In which I review reviewing and my own reviews

The subject of reviews was suddenly popping up this morning. There’s a discussion going on in the comments to this post on The Passive Voice about reviews and honesty and writers trading good reviews with one another. Some are saying they don’t leave reviews, period, because they are writers and that makes it a conflict of interest of sorts. Marcia is talking about how she doesn’t like to leave negative reviews for anyone, whether she knows them or not.

The subject made me feel uncomfortable in ways I needed to examine, because I definitely think and say good things about the work of friends. Don’t get me wrong, I have never once said to someone, “I’ll leave you a gushing review if you do the same for me,” and I hope it goes without saying that I never would. But if it’s a friend’s book, I’m going to be inclined to like it, and to want to support it. I will absolutely say nice things about it. Does that make me dishonest?

What I came up with is: no, because I don’t lie. (Of course my friends’ books are good, people!) I only say nice things that are also true things. And if I can’t come up with any nice true things, I keep my trap shut.

I don’t do Amazon reviews with my full name, either. These stories about retaliatory reviews, etc. make me feel like I don’t want to make it super easy to click from Jen-the-reader to Jen-the-writer. What about that? Dishonest? I don’t know, but I’m sleeping fine on that one.

As for negative reviews, I’m with Marcia insofar as I don’t bother talking about books I hate. I will criticize, of course, but that’s different.

Oh! And star ratings. Here is where I must make a shameful confession: I am wildly inconsistent. That has nothing to do with whether I know the writer personally or not, but it does have to do with whether I’m familiar with the writer’s other work or not. I can’t seem to help being influenced by my expectations, which means I’m not grading everyone on the same system. If it strikes me as a phoned-in, lazy effort from a writer who can and has done better, especially if it’s a writer I know gets big advances, which makes it feel like a cash grab, that affects my rating. Even if it would be a good, say, debut novel from someone else. So yeah, that is something I’m bad at. What can I say. People are bad at stuff.

They’re reviews. By definition, they’re subjective. Are we influenced in one way or another by our feelings about the author, if we have any? I’m sure I am. But I do my best to be honest. As far as review policies go, I guess that’s mine. What about you? Do you have a personal policy or code for reviews? Is it tough ground for you to navigate at times?

4 words on the street

  1. What I really enjoy about this post is your honesty, Jen. That and the fact that you agree with some of what I’ve said, too, because hey…who doesn’t like to be agreed with? :)

    I think it’s human nature to want to support our friends, and we are most definitely predisposed to like things written by them. But as long as you don’t gush over stuff you really weren’t thrilled with, that ought to be fine. In other words, you talk about the things you love about their work, and that’s what you probably should be doing in all reviews, so–friend or not–no harm, no foul. Perhaps you might go lighter than usual on mentioning things that didn’t work for you, but as long as everything you do write is true, I think you’re good to go. Just my personal opinion, which in some quarters (like around this house), doesn’t always count for much, but since you asked…

    As for reviewing the ones you don’t like, well…your summation sounds a lot like advice from my grandmother: If you can’t say something nice about someone (or some book), don’t say anything at all. It was true in her day, and it ought to be true today, 99% of the time. (There ARE always exceptions to every rule…another of her bits of wisdom, though I’m pretty sure she didn’t make these things up.)

    As for writers looking for other writers to review their work, or exchanging reviews with each other, that could be a much grayer area, or even the start of a slippery slope. I’d just be sure never to promise anything in exchange for getting someone’s review of my work, and that should do it. Review theirs IF you want to, and can do it honestly, but never in exchange for a flattering review from them. Sounds like just what you are doing, so no need to lose sleep over that.

    As for negative reviews in general, I just don’t want to leave them any more. Enough negativity out there, and someone…though not my grandmother, this time…once said you get back what you send out in this world. Eeep. Why chance it?
    Plus, there are so many people willing to do so, often in terribly unfair ways, that my voice won’t be missed, anyway. I want to read books that I enjoy, then share them with others, so that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing lately. If it’s not worth at least 3 stars from me, I’m probably not going to finish it, nor review it. But I do reserve the right to mention details in good books that maybe didn’t work as well for me as the rest of the book did, but which didn’t keep me from giving it 4 or 5 stars, anyway.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post. And did I mention, I can’t wait for your book to come out? After reading the excerpt, I’m SO looking forward to it!

  2. I’m pretty inconsistent. I’ll review friends’ books, and generally be generous with the stars and praise because usually my friends have only put out one or a few books and they deserve a break. They don’t have agents or marketing professionals helping them. If I hated a friend’s book, I would likely say nothing. I usually say nothing about a crappy book from a non-friend, too, though not always. If it inspires a blog review, then I let ‘er rip. I do rate all the big authors I read on Goodreads, just in the vain hope of having some input. I hardly ever write reviews for big authors with 187 reviews already on each book, because eh why bother? Again, though, I might write a blog post if I have much stuffs to say.

  3. I tend to operate the same way: If I don’t like something; I generally don’t say anything bad about the book. That being said, I just read not one, but two books that I thought about reviewing on my blog – and I didn’t really care for either one of them. So what to do? Skip posting about them (which leaves me wanting something to fill the space while I will be away) or be honest? It’s a conundrum.

    Which is why I almost never agree to review books on my blog that someone asks me to review. Even though they say they want an honest review, they are always lying. No one wants to hear that their books are terrible.

    My rule of thumb? If I like a book, I’ll tell people. If not, I’ll likely keep my opinion to myself. Except for maybe this week. But the author is already super famous and likely rich, so my paltry less than stellar review probably won’t mean squat.

    Now I’m rambling.

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