Adventures in Reading


Unnerved: honesty & the book blogger
October 6, 2008, 1:00 pm
Filed under: thoughtful | Tags: , , ,

I am starting this post with a bit of a warning: this is a thinking post and by this I mean I’m thinking through some issues and would certainly enjoy thinking comments in response. Also saying that, what follows is critical but I intend it as a criticism of the situation rather than specific individuals. Not scared yet? Read on!

A common post in the world of book blogging is in response to: what happens when I hate, loathe, abhor, or insert your adjective of distress here this book!? Do you even bother blogging about it? Do you hem and haw? Do you try to steer away and focus on the good (if any) points? Does your review become out of focused and rosie colored? Or do you simply say the book was a piece of poo? That cleaning the toilet would have been a far better investment of time? That other readers should stay far, far away?

My Friend Amy recently posted about this in her blog. Her post and many of the comments are very thoughtful. Simultaneously though, I was distressed at some of the dishonesty that was reflected. Now first, I am guilty of this myself. I posted a review about a certain free copy of short stories that I received (and I think everyone else online received too) and I hated it. Did I say this? No. Because I didn’t want to “hurt” the author’s feelings. So in effect: I lied to all of you by trying not to “hurt” the author’s feelings.

Thinking about this, I’ve decided that it’s better to always portray an honest opinion rather than lie to you lot. And I can say at least from this post on, I’ll try to be as honest as possible.

But something about all of this kind of freaked me out. The handful of book review blogs that I love, love, love are well-written, witty, and frank. Now though I’m kind of paranoid that book bloggers are saying something is okay or portraying it better than it is (after all, I’ve done it myself!). Most people, I think, read book blogs because they’re interested in books, want to see what’s out there to add to their reading stack, and like the general atmosphere of it all. But now I’m curious to see how many blogs I’m reading and looking for a good suggestion and the blogger doesn’t even really believe in what they’re writing?

I know, I know, I know there are middle grounds. Being unnecessarily cruel or malicious is a bit extreme as well as the opposing side of cotton candy and pink ponies, and most of us reside somewhere in between these two. But it is also a spectrum that seems to lie between “hurting” the author’s feeling and lying to your reading audience. What’s worse? And for me, I suppose I would rather risk “hurting” the author’s feelings than lying to you lot. I would rather say, this book and this author are good, and go and read it now; and say, this book is excellent wedge to prop that uneven end table.

P.S. “Hurt” and “hurting” were put in quotes because it’s a foggy area for me. Reading or advising something being workshopped is one thing, but a published work is quite another. When you put something out there in the world, as creative as it may be, part of that process is the reaction of your audience. If it’s bad, it sucks. But some things just suck.

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18 Comments

I struggled with this when I posted my review of Philippa Gregory’s “The Wise Woman”. I didn’t love the book, I didn’t hate it because I finished it. She’s known for being one of my favorite authors, and it definitely hurt to have to say that she wrote a turkey. But she did. Now I am having a hard time even thinking of buying her latest book because of it.

To be honest, I am just starting to get some review copies and the first one I’ve picked up has some elements that really bother me. I think that you are right- I owe it to the book community to tell them exactly what to expect, and I owe it to that author to tell them what bothers me about the book.

Comment by Rachel

First of all, let me say that this is a great post, and I think you raised lots of important questions.

Sometimes I worry that my readers think that I’m not always honest in my reviews. People often remark that I write mostly positive reviews, and though I know that they’re not in any way implying that I’m dishonest, I still worry that some people will think that. The thing this, I have good book radars. Most of the time I can tell if I’m not going to like a book or not, and I tend to be right.

Which brings me to why it’s very rare for me to accept review copies. I think I’d feel guilty if an author sent their book to me and I ended up posting about how much I hated it. But I also wouldn’t want to lie to my readers, so I might just decided not to post about it at all. Fortunately this is a situation I haven’t had to face up until now. But I still understand how you feel.

Yet if I stop and think about it, I think we all need to stop feeling guilty. Yes, a book was sent to us for free, and no, we are not being paid to review it. But still, we’re taking our own free time to read and review it. We are doing the author a favourite by giving him or her publicity, and that’s a bigger favour than them sending us the book for free. So I think we have the right to be negative if necessary. Plus, like you said, if people hold back then we’ll never quite know who to trust.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. But I really don’t have a problem with negative reviews. I just dislike the kind that imply “this book is so bad that if you like it you must be stupid”. But it’s perfectly possible to be honest, and even sarcastic, without that kind of implied arrogant – raych being a perfect example, and that’s why I love her reviews even when she’s saying bad things about a book I like.

I actually have a negative review in the works. I’m currently reading a book whose authors I’m very tempted to strangle, and I look forward to telling the world why :P

Comment by Nymeth

Great post. It’s really making me think. And I guess I have read and reviewed a couple of books that weren’t my favorite. And I wrote why. But I didn’t bash the book, the author, or anyone else who liked the book or still want to read it. I tend to say “these were good parts” but overall I didn’t like it because of “this and that”. So it’s kind of balanced. Because I know that there are definitely aspects of books that I just can’t stand but others might disagree. So I’ve had people want to read books that I’ve reviewed and not liked.

For people sending me books to review…I will pretty much only request or accept books that fall within the genre I like or sounds like I would like. And I rarely read a book I absolutely loathe because I pick books that sound good to me.

Ok..I’m done blabbing. Great post!

Comment by Amanda

When I read the first paragraph I immediately started feeling guilty because I said I hated the book I’m currently reading even though I don’t really hate IT. I just hate reading it. But then I read further and I agree with a lot of what you say.

I think there is a definite balance to reviews. There are certain bloggers that I can’t even read their reviews because they are TOO frank (and I think they try too hard to be “edgy” but that’s really just my opinion. Others seem to love said bloggers). I try not to bash books/authors on my blog but I also try to be honest. Sometimes this takes me pointing out the better aspects of the book or writing about the negatives in a way that show it is my opinion rather than fault of the author. I tend to do this more when the book has been sent by the author and I’m to the point where I don’t think I’ll accept any more (not that authors are beating down my door–they certainly aren’t!). I can be a little more free when I have absolutely zero attachment to the author.

When it’s all said and done I think it is easier to judge a review once you know the blogger better. There are some I know I can trust and others that while I love reading their reviews I realize they paint a “rosier” picture of the book. I also come to find similiarities in our tastes and work with that.

But it all comes down to the fact that we have different opinions–you could love a book and rave about how great it is and I may dislike it for completely different reasons. Unfortunately my radar isn’t always as great as Nymeth’s–I get very jealous of her at times. :)

Comment by Trish

Books that I buy (or mooch, whatever) myself, or get from the library are fair game – honesty ahoy! Books that an author has sent me, though, especially when I’ve been in direct contact with an author (instead of a publisher), I try to… not soft-pedal my review exactly, but at least try to focus on some things the book does well, while still briefly mentioning what I didn’t like. Books that I paid for I feel much more free to expound on their flaws.

I do like Nymeth’s view that we’re doing the authors more of a favor than they’re doing for us, and I know I need to work on it.

Comment by fyreflybooks

You might want to read my post about honesty and book blogging, which I wrote back in 2006 and caused quite a storm in the blogging world at the time:

http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/2006/11/the_pitfalls_of.html

I also wrote a post called “Bad books: expose or ignore?” http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/2006/11/bad_books_expos.html

I think the important thing is to be honest — but it’s no good bad-mouthing a book if you can’t explain why you didn’t like it.

Comment by kimbofo

I’ve gradually evolved in my thinking about this as I’ve become a more experienced blogger.

When I first started, I was completely honest in my opinions. I didn’t think anyone would ever read my posts but me, so I was totally open.

Then, I began to get more readers. I had authors visit and act hurt or even indignant, or even insulting (one guy said I just didn’t GET his brilliant book), and I started feeling weird about casually trashing someone’s huge creative work. So I started trying to be more tactful.

Then, I started to receive review copies, but before I even started getting just plain old free books, I was getting free books plus $20 from Amazon from Mother Talk. And I KNEW authors would read the posts. And I didn’t want Mother Talk to fire me. So I was tactful to the point of just not saying much about the negative feelings I had.

Then I started feeling wrong about that, so when I hated a book I HAD to review for Mother Talk, I would think of some small positive aspects and portray myself as ambivalent when really I disliked the book.

Then I got a review copy (but not from Mother Talk) of a memoir by a woman who thought her children were mentally ill. All while reading the book, I had the strong impression the woman herself was the mentally ill one and had convinced doctors to drug up her kids for “symptoms” like mild introversion, etc. So I wrote to her and said I can not review your book because it would be entirely negative. And she said ok, very politely, so politely I felt bad about my opinion.

Around then, I stopped accepting many review copies and put up my note on my contact form saying that when I do accept them, the people offering them should be prepared for a negative review or no review at all. The no review at all really only happens if I can’t finish the book. I also feel as Nymeth does that we’re doing THEM the favor, so I don’t feel any need to put my review copies at the front of my tbr pile or anything, and saying there might be no review at all frees me up to take my time. Because if someone sends me a book and I haven’t reviewed it in two months, they can just decide there won’t be a review. Then, if I review it a year later, they can be pleasantly surprised, right?

A while after putting up that note on my contact page, I was pissed off with Mom Central, a company that bought Mother Talk, and so the next time I read a crappy book from Mother Talk, I completely trashed it. I was downright mean and sarcastic. Then I felt bad about that because I knew that although I disliked the book, the author didn’t deserve my sarcasm just because I was mad at Mom Central. So I privatize the post, and when Mother Talk asked me about it, I told the truth in my email about how I felt about Mom Central and the book, and I didn’t accept the gift certificate.

So I’ve ended up after all this in a place where I don’t accept many review copies and almost never accept any with timelines attached. I also am more up front when I dislike a book, although even when I post a negative review, I still do try to mention whatever positive opinions I have about the book. So I might say I just couldn’t care about the characters, but I love the structure. Or this book bogged down in the middle and I almost gave up on it, but I liked the natural-sounding dialogue. I still keep in mind that the author or a reader who loved the book might read it, so I try to avoid being sarcastic about it. It’s hard, because I’m a sarcastic person, but I do try to make only constructive criticism.

Comment by dew

Ok, I (obvs) am all about honesty in book reviews, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t feel REALLY BAD when a nice author sends me a junky book. In that case, I’m tempted to rosify things. But mostly my books come from publishing houses – who have much less emotional stake and who are usually sending me books that wouldn’t be widely read anyways – and the library.

It takes time and effort to read a book. If a book isn’t worth your time, I WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT, and I hope you’d do the same for me. I try never to be snarky for the sake of being snarky, and I have LOADS of reviews filled with snugglewumpkins, or indifference.

I know how much of an author’s soul goes into writing fiction, and if I thought half the authors I lambaste even read my blog…well, I’d probably still say the things I do, but I’d lose more sleep over it. Thing is, most of them probably don’t. Jodi Picoult has best-sellers out the ying-yang and book deals all over the place, so she probably doesn’t care that I think she’s hung up on her own cleverness.

And the thing is, some authors are just lazy/rude/careless. If I am spending money (mostly library overdue fees) and time on their book, and they haven’t bothered to have it edited or to put real thought into their character development or continuity, someone needs to speak up and that someone will probably be me.

We all have TBR piles crowding us out of our homes, and if I can knock a few off of yours then I feel like I’ve done my duty. I’m always infinitely grateful whenver you all do the same.

Comment by raych

I’ve striven from the start of my blog to be nothing but honest about how I felt about a book. My husband tells me often after he’s checked updates that he’s impressed with my ability to be honest, because he knows it’s not easy. I’ve never encountered an irate author, but I try very hard to be critical and not just mean. Often, my anger lies more with the publisher/marketers for making me think a book will be better than it is. I used to think (back when I was a teen) that publishers wouldn’t publish a bad book, but I know better now.

Comment by Jena

I think there’s a problem with book bloggers accepting review copies (as I said over at My Friend Amy, it’s like when doctors used to sell medicines). If I can tell someone is soft-pedaling their dislike of a book, perhaps because they’re beholden to the author for sending a copy, I’ll quit reading that blog. Isn’t this only a problem if we all want preview-type reviews of the newest books? And my public library has a special shelf for those. I”ll bet yours does, too, if you look.

Comment by Jeanne

The danger of accepting ARC’s is that it will make you softer on a book than you would be otherwise.

Of course you shouldn’t attack the author but you can and should attack their book if you don’t like it. As long as you provide reasons for why you feel and think what you do, where’s the problem? A blog is after all a personal response to reading and it is perfectly possible that you can love a book others hate and vice versa.

Comment by Sarah

I have become more aware of the middle grounds when I get more involved with reviewing ARCs. After reading your post I simply have to put myself in check. I think bloggers are doing the authors more of a favor to review their books that hopefully will give them publicity. Many of us bloggers do read these reviews and count on them for whether we will give the book a go.

Whether the book is free or not becomes irrelevant, what is important is the honest opinion. As long as we speak from the truth of our heart why a book deserves to be burnt or why it shall be be required reading for everyone we have done to job.

(I still pay full price for many of the books I read so I feel compelled to say, within reason and plausibility, whatever I wish to say about them.)

Comment by Matt

Well, just last night I just posted a negative review of a book loved by many (The Memory Keeper’s Daughter), so my opinion is obvious. Like others, I appreciate negative reviews because they keep me from wasting my time on books I won’t like. (I just crossed Without a Map off my TBR list because of a blogger’s negative review.)

When I write negative reviews, I try, more than anything, to keep readers in mind. What should readers know before picking up this book? What aren’t the marketing departments telling them? Also, how would someone who loved this book feel when reading this review? I try not to imply that someone who likes what I don’t has bad taste—just different taste.

What I don’t think so much of is the author’s feelings. The author gets props just for getting the book published; surely someone somewhere liked it, and probably there’s a market for it–if not, shame on the publisher! If it’s self-published, I’m not reading it anyway. Sorry, but I’m a snob about that. That said, I don’t get personal–I focus on the writing.

As for how accepting review copies falls into this–well, I’ve only accepted one review copy as a blogger, and I’m liking it so far, but if I didn’t I’d say so. I suppose I have a certain amount of detachment because I used to edit a book review column for an education magazine, and I got dozens of books every week, most of which went unread. I figured out pretty quickly that the publicists understand the risk. And if they don’t, they should. If we as book bloggers want to be taken seriously, we need to be able to not allow ourselves to be manipulated by the publishers. When we do, well, in my blunt opinion, we become deserving of some of the criticism leveled at us by the professional critics.

Comment by Teresa

Thanks for such a thoughtful post on a subject that I think about pretty regularly myself. What I usually do is be as honest as possible without being rude, mean, or callous in any way. I also try to find one or two positive things to say about a book that I didn’t particularly enjoy, or at the very least, say something like, “You may enjoy this book if you like x, y, and z…” I have found that even books I have HATED other bloggers have really enjoyed, so who am I to say that my book tastes apply to everyone? Chances are they do not.

Another thing is that if I am really disliking a book, I don’t like to waste my time making sure I finish it. And I don’t review books that I don’t finish. Which makes my life pretty easy in this regard… if I don’t enjoy a book, I’ll pass it along to someone else, while stating that I couldn’t get into it and didn’t finish it, wishing luck to the next person to make the attempt. That way I may have offended the author by not finishing the book, but at least I didn’t have to specifically state things I hate about their work. I actually am going to be doing this very thing later today with a book that I was sent to review… I have read 100 pages of a 300+ page book and am NOT liking one bit of it. Why waste the time when I am sure there are other bloggers out there who may enjoy it?

Comment by Heather

Ha, I bet I know what book of short stories you’re referring to!

But that’s neither here nor there — because that’s not what your post is about.

I try, as much as possible, to review every book I receive honestly — which sometimes involves great amounts of gushing, and in other cases involves sentences like “This is the worst book I’ve ever read.” I try to review every book that’s sent to me, good or bad — I’ve never held off on publishing a bad review because I didn’t want to muddy the waters. Once the book is in my hands, I don’t think it much matters where or who it came from.

Those for whom I review books (authors, publicists, etc) know from the beginning that I’ll be writing an honest review. There’s a disclaimer on my blog and I try to mention it in correspondence as well.

If I didn’t review honestly, I wouldn’t be able to take myself seriously, much less expect anyone else to do so.

Comment by Christine

I don’t think I’ve ever lied in a review. I’ve also never hated a book. :) To me it comes down to tone and how you phrase things.

Comment by Amy @ My Friend Amy

I’m of the mind that a reviewer can be honest, express dislike, and not hurt the author’s feelings. I suppose I expect that most reviewers are talented enough writers to express dislike and be able to explain *why* they dislike a book, why it didn’t work for them, and then the author shouldn’t get his/her feelings hurt. Not every book is suitable for every reader. Finally, I review the positives and negatives on my own blog, but admittedly there are far more positive reviews on my blog than negative. I don’t try to shy away from the negative reviews, but I typically just don’t finish the books I hate!

Comment by Andi

[…] free books, honesty, reviews I was absolutely thrilled by the response to my thinking post “Unnerved: honesty & the book blogger,” though it does appear that I may have tread on at least a few toes. With so many […]

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