I Won't Pan Your Crummy Book. I'm Not That Type of Gal.
I recently picked up a book I was super-excited to read. It was going to be dark and ominous; and, if you believed the likes of Publisher’s Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, and all of those other high falutin “Weekly's”, it was going to scare the living hell out of me. Bring it on, I thought. Bring. It. On.
Guess what. I hated it. Less than a hundred pages in the whole thing turned into a bit of a hate-read. The writing was stifled. The characters were one-dimensional. The plot was full of holes. I was both revolted and delighted by all of this bestseller's flaws; me, reveling in a weird sense of schadenfreude. It was a train wreck of a book that shockingly made it past an industry editor’s desk. And yet there it was, in my hands. In hardcover, no less. The audacity, I thought. What fresh hell is this? But of course, it had all the blurbs you’d ever want. Five-star reviews. This book will rock you. You’ll never forget it. And you’re right, Weekly Whatever, I’ll always remember. Because it was just that bad. Bad with a capital buh.
And yet, I’ll never post a review of this lovely tome. I’ll never take a pretty photo of the cover and tag the author on Instagram or Twitter (which is seriously distasteful, by the way. If you hate a book, do not tag the author. It’s called not being a jerk). I’ll never rant about it on Facebook. Nowhere, on any public forum, will you find my opinion on this hot piece of garbage—at least not by name. Well, that’s weird, you’re thinking. Why wouldn’t you pan it? Don’t you want to warn the world about this crappy literary wolf wrapped in a five-star wool sweater?
Short answer: Nah.
The subject has come up in the reading and writing community lately: should authors also be reviewers? I say no. Because as an author, my opinion is biased and bent by a whole slew of things, like the fact that I’m not a fan of a particular POV, or I hate when characters do this thing or that, or even by an aversion to a certain turn of phrase. These things are my personal pet peeves; they are among the things that make me dislike a book even when all those snazzy publications swoon. And you know what? That’s fine. It’s normal. As a writer, it’s what my brain should be doing—weeding out what I think is crap so that I write what I think is...well, not.
But you know what else? Just because I don’t like a book doesn’t mean the author didn’t put effort into writing it. It doesn’t mean they didn’t spend months, if not years of their lives, slaving over a manuscript. I know how that feels, folks. I’ve shed that blood and sweat. I’ve cried those tears. Which is why I will never ever post a bad review of a book no matter how terrible I think it is. Because, first off, it’s a conflict of interest. (This book is lousy. Read mine instead!) But most importantly, it feels dirty, like a gross violation of respect for a fellow weepy, sweaty bleeder. (We're all the same on the inside, after all. Bloody veins and puss.)
There are authors out there who do post reviews, both positive and negative. And let me make myself clear: if a writer wants to sing a book’s praises, bless them. You aren’t hurting anyone by being positive and spreading literary love. However! We’re focusing on negative reviews here, and most of the writers that post such reviews are indie authors, which says a lot. (Keep your pants on, folks. I self-published If You See Her, remember? I’m not talking shit about indies, just stating facts.) I’m not going to flat-out claim that a publisher would frown upon a contracted author posting negative reviews all over the internet. I’m sure there’s a publisher out there who wouldn’t care. But I bet you a dollar that most of them would because it’s a bad look. When you talk trash about someone else, all eyes point to you, not them. And let’s not be naïve. Indie authors understand that. They figure, hey, I’ll post blog entries and reviews for maximum exposure. Because if your review is scathing enough, maybe it'll go viral, right? But that’s precisely what I mean. It’s a conflict of interest. If you’re posting a review because you want to be seen, you’re immediately posting it with a bias. There should be a disclaimer: hey, I write books, too. Maybe you shouldn’t listen to me because my judgment is clouded. Hell, I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m full of set-in-stone biases because this is my industry and I’m becoming a crotchety old lady. (Damn these debut authors. Back in my day, we actually knew how to create tension. We worried about things like cadence and character development!) If I didn’t have biases, I very likely wouldn’t have a strong voice when I compose my own stuff.
But there’s another thing about writers posting reviews that bothers me, and I don’t see it discussed all that often. It is, in fact, the reason why I haven’t read reviews of my own stuff in years. Reviews, my friends, are not for authors. They’re not meant to offer constructive criticism, for one. And for another, they’re posted after a book is published. You can scream into the wind all you want about how a book would have been better with a different cockadoody ending, but Misery Chastain isn't coming back to life. The book is already out there, out of the author’s hands. It’s done, folks. There’s no changing what it is, good, bad, or ugly. Reviews are meant to be for readers, not writers. If you’re writing your reviews hoping Paul Sheldon reads them, you’re writing reviews for the wrong reason, Annie…and the wrong audience to boot.
When I ask for reviews of my work, I always make sure to add a disclaimer: post what you want, because I’m not going to read what you’ve written. At least when it comes to my own readers, I get a sense that this is appreciated. It allows my readers to post without worry that they’ll be “found out,” it encourages them to speak freely. Translation: when an author doesn’t read their own reviews and is upfront and honest about that fact, it results in genuine reviews. And isn’t that what reviews should be?
But I digress...
The point is this: readers and writers don’t read books in the same way. Readers are better at appreciating the book as a whole. Meanwhile, we writers get bogged down by the stuff I’ve already brought up: biases like point of view, character flaws, plot devices, weird phrasing and grammar. And, oh yeah, by the fact that we want to hock our own wares. (Speaking of, have you read If You See Her yet? I hear the reviews are pretty great.) All of that stuff is going to color a writer-written review, and quite frankly, that’s unfair to the author. Because no, they don’t write the way any other author writes. They have their own style, their own way of weaving a tale. That’s not another author’s place to judge. A reader, though? Have at it. The cockadoody book was written for you, after all.