Something I have been wondering recently. Is it a bad idea for an author to review books of other authors critically?
— Michelle Goldsmith (@Vilutheril) September 15, 2013
That tweet generated some interesting discussion on Twitter this weekend, but I feel like that discussion still needs a bit of unpacking in a space that lets me talk in bursts more than 140-characters at a time. (Twitter is good at starting discussions and not as good at finishing them or making them clear. Twitter is also most excellent at tweeting pictures of tacos, toddlers, dogs, as well as spreading Vine videos of apathetic twerking. USE IT WISELY.)
My argument (read: opinion) is that authors negatively reviewing the work of authors authors is not the best idea in the world. You can! You’re free to. But the value proposition there is a bit shaky. As my wife’s boss has been wont to say: “The juice ain’t worth the squeeze.”
(To clarify, when I say “negatively review,” I mean that in the strictest sense — a review that is, by its definition, a “pan.” I do not mean a positive review with critical qualifications.)
Here’s my thinking on the subject — and you are of course free to agree, disagree, or ragetastically headbutt your monitor into a sparking pile of glass and plastic. As always: YMMV, IMHO, and other fun acronyms that mean, “You do as you like.”
Be A Fountain, Not A Drain
Above all else, I find it’s far more interesting to everyone else — and more constructive to your own mood — to put forth positive vibes into the world than negative signal. Certainly not suggesting you be a robot shouting chirpy cherub-cheeked propaganda all the time, or always be manically happy happy eeeeeee, but negativity also has a seductive, multiplicative quality. It gets attention. In Internet terms, it gets “clicks” and it earns response. But that’s not always a good thing, and you’re probably better off trying to be relatively positive and further, writing your own stories than trying to tear someone else’s apart.
Losing Potential Fans
I say, “I thought Danny Flarngbaum’s newest novel, Whale Thong, was an exercise in sloppy characterwork, poo-bucket plotting, and narrative dick-punching, and I suspect Mister Flarngbaum’s time would be better spent working the Fry-o-later at McDonald’s than poisoning our library shelves with his toxic claptrap.” I go on and on in my review.
You read this review.
And then you say, as a fan of Whale Thong, “Gosh, I really loved that book, and Chuck is being really critical of it.” And then, you might think the next time you see one of my books, “Ehhh, he and I don’t really agree on what makes good story,” and so you pass my books by. Or, you’re more offended than that, and you counter my negativity with your own — maybe you negatively review my book, maybe you just say shit about me on Twitter, maybe you try to argue, whatever.
Again: what’s the value here for me as an author?
What’s there to gain?
Authoritative, Yet Subjective
I’m a writer. Or —
An author, said with nose raised in the air and a snifter of brandy swirling in my hand. And with that comes the illusion that I’m an authority on what makes good writing, good story, good characterization and plotting and cover design and publishing strategies, blah blah blah.
Again: total illusion. I’m not an expert. I am probably strongly opinionated on the matter but for every opinion I have about All These Things, I can surely dig up plenty of examples that exist in opposition of my opinions — and, in fact, that do so quite successfully.
When I offer my review, you might take it more seriously than, say, one from Goodreads. Not saying that’s fair or reasonable, only that it’s possibly true. Which means my negative review — which sounds authoritative but is entirely subjective — carries more weight. And I have an audience, to boot! So I’m using my reach and my (again: illusory) authority to do what?
To do harm to another author and their work.
Food Outta Mouths
When I say “do harm,” what I actually mean is:
Potentially rob that author of one or many sales. I don’t want to do that. Writing a book is hard goddamn work. You’ve got rent to pay. Or a mortgage. You’ve got a food bill. And cats or dogs. Maybe one or several kids. I don’t like the thought that my review is going to take money out of your pockets, or snatch food out of your kids’ mouths. Fuck that. I’m not “Internet Famous” or anything, but I have a blog and a social media feed that gets a substantial echo. Do I really want to use my social media reach to drink your milkshake or piss in your cereal bowl? No, I do not.
I’ve Got Hurt Feelings
Point is, you write a bad review of someone’s book, how are they supposed to feel about it? The easy answer is: “They should harden the fuck up and accept it.” Which is probably accurate. But maybe they don’t. That’s how hurt feelings work — they’re not logical. You feel what you feel. So, you give someone a negative review, you maybe just burned a potential future relationship — and this is a much smaller community than you think. It’s still one based on those relationships, on authors helping authors.
Plus, it goes back to that authoritative thing — a negative review from a fellow author is going to sting more than a negative review from a book blogger, or a critic, or somebody on Goodreads.
(And never mind the fact that authors have been known to play dirty pool from time to time — purposefully writing negative reviews of books by authors they don’t personally like.)
Again, not saying this is fair or reasonable.
But that question again: is the juice worth the squeeze?
What are you getting out of writing a bad review that matches or exceeds the potential negative ramifications for doing so? What’s the takeaway for you?
Go Write Your Own Thing
It takes energy to write a bad review. Energy you could probably use elsewhere. Like, say, writing more awesome books. Go do that. Contribute word count to your own fiction.
My two cents: that’s where you’re going to get far greater mileage.
Your own stories are a juice forever worth the squeeze.