Writers should Write, and Reviewers Should Review, or Something Like That…

Some pretty interesting discussions going on today about whether writers reviewing other writers constitutes conflict of interest. Another interesting bit of the discussion is whether reviewers who are slammed for their reviews should take it lying down, and whether honest reviews do anything for the credibility of the genre. Blame HelenKay for starting it all. Other pertinent discussions are going on at Monica Jackson’s blog, Lee Goldberg’s blog, Shannon Stacey’s blog, Alison Kent’s blog, Booksquare and Riemannia.

OK first things first: Writers reviewing writers, is this a conflict of interest?

I think it depends on lots of things. The genre of the book. Whether the reviewer has an axe to grind with that genre. Whether the reviewer has an axe to grind with the author he’s reviewing. Lots of things.

Do I think an author can review another author fairly? Absolutely. I think Tod Goldberg did so for Rainbow Party, for example, and I think Wendy and HelenKay have done so on their Paperback Reader website, even if they’re so damn wrong about The Real Deal. (Because in my world? I am always right, and therefore, the answer to “How badly did The Real Deal suck?” should always be “Massive, unwashed, hairy, sweaty donkey balls, my dear.” And yeah, I’m STILL the only person on the Internet that I know of who’s written a negative review of this book. It’s so hard to be the arbiter of all that is good and right and tasteful, but I do try.)

(By the way, if you can’t spot the sarcasm in the last parenthetical remark, I suggest you try harder.)

I mean, seriously, if I wrote a book, and it sucked massive donkey balls (or even smaller, more moderately-sized donkey balls), I could only DREAM of getting a negative review as polite and measured as what is dished out by Wendy and HelenKay. I’d probably cringe a lot more at the thought of being reviewed by someone like Mrs. Giggles, but if it’s funny… I forgive a lot if it makes me laugh.

Another excellent critique of an author’s work by another author? Those of you who have been with the site from the beginning can probably guess who and what I’m going to bring up now… Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” God, I love that essay.

Have other authors reviewed other authors unfairly? Hell fucking yeah. Curtis Sittenfeld’s NYT review of Melissa Banks’ The Wonder Spot, for example, struck me as unduly disdainful and rather suspect, given the squeamishness she displayed about chick lit. Jennifer Weiner rips Sittenfeld a new one in a very entertaining manner for that review.

But I’m not going to automatically write off all authors as reviewers simply because they’re authors. As with most things in life, I prefer to look at this on a case-by-case basis. Dismissing all authors as unreliable reviewers would be like dismissing Christian biologists simply because they believe in God.

And now, on to the other thing that interests me: should reviewers whose reviews are reviewed take it lying down?

That depends. If the reviewer did a shitty job in the first place, then yeah, she should take the lumps. (Again, ref. Sittenfeld, Curtis.) If the reviewer reviewed the book fairly, and the review of the reviewer’s job was also fair, then I would call that grounds for an excellent reasoned, passionate debate. But then I’m one of those freaks who enjoys a good debate.

But if the reviewer reviewed the book fairly, and the review of the reviewer’s job was NOT fair (like some of the e-mails David Kipen received regarding his review of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, or some of the hate mail Mrs. Giggles receives), then shit, gloves are off baby. Let’s see some fucking BLOOD. Or at least some really, really good snarque.

As for whether honest reviews do anything for the credibility of the genre: I sincerely believe they do. Honest discussion—brutally honest discussion, even—can only do good. People who refuse to review any books except those they like are, in my opinion, lying by omission. Honest reviews and discussions are one step, and a small one of many, but it’s something.

By the way, just in case you’re wondering: I don’t particularly think Smart Bitches is doing anything for the credibility of romance one way or another. For one thing, it’s pretty hard to take a website with “Bitches” in the title seriously. For another thing, we’re way too potty-mouthed and irreverent for us to improve the image of romance for sticklers. For another other thing, Sarah and I set out to have fun and make some noise, not have some kind of impact or carry some kind of message, unless that message is “We like to use the words ‘balls,’ ‘ass’ and ‘fuck’ a lot.” Well, OK, we were pretty tired of how goddamn polite people in the romance community were, with the glorious, bawdy exception of Mrs. Giggles, and we were also tired of the misconception of how romance readers are teh stupdi.

 

This is to clear things up for Shannon, who seems under the impression we’re doing this for the traffic.

 

The traffic and the readership we currently have is a major, major bonus, mind you, and I’m not complaning. To this day, we’re mystified at how any of youse stumbled across us, ‘cause we sure as shit didn’t bother advertising our presence, just kept posting our snark and shaking our heads at the people who Googled “Dominican bitches” and kept finding us instead. We’re glad you’re here though, even if you initially came here for the Dominican babes.

That should be part of our slogan. “Smart Bitches: Come here for the Dominicans, Stay for the Man-Titty.”

Comments are Closed

  1. 1

    I wonder this every time this discussion comes up: does this conversation happen in any other genre but romance (I also wonder if I could say ‘this’ anymore than I just did)?

    I’m not asking disingenuously, I’m really curious. Because romance writers have this directive to play nice, and that includes reviews.

    So does it happen elsewhere?

  2. 2
    Arethusa says:

    I don’t see why people would take a review less seriously because it was done by a writer; I’ll have to check out those links to see what the problem is. I can understand the questions if the writer is a friend of the author whose book is being reviewed, a relative or some such connection, but otherwise can’t imagine what’s the BFD.

  3. 3
    Candy says:

    I wonder this every time this discussion comes up: does this conversation happen in any other genre but romance (I also wonder if I could say ‘this’ anymore than I just did)?

    Good point. I’m not sure I’ve seen it happen anywhere else. The SF community, from the little I’ve seen, seems pretty brutally honest with each other. If they want to rip another person a new one, they do it. And I, for one, don’t think Vox Day denigrated female SF writers because he’s threatened by the shelfspace and popularity they enjoy; I think he did it because he’s a grade-A misogynistic asshole.

    I don’t know why so many people seem to assume that negative reviews of a romance novel from a romance author automatically mean the author was jealous or attempting to eliminate the competition. Unless the author has shown herself to have clear conflict of interest (author whose work she reviewed ran off with her husband 3 years ago, whatever), I tend to assume she spoke negatively of a book because she thought it, well, sucked.

    I go with the “innocent till proven guilty” model, I guess.

  4. 4
    Arethusa says:

    Actually, and damn me for not saying this before to avoid double-posting (apologies!) in the publishing world, as far as I know, it’s incredibly common place for authors to review other books. Check the bottom of the review and there’s usually a little endnote in italics telling you which books the reviewer penned. It’s not only done in mainstream venues—newspapers, journals, magazines—but litblogs as well.

  5. 5
    SB Sarah says:

    “Smart Bitches: Come here for the Dominicans, Stay for the Man-Titty.”

    If we don’t put that on a shirt, we should be beaten about the head and shoulders with a long wet noodle.

    Also, I don’t know what it is about the romance genre that inspires such peculiar standards as to who can review whom. I think it’s a function of women’s society, as so very many of the writers of romance are women. Women, as a generalized statement, are not taught to compete fairly and leave the competition in the venue, whereas men are taught to compete in specific arenas, and then leave the battle on the field, so to speak.

    As a result, I think that there is some degree of inability to see past the reviewer’s gender to the contents of the review itself. If two male writers have a knock down drag out battle, it’s not such a big deal, is it? But if two women, say, if Candy and Lucy Monroe have words over Candy’s review, then it’s a damn shame that Candy was mean and attacked Monroe’s story. There is definitely a gendered aspect to this problem of “writers reviewing writers” that needs to be examined. I’m not sure I can articulate a fully-reasoned thought on that.

  6. 6
    Candy says:

    Actually, and damn me for not saying this before to avoid double-posting (apologies!) in the publishing world, as far as I know, it’s incredibly common place for authors to review other books.

    Yes. Yes it is. Some people still think it’s bad practice and suspect, though—and they’re entitled to their opinion, of course.

    Me? I still say, “It depends.”

  7. 7
    Candy says:

    Oh, and don’t apologize for double-posting, Arethusa. God knows I do it often enough.

    And Sarah: Yes. I think there’s definitely a gender thing, a whole “But you’re a sister in romance, how can you say mean things about my book?” mindset. Girls are generally brought up to be nice, and when you get a very large community of women, you get this weird undercurrent of “Oh, we all have to be nice, but we’re about to explode because there are things we don’t like, so we’ll kind of whisperwhisperwhisper about the not-niceness instead.”

    This is especially bad in some Chinese communities, where you fuck up, people get pissed off at you and refuse to tell you, and alla sudden you’re persona non grata but you have no friggin’ clue how you got there.

    Ahem. Not that I’ve experienced anything like that, going to an all-girls’ school and all that. (Again, let’s play “spot the sarcasm!”)

    Anyway, I usually prefer for things to be up front. That way, if there’s nastiness ahoy, then I can take appropriate measures—grovel, fight back, whatever.

  8. 8
    Beth says:

    My opinion on it being (seemingly) Romance-specific: We’re all supposed to be proper and polite ladies, and supportive girlfriends, and nice to each other. Like a frikken Tupperware party, man. But we ALL KNOW that girls are far, far, faaaaaaaaaar more vicious than men could ever dream of being.

    So you better be a good girl. Be nice. Because if you aren’t, we all just know you’re not being honest – you’re just being a mean little catty bitch.

    Gads, I love girls. See how totally iron-clad self-protective that is? We’re artists!

  9. 9
    SB Sarah says:

    Excerpt of what I responded on Shannon’s blog, since insinuating that we’re in it for the traffic is just bizarre:

    efore AAR, before SBTB, before PW, were there that many sites that reviewed romance novels fairly? Weren’t the majority of sources the types of reviews generated solely to provide a cover blurb, similar to fake or small-market movie reviews that exist solely to create a quotable excerpt? [W]ho was reviewing romance criticially, other than editors and agents? Who was saying, “I hate this plot device and find it insulting and denigrating to women to have the hero rape the heroine” for example.

    It isn’t like you could crack open the NYT Book Review and find a discussion of Nora Roberts or Julia Quinn. Some newspapers might have offered reviews of romance novels, but even then, such as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, would offer it in a tone that suggested disdain or obligation to satisfy the beach-reading needs of the women readers.

    So in the end, it seems the role of critic fell on the readers and the fans of the genre. We know what we want and we know what we like, and we want to be able to say so.

    Moreover, if this were any other genre, would this be a debate?

  10. 10
    Arethusa says:

    Candy – Yes. Yes it is. Some people still think it’s bad practice and suspect, though—and they’re entitled to their opinion, of course.

    Me? I still say, “It depends.”

    As to that I’ll just paste what I said in answer to someone else on Alison Kent’s blog:

    There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to having authors review other authors, in the same way there are for non-authors who, for example, may not be able to provide the insight an author can. My view is that neither trumps the other, and the opinion that non-authors are “unbiased” is naive: all of us approach a book with our own biases, they’re merely different ones.

    Don’t most ‘art worlds’ deal with this situation to varying degrees? The difference is that in writing, many go on penning books, or essays, or engaging in some sort of writerly pursuit well into old age, so there isn’t a huge resource of definitely retired writers one can mine from (unlike sports, dance, music etc.)

  11. 11
    Shannon says:

    I was not implying you did this for traffic.  What the hell do you need traffic for?  Are you selling something I missed?  I was saying that the success of your blog, with your frank and snarky treatment of romance novels, might inspire somebody else to attempt the same in order to achieve your level of traffic.

  12. 12
    SB Sarah says:

    Shannon, I was responding specifically to this part of your post:

    There’s a big difference between not liking a book and discussing certain aspects of unnamed problematic book, and dragging a fellow writer’s book through the mud publicly….

    The motivation for doing such a thing? I’m a cynic, so my first reactions are always 1) traffic. Look how fast The Smart Bitches shot into the stratosphere of must visit blogs with their frank and honest dissection of romances, which spark controversy and discussion.

    I thought you were saying that our decision to discuss controversial issues and write controversial reviews was for the attention it garnered, that we were only being frank and honest because it got us increasing pageviews.

  13. 13
    Rinda says:

    Interesting subject and I’m taking it slightly off topic, but this was unbelievable.

    Did you guys ever see this?  Review of a book followed by some well, see for yourselves.  The last email is rough.

    Leah’s Way – Review and Response

  14. 14
    SB Sarah says:

    Rinda: holy mother. That is some harsh smack right there.

  15. 15
    Candy says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Shannon. From the way the sentences were juxtaposed, however, it certainly seemed as if you were implying that we were doing it for the traffic.

    And commercial reasons aren’t the only reasons people want loads o’ traffic to their website. For a lot of people, it seems to be an ego issue. For all you know, we could be attention whores.

    Which would make another great tagline, by the way. “Smart Bitches: For All You Know, We Could Be Attention Whores.”

    Anyway, I’m genuinely sorry for the misinterpretation. I will strikeout the sentence from the article.

  16. 16
    Rinda says:

    <

    < “Smart Bitches: Come here for the Dominicans, Stay for the Man-Titty.”

    >

    >

    Oh I don’t know.  This tagline made me choke on my Baileys and coffee.  I want the t-shirt.  (Well, as soon as I figure out how to explain “man titty” to my eight year-old son.)

    And yeah on that harsh smack.  Didn’t believe it was real the first time I saw it.

  17. 17
    SB Sarah says:

    I’m sure I’m showing my hormones by saying this, but I have been pondering the last few minutes about my previous bouts of worry that an author whose book I didn’t like would come out of the lurkdom and rip a strip off me. Do I worry that Emma Holly is going to pay us a visit, see that I didn’t like The Demon’s Daughter and be personally hurt? And then take Candy on an all-expenses-paid trip to the caribbean because she gave it a good review?

    Heh. I’d be so excited for her and I’m approaching the time when I can’t travel anyway.

    But I am aware that there is a real person behind these books, a person who wrote and revised at 4am while I was sleeping. So if I don’t like a book, it’s not like I’m going to say, “I didn’t like it because I could do it better.” And I’m not going to attribute it to the writer’s politics or the way she wears her hair or something like that. I spend more time pondering the reviews of books I didn’t like than I do the books I enjoyed because I ask myself, “Is this fair criticism? Or am I just being a wonky bitch?”

    Because hey, I’m hormonal and growing larger by the minute. Wonky bitch it a total possibility.

    However, bottom line, if I were a writer as well as a reader/reviewer (and I am a writer, just of nonfiction prose, not fiction) I’d ask myself the same questions. And isn’t that part of building a fair review?

  18. 18
    Gina says:

    I’ve been following this discussion since I saw the posts starting popping up last night. I’m an aspiring romance writer, and most of publishing background as been in the form of reviews. I’ve recently added reviewing books to the list of items I review. So I was quite interested in all this discussion.

    I feel honest reviews, even if they do share the bad of a book, are better than reviews that gloss over the bad and only praise the work. I see reviewing a part of journalism. A reviewer’s responsibility is to the public. Honesty doesn’t translate to harshness either. A review can be honest while still discussing the points of the book, or whatever is being reviewed, both negative and positive.

  19. 19
    HelenKay says:

    Rhinda – you made my day.  No one ever told me to “enjoy my miserable life” so I must not be too nasty.  Yet.

    Candy – I continue to be concerned about your negative attitude toward THE REAL DEAL, anything by Linda Howard, your knocks on Jayne Ann Krentz – really, we are two seconds from “tak’n it outside” as the boys would say.  Next you’ll say you don’t like Susan Elizabeth Phillips…oh, wait.

  20. 20
    HelenKay says:

    And, next time I will spell your name correctly, Rinda.  My apologies.  I’m sensitive to the name thing since people keep calling me Helen and IT’S NOT MY NAME.  Yeah, Lee Goldberg, I mean you.  For heaven’s sake, man, we’ve emailed back and forth.  You got it right right half the time on your newest entry.  What’s up with that?

    Sorry…I’ve been fuming about that all day.

  21. 21
    Jorie says:

    Writers reviewing has come up in the sff world, too.  Because their pond is smaller than that of romance, they run into certain problems I think.  It’s hard not to know people, especially with all the sff cons that are around, too.

    Here and here are a couple of examples of such discussions.

  22. 22
    wendy duren says:

    You know what I like best about you Smart Bitches?  You aren’t fucktards.  Thank god somebody online can find their ass with both hands.

  23. 23
    Rinda says:

    No worries.  It’s a weird name.  Means giant in Norse.  I’m five foot ten.  Go figure.

    Glad it made your day.  That site should be given out to all new reviewers.  Be prepared for scary people who say… what was it? “You’re so inconsequential that it is like you simply don’t exist.”  And that’s not even the worst of it.  Ouch.

  24. 24
    HelenKay says:

    At least your name means something.  Mine means my parents couldn’t figure out whether to name me Helen or Kathleen.  Gee, thanks guys.  This has been a lifetime of fun.

  25. 25
    Candy says:

    At least your name means something.

    HelenKay, be grateful your name doesn’t mean “beautiful duckweed.”

    Chinese parents can be SO motherfucking cruel.

    Don’t most ‘art worlds’ deal with this situation to varying degrees? The difference is that in writing, many go on penning books, or essays, or engaging in some sort of writerly pursuit well into old age, so there isn’t a huge resource of definitely retired writers one can mine from (unlike sports, dance, music etc.)

    That’s a good point, Arethusa. Here’s another point on why I think sports analogies for reviewing and writing are flawed:

    Bookselling isn’t a zero-sum game.

    Look, if the Knicks are playing the Lakers, there can only be one winner. If the Knicks win, the Knicks win. There’s no half-winning, 79% winning, whatever in sports.

    Not so with selling and buying books.

    If Suzanne Brockmann’s sales decrease, that does not automatically mean more people are buying Nora Roberts or Merline Lovelace.

    This is especially true of authors who review vastly different genres. If John Updike’s sales decrease, that doesn’t mean Stephen King’s sales will shoot through the roof.

    So the whole competition thing? Not so sure I buy it. I’m not saying that authors can’t be jealous and/or feel competitive just because they’re competitive cusses and write catty, mean reviews because of this, but it does mean that I don’t discount an author’s opinion on another author’s work the way I would if, say, Shaq started dissing a basketball player from a rival team.

  26. 26
    Monica says:

    You aren’t fucktards.  Thank god somebody online can find their ass with both hands.
    Who are the fucktards then? 

    Shit, I have PMS, but I adore snarkiness, as much as I hate snottiness.  I find it borne from insecurity.  Snots are eager to put others down for being stupid.  SB’s aren’t snotty and I think that’s what makes them cool.

    I worry that a new romance critical review bandwagon could be based in snottery too.  Honest reviews are useful for the readers and thus good, but what’s all this stuff about elevating a genre where some of the crappiest, cornballiest writing reigns supreme and is beloved by readers (and their $)?

    It is starting to reek of snottery.  Meljean’s latest post gives a link to SF snottery regarding fantasy.  Do you want that sort of schism in romance?

  27. 27
    Candy says:

    Honest reviews are useful for the readers and thus good, but what’s all this stuff about elevating a genre where some of the crappiest, cornballiest writing reigns supreme and is beloved by readers (and their $)?

    Well, that’s like saying “You’re bleeding to death and you have several broken bones. Sorry, we’re not going to try and patch the bleeding until your bones have healed.”

    I can’t do shit about the crappy-ass writing that’s flooding the market (and this is true about EVERY genre, though because romance is the biggest genre, the raw amount of crap overwhelms). What I can do is provide honest discussion—honest discussion that’s still somewhat rare in the romance genre, though thank God it’s changing every day. You do what you can with what you got.

    Meljean’s latest post gives a link to SF snottery regarding fantasy.

    You talking about the quote by China Mieville?? That doesn’t sound snotty to me…

  28. 28
    Candy says:

    Ah, dammit, here’s a point I want to make that I wasn’t sure was very clear in my previous post: Providing honest reviews/discussion is a very IMMEDIATE step someone can take. Changing the face of a genre? That takes time. Look at how long it took before rapist heroes weren’t the norm any more in romance….

  29. 29
    Liddy says:

    What is a review, and what is its function? Do readers really use review sites to decide what they want to read?

    There are a few snarky sites that produce very entertaining opinions (you Smart Bitches and Mrs Giggles leap to mind) but I don’t really consider those reviews. They’re entertainment, pure and simple. Readers may peruse those reviews to see the latest on-dits about their favorite (or least favorite) authors, but I venture to say no one factors La Giggles’s diatribes into the decision to pick up a particular book.

    Every book has its audience, however small. Doesn’t anyone but me look at reviewers as having a responsibility to readers, to steer those who will like the book toward it and others away?

    Reviewers appear to feel their reviews must take the form of critical analysis. Maybe this is because it’s a lot more difficult to carefully word a review to attract the book’s audience than it is to pick the book apart. And I mean a LOT more difficult. It takes time, thought and talent. Most of the reviewers I see on the web don’t even try to help readers find appropriate books. Just how useful are their reviews?

    Interesting topic. Gee, didn’t I say that before here? Must be a trend.

    Keep up the good, snarky work!

  30. 30
    wendy duren says:

    Shit Monica, if you want to insult me you’ve got to do better than snotty.  My family calls me snotty, for god’s sake.

    While it’s entirely possible that I meant my statement as compliment to the Bitches without subtext, there’s no need to insult anyone’s intelligence and pretend otherwise. 

    So who are the fucktards?  Well let’s start with the person who threatened HK and then anyone who laid out ill reasoned arguments for authors playing nice.

    While I understand what you’re saying about dollars speaking loudly, the thing is, I am a reader.  I plunk down a lot of money for romance novels.  And I’m sick to death of the poorly written crap that’s passed off to me as something I’ll buy just because I buy romance.

    And because of that I want to see things change.

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