Saturday, October 26, 2013

Should You Be Afraid to Review?

Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? In the big, wide world of semi-anonymity we call the internet, it seems at times that people are afraid of nothing. Strangers say things online that they'd never say if looking someone in the eye.

As tempting as it is to tell people where to get off—especially when they're being obnoxious or unfair—I still feel awkward saying something online that I wouldn't normally say when talking to somebody face to face. I've gotten into a few online discussions where I've tried to explain the other side's view in a rational manner, but it seems that people don't want to debate rationally; they only want to shout insults and belittle those who don't agree. If you don't believe me, try explaining to a gang of vehement Teachers' Union supporters that all homeschoolers are not, in fact, "inbred, narrow-minded, homophobic hypocrites." Wow. And those were the ones who didn't refer to a variety of body parts and animal acts. That was one "discussion" from which I removed myself after only one sentence. I never said anything critical about non-homeschoolers; I only tried to explain my own position.

It's not worth my time to argue with people who don't want to hear someone else's point of view, especially if those people are strangers who don't ultimately affect my real, flesh-and-blood life in any way.  

But what if those strangers could, in fact, affect your real life? Would you still feel free to express your honest thoughts?

I've been exploring a variety of threads on Goodreads lately, and a disturbing number of authors mention unwarranted attacks by other authors who don't agree with someone's review of their book. Researching further, I even found a website devoted to outing the attackers, Evidently, author/reviewer bullying is a pretty big thing. On the STGRB site, I read through quite a few of the stories, and was thankful that some of them ended happily, though it doesn't appear to be the case for the majority of the incidents.

Since when did an honest opinion become a bad thing? There are tactful ways to say the negative things that need to be said, like when my husband says, "Well, I know it's a comfortable outfit you like to wear, but it's not the most flattering thing you own." I'd rather hear that than overhear someone whisper, "Does she know what she looks like in that outfit?" In the case of a book review, I would expect an author to be prepared for the occasional negative. No one likes to hear that what they've worked on for months (sometimes years) isn't loved by one and all, but it should at least be expected once in awhile. I've perhaps not always used the most delicate phrasing when leaving reviews, but if confronted by an author, I am prepared to stand by my words and would (if the opportunity presented itself) say those words while meeting the author's eyes. 

I can think of one instance where I ended up wondering if I'd overstepped my bounds. A book I'd edited had gotten a two-star review from someone who admitted she didn't finish the book, it was not her typical genre, and in fact, anything to do with that particular genre really "didn't do anything for" her. So I asked her why she'd bothered to read or review the book, when all those factors would never have led her to a favorable review. I was polite, I clearly stated that I was the book's editor (which I didn't have to disclose) and wasn't asking so I could jump to the author's defense, but was genuinely curious. The reviewer didn't reply, but another GR person did, accusing me of being unprofessional by telling someone what a review should be, on a book which I "helped to create."

Well, first of all, I didn't create the book. I didn't help to create it. The novel was the author's hard work, not mine. I edited it. As much as I'd love to take credit for a book's success—and I do celebrate with them!—my work is the equivalent of adding gravy, not the meat & potatoes of the deal. I don't even have to like the books I work with, I suppose; I only have to correct them. So of course, I felt that was a moot point. However, the person who criticized me was polite, and I responded with equal politeness, and we went our separate ways. I'd intended no harm, she said her piece, and I realized it was probably not my business to ask the original poster anything at all. But I'm curious like that, and now I know that curiosity is not always appreciated. I'm thankful that my post didn't do any damage to the author, but I didn't feel it was right to remove it, either. After all, I said it, and I need to stand by my words, lest they cease to mean anything anymore.

A close relative of mine once decided she was going to be an author. She's not a reader, has never been a reader, and her reading attention span is about the length of a People Magazine article. However, she is creative. She wrote a bunch of children's stories in rhyme, and they were silly and could have been wonderful. 

Could have been. 

She asked me to look at them, and said, "Tell me what you think. Aren't they great?" Well . . . yes, they were. Mostly. But each time I'd ask her about something that needed to be adjusted (hard and fast rules, like not saying, "Dad and her went to the store . . ."), or questioned randomly capitalized words, or the way she forced the rhyming meter by accenting words on the incorrect syllable, she became irritated and say, "Well, that's the author's prerogative," and dismiss my concerns. I finally realized she only wanted pats on the back and no real help, and stopped bothering. Her books never got the polish they needed and never got off the ground, and that's a shame, because the eight stories she'd put together were pretty clever. 

My point, if I can still get back around to it, is this: if an honest opinion is wanted, then prepare for it to be honest. "Honest" does not always mean "favorable." And if your loyal fans jump to your defense, please make it clear to them that bullying your naysayers is NOT acceptable. Some of the articles I read left me incredulous that people would be so vicious to strangers over a book review, methodically stalking them across the social networks. In some of the cases I read, the author and the reviewer blamed each other for attacks launched by friends; once the true culprits were revealed, apologies were made and all was made as right as it could be, considering the emotional trauma each side was put through.

In a previous post, I stressed that most authors desire honest reviews. Reviews are the things that encourage people to purchase a book, and they allow authors to know their work is noticed. The relative obscurity provided by the internet should not ever be used as an excuse to lash out at anyone who doesn't happen to agree with us.


  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this. I think too many of us have an argumentative nature, or simply operate under the assumption that a differing opinion is automatically wrong (and must therefore be destroyed). Personally, I enjoy a disagreement (a calm, rational, let's debate the issues disagreement). People are fascinating creatures. To open yourself to another point of view is to allow the possibility for a strengthening of your own beliefs, or even a chance for enlightenment. More of us should want that.

  2. Although I can't say I "enjoy" a disagreement, I do enjoy rational debate. I've even, on rare occasions, allowed my worldview to be broadened by someone else's insights. Don't tell anyone. I'd hate to lose my rep as an inbred, narrow-minded homophobic hypocrite. :)


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