Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Reviewer Responsibility?

In the blogs o books lately, there has been a lot of talk about reviewers' responsibilities--to their readers, the author, the publisher, and themselves. It all started (at least as far as I was aware) when KatieBabs published this post about an online reviewer who can no longer get free books from the publisher because they don't like the tone of her reviews. Here's the excerpt of the e-mail republished on Katie's site, which was sent to the reviewer (one Emmy) via the review site she writes for (separate from her livejournal account):

As I mentioned to you sometime ago, a number of authors have written me requesting that I do not send you their books to review since they didn't appreciate your style of reviewing. Recently the publishers have gotten in on the action and several of them have written within the past couple of weeks requesting that I give their books to other reviewers. Basically what they have said is that they will not give their books to a reviewer who trashes them. Their main objection is the tone of your reviews and I'm paraphrasing here - your reviews come across as extremely snarky, not just in the reviews themselves but in the comments following the reviews .... they don't have any issue with reviewers posting negative reviews of their books but they feel that your reviews are unprofessional. The bottom line is they are not prepared to offer their books to a reviewer who calls stories she doesn't like "craptastic" "suckage" and makes reference to gouging her eyes out, is disrespectful and cruel, especially following up on reviews she has posted of stories she doesn't like. Some of us have problems writing reviews on books that we don't like for whatever reason. As you know, I hate writing negative reviews but I do them more frequently now and I always have to find the right words to use and try to be helpful. So we have a problem with few options. Since I'm rapidly running out of books for you to review I could do what I did originally when you agreed to post your reviews here - I could cherry pick your reviews from your Live Journal and suggest the ones to be posted here. Obviously I can't select those from some publishers, which makes it difficult. Honestly, I'm at a loss here. I like you on a personal level, I enjoy our discussions, I think you're funny and we have fun together and I don't want this to affect our relationship. I don't know if you have any other suggestions of how we can work around this.You'll probably be angry when you receive this email but I have no option since basically I have been given ultimatums by several publishers who supply the books to be reviewed.

Wow. That'll knock a girl down a peg. So basically--or at least as Katiebabs argued--Emmy is being blackmailed into changing the tone of her reviews or she will no longer receive books from the publisher.

Then Bbexlibris posted an entry asking what makes a good review. Although this doesn't seemingly have anything to do with Emmy's problem, it actually does--the publishers are refusing to lend her books because they don't think she writes valuable reviews. They want her reviews to be "helpful," or something. But should reviews, of books or movies or anything, really be helpful? Should they be entertaining? Most reviewers (re: yes, I mean myself) don't get free books to review from publishers. But if you do get copy from publishers or authors, do you enter into some sort of unspoken contract with them not to be as harsh?

There have been more posts discussing this topic, my personal favorite being the one on RomanceNovelTV--basically the equivalent of STFU. "Criticism is not a one-way street," Marisa (the author) says, so don't dish out what you can't take.

I think this is a great point, and why doing reviews on the internets is different from doing them for, say, the New York Review. Also perhaps why it's better. In ye olde timey days, you got reviews from newspapers or magazines, and some were more prestigious than others. Did those reviewers interact with publishers and writers? They probably did, to a certain extent, but they couldn't get too buddy-buddy with them due to journalistic integrity and all that; and the reviewers definitely didn't interact with the masses of readers that authors and book sellers were hoping to sell books to. Basically, for the Waldo Lydeckers of the world (he was a critic, wasn't he?), criticism was a one-way street.

With the interwebs, you've got a completely different situation. Writers, reviewers, readers, publishers, and editors are all on Twitter or on blogs, talking to one another, reading reviews, commenting on websites, and basically communicating to an extent they never have before. If you write a review, be it harsh or favorable, chances are not only higher the author and editor will read it, but respond to it.

Does this improve reviews? Do you think reviewers are selling out if they pull punches just because they know the author of the book might read their review of it? Is it even a reviewer's job to be "helpful" to a writer in improving his or her books?

Personally, there are only two kinds of reviews that I really love: ones that lead me to great books, and ones that add to my understanding of books that I've read. Neither instance requires wit or a snarky attitude, or being helpful to the author for that matter. Someone who writes a review that is meant to show off their own cleverness and intelligence more than discuss the book being reviewed (something that happens in academia all the time, just fyi), tends to scream to me "Frustrated Novelist." Then again, one does want one's reviews to be interesting so that people will read them....

It's an interesting conundrum. I'm not going to promise my reviews will never be snarky, but I do have to admit that every time just before I hit the submit button, I ask myself, "What if the author reads this?" It's not so much pulling my punches as watching out for my karma--what goes around comes around.

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