Dewey’s Negativity Meme & More

Dewey has put up a fantastic new book meme that I just have to participate in, because it provides plenty of food for thought: the negativity meme.

1. When you dislike a book, do you say so in your blog? Why or why not?

Yes. I see my reviews as existing to help people pick which books they might want or not want to explore in their precious spare time. The best way to honestly help people is to list everything I think they might want or need to know about a book in order to make that decision. That includes not just things I like or don’t like, but why, and things I think others might like or dislike even if I don’t agree.


2. Do you temper your feelings about books you didn’t like, so as not to completely slam them? Why or why not?

Yes and no. Yes in that I try to be polite about my feelings unless I truly don’t see anything much that’s redeeming about a book. Yes in that I try to consider whether the book might be appropriate to a different audience than myself. No, in that I’m not going to lie, lie by omission, or be dishonest—if there’s something I don’t like about a book, I’ll say so. It’s up to my readers to decide whether the same thing would be likely to annoy them, and I trust them to be able to think for themselves.

3. What do you think is the best way to respond when you see a negative review about a book you enjoyed?

If I see factual inaccuracies I’ll probably speak up about it; otherwise, depending on the source, I might join in the discussion or not. Not with the idea of changing anyone’s mind—people are entitled to their own views of books regardless of what I or anyone else thinks—but simply to engage in an interesting discussion. Whether I do this depends on whether it’s the kind of blog and reviewer that invites that kind of discussion.

4. What is your own most common reaction when you see a negative review of a book you loved or a positive review of a book you hated?

Mostly I just shrug, unless I see what seem to be factual inaccuracies. The only time a review really bugs me is when it seems that a reviewer went into reading the book with such a big chip on their shoulder or axe to grind that they missed the actual contents of the book and instead read only what they expected to see. Or, when it seems that reviewers are lavishly (and somewhat dishonestly) praising books just because they want people (in particular, authors) to like them.

Sure, I too prefer it when I can say something nice and make an author happy, but I’m not going to do so just to make them happy. If an author finds that I’ve said something nice about their work, they can be sure I mean it. For instance, today’s review of Shiloh Walker’s Through the Veil—you can bet I meant every last thing I said in there. If I was the kind of reviewer who only said nice things, you wouldn’t know whether to believe me when I said just how much I loved that book.

5. What is your own most common reaction when you get a comment that disagrees with your opinion of a book?

It depends on the comment. I welcome differing viewpoints and opinions in general, because I think the variety of opinions is useful to people who come along looking for information on a book they’re considering. However, I don’t welcome comments from people who seem to think that theirs is the only opinion that matters, and that anyone who disagrees with them is an idiot. In those cases I tend to respectfully disagree, although I will delete or fail to approve most comments that seem to consist of nothing other than personal attacks. Luckily that almost never happens—by and large the book blogging community is a very thoughtful one.

6. What if you don’t like a book that was a free review copy? What then?

That doesn’t change anything at all. I don’t treat review copies any differently than any other book I review. To skew my review in return for free books would be to sell out my integrity—and at an incredibly cheap price, at that. Besides, a well-written negative review (one that is fair and includes enough information to enable readers to make their own decisions) can sell copies just as well as a positive, gushing review, and a smart publicist or author knows this and will respect it.

7. What do you do if you don’t finish a book? Do you review it or not? If you review it, do you mention that you didn’t finish it?

I do not review books that I don’t finish. I can imagine cases in which it might happen, if I honestly believe that I don’t need to finish a book in order to give a good accounting of it, but I haven’t yet found a case in which I’d do that. And yes, I’d absolutely say I didn’t finish it and why. Readers deserve to know that they’re getting a review of a partial book, not the whole thing.

 

This meme segues nicely into something else I need to sound off on. Yesterday, the Booking Through Thursday meme read as follows:

How about a chance to play editor-in-chief? Fill in the blanks:

__________ would have been a much better book if ______________________.

Much to my surprise, a number of bloggers opined that they had no right to suggest changes they would make to another author’s book, because flaws and all, if the writer wanted it that way, that’s how it should be. While I can understand this viewpoint, I think it fails to take a few things into account. But then, perhaps I view this question a little differently because I’m coming into it as a writer first and a blogger second—long before I started blogging, and long before I came to think of myself primarily as a reviewer, I was a freelance writer. And I had 14 co-authored books under my belt before I left that field. So perhaps it might be interesting for the bloggers who think their opinion doesn’t matter to see how at least this writer views things.

Editors are necessary.

First of all, a good editor knows how to suggest changes that suit an author’s style, voice, and story. A good editor brings out the best in an author rather than overriding that author. Sure, your average Josephine book-blogger isn’t a trained editor, but that doesn’t mean your opinion is worthless, either. Just offer it as your opinion, and hold it out for what that’s worth. You aren’t about to go out without any editorial background and fix an author’s book for him, but who knows—you might give an author an idea. Besides, blogging is a form of writing, and by offering your opinion and having others comment on it, you’re learning more about how to write for yourself. That’s valuable in its own right.

Secondly, as any good writer knows, a writer is too close to his own work to see all of the holes and problems. The idea that you shouldn’t comment on the flaws in a work because the author wanted them that way assumes the author is capable of looking dispassionately at his entire work, with a completely unbiased and fresh eye. That will never happen. An editor is absolutely necessary to point out grammar problems, plot holes, etc.

Third, while there are certainly plenty of arrogant, egotistical authors who think they’re the best thing since sliced bread, there are also plenty of authors who know that writing is a skill that requires constant learning and improvement. Although it hurts and isn’t easy to hear about your mistakes, a good writer knows that’s how you improve. If you read ten reviews of your latest book and nine of them say the villain is too one-dimensionally evil to be believable, then you know what you need to work on to make your next book even better. If no one was willing to speak up and admit that your book was less than perfect, you’d be left wondering in frustration, book after book, why on earth your sales figures sucked and no one seemed to be all that enthusiastic about your writing.

Fourth, an author is perfectly capable of weighing input from different sources and deciding which pieces to take. Writing is subjective, which is why different editors and reviewers will like and dislike different things, and why it’s up to the author to ultimately decide which pieces of advice to incorporate into their work. So stop worrying that by offering your opinion you’re overriding the author’s choices—you’re simply giving your opinion, and it’s up to them whether to accept it.

 

I feel so strongly about this issue because the assumption behind it seems to be that no one has a right to say anything negative about a piece of writing, and that’s just silly. We’re all entitled to our opinions—we just aren’t entitled to expect the author to agree with us, or to change everything he or she does simply to please us. That’s the dividing line. I know that I can like, dislike, and say anything I want about the books I review, but I also trust that authors will accept or ignore my opinions as they please.

I’d love to know what more people think, so jump on into the discussion, tag yourself on the meme, etc.!

 

Posted in News & Musings, Writing Tagged with: , , , , ,
4 comments on “Dewey’s Negativity Meme & More
  1. Aaron says:

    It sucks when you’re only editor (or your main one) is someone coming from a completely different aesthetic background than you.

    That only happened to me in creative writing courses in college, though. Do you think it’s common for professional writers to get matched up with editors who they’re completely at odds with? Or do writers usually get editors who match their styles even during their first publishing contracts?

    Anyway, someone used to tell me he would thoroughly enjoy Stephen King books if King ever knew how to end his stories. That’s probably the most common change that would be made to stories… the ending.

  2. SciFiChick says:

    Thankfully, I’ve only disliked a handful of books in the past year. I either didn’t bother reviewing them at all, or I’d state honestly what I did and didn’t like. Most times I won’t even finish books that I’m not enjoying.
    People may see all my positive reviews and think I’m not being biased. But whatever. I’m just doing this for fun. And only want to talk about books that I enjoy.

  3. SciFiChick says:

    Oops. I didn’t mean “not being biased” but I’m sure you got what I meant.

  4. heather says:

    Aaron: It certainly happens that writers get matched to editors who don’t share their style. However, remember that the editor of a book might well have had a hand in deciding whether the publisher would buy the book in the first place, in which case they presumably did so because they liked the style and thought it was good. So I don’t think it’s incredibly commonplace. That said, when it happens, I think most authors learn to get over it and move on to another publishing house. The one time that I was very unhappy with what an editor had done to my work, it was because his predecessor was the one who accepted my article for publication, and he didn’t share the same tastes. As another writer friend of mine recommended, “cash the check, enjoy the money, and move on to another magazine.”

    SFC: I definitely have far more positive reviews than negative, too, just because I tend to read the books that I want to read, which means they’re already self-selected to have a high chance of being books I’ll enjoy. I think that isn’t a problem in itself; as long as you’re being honest people can tell, even if you rarely say anything bad about a book.

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