Reviews: the good, the bad, the shaming

shame has a piece today at Women Writers, Women’s Books which has me thinking hard. “Leave E.L. James Alone, Already” is a heart-felt appeal to writers not to join in when their colleagues are getting bashed. 

The essay was born when she came across the #AskELJames thread on Twitter just recently. The thread became the subject of wider debate when a group of people with a complaint in common began to ask James pointed questions. From USA Today, this summary:

Shortly after the Q&A started on Monday afternoon, the #AskELJames hashtag was overtaken by Christian Grey haters who accused the author of being homophobic and misogynistic and romanticizing stalking and abuse. Others took issue with her actual writing, asking things like, “Which do you hate more, women or the English language?” 

In response to this, Amy suggested that it’s never okay to voice a negative opinion about another writer’s work. She only posts a review if she can give it four or five stars:

Because books are art. And art is subjective. And art lays a soul bare. And who the heck wants to be responsible for stepping all over someone’s soul?

Well, certainly not me, thank you very much.

She suggests that we leave reviews to reviewers and keep writing. Her bottom line:

Don’t lie. Don’t be insincere. If you don’t like a book – especially from a fellow woman author – who would blame you for politely excusing yourself from the conversation?

Well, certainly not me, thank you very much.

Amy has a point, of course. But it seems to me she’s conflating a lot of very different issues. 

Reviews come in all formats. Sometimes writers are asked to review books, sometimes they review books on their own websites or on sites like Goodreads.  Reviews can be well done, or poorly done. More importantly: a positive review can be badly done, and a negative review can be well done.  Here’s an example of a poorly done positive review: Great book! I loved it!!!

I would not call the E.J. James twitter thread a review. A thread that devolves into an exercise in bashing is an attack. It’s a bully-bullshit session. It’s an unworthy exercise, but unfortunately, it’s not uncommon.

There are a lot of bullies hanging around in the ether, and sometimes they join forces and form bands when they have a particular enemy in mind. The enemy can be a single individual, as was the  case with the E.L. James twitter thread, or it can be a whole class of people.  This happens in all kinds of fandoms. My daughter follows dance competitions and discussion online, and she has read me some truly disturbing bully-band attacks focused on one person who voiced a less-than-reverential comment about a performance by their favorite dancer. Personal attacks on an individual because that individual voiced a dissenting opinion. 

It’s a phenomenon that somebody somewhere must be studying. At least, I hope someone is looking at it, because I see it as an example of the worst of human group behavior. But let’s be clear: everybody does it. Writers bash other writers, and on occasion, readers gang up on writers. Sometimes for good reason.

The best example I know of is the Cassie Edwards kerfuffle on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and Dear Author.  Wikipedia has the best summary of the situation I’ve come across, so I’m going to quote it here, with their links and footnotes intact:

On 7 January 2008, the romance-novel review blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books[4] accused Edwards of widespread plagiarism after finding multiple passages in her novels that appeared to be directly taken from various works by other authors, including novels, poems, reference books, and websites about Native American history and culture.[1] Many of the passages came from old references, many without copyright or with expired copyright protection.[4][5] One of Edwards’ publishers, Signet, initially defended the passages in question as fair use rather than copyright infringement.[1]

Nora Roberts, herself a victim of plagiarism, joined the outcry.[6] Two days later, Signet announced that they would be reviewing all of Edwards’ books that they published to determine whether plagiarism had occurred,[7] and, in April 2008, Signet stopped publishing Edwards’ books “due to irreconcilable editorial differences.”[8] In an interview, Edwards said that she did not know she was supposed to credit sources, and her husband stated that Edwards gained ideas from her reference works but did not “lift passages”.[7]

On the surface I see nothing wrong with the fact that a group of readers discovered something unethical, and that they made those discoveries public. The author had no one to blame for the fallout but her own poor choices. At the same time, there was a gleeful tone in a lot of the discussion that made me uncomfortable.  For example, a comment made on a Smart Bitches post in 2008: 

So, let me get this straight: you were actually able to read an entire Cassie Edwards book while doing this research? You should apply to work on Mike Rowe’s Discovery Channel Program “Dirty Jobs.”

A negative review doesn’t have to be a shaming; a well-done negative review can leave an author with a new perspective. My work has received good reviews and constructive negative reviews and some mean-spirited reviews. The constructive negative reviews are probably the ones that do me the most good. The unreservedly good reviews I save for the occasional 2 a.m. crisis of the soul when I’m sure I have never written a single decent sentence. The stinkers I ignore, and sometimes if they are over-the-top, I can laugh at them.

Finally, when I do post a book review that is less than positive, I work very hard to be fair. It’s as close to a universal truth as you can come in this business to say that there are books for which I am (or you are) just not the right reader. I don’t write negative reviews very often, and I can remember only one instance when I was so infuriated by a novel that my tone bordered on outrage. But I will continue to write such reviews, now and then when I see a flaw in a book that strikes me as something worth talking about.  A constructive discussion is a learning exercise for everybody.

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image: © altanaka – Fotolia.com found on an article well worth reading: Brené Brown Talks to The Shriver Report: The Power of Shame on Women Living on the Brink

 

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3 Replies to “Reviews: the good, the bad, the shaming”

  1. “A negative review doesn’t have to be a shaming; a well-done negative review can leave an author with a new perspective. My work has received good reviews and constructive negative reviews and some mean-spirited reviews. The constructive negative reviews are probably the ones that do me the most good. The unreservedly good reviews I save for the occasional 2 a.m. crisis of the soul when I’m sure I have never written a single decent sentence. The stinkers I ignore, and sometimes if they are over-the-top, I can laugh at them.

    Finally, when I do post a book review that is less than positive, I work very hard to be fair. It’s as close to a universal truth as you can come in this business to say that there are books for which I am (or you are) just not the right reader.

    IMO a very healthy way to view reviews by anyone and, by the same token, writing one yourself. I remember the Cassie Edwards kerfuffle and the more recent Jane Goodall one as well., which I suspect in this age of computerized fact checking should make any author be more wary of using other sources.

    And its certainly true that the internet is often a much more cruel place that it should be given that everyone at some point in their lives makes mistakes.

  2. Lots of great points here. Thanks for continuing the dialogue in such a productive way. Frankly, I’d be honored to have you review my book. good or bad! ;)

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