Wednesday, February 18, 2009


I've been thinking about doing some sort of books feature, an irregular review sort of thing. I read a lot of books, in various genres of fiction as well as various topics of nonfiction, and I certainly have strong opinions about pretty much everything, so one might think this'd be a great fit for me.

But then recently, a friend of mine pointed me at a contest a writer was running, the prize being some number of ARCs. You enter the contest, and if you win you get the free ARC and agree to blog about it.

And right there was where I balked, and started thinking about it.

What if I didn't like the book? I had something like that happen a while back, where I entered a writer's contest and won a free book. She actually sent me two (or rather, her publicist did); one was the novel that'd been promised, and another was an anthology where the writer had contributed one of the stories. The letter from the publicist expressed eagerness to see my blog post about the books after I'd read them.


What if I don't like them? And in fact, I started with the anthology, since I like short stories, and it turned out I didn't like it. The story by the writer who'd run the contest was the best one in the book, but that wasn't saying much. To this date I still haven't tried the novel, and I might never; I might end up just donating it to a library or something, because the short story really did nothing for me and I'm reluctant to dive into something longer and more complex by the same writer. I suppose it's very possible that this writer is more comfortable with and better at longer forms, but I still have that unpleasant taste left on my mental tongue and just don't feel like seeing for myself.

I didn't really feel bad about not blogging about these books, though, because it hadn't been spelled out when I entered the contest that a free pimp-post would be expected. I'm not going to feel guilty about backing out on a deal I didn't know I was making, and besides, I doubt that writer or her publicist would care to read what I'd write, if forced to. So.

The thing is, if I were to do a "What I'm Reading" sort of series, I'd want to write about all the books I read. I suppose I could only do the ones I liked, but that feels like cheating. And if there's a purpose to the thing, then for the sake of people reading the pieces, I should talk about what I didn't like as well, and why. I've never had much respect for review sites or review magazines where everything gets four or five stars; they feel like hired shills masquerading as reviewers, whether they're actually getting paid or not. I think reviewers have a duty to dish out the bad along with the good, and I'm obsessive enough that if I did this at all, I'd want to do it thoroughly.

Interestingly enough, I don't mind doing in-house reviews for my publisher. When anything book-size (usually either a novel or a longer anthology) is released, there's a review written by one of Torquere's other authors right there along with the book's summary and excerpt and all. Of course, they're always positive. I think the difference here is that they are marketing pieces and everyone knows it. There's no pretense of a completely independent review. And no, writers assigned a book to review aren't pressured to recommend it. I was actually assigned a book once which I didn't care for at all and simply could not recommend. I let the staff person who coordinates the reviews know and she was fine with it; these things happen, she said, and it wasn't a huge problem. They've bought more stories from me since then, and I've even gotten more review assignments, so clearly there's no retribution attached to backing out of a review. I felt bad about it at the time, but having this happen has actually made me feel better about the process; knowing that there is an out makes it clear that if a writer wrote a positive review it's because they actually did like the book. And not including a negative point of view works in this case because, again, it's a marketing thing and no one's pretending otherwise.

Although this brings up another issue -- reviewing books by my own publisher. I read a lot of Torquere books because I like them and there are some excellent authors writing for the house. I'd just as soon not get into an argument with anyone who might come along and accuse me of conflict of interest, though. And in all honesty, I would feel weird posting a negative review of a book by my publisher. I haven't loved every single one of them, and I'm sure another one will come along eventually that I'll dislike. But there's a family or team sort of feeling among the writers (which might well be the case with any smallish press; I haven't worked with any others to know) and it feels... I don't know, disloyal maybe? to be posting the occasional negative or even scathing review of one of their books. Especially if I know the writer -- wow, awkward! [wince]

So I guess I could just make a policy of not reviewing books by any publisher I've written for.

I still have misgivings, though. I think the main problem, here, whether the books I'd be reviewing were by my own publisher or not, is that I'm a writer myself. Any negative review would feel (or might look to a reader) like I was trashing the competition, which is always uncool. Ironically, it'd be easier if I weren't a writer; as a reader and only a reader, I'd have no problem offering up my opinion, because it'd be pretty clearly unbiased. (Or as unbiased as a human opinion ever is, but at least there wouldn't be any kind of competitor-bias in the mix.)

A lot of other writers review, some informally on their blogs and others for a living. I used to love reading Spider Robinson's reviews in Analog back when, for example, and I have no problem now reading reviews by another writer, whether formal or casual. It's only when I think about being the writer doing the reviews that I start to get squirmy. :/

Am I the only one who stresses out about this sort of thing? Am I overly polite? Just over-thinking? Any opinions, from other writers who review, or anyone who reads reviews, or anyone else who has a random opinion to share...?



Charles Gramlich said...

The issues you've brought up is one of the main reasons I've never done many paid or assigned reviews. I really don't like to hurt folks feelings. On the other hand, I enjoy doing spontaneous reviews of books I really like, or of books that I really dislike if the author is no longer around to have his or her feelings hurt.

laughingwolf said...

i'm with both you and charles... i was given an arc to review, and did

while i really like the yarn, was disappointed the actual story did not start til chapter 22... about 3/4 of the way through!

the first 21 chapters i saw as setup, and could have been interspersed throughout, or even in flashbacks... and this was by a nyt best-selling author :(

Angie said...

Charles -- there's a thought, only reviewing books by writers who are safely dead. :D

"Wow, that Benvenuto Cellini, enough ego for six people, hey? Greatest artist of his day, brilliant inventor, military genius -- too bad all those enemies of his worked tirelessly his entire life to prevent him from getting the wide-spread acclaim he deserved. [cough]"

"Homer obviously had a different definition of 'love' than I do 'cause he didn't come close to convincing me that Achilles actually loved Briseis. Romance fail."


LW -- Chapter 22? Ouch! Definitely have to wonder what the writer was thinking. :/


writtenwyrdd said...

I review a book occasionally, but only if I really like it. I also occasionally do a (probably too snarky) report in brief on books that irritated me for some reason. Eragon was one; Twilight another. I try to be fair and not say it's all bad but why I found it flawed. I also usually only do these latter types of posts when I actually find myself wanting to know what happens next in the flawed books--meaning there are reedeeming qualities in them.

Have I done any totally n egative reviews? Not sure... But over the last year or so I made the decision to only write positive reviews in a formal book review.

I don't think it is a good practice to slam someone else's work in specific. (and just look at the reaction to Steven King's comments a couple of weeks ago for why!)

Angie said...

WW -- I'm pretty sure I could be fair, but I have a hard time squelching my emotions when I'm seriously frustrated and annoyed by a book or an author. If they just completely suck (IMO of course) then it's not a big deal. But I've always gotten very frustrated with a writer who's obviously got a lot of talent and who could rock so hard if they just polished up a few skills, but for some reason they just... don't. It's like, "You could be awesome! Do some freaking work!" [wry smile]

About the Stephen King thing, I think that's a special case. I mean, Stephen King is one of the most successful popular fiction writers in the universe and IMO he has a pass to render whatever opinions he wants. :) Most of the really active Twilight fans are pretty certifiable, though. I mean, come on, half the criticism of King was along the lines of, "OMG he's just jealous!!! of Stephenie!!!!1!!11!!eleventy!!" which is pretty insane. And their treatment of poor Rob Pattinson? There were women Our Age ambushing him during Q&A sessions at San Diego about how sexy they thought he was. O_O Seriously, what did they expect him to say to that? Or feel about it? [sporks brainless idiots] I'll bet that kid wishes he'd gone to electrician's school or something. Or at least that he'd passed on the Edward role. At this point I don't take anything Twilight fans say seriously, or even respect any of their opinions. I'm sure there are a few sane ones out there, but that's just a bummer for them. Heck, they're probably hiding, or wearing T-shirts that say, "I'm NOT with THEM." :D

Anyway. [cough]