A Few Words on Reviews, Reviewing, and BullShit

I interrupt your daily can-can of RITA Reader Reviews for… a few words on reviewing!

I keep thinking that someday we're going to be over the “Reviewers are mean bullies!” thing, or the whole “You didn't say nice things so I'm going to say mean things about YOU” thing.

Clearly I overdosed on optimism.

Here's what I don't think is clearly understood regarding online reviews and discussions:

This is how readers interact with books.

We react passionately and loudly and sometimes with big ladles of snark to the books we read. This is how readers talk about books. I believe that we always have.

The difference now, with all that social media and interaction, is that it's easier to find, and sometimes, difficult to avoid. 

But everyone, authors, readers and everyone else, we are all driven and compelled and encouraged to interact with and create in response to the entertainment we consume. Reviews are part of everything now.

Clay Shirky wrote in Cognitive Surplus,

[Y]oung populations with access to fast, interactive media are shifting their behavior away from media that presupposes pure consumption. Even when they watch video online, seemingly a pure analog to TV, they have opportunities to comment on the material, to share it with their friends, to label, rate, or rank it, and of course, to discuss it with other viewers around the world.

Shirky, Clay. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

Readers have always talked frankly about books that inspire reaction, positive or negative. With the addition of social media, we are less and less content to passively consume books – especially if, as is true for some romance readers, there aren't many people with whom we can discuss the books we read. Interaction about books online is the natural progression of our own reactions.

I've talked about this on panels at conferences before: it used to be when you drove into Manhattan through the Lincoln Tunnel (slowly, because there's traffic like you've never imagined) there'd be a big ass billboard for Absolut vodka. At the bottom: absolut.com.

For some time now that same billboard has instead directed people to facebook.com/absolut.

It is more valuable for that company to have consumers interacting and talking about their product on Facebook than it is to have their eyeballs on the Absolut.com website. A website, I imagine, they paid umpty-zillion dollars for.

The conversation and interaction in response to what we consume is essential. It is normal. It is not always positive. It is always valuable.

It is why we tweet during a tv show, and write recaps afterward. It's why we write reviews of movies on blogspots that maybe 6 people or 6 million people will read. And it's why we write reviews, positive and negative, online and off, about EVERYTHING.

Whenever I see someone react with outrage and pity for an author who received a harsh review here or anywhere, my reaction is always confusion and disappointment. When I read someone react with fury and pitchforks about a negative review, questioning the reviewers intelligence and biological makeup, I am completely baffled.

We're still angry that readers are honest about what they think about books? WHY? I'd rather honesty than false admiration and condescension.

You might have surmised that my writing here has been inspired by the “Stop the Goodreads Bullies” website, which posts pictures, names, locations and identifying information about reviewers they dislike. 

Here's a perfect response to anyone who thinks this GR Bullies bullshit is a great idea from Foz Meadows:

[A]ny public figure, regardless of whether they’re an author, actor, sportsperson or journalist, must resign themselves to a certain amount of public criticism. Not everyone will like you, your work or even necessarily your profession, and nor will they be under any obligation to protect your sensibilities by being coy about it. A negative review might mean you lose sales, but that’s not a gross unfairness for which the reviewer should be punished, no matter how snarky they are: it is, rather, a legitimate reflection of the fact that, in their personal and professional estimation as a consumer of your work, they don’t believe that other people should buy it. And yes, you’re allowed to feel sad about that, but it’s still going to happen; it’s still going to be legal and normal.

What she said.

(Also, Kat Kennedy's new and improved autobiography in response to the site is brilliant.)

But let me put that another way. I don't believe the people behind that site are “other readers.” The response is so similar to the outrage and fury that greets bad reviews. And I think this needs to be said about creating entertainment and reviews:

Criticism that we don't like is part of what we signed up for when we published.

Let me say this again: bad reviews? Really long angry reviews about how insanely mad a book made a reader? Really wonderful squeeful reviews about how wonderful the book was? Reviews that say, “Meh”?

This is what we signed up for when we published.

This is what happens when we publish a book, a piece of entertainment for someone else to pay for and read.

We may have the most meanest critique partner in the world, but she is nothing to the reader who paid $9 for a book and was disappointed.

This is what happens when readers read books: we get irate sometimes and giddy other times. Now we interact more about the giddy and the irate, and that interaction, positive or negative, is valuable. More importantly, it's normal.

And this, by which I mean reviews in all flavors, is how entertainment works now: something is created. Someone consumes that creation. That someone will be encouraged in a variety of subtle and direct ways to interact or create in response to that something which was consumed. That cycle will continue.

The age of universal admiration and nothing but praise is long gone, and isn't coming back. It shouldn't. If we want the romance genre to grow, authors should be free to review books as candidly as any reader.

More than anything, we have trust readers. Trust that we (all of us as readers) are intelligent and able to make decisions individually and personally.


Trust that we can see through a review that was more about the author than the book.

Trust that most of the time, when we say we hated a book and rip up many words of ire as to why, we're talking about the book. 

As for the GR “Bullies” crap, it demonstrates a belief that people are not intelligent enough to make decisions on their own about the motivations of a writer, to decide who they want to listen to, and who they don't. That the response to reviewers we don't like is not to stop reading or listening to them. That some reviewers are more valid than other reviewers, and that some reviewers should be humiliated until they stop reviewing. 

Oh, no. 

Reviews of all types are part of everything we consume now, from vacuum cleaners to hotels in Portland.

No book – no thing that is consumed – is immune or excused from review now. We are each of us more and more adept at discerning who and what we trust when we look for opinions. 

So outing and attempting to shame reviewers for doing what everyone does in different forms and different venues is counterintuitive, cruel, and hypocritical (especially the part where those doing the exposing hide behind pseudonyms). 

But beyond the existence of that or any other site, this idea that reviews aren't welcome in romance or in any genre continues to baffle me. Reviews, positive or negative, are essential. Reviews are part of social media. Reviews are part of everything. They aren't going anywhere.

So review something. Anything. Review all the things! And don't let anyone tell you you're doing it wrong. The answer to reviews is more reviews. 

Thank you to BigStock for the image!

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Ranty McRant

Comments are Closed

  1. Can I love this post? Because I do. I heart it like a million times.

  2. I love when SmartBitches read my mind.

    <3 this post.

  3. Kati B says:

    Oh Sarah, PREACH!

    I said it on Twitter and I’ll say it here. I don’t write bad reviews because I’m a bully. I write good and bad reviews because there is a teeny tiny piece of the universe that actually trusts my taste, and takes my opinion into consideration when they buy a book. I take that seriously, and I try to give my honest opinion about books, both what worked for me, and what didn’t work for me. It’s extremely rare that I trash a book utterly, I can almost always find something that works for me. But me disliking a book and saying so does not make me a bully. I hope it makes me a reviewer with integrity. At least, that’s what I’m going for.

  4. emmyneal says:

    What really makes me angry about the Stop GR Bullies site is the fact that they clearly haven’t considered the fact that by putting private information about these reviewers on the internet they aren’t “identifying” them, but *endangering* them. And in a lot of cases their families. The internet has some scary people out there.

    No bad review justifies that.

  5. Shiloh walker says:

    Oh, I totally think authors ate behind it. Totally. Some batshit crazy ones (not fun crazy either)

  6. Shiloh walker says:

    Are behind it. Sigh. Typing on phone. Fun.

  7. Isobel Carr says:

    It’s easy to avoid being “bullied”. Just don’t read your reviews. I don’t understand the obsession with KNOWING everything that is said about you and your work. I hate when I’m discussing a book (as a reader, w/other readers) and the author suddenly chimes in. I especially hate it if they chime in defensively. 

  8. Ciar Cullen says:

    It’s distressing to see the Kindle forums that are titled “authors behaving badly,” “reviewers behaving badly,” blah blah blah. Like we’re imploding. Who the heck has time to write all these Goodreads and Amazon reviews, let alone follow the threads of vitriol and doom? Would rather read a good book. And I can pretty much figure out which those are without Goodreads. I had to talk an author off the ledge over a Goodreads review. Seriously, life is too short!

  9. Ciar Cullen says:

    What you said.

  10. It’s scary to put work out there and have your bare nekkid ass swinging in the wind to be virtually slapped by any passerby, but yes, that IS what we all sign up for when we publish a book.  Even when they might not love me (*SOB!* My mom says you’re WRONG!), I have a basic belief that readers are smart, savvy folks.  And we all have the right to our opinions.  As authors, we should just back away from the reviews one way or the other.  Smile when they prop us up, and eat a box of Cheez-Its when they don’t.  Or eat the Cheez-Its either way, because damn, that shit is delicious.

  11. SB Sarah says:

    Sure – it welcomes your amorous advances!

  12. SB Sarah says:

    “Authors Ate Behind” is a great name for… something. If I eat some rump roast, I’m totally an Author Ate Behind. 

  13. Lisa Myer says:

    Exactly what emmyneal said. What review possibly justifies — ever — publicly posting what should be someone’s private information online? And don’t give me that “nothing is private on the Internet” argument. This purported “anti-bully site” blatantly promotes harassment of the individuals it names, and that is just so wrong on every level.

  14. Initially I was leery of taking this discussion broader, not wanting to feed the egos of the trolls at the GR Bullies site. And yes, I believe losers who hide behind false identities and post information about peoples’ families, and slander them, are trolls.

    However, Dear Author, and you, and the folks who tweeted on this this morning convinced me that you needed to address the issue, and to say this again:  “I’d rather honesty than false admiration and condescension.”

    Yes. That is exactly how I feel. Sometimes I’ve found the worst reviews to be the most helpful as an intelligent reviewer points out issues she/he had while reading a novel.

    So while I’m sorry this issue has come up in such an ugly fashion, thank you.

  15. katherinelynn_04 says:

    I agree. I am not afraid to write a poor review for something, usually books. I don’t feel bad if I write a poor review for an ARC and especially not if I paid for the book. I try to be specific as to what I disliked, so that others know what I had an issue with.

    However, I have noticed lately that there are some people who will rate things on Goodreads and even write that they didn’t read it! I don’t understand how that is productive. I prefer my reviews to be informative, but if I find one like that I don’t make a website to hurt them back. Lord, people have too much time on their hands and not enough common sense.

  16. Roswita Hildebrandt says:

    I visited the GR site and left a comment asking, quite legitimately, why they are hiding behind aliases but feel they have a right to expose others’ aliases. This was the response I got:

    “Athena Parker stopthegrbullies @ gmail.com
    4:28 PM (6 minutes ago)

    Hi Roswita,

    We don’t accept Q&A on our comment board, sorry!  We will be posting a Q&A soon that will answer your question.”

  17. Renee K says:

    I wince whenever I see an author directly interacting with a negative review/er, trying to EXPLAIN.

    When I was taking writing courses, workshops, etc I was always taught that your work should/must speak for itself.  By “explaining” an author is attempting to invalidate a reader’s honest response to the text. Like “No, no, you read it WRONG.”

    I hate to say “pack up your toys and go home,” but if negative criticism is so distressing putting work out there for the world to see and judge might not be the best idea.  Negative criticism is ESSENTIAL.  One reader’s WTF is another reader’s ZOMFG awesome.

    I often buy books that have some scorching negative reviews…but I almost never buy a book with NO reviews at all.


  18. SB Sarah says:

    “One reader’s WTF is another reader’s ZOMFG awesome.”

    And thus F and D reviews have as many sales through affiliate codes (the data I have regarding how sales are made through this site) as A reviews. Someone will always read a negative review that’s detailed and explains much and think, “Oh, hot diggity, that is SO what I want to read next!”

  19. LG says:

    Whoa. I hadn’t heard about “Stop the GR Bullies” site. What is wrong with these people?

  20. Ciar Cullen says:

    Oh my, just stopped over there because I evidently can’t take my own advice. I know exactly who it is (there are clues from a year-old bruhaha), and Shiloh is spot on. Authors. What a waste of time. Okay, now I’ll stop wasting mine and yours with my babbling.

  21. Or cupcakes. Also delicious. Especially chocolate ones with caramel frosting and sea salt. *dies*

    Uh… can someone write me a scathing review so I have an excuse to go buy the cupcake of death now?

  22. Amanda says:

    Well said.  I rarely comment here, but I must say I love when you address the WTFery of the internet communities.

    I would not want to hijack your comments and change the topic, but I think your comments apply to a bigger issue of the large number of big babies in our society.  It’s frustrating to try to have a discussion with a person who refuses to stray from the mentality that everybody can have an opinion – as long as it is exactly the same as theirs.  There is no mere difference of opinion, or taste, personal belief.  To not agree is to insult them on a personal level.

    And then those people write books, present their babies to the public, and freak out when they find out not everybody is as invested in sparing their feelings as their families, spouses and BFFs. Yikes.

  23. Berinn Rae says:

    So I’m guessing the crazeballs behind the Stop the GR Bullies site think every book should only have positive reviews? That defeats the whole purpose of reviews. Yeah, Shiloh’s totally right on this one. I’ll go back to banging my forehead on my laptop now.

  24. Ruthie Knox says:

    What an awesome post! You’re absolutely right—this is how we interact with books. This is how we interact with CULTURE, and it is the purpose of culture—for us to interact with it. We create, we consume, we react, we shape ourselves as people and as a society.

    Is it cringe-inducing as an author to read something awful about your book? Of course it is. But Jesus, so what? Sometimes I wear really ugly pants, and people probably think terrible things about them, and possibly even say those terrible things to other people. I decided a long, long time ago not to care. If I wear them out of the house, my pants become public. If I publish my books, people will think and say hateful things about them. That is part of being an author.

    As for “The age of universal admiration and nothing but praise”—when was that? Everyone and their sister read Pamela after it came out in 1740. Everyone and their brother panned it. Welcome to the age of popular culture!

  25. J.W. Ashley says:

    Preach it! Praise Him! and Hallelujah!  Honest review—good are bad—are good for readers, reviewers, and writers alike. More than that, I have found that writers appreciate the review my partner and I do. Often, they comment that our criticisms are well-founded, etc. Any writer worth her salt wants to please their audience and improve their craft and the honest-to-goodness-reader-reviewer is a beautiful thing. With my own book about to release, I am hoping for readers and reviewers. Period. And what they say will matter to me because I wrote it for all of us! Seriously, I want to have this stitched on a pillow: “We may have the most meanest critique partner in the world, but she is nothing to the reader who paid $9 for a book and was disappointed.”

  26. J.W. Ashley says:

    pardom my many typos. my eagerness over your posts sends fingers and (mistakes, apparently) flying…

  27. Wow just wow. I had no idea this bully site was up. I really don’t like them trying to dig up personal information on reviewers. Nor would I support trying to dig up personal information on authors and their pen names.
    Me? I just love romance books and review till my heart’s content. I write the good the bad and just try to give my personal opinion. I love reading other reviewer’s opinions and enjoying all the different styles of opinions. I can totally pick out the nasty reviewers (and author’s BFFs) and most times, they don’t sway me from purchasing a book. But to have a site devoted entirely to GR bullies? Wow just wow. Really?

    And this is just perfectly stated. Thank you >>>“We react passionately and loudly and sometimes with big ladles of snark to the books we read. This is how readers talk about books. I believe that we always have.”

    Cheers, Michelle

  28. LauraN says:

    Oh, I’m sure they’ll get right on that.  Your question is sure to be answered in a timely and honest fashion.

    *holds breath*

  29. Didn’t mean to attach a picture above. I thought I had to attach the picture so an image would appear beside my name. I don’t know how to delete it so if you can moderate it out, please do.

  30. Julie Walsh says:

    This is me, giving you a standing ovation.  GREAT post!

  31. SOS Aloha says:

    Aloha, Sarah!  I appreciate your candor with this post, especially since you speak from experience as a published author.  This particularly resonated with me:

    The conversation and interaction in response to what we consume is essential. It is normal. It is not always positive. It is always valuable.

    Perhaps you should consider a position at the UN so you can bring about world peace.

  32. KZoeT says:

    So, you’re saying that reviews are essential interaction but that the author (or company or subject of a review) can’t be part of the conversation about her work/product/company?


  33. SOS Aloha says:

    I add that I barely have enough time to read a handful of books, reviews, and blogs.  So I am out of the loop on this latest kerfuffle in Review Land.  For those who have that much time to counter attack every book review, can you please come do my laundry? 

  34. Sarah Wynde says:

    I was mystified by that site, but I followed a link from its initial post—the “this” example, and it links to this: http://www.goodreads.com/list/… 

    Now, I believe that’s a list slamming authors who have responded to reviews. No evidence is provided within the list of what the authors have done, but the pejorative “temper tantrums” certainly implies that they’re being condemned, and there are a lot of authors on the list. And creating a list to insult authors, not for their work or for the quality of their work, but for something about the way they’ve interacted online seems … well, not like a review. So at least from that initial post, the site doesn’t appear to be trying to stop honest reviews of books as much as they are trying to play tit-for-tat with people they think are behaving badly. I’d say it’s pointless, unjustifiable, a waste of time and a mistake, but I’m not sure you’ve accurately assessed their goals by focusing exclusively on reviews. That’s not what they claim that they’re about, anyway.

    I have a recent one-star review on my first book that reads, in its totality, “Want to hear the excruciating story of the longest wait ever for a married couple to kiss? This is your book. ” Okay, nobody’s married in my book. Like, no one. Not a single married couple. And my heroine seduces the hero before they’ve even gone on a first date. (She’s a little impulsive.) I’m pretty sure the author of that review has posted at least the content of her review to the wrong book, if not the rating. Do I ignore it? That’s what I’m supposed to do, obviously. But I’d really rather have one-star reviews that at least mildly accurately represent the story. Criticize the insults to Christianity, that works. Criticize the heroine’s sexual aggressiveness, no problem. Complain that the hero is way too mellow and laid-back to be a romance hero, got me. Complain that it’s listed as paranormal, but doesn’t include any vampires, werewolves or even a kick-ass heroine, you are absolutely right. Any of those are justifiable reasons to not like the book (and frankly, if some people don’t hate your work, you’re not doing it right—individual taste requires that love/hate co-exist, IMO, and who would want to write something so bland that everyone was neutral?) But can I really not respond to that one-star reviewer for fear of being added to a list of “author temper tantrums?” Because that, to me, seems a lot like giving in to bullying.

    And that idea or type of bullying is a definite issue for authors. Even like this—I say, ‘oh, I think you’re wrong about what they’re focused on’. If you decide that makes me a bad person, you could write a mean review of my book. (Not that I think you would, but you have the power to, obviously, if you wanted to.) On a professional level, that means authors should always just sit-down-and-shut-up, and never disagree with anyone. And/or always hide behind anonymity. But what a miserable way to live.

    I recently made a limited edition book. It’s a collection of short stories, and I printed five copies of it. Three of them went to people who I met because they reviewed my writing and we started corresponding. I’ve never met those three people in person, but I consider them friends—friends enough that I wanted to give them a present. If I ever decide to become a “professional” writer, instead of a person having a lot of fun writing, I’ll have to start following the rules and not interacting with reviewers. I think it’ll be my loss, but maybe their loss, too.

  35. LG says:

    Some readers don’t like interacting with the author at all when they’re discussing that author’s work. The conversation is about the author’s work, not the author, but when the author enters into the conversation that can blur the lines. The author’s work is likely very personal to him/her, so critical comments are sometimes taken too personally, or readers worry that they’ll be taken personally, which can stifle conversation.

    So, yeah, I tend to prefer it when an author isn’t part of the conversation, unless he or she was specifically invited to be part of it.

  36. Bob says:

    Wow, that’s some sort of special batshit right there. So leaving a bad review and then responding to the author’s response is stalking. Ok, um, so what are you doing when you post links to someone’s dining habits as to where they’re at at 4:30pm on Sundays? Isn’t that stalking to the nth degree?

    Any site that says it’s “anti-bully” but recommends Orson Scott Card as a preferred read loses all credibility with me right there.

  37. Beggar1015 says:

    I had absolutely no idea about this GR Bullies webpage. This is appalling but is probably legal and protected by the First Amendment.

  38. DreadPirateRachel says:

    I hated to drive traffic toward that appalling site, but I couldn’t resist reading every dreadful post. The “evidence” of bullying they provided was laughable at best. A reviewer expressing legitimate reasons for not liking a book (like, for example, the author’s utter lack of basic anatomical knowledge) is NOT bullying. Not even close. Now, stalking someone and posting their name and location and where they like to go for happy hour with their husband is bullying.

    It also did not escape my attention that all the targeted reviewers are women, and some of the comments were even more horrifying than the posts. And of course, the SGRB people were cheering as commenters threatened Shannon with sexual violence.

  39. There’s a conversation, and there’s jumping up and down saying that the reviewer has personally attacked the author when the reviewer said “I didn’t like this book, and here’s why.” 

    In a review I did, I said that the book had 10 pounds of plot crammed into a pound casing.  THere was a LOT of things going on in the book, plus unexpected zombies.  The author came in to the comments and said, “Yup, that was back when I was throwing everything but the kitchen sink in my books.  I’ve learned form that.”  THAT is a conversation. 

    But unless an author is going to accept that reviews are primarily for readers, then they shouldn’t be lurking for the reviews.  If the author is trying to learn what works and what does not and what about her books are making people like them (or not), and isn’t out looking just for ego strokes, that’ one thing.  But reviews are not where you should be hunting for tongue baths. 

  40. JamesLynch says:

    The fundamental basis for a review is “whether I liked or disliked it, and why.”  If any artist (writer, musician, actor, artist, whatever) can’t accept hearing that, they really have no business releasing their work/talent to the public.  I hate the trolls who revel in trashing everything, and I have little respect for “literary fetishists” who automatically love any book that has one feature; but part of releasing something to the public is getting feedback from the public.

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