Thursday, February 10, 2011

Message to Sylvia Massara

There's a romance novel writer named Sylvia Massara who writes a pink-bannered blog called "Writers Helping Writers." Yesterday she felt the need to lash out at the "unprofessionalism" of two unpaid bloggers who had the audacity to give one of her books a less-than-glowing review. At first she named the bloggers, but now she's taken the names out of her post. She had gotten 180 comments before she evidently decided that to comment on her post, you had to be a "member" of her blog.

This is blogging at its worst: indulging in a word-tantrum when you don't get your way, name-calling, and then metaphorically covering your ears and humming.

I've been blogging about books for three years now, and I'm increasingly distressed to find that when I make any kind of critical comment about a book (I'm using the word "critical" in terms of "criticism," which is the business of a reviewer), a few readers--sometimes including the author--jump to the conclusion that I didn't "like" it. It's as if a review has to be all good or all bad.

Massara's objection to her "bad" reviews is that they weren't "objective"and that the reviewers didn't provide evidence for their views. Obviously I agree that bloggers should back up what they say, but that's completely unconnected to the subjectivity of the view. Why shouldn't a blogger be subjective? No one's paying him or her to do this, there's no publication philosophy standing behind what is being written, and any audience members have freely chosen to read what this blogger says.

There's only one way that what Massara is complaining about makes sense, and that's the possibility that sending a free book to a blogger obligates her to bend over backwards to find something nice to say about it and avoid exposing what she sees as its shortcomings.

And what's the solution? It's nothing new, but let's go over it again for Sylvia's benefit. Bloggers, if you don't want to shill for publishers, go to the library and buy your own books, for the most part. If you find publishers who will continue to send you advance review copies even when you review some of them negatively, stick with them. Authors, if you want honest reviews, look around and find some bloggers whose views you generally agree with and whose taste you trust. And if you can't find enough people who like the stuff you like, then create your own club and put a "no dirty bloggers allowed" sign on it by instructing your publisher to send review copies only to club members.


Harriet M. Welsch said...

I am not a book blogger, but I do occasionally write about books. I don't, however, tend to write about the books I don't like. Mostly it's because life is short and why write about something you don't like? If I were a book blogger, I'd feel differently. But I also am not anxious to bring down firestorms. But I also don't want to feel obligated to sugar coat and when I do review books, I try to be a) as balanced as I can b) to write a review that would help people who would like this book to find it and c) communicate my feelings about it and the context for those feelings. I think all of these things are necessary for a review to be useful. Nevertheless, I don't think I am under any obligation to provide these things. I do think I have an ethical obligation to be honest and fair coming from my own point of view. But a book is a public document and I have a right to my own opinion about it and the right to express that opinion. A bad review is not libel. Suck it up, author. Learn from it or ignore it. Whatever. But it's time to move on.

Amanda said...

I always feel very sorry for people who stick their foot in their mouths like that, and then who keep jamming it in further. Not that I would ever want to read that woman's books, even if romance WAS my chosen genre, but...yeah. Wow.

Jodie said...

Oh dear. Every time this sort of thing comes up it makes me feel depressed, especially the 'if you've never written anything, you've got no right to express an opinion on the internet' side of things. I have very few people to talk about books with offline (music and film is another story and that's why I'm not blogging mostly about those things)but I keep finding authors talking up a storm that seems to amount to 'buy our books full price, read 'em if you want, but we don't care if you engage with them'.

kittiesx3 said...

I used to follow a sewing blog (yes, I sew) by a woman in the Atlanta area who was and presumably still is an amazing seamstress.

I no longer read her blog because someone did post a critical comment about something she'd done and then blogged about (not about her sewing but something she'd done in the real world, if I recall correctly how she'd responded to someone). The criticism wasn't personal, and the poster made it clear it was just her position but the blogger went OFF for pages and pages of rebuttals. Basically she netted out at you'd better only post positive things about her or she'd ban you.

That was enough of that and I never went back.

That was it for me. If you don't want others' opinions, don't post your

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

I agree with Jodie. When I read the "If you don't write, you can't read/critique" comments I just get annoyed. Certainly, people offer opinions about things they don't know about all the time, but when you're writing what you thought about a book, you don't need to "know" anything.

Last year at the Book Blogger Convention someone said that we are each the expert in the subject of "Books that I Like." That's all you need to be able to express opinions about books online.

Thanks for also responding. You said many of the things I also wanted to say :)

FreshHell said...

Well, as you know, I write about the books I read, but I in no way consider myself a "book blogger" much less a reviewer because I'm not really skilled at that. I just write how I feel as a reader. Often, I can't fully express why I like a book but more often I can tell you why I didn't, why this didn't work, what I wish there was more of. That said, I am a writer, I get how hard it is but SOMEONE obviously thought the book had enough merit to publish it so an author should just suck up the bad reviews - esp on blogs - and move on. You just can't please everyone.

Lori L said...

Good grief. Exactly who is she writing for if not readers? Does she only want other writers to read her books? Do you imagine she would accept a negative review from another writer? Perhaps she should learn to ignore the bad reviews, much like many of us can choose to ignore her books. Too much ego always trips people up.

Nymeth said...

"I've been blogging about books for three years now, and I'm increasingly distressed to find that when I make any kind of critical comment about a book (I'm using the word "critical" in terms of "criticism," which is the business of a reviewer), a few readers--sometimes including the author--jump to the conclusion that I didn't "like" it. It's as if a review has to be all good or all bad."

This bothers me as well. And it really worries me when people say "I guess I won't read it then!" when I mention in a post that I found an aspect of a book problematic. The last thing I want to be doing is warning people away from books.

Kailana said...

I have to say that if someone doesn't like a book, I MIGHT still want to read it. It is instances like this that will turn me right off a book...

Christina Tarr said...

"Oftentimes, the people who set up these kinds of blogs have never written a thing in their lives, except maybe a grocery list. Most are avid readers who think they are qualified to review someone else's work. So it's very sad when they go about damaging the image of upcoming small press and indie authors with the rubbish they write."
Who better to review someone's work than an avid reader? And do reviews really have such power?

avisannschild said...

It's mind boggling to me that any author is still making this type of mistake. Way to antagonize the folks who are reading your books!

I haven't had any negative feedback on my negative reviews (but then again, these days, I'm posting very few reviews of any kind), but like Nymeth, it bothers me when people respond to a negative review by saying they definitely won't be reading the book. Then again, I have occasionally noticed that the same person will comment on a positive review of the same book on another blog and say they want to read it, so maybe I shouldn't worry too much about being a bad influence!

Aarti said...

I feel sorry for any author who reads her post and thinks it's "helpful" to write something like that for all the public to see.

I think it's incredibly unprofessional on HER part (and SUPER immature) to delete any and all comments on that post as well- I mean, if you understand the internet at all, you understand that it's a conversation, not a soap box.

And she is completely putting down her own reading public. I don't know how a review can be "objective" without being just a plot summary. I also think it's ridiculous to think that all bloggers only write grocery lists. It sounds to me like Massara does a little too much emotional writing and should perhaps think before she posts- a lesson any seasoned blogger (which she perhaps is NOT) should know.

avisannschild said...

I feel like I need to explain my first comment because on rereading it, I'm not sure it makes sense. It's not that I don't want to influence people with my reviews -- I obviously hope I do encourage people to buy or borrow books that I've enjoyed. It's just that it bothers me that people sometimes seem to assume that because I disliked a book they will too -- that just because I wrote a review, I'm some sort of authority on the merit of the books I've read. Does that make sense? (I'm afraid I'm going off on a bit of a tangent with respect to the original point of your post. Sorry about that!)

I also agree that the idea that some reviews are objective is a false one: there's no such thing as an objective review! All opinions are subjective and all reviews are primarily based on opinion. (Of course you can choose to back up your opinion with examples, but whether you do so or not doesn't change the fact that your opinion is still subjective.)

Jeanne said...

A distinction I always make in first-year writing classes is that an opinion usually doesn't need support, whereas a viewpoint requires evidence. A viewpoint is just as subjective, though, which I think is one of your points. I mean, think about the word: view-point. The point from which you view.

Jenny said...

*eyeroll* I always think something like this misses the point of book bloggers to each other. Like, apart from the fact that it's a nice community and all, I like book blogs because I learn whose taste to trust, and then I know what books I absolutely have to read tomorrow or die. :p The subjectivity (by the way, and again, what on earth would an objective review even look like?) of book bloggers is what makes their reviews useful when I'm at the library.

Jeanne said...

Harriet, many--possibly most--other book bloggers don't write about the books they don't like. Sometimes they write about why they quit reading them. One of the bloggers Massara identified did that with her book.

When you talk about books, you do a good job of providing context for your feelings, which I think makes blog reviews more interesting.

Jeanne said...

Amanda, as I said on Twitter, I had to think twice about my motives for responding.

Jodie, it doesn't depress me; it amuses me. Why? Many of the satires I read for my dissertation research were this same kind of whining about critics, but usually done in a more clever manner. We're experiencing a return of the 18th century in terms of the relationship between writers and critics.

Elizabeth, exactly. Writing is about communication, so eventually you get tuned out if all you want to do is talk and you never listen.

Kim, although it is important to note that the bloggers I like to read always explain why they like a book and give examples. Thanks for your take on this, and your conversation :-)

Joseph said...

You might also be interested in a recent post by Karen Schneider, which addresses this incredible thin-skinned-ness about accepting feedback and learning to deal with group input.

I do think blog authors have the undisputed right to close comments, delete comments, and even restrict membership. It is, after all, your space. (I've noticed that I work pretty hard on blogs and Facebook to give the host the last word.)

You're allowed to cover your ears and hum, if you want. (But you have to deal with what others will think of you when you do.)

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, you write amusingly. Other people have to develop critical skills to get others to listen to them. I think it's important to learn to do whatever a person decides to do so she can do it well.

Lori, I imagine she would accept criticism better from another writer. It's true that I haven't put my writing out there in the world for her to read, so as far as she knows maybe all I've ever written are grocery lists. That ignorant attitude can get us back to sayings like "those who can't do, teach" and then on farther back to the 18th-century mudslinging at critics.

Nymeth, exactly. That's what spurred me to respond to this--distress that if I say anything critical about a book, a few readers assume I didn't "like" it.
Part of it is that I'm not communicating my nuances of meaning well enough, but I think part of it is that people aren't reading carefully enough to get nuances.

I'm especially distressed when I get the "you didn't like it" email from authors whose books I've praised and blamed. One at least has stuck around and seen that I do like his books even though I don't talk like a drooling fangirl. Others have been gracious and offered to send me a book they think I might like better. The most recent one who emailed me sounded disappointed in a review I thought might get people really interested in his book!

Jeanne said...

Kailana, good point. Sometimes I want to read a book BECAUSE another blogger hates something about it that I know I'll love! (Amanda and I sometimes do that--we have very different tastes, and know it!)

Christina, that's a good question--and another one that makes me think of the 18th-century quarrels over criticism--do reviews really have such power?

Writing always has emotional power. That's the first thing I teach the people who work for me in the Writing Center. Peter Elbow has a great article about how to respond to writing as a reader, and I recommend it to student workers...except for the part where he suggests that mocking someone's writing can give them a clue about its tone. No. At least in an academic setting, that's not going to work well.

Certainly a lot of debut novelists can't resist googling themselves and their titles to see what we all have to say about them, and then they grow that tougher skin that published authors have to grow and they quit reading what everybody has to say about them.

Notice, though, that I don't say they read it all and just don't care. I don't think that's possible, because writing is so emotional.

Besides all the emotion, though, I think we're still sorting out how much power reviews have on the buying habits of readers, and what the place of blogs is going to be in terms of publishing.

Avisannschild, I wonder if some of the comments are just meant to be agreeable. I also like seeing people who are apparently swayed different ways by conflicting reviews of the same book, but attribute a lot of it to the triumph of politeness over meaning. I think most people who comment here are aware that I value meaning over politeness. As Nicole has said over at Linus' Blanket, I like it when people read; they don't have to comment just for the sake of saying something.

Jeanne said...

Aarti, she didn't delete comments, just closed them. Sometimes you do get overwhelmed at some point. But yes, the most important lesson from this is probably to count to ten before you post.

Incidentally, I failed that test with this particular post.

Avisannschild, yes, I thought what you said made sense the first time. Isn't it kind of like what I said to Nymeth? It's not that you don't want to influence people, it's just that you want them to think about what you've said and decide for themselves.

I'd like to see everyone in the blogosphere quit using the word "opinion" and start using the word "viewpoint." Thank you.

Jenny, certainly I agree about learning whose taste you trust. And being a somewhat contrary person, I sometimes get more excited about reading something I think Amanda and I might disagree about than something you love and I'm pretty sure I'll love too--I know I can save that for some time when I need it.

Jeanne said...

Joseph, that's a good post by Karen Schneider; thanks for pointing me at it. What she says about writing isn't new to anyone who pursues it seriously, but she says it well and it's worth saying over and over. I deal with some of the thin-skinned and individualistic attitudes at work when faculty members fret about whether the student workers in the writing center are going to be doing "collaborative writing" with their students. Like that's a bad thing.

And yes, you can do whatever you want on your own blog. I'm just saying that whatever you do, you should try to do well.

Jenny said...

Oh, yes, that is also true what you said! Sometimes reading the one negative review in a cloud of glowing ones motivates me to try the book and see which side I agree with.

Jeanne said...

Jenny, so repeat after me: "we are all individuals..."

(do you know that scene? from Life of Brian?)

Bybee said...

People like Massara are the reason I decided early on, soon after publishers and authors decided that we are useful for 'getting the word out', that I didn't want any review copies.

Jeanne said...

Bybee, I think that's a good position to take. So far I've had a fine experience in the "will work for books" line with Phoenix Picks and Harper Books. But I do think that accepting a free book for review can be a little like doctors prescribing and then selling medicine in the olden days.