A conversation on Twitter a few weeks ago about the challenges of reviewing books in the new social media got me to thinking about what it must be like to be a book-blogger and/or online reviewer who ends up interacting not just with other readers but with writers and other people in the publishing industry in a way that could not really have happened quite so extensively before.
So I asked reviewer Paul Weimer to write a guest post about his experiences and thoughts. Here it is! (KE)
The Stress of their Regard: Book Reviews and the Reactions to them.
by Paul Weimer
Like Thomas Jefferson, I cannot live without books. Reading books, be it fiction or nonfiction, an epic fantasy or the life of Cicero, makes up a substantial amount of my recreational time. And like anyone, I form opinions about the book, as I am reading (electronic books are wonderful for this), and after I have read the book.
I am a writer, and so my opinions, observations and perspectives about a book inevitably find themselves committed to words. As an active member of the genre community, these thoughts on books and authors inevitably find publication in a number of online venues.
However, publishing book reviews, especially in a hothouse environment that the world of genre fiction can be, comes with a set of challenges and stresses that threaten to corrode my will and desire to share my opinions. It is those challenges and stresses that I would like to elucidate for you.
It is a tightrope act, for me as a reviewer, to write a book review, whether a book exceeded my expectations, or fell vastly short of them. On the one hand, my personal ethics as a reviewer, and the role I play, mandate honesty in my reviews for books. The currency of respect I earn is only valid if my reviews are an honest assessment of the book I have read, presented in a clear and concise manner. If I am dishonest in my reviews, it will quickly come across the page, and my reviews will be at best unread, and worst, denigrated and shunned.
On the other hand, my place in the genre community means that I am often extremely chatty, virtually and otherwise, with the writers I am reading. Some of them I consider friends. When a book of theirs doesn’t meet all of my expectations, or even worse, falls flat for me, there is a real problem for me as a reviewer and as a person. I don’t have illusions that I move the meter on sales for a writer, much. However, slagging their novel baby or being perceived as having done so, makes me a bad social actor, and a bad friend.
I recently quailed over writing a review of a book that simply fell far short of expectations for me. I like the author. The author likes me. With reservations, I liked the author’s debut effort, but this second effort did not meet my expectations and hopes. Writing a review that is honest and fair, and yet does not cause unintended mental anguish in the friend has been extremely difficult.
On the other hand, when I am confronted with a book I absolutely adore and want to tell the world about, the reverse problem applies. Did I really like the book that much, or am I being too much of a promoter for the author and her work? Am I allowing the friendship and respect I have for the writer and her work to cloud my judgement of flaws and problems with a book? How much of a glowing review is me wishing the author well? How do I convey to the reader genuine enthusiasm and elucidate the real quality of the author’s work? How do I avoid looking like I am fawning over a writer’s work? How do I avoid unknowingly fawning over a book?
These tensions form a conundrum that I continually am confronted with. Keep reviews fair and honest, and remain a responsible social actor with the friends and acquaintances I have made, in readers, fellow reviewers, and authors. Every book I read, every review I write is a re-assessment of this fundamental problem. Every review is a new change to grapple with these issues. It causes me stress every time I start on a review. It even starts as I am reading a book, wondering what I am going to write about it, how I am going to handle these issues this time out.
So why do I persist? Why do I put myself through this wringer? Why don’t I simply trunk my reviews? There are two main reasons.
First, any writer, and I am no exception, wants their work to be seen by others. A trunked review is little better than just composing it in my own mind, save for the chance to work on my craft. A writer wants their work to be seen, to be read, to have life beyond their computer screen. I am no exception to this rule. Until my reviews started being published in higher visibility online locales, they languished for lack of attention and feedback. Now, I have people who look forward to my next review, and the reviews have given me offers and opportunities to write other things, in a variety of venues.
Second, I feel like I am providing a useful service. If I can walk that tightrope, and provide fair, balanced, ethical and honest reviews of books, I am providing useful information and feedback out there about books, for readers and authors alike. There are a swath of book review sites which are nothing but glowing reviews of the books they receive, read and review. the reviews at aggregate sites like Amazon are often worse than useless in trying to determine if a book is worth reading, given the propensity for people to use reviews as a way to grind their ax, be it complaints about the cost, jihads against an author, or even stranger obsessions. I like to think my review is far more valuable than that white noise.
So what have I learned? I’ve been reviewing for years, but only in the last year and a half have my reviews had any large amount of visibility due to the venues they have been published in. I have noticed an evolution in my style, improvement in my writing, and an increased readership. I firmly believe that readers and writers reading my work, commenting and talking about my reviews, and in general the greater visibility of my work makes me a better reviewer. I’ve learned from reading my fellow reviewers, as well, studying what they do, what they eschew, and how people react to their work. I have flourished under the pressure.
And so I persist in staying in the stress of their regard as I read and review books.
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota for the last 10 years, Paul “PrinceJvstin” Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy long before there was a World Wide Web. He and his book reviews, columns and other contributions to genre can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style,[http://www.skyseastone.net/jvstin ] SF Signal[http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/author/paulweimer/ ] the Functional Nerds[ http://functionalnerds.com/category/book-review/paul-weimer/] , Twitter[http://twitter.com/#!/PrinceJvstin ] , Livejournal[ http://princejvstin.livejournal.com/] and many other places on the Internet.