to worry about it all.

All that being said, there is NO room for someone who doesn't like what I write to personally insult me, to try to harm me and mine, to endanger my life, go outside the law, libel me, slander me, all that sort of thing, because he/she doesn't like what I write.

And in my mind, there are far too many personal insults, personal remarks either lauding or deriding authors PERSONALLY going on in blog land rather than good objective, thoughtful, clear, innightful, helpful to potential reader, critiques and reviews of books.

We don't need more negative or positive reviews. We need more good ones that can really be helpful in guiding potential readers--so they don't WASTE their time desperately seeking new good stuff to READ!

Sometimes, I feel like telling authors who whine about negative reviews: "Go get a life! Go get a life! Or else get back in the writing room and start something new.... and PLEASE stop expecting to be idolized like a rock star in public all the time!"

Anonymous said...

I take most reviews as tongue and cheek. (I often wonder what creditentials certain reviewers have.) I (like Ursula Nordstom) am a fomer child and I know a good book when I read one!!! Oh, I have read a lot of good ones!!!!

I can't wait for the Jenna Bush's new book. I'll be happy to review that one!!!

yankeerat said...

Responding as a writer and a reviewer, I have no time for second-rate books. They are taking away time and effort that could be used on first rate books. I have to put my name to all my reviews, and as long as I express my opinion competently and rationally, backing up any negative (or even mixed) comments without sounding bitter, then my conscience is clean. KSD