INTERNET FLAME WAR!

I’m coming in late to this (work: KICKING MY ASS; the mess in my apartment: KICKING MY ASS; life in general: KICKING MY FUCKING ASS) and am jumping in the fray only because an alert reader very kindly *snort* provided us with linkage, but in case you’re a blind or somehow incapacitated and completely unable to do your blog rounds: Angie managed to blow things up quite nicely yesterday on RTB with her article about credible reviews, and Karen Scott picked up the torch, and MaryJanice Davidson provided some hilarious commentary, even if I said “bitch, please!” more than once while reading what she had to write. Which really isn’t too different from how I am when I’m reading her books, heh.

Y’all know how I feel about reviews, reviewing and authors who think readers aren’t qualified to review. If you feel any doubts, then check out this little bit of mouth-frothing from days of yore. (Tangent: Smart Bitches is almost a year old. What the fuck, y’all?)

I only have one more thing to throw into the discussion, and it’s probably nothing particularly new (I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t read all the comments in all the threads about this issue): Authors who snip and snipe about how readers just aren’t qualified to review a book because they don’t know what it’s like to

give birth to precious, precious babies all by their little selfses

survive the rigors of the publishing process love to draw similes to professions like medicine, law, engineering and the hard sciences. Look, no schlub off the street is qualified to critique, say, a research paper on quantum mechanics. And that’s a perfectly valid point. Y’all need to be certified to do that shit. The implication is: the average reader’s view is invalid, and only authors can know another author’s pain and be qualified to provide commentary on a published novel.

Oh, you know what I’m gonna say next: BITCH, PLEASE. What I want to know is: how many published authors—especially authors who write genre fiction—have advanced degrees in, say, English, Linguistics or Fine Arts? If these standards are to be accepted as logical, then off the top of my head, Sara Donati is allowed to review books and THE REST OF US (myself definitely included) need to sit down and shut the fuck up.

Here’s the terrifying part that authors hate, just hate to own up to: you really don’t need any special qualifications to get a novel published, much less write one. I’m not saying it’s easy—it’s patently not. But unlike a doctor, or an accountant, or an engineer, you don’t need any sort of professional certification to be recognized as an author. People who have successfully published books—massively bestselling books, even—have come from all over the economic, education and class spectrum: high-school drop-outs, college professors, single moms scribbling story ideas on the backs of napkins, teenagers, ex-cops, accountants, bored English majors. Shit, if books like The Lighthouse Keeper are any indication, you don’t even need to be particularly literate to write a novel that’s consquently slobbered over by readers like a 10-year-old boy at a NAMBLA meeting. And experiments like Naked Came the Stranger have proved that crap, well, sells.

So on one hand: Kudos for being published.

But on the other hand: Your masterpiece is sharing that honor with books like Desire’s Blossom and To Tame a Renegade.

And one last thing: I’m also amused by the people who are swearing off MaryJanice Davidson because of her views. My personal opinion is, yeah, she’s being an asshole, but she’s a funny asshole, and that’s some hard, hard shit to pull off. I can sympathize with the urge, but hell, if I swore off asshole authors entirely, my list of authors I could read would be very slim indeed, and frankly, I’m too selfish for that because I’m such a book whore—I like ‘em big, I like a LOT of them, and often several different ones at the same time. There’s only one reason I no longer bother to read anything MJD releases, and that’s because I’ve decided her recent books have sucked a lot of ass, even though I enjoy her distinctive, snarky voice.

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  1. 1
    Jonquil says:

    “What I want to know is: how many published authors—especially authors who write genre fiction—have advanced degrees in, say, English, Linguistics or Fine Arts?”

    Jennifer. Crusie.  (Who rocks.)

  2. 2
    Candy says:

    Oooh, that’s right—I forgot about her Masters. Does she actually have a PhD as well? At any rate, so far she and Sara Donati are allowed to have informed opinions about books. Who else? I’m sure there are a few others lurking about.

  3. 3
    Shari says:

    Wow, what a crazy-cool variety of responses, although if an “advanced” college degree is a prereq for opinions to posess worthiness, my little BFA falls short of the mark.  Even with six minors.  Anyhow, post why (or why not) you like the book, and you’ll always get my attention.  And yes, the opinion of someone whose tastes seem to parallel mine can influence my future purchases.  Before stumbling across this blog, I’d never heard of:  Jennifer Crusie, Emma Holly, or Judith Ivory, to name a few I’ve tried and enjoyed lately.  I’ve been surrounded by plenty of the “don’t romance novels cause sweaty, hairy palms and get an automatic expulsion from MENSA” attitude, and it’s great to have somewhere to go, where romance reading does not automatically equal ignorant and inbred.  So, I guess my point is some “non-professional” reviews hold more sway with me than the official literary opinion.  I don’t always agree with Sarah & Candy’s reviews, but I always get a good idea of whether a book they review (good or bad) is something that I will like.
    Having said all that, I think MJD needs a pair of moose antlers.  I had a college friend who no one could ever tell if he was serious or tongue-in-cheek, and (like the Monty Python “When I’m wearing the moose antlers, I’m dictating” bit) he often had to explain that he was kidding, but would put his hands up and say “moose antlers!” when we missed it.  Cleared things up nicely.
    I said all that to say this: I don’t have a cool graphic for you all, but SB Candy and SB Sarah, I dub thee “Worthy of Reviewing Books for My Personal Perusal”, and when I take over the world, we’ll make the title global.

  4. 4
    Sam says:

    I’m a published author and I used to review. I stopped because I was reviewing like an author, and not a reader. Readers are, by definition of the word, the only ones who can (in my opinion) give a fair review. If I take off my author hat, I can try to give a review, but I find myself influenced by three things: editing, grammar, and if I know the author or not. (mostly yes, it’s a small world) I tried to give fair reviews, but I caught myself being either too glowing or too critical. Authors make terrible reviewers. They are often asked to make blurbs to put on other author’s books so that readers can recognise names and see praise, and maybe this has led some of them to believe they can review all books.
    This is the advice I got from a very big name author when my first book came out. He said to me, “Whatever you do, don’t read your reviews. Get out of the habit of looking for them. Know that you will get good reviews and bad – and the good ones will be uplifting and the bad will be crushing…And none of them matter.”
    I didn’t listen. I read my reviews and send off thank you letters to reviewers who stay up late at night to finish a job they signed up to do for free – but this is true – be it good or bad, I appreciate the reviewer’s effort. I don’t think an author has the same outlook as a reader when it comes to reading for pure pleasure and then giving an opinion.
    So I am at odds with MJD’s opinion. But I won’t attack her for it. Because in my book, everyone is entitled to their OWN OPINION.

  5. 5
    Erin O'Brien says:

    Degree: electrical engineering
    First Novel: “Harvey & Eck” Zumaya Publications, 2005

    I actually ran a contest on my blog to find Regular Folk reviewers/bloggers to read my book and tell the people what they think. Found three. They are in the process of reading the book now. One of the reviewers posted an HNT snap of himself reading my book. It about made me want to die laughing. Whoever thought I’d see a guy who was not my husband doing that? And with my book no less?

    I am covering their every murmur on my blog, when I’m not duly recording lesbian dreams, that is.

  6. 6
    Kate R says:

    of course authors are nervous about the fact that anyone who can read a book can also write one. Why do you think so many of them get snarky about that write a book in a month thing? Nothing scarier.

    There is the emotional bushwa (sorry, a professional term. Every profession has its jargon) of having a book published that actually makes it harder for me to be a good reviewer now. I am far more acutely aware of the person behind the book and know that all that talk about “it’s not you, it’s the book” is just blather (another pro-writing term).

  7. 7
    Sarah F. says:

    Jenny Crusie does indeed have a Ph.D.  She read hundreds of romance novels to talk about the gender differences in writing by men vs. writing by women.  Then decided she could write the damn things better than those she’d read, chucked academia (good for her) and became a best-selling author.

    There’s a few more out there, but none with her success.  I’d like to be one, but that means I have to get off my ass and actually start writing.

  8. 8
    Kate R says:

    Actually I thought MJD’s notes in RTB are great. Never mind that some contradict others—they still all make sense. She does eventually make it clear that everything she says is of automatic moose antler-hood (thanks for that Shari).

  9. 9
    runswithscissors says:

    This is such an interesting topic and so much more interesting than my work today that I’ve decided to break my silence and pitch in.

    My beat-the-new-year-blues treat to myself was a copy of Judith McNaught’s latest, Every Breath You Take.  When I had finished I scanned a few sites on the web, curious to hear what other readers thought of it.  One of the sites was JM’s own bulletin board, and I was fascinated to read her post about reviews on Amazon and the effect they had on her: http://bbs.simonsays.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f=5;t=020151;p=8

    Fascinated because she touches on one of my pet peeves: people who complain badly.  Your airline loses your bags.  Fine.  Write a letter of complaint, register your dissatisfaction, get compensation, whatever.  Do not shout at the poor girl at the counter when you arrive at your destination but your bags don’t.  It wasn’t her fault and you shouldn’t take out your anger (however justified) on her.  Similarly, I get incensed by reviews which focus on the author and his or her failings in a very personal way, instead of focusing on the book. 

    No, I don’t believe only other authors’ opinions should count, any more than I think that I can’t comment on the work of my doctor, lawyer, airline etc etc just because I’m not a published author or qualified physician, attorney, pilot (or all four, like the guy in that show, what was it called … Pretender?).  These people wouldn’t have jobs if it weren’t for patients, clients, passengers and, oh yeah, readers.  But I think comments should focus on the service offered, not the person offering it. 

    [steps off soapbox]

  10. 10
    Vicki Ankrapp says:

    About the author’s having PhDs. I believe that Eloisa James also holds one as well.

    LV Vicki

  11. 11

    May I humbly propose a plan for the “advanced review system of expertise”. The authority of reviewers would be ranked according to their qualification level, results and calibre of institution attended. An accurate and impartial assessment of each individual’s competence to review could thus be made and assigned a precise grade on a standardized numeric scale from 0-9. The potential reviewer’s field of research would be independently validated by no less than three impartial authorities who would assign a specialism category indicated by a four letter code. Reviewers would only be entitled to comment upon aspects of a novel which lie within their officially recognised area of expertise. Thus, an associate Professor (grade 8) of Feminist Liberation Literature would receive the ranking Fell8.

    Some potential names of candidates follow:

    Eloisa James (Professor of English Literature)
    Michelle Jaffe (Phd in comparative literature)
    Stephanie Laurens (Phd in Biochemistry)
    Alison Scott (Phd in American Studies)
    Catherine Asaro (Phd in Chemical Physics)
    Nita Abrams (Phd subj. undetermined)

    Following a review by the appeals committee, the rejection of Julia Quinn’s application to review Medical romances has been upheld on the grounds that she did not complete her medical studies at Yale. However the committee has decided that in view of the distinguished reputation of her undergraduate institution and her final Art History exam results she is entitled to provide reviews of level 0 (“informed but non-authoritative commentary”) in the field of Dance Imagery in Lumanist Design (Dild0). Furthermore, given the outstanding quality of her presentation, if Ms. Quinn completes her studies at the appropriate level, we would welcome the resubmission of her application to be upgraded to a specialism in Techniques in Tonsillitis Treatment (Titt1)

    I think it is clear that the advanced review system of expertise (aka A.R.S.E) will provide a satisfactory alternative to the inexpert value judgements of the current arbitrary system of reviews which is totally subject to the whims of personal taste.

  12. 12
    SB Sarah says:

    9 out of 10 doctors agreet about EvilAuntiePeril: need to clear out your sinuses because your infant son gave you his cold? Read her comments, snarf coffee: problem solved.

  13. 13
    Diana Hunter says:

    LOL—A.R.S.E gets my vote!

    For the record, I have degrees in Theatre Arts, Education, and Educational Administration. And what do I do in life? Teach English and write erotica!

    What DON’T I do? Review books. You guys have a thankless job…no matter what you write about a book, SOMEONE’s bound to disagree with you. That, however, is exactly why I LIKE reviews of my books. Both the good and the bad, and I read every one of them I can find. Sadistic? Sometimes (have you read one of my books?

    ).

    Seriously though…this discussion has merit. Like/don’t like my book? That’s fine…personal choice is what it’s all about. I DO wish the writing standards were a little higher in some places (at least, if you’re going to like/dislike my book, get the names of the characters right!), but other than that? Review away!

    Diana

  14. 14
    ellcee says:

    If you put something out for other people to read you should expect they’re going to have an opinion on it, and this opinion may not always be favorable.  If a review points out that your plot has a lot of loose ends or the historical license you took knocked the reviewer right out of the story—well, that’s something to remember and watch out for in the next story.

    I’m not a published author, I just write ‘foefiction’ which makes fun of a long-running comic strip.  All my ‘reviews’ are from readers and I appreciate the constructive criticism I occasionally get from them.  Who better to assess it than the audience it’s written for?

    If all an author wants is applause and praise then s/he should self-publish and limit readership to his/her mom and best friends. 

    LC

  15. 15
    DebR says:

    I’m all about the “moose antlers” idea.  I thought MJD’s comments on the other blogs were hilarious and I felt like a lot of the people who were getting genuinely upset with her were SO totally missing the point of what (I thought) she was trying to say.

  16. 16

    I believe Laura Kinsale also has an advanced degree in chemical engineering, and Diana Gabaldon has a PhD in Biology.

    So we’re all bright gals.  Me, I only have a BS degree (most appropriate), but I review books under my birth name for BooksForum at ForumsAmerica.  I don’t have a PhD in history but I did minor in it and I have always loved it, so it majorly annoys me as a reviewer when people get it wrong.  Not little things—I don’t care what kind of bells camels wore on their harnesses in 17th C. Persia—but big things like repeatedly misusing forms of address in a Regency era novel, or having the medieval “Robin Hood” type character wear black silk for her nightly forays scaling the walls of the castle and distributing gold coins to the peasantry.

    I review as a reader. I expect authors to pay attention and not yank me out of the story by jumping POV all over the place and I expect them to do their research. I expected this long before I put hands to keyboard and wrote my first novel.  I am willing to suspend my standards and disbelief only so far for the sake of the story.  After a certain point, the story alone may not be enough if the book is rife with errors and writing problems.

    The only time I gnash my teeth over reviews of my novels is when the reviewer gets it wrong.  One kept referring to Smuggler’s Bride being set in colonial Florida, when it was set in 1843 Territorial Florida.  Florida was never a colony of the US.

    But she liked the book, so I cut her some slack.  Not everyone’s a history wonkette.[g]

  17. 17
    AngieW says:

    All I have to say on this subject(mostly because I’m burnt out on talking about reviews so I have nothing stunningly brilliant to add—not that I ever did *snort*) is…two days later and I’m still inspiring. I feel all warm and gooey inside. Someone hold me.

  18. 18
    Maili says:

    O/T:

    Degree: laziness
    First Novel: “500 Perfectly Good Excuses to Justify Your Laziness” Self-Publishing-R-Us Publications, 2010

    Just wanting to say that EvilAuntiePril should have a blog of her own. My mouse pointer is hovering over the Bookmark button for the day her blog is born.

    Yours,
    Maili the Temporarily Braindead Sloth

  19. 19
    Reese Witherfork says:

    If advanced degrees in literature, etc. were required to write reviews, I think most romance writers would be S.O.L., since I think very few academic-types respect this genre.  Or, at least, the ones I’ve spoken to don’t – their heads are generally too far up their own asses.

  20. 20
    Shannon says:

    I have a high-school diploma stuffed in a drawer somewhere—-probably with plot notes scribbled on the back.  That’s it for me.  (Which probably comes as no surprise to my editors.)

    And MJD could sleep with my husband and I’d still read her books. Hell, I’ll trade him for MJD arcs.

    And I’m still suffering from PTSD from the last time I dared have an opinion, so I’m not even going to comment on that.  *takes pills*

  21. 21
    Kate R says:

    Oh how I love my Auntie Peril.

  22. 22
    Sarah F. says:

    Hey, Reese, some of us academics not only like romances, but founded our careers on the wonderful things.  We’re not all bad, just mostly bad.  But I don’t think academics like/dislike romances at a greater percentage than the normal population—rather, their “authority” is given more weight when they say something about romances.

  23. 23
    Darla says:

    It occurs to me that people are often talking apples & oranges when it comes to reviews.  There are Book Reviews, which are serious analyses of a book’s literary merit.  And sure, I think you probably should have some sort of credentials for those, if only to get the jargon right. 

    And then there are reviews for readers, which are less about literary merit (though that might be a factor), and more about why a reader might or might not want to read a book. 

    Kind of like the difference between a news article and a letter to the editor on the same subject. 

    Or not.

  24. 24
    Nicole says:

    Maili!  Where have you been?  You post, then disappear again!

  25. 25
    Beth says:

    Does this mean I’m not allowed to gush about Kinsale or incite the hatred of The Entire Internet by ripping on Gabaldon anymore, at least until I get a couple more degrees?

    Bummer. Fellow readers seem to genuinely love booktalk that has actual passion in it.

  26. 26
    Robin says:

    Jenny Crusie does indeed have a Ph.D.  She read hundreds of romance novels to talk about the gender differences in writing by men vs. writing by women.  Then decided she could write the damn things better than those she’d read, chucked academia (good for her) and became a best-selling author.

    Actually, she’s only ABD, which, for you lucky non-academics, means that she did all the work up to her dissertation, but has not completed it, and is therefore, not yet a Ph.D.  I had a number of friends who got stalled at the dissertation stage and left academia without their degree.  Always seemed a huge shame to me, because the dissertation should be the fun part of grad school (okay, it wasn’t for me, but only because I was so burned out I was writing to simply not let me diss chair down); it’s the one moment you really have the chance to say what you want and get a degree for doing so.

    As to MJD’s comments, I felt she was unspeakably rude to Karen Scott, which created an ugly edge to her humor.  I have not even been motivated to buy her last few books, not just because they’ve become so thin, inside and out. 

    Not that anyone cares, but here’s my response to Angie’s excellent column (am I alone in feeling that too often RTB is a little vanilla?):

    OK, you’re talking about the review for Wolf Tales, so I have to tell you that Kate specifically said she didn’t care if people posted good or bad reviews, she just didn’t want that review to be the only one people saw. She did not ask for people who hadn’t read the book to make something up.

    I haven’t read Wolf Tales so I don’t have an opinion on the book, but those are the facts on the Amazon review situation. She didn’t ask for praise.

    But why is it the author’s place to determine WHAT she gets on Amazon? Once a book moves into the public realm, it becomes a public concern (not exactly “property” because of copyright laws). And this is exactly what the author wants, right? She wants her book to circulate publicly, to be available publicly, to be read publicly, as widely as possible. But only on certain terms — right??

    Now I understand and am frustrated over the fact that authors are, to some degree, constrained by their publishers in certain ways; that many have no creative input, for example, when it comes to cover design or marketing strategies. But that’s also part of the contracting relationship between publisher and author.

    Regarding the relationship between author and reader, however, the contract is more informal, but perhaps more important as an author’s longevity in the industry goes. I read Keishon’s review and the blog entry explaining the request to have it deleted. While not one of the page long reviews some of us obsessives are wont to write, it was, IMO, a reasonable review, which, contrary to many on Amazon, actually presented concrete reasons for the reader’s dislike. Not that she cares, but the author’s interference in the reader reviewing process made it VERY unlikely I will EVER pick up one of her books, no matter how many positive reviews she gets.

    As to the issue of who should be able to review, I’m confused: I have a Ph.D. in literature, am a professional writer, and read Romance for fun. Do I have the right to review Romance in any legitimate way? Or do I need to keep my concerns about increasingly shorter hardbacks (with hardback prices) being published these days, for example, to myself?

  27. 27
    Candy says:

    OMG MAILI POSTED A COMMENT. I feel like I’ve seen a vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Though given this site, perhaps Bitchbag of Guadalupe might be more appropriate? Hmmmm.

    I second her opinion about EAP needing her own blog, by the way. As it is, I’m thisclose to mailing her checks and naked pictures of hot soccer players to ensure she keeps posting regularly on this forum.

    I hate to say this, but all those authors whose advanced degrees are in non-Englishy/Languagey/Artsy Fartsy crap? Do not count. We’re looking for relevancy as well as expertise. Laura Kinsale and Stephanie Laurens, for example, cannot count as authorities on books. Catherine Asaro gets a break for her SF novels, though.

    And Beth: according to some authorities, as an unwashed heathen (OK, I’m pretty sure you wash—with lavender-scented bubble thingums, even) who not only has no advanced degrees but who has the temerity to review books while unabashedly trying to write your own, the circle in hell reserved for you is especially foul. Like, forced-to-watch-Ann-Coulter-suck-Joseph-McCarthy’s-dick-twenty-four-seven foul. (Or would that be the other way around? Somebody pointed out to me the other day that she has an Adam’s apple. Eeesh.)

    Shannon: DO TELL about the time you got PTSD for disagreeing with someone. Was it on this forum? Or somewhere else? *ears perked for good gossip*

    And on to the subject of reviews, and tangentially, MJD:

    Yes, many reviews suck. Sturgeon’s Law holds steady for this particular field, as it does for so many others. But that doesn’t mean that MJD’s very sweeping initial claim is any less silly and shitful for it, simply because the logic doesn’t hold up. I don’t need to be a mechanic to assess when the brakes on my car have failed, just as I don’t have to be an author to point out that every sentence really doesn’t need its own ellipsis. No, really… it doesn’t. I agree with other things she said subsequently, but her initial comment was still an eyeroller.

  28. 28
    Devom says:

    I admit it, I have become addicted to reading reviews on Amazon.  I don’t know anybody with the same taste in books as me, and I have this compulsive need to discuss things that I read (I think it’s b/c I’m a librarian/former English major), so I started reading Amazon reviews primarily after reading the book to see what other people thought.  I continue to do so, because it’s a freaking hoot.  I spend my time giggling and sneering, “Did this person read the same book as me?” If I have to read something along the lines of “It was no Anita Blake…” again, I may pull my hair out, but really so much of the commentary, positive or negative, is crap, and I wasn’t even aware of the games people play with it. My actual point is that reviews are for readers (and potential readers), and except for the brilliant EvilAuntiePeril, little credit was given to us readers for having enough brainpower to distinguish between crap and an actual well-thought out review.  It’s fun to compare and contrast but that’s about it.  It is up to each review reader to make an informed decision, and hopefully they will not be put off because a book is not as good as “Desire’s Blossom, the best book, evah.”  Had to stick that in there.

    And on the question of whether or not only writers should review, who decides who is a writer.  What you’ve published, the content, the length?  Who put it out?  I was published in my high school literary mag.  I also have had reviews published in School Library Journal, a national publication.  Am I enough of a ‘writer’ to review other’s works?  How about all of those writing blogs? Couldn’t they be considered writers of a sort? Ergo, they are qualified to review.  Whatever.  Oh well, I’m off to write some mean reviews on my own blog.  Kidding,kidding…

  29. 29

    My stats…I have an Associates in Computer Informations Systems and I’ve been a professional editor since age 15, when I would proof my classmate’s papers for five bucks each. My husband has a Masters in History and works as a security guard. So much for advanced degrees.

    I tell my authors all the time, a review is an opinion. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and the First Amendment allows them to publically express it. Authors are people, too, so they can review if they want.

    A well-done review, whether good or bad, tells exactly WHY it made their panties wet or caused them to yarf Corn Nuts, citing specific examples. Then the authors know what they did wrong or right, and the publishers can go, “Oops,” and fix it. Those are what I expect to see from professional review sites.

    Anyone can review. But if you are reviewing for a professional group, you should be a professional, not just say ‘This book sucked monkey butt’ and feel that’s a sufficent review. I think this sort of thing has really cast a shadow over reviews in general.

  30. 30

    Just one short peep:

    Even though a writer may not have a degree, they may have almost completed the equivalent of a degree by being a voracious researcher. There is no way to quantify that, of course; but writers (who are any good) tend to be research mavens. Authors who do their research should count, IMHO. Of course, one would have to take points off for the nonacademic nature of the research and the tendency to call oneself an expert after a lot of lay research…

    *ducks to avoid flung objects*

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