30 September 2013

+JMJ+

Authors as a Reading Challenge

It is a very exciting time to be a reader, don't you think? I'd say that it's because of the ease with which my contemporaries and I can acquire copies of virtually any book we'd like to read. But for many others, the real draw is how accessible authors are these days. And that leads to questions about author-blogger relations. I don't think you'd find too many bloggers who'd care for some advice from 1860 . . .

When thrown into the society of literary people, do not question them about their works. To speak in terms of admiration of any work to the author is in bad taste; but you may give pleasure, if, by a quotation from their writings, or a happy reference to them, you prove that you have read and appreciated them.

-- The Gentlemen's Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness
by Cecil B. Hartley

I wonder what the authors would say to this. Would they feel relieved . . . or stifled? Maybe a bit of both: relieved in offline company but stifled on the Internet? A lot of authors have to reach out to readers these days, whether because their contracts demand it or because it's the only way to get the word out on their self-published books. I do get why it's necessary, but sometimes I find it intrusive . . . or even hucksterish.

A few years ago, I won a self-published book in an author-sponsored giveaway and decided to feature it in one of my posts. After I did, the author showed up (without my having extended any sort of invitation) to thank me for helping her to promote her book. It was very courteous of her, and I could tell that she really appreciated my positive feedback on her writing, but I was quite put out. I had reviewed the book for my blog, not for her sales--and I didn't like the subtext in her comment that I had become a fly in her marketing web.


I'm a different sort of fly, you see.

But perhaps I had implicitly agreed to giving her that PR by simply entering the giveaway. =/ 

Now, I'm not opposed to all author-blogger interaction. A couple of years after the above incident, I deliberately "@-ed" an author on Twitter after writing a Character Connection post on one of her protagonists. When she came over, she told me it was the most insightful thing anyone had said about that character since the book came out! (WIN!) Do you see the difference? I didn't invite her over to say, "Look at what I've done for you," but to ask, "What do you think of my analysis of your work?" And I was thrilled that she validated my thoughts! 

Since then, I've dealt mostly with dead authors (and been happy to treat living authors as if they were dead, too), and this sort of encounter hasn't happened here very often. But because a lot of other book bloggers are caught up in the publicity web--and have become full partners in weaving it--I still hear about author-blogger interaction now and then. Take two posts from last July . . .

* * * * *

When I read PJ's editorial on author-blogger relations, I totally disagreed with it. Saying that there are certain things which are unacceptable in reviews simply because they make other reviewers look bad is trying to restrict other people's speech in order to protect your own interests. Apparently, the only reason we care that bloggers are looking bad is that the free ARCs (Advance Review Copies) we can get from publishers might dry up.

PJ argued with that last point, saying she didn't care about ARCs drying up but about authors drying up. That is, if an author is so appalled by what bloggers are saying about him, then he may stop interacting with them so much. And that would hurt the literary community of authors-who-talk-to-bloggers and bloggers-who-talk-to-authors, which PJ is part of and has grown to love.

Hey, I love community, too, right? So I gave PJ's perspective a lot of thought, leading to my posting this in September rather than July. And you know what? I still disagree. =P That is, I disagree that authors and bloggers should be a community.

As Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote about families, those proto-communities: "People do not live together merely to be together. They live together to do something together." If authors and bloggers are a community, then what we're doing together is selling books. Not reading and discussing them, but selling them. Well, pardon me, but I didn't get into this blogging thing to be anyone's brand ambassador. It's a nice web you've got there; I'm just not that sort of fly.

There are a few authors who feel the same way, though for different reasons . . .

* * * * *


I can't help thinking of all the times George Bernard Shaw, George Orwell and G.K. Chesterton (to name a few dead authors) went after each other's writings in their own books, with no hard feelings. Apparently, they could do that not just because they were all mature literary colleagues, but also because their readers didn't have the ability to form lynch mobs. In contrast, today's authors do not have the luxury of pretending they are writing in and for a literary culture. They know they're writing in a consumer culture, for readers who often think with the crowd.

For all my indifference towards authors-as-authors, I do find that a little sad. I like discussing books and I imagine that they do, too. It seems wrong that a bibliophile who happens to have books to sell should be silenced by idiots. I'm also grateful for negative reviews, which often tell me a lot more about what to expect from a book or an author than positive ones. There have been times when I read something because of a very specific negative review: some things which other people can't stand, I tend to love to bits.

Someone in Bell's combox lamented the new idea of reviews as mere promotional tools. Traditionally, she said, reviews were used to guide readers to worthwhile books and to offer feedback to authors. My own perspective, as first shared in my post Blogging as a Writing Challenge, is that reviews should address three points: a) what the book is about, b) what you thought of it, and c) what the main idea (or moral) is. This also goes for movies. I once tweeted as much and someone countered that sometimes a book or movie doesn't have a main idea or moral but is simply fluff. Well, I am currently working on a review of Sharknado that is a direct rebuttal to what he said. And I'm sure the filmmakers will, should they ever stumble across it, appreciate my feedback.

Anyway, that's what I've been trying to do since I started blogging about books. Not "to speak in admiration of any work to the author"--but to figure out what writers are really saying, so that we can have a decent conversation about what they think. So it's always a little disappointing to run into another literary person who thinks that we're just here to form groups and to start gushing.


Image Source: The Fly screen cap

13 comments:

love the girls said...

Talking shop, (especially with authors and college profs other similar types who invariably wear their emotions on their sleeves), at a social gathering is boring. Well, I mean boring other than the sheer fun and amusement of poking sharp sticks at a defenseless creature.

The advantage of having a blog that no one reads, and a writing style that reflects my choleric temperament of delighting in causing strife, is that I can't be accused of fishing for readers even when I am shamelessly fishing for readers.

And the problem with witting book reviews is that I can't actually ever sit down and come up with anything interesting to say.





Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I've been trying to have a proper conversation with someone whose feelings I seem to hurt just by breathing. And she isn't even selling anything! I've started wondering whether it's worth it.

The one thing that keeps me from being (too) shameless about fishing for readers is the knowledge that I'd just lose most of them again the next time I change tack.

Sheila said...

Hm. I don't know much about reviews because I don't read any book blogs but yours. I review books that I like from time to time, but really I'm just summing up my favorite parts for people.

However, it seems to me that reviews would be pointless if they were always positive. For a parallel, think of sponsored posts reviewing household items on a lot of women's blogs. It's always "I was SO excited to receive X product ... it was wonderful ... life-changing ... I totally would have bought this with my own money, if I hadn't gotten it for free." It's all very well, and I don't begrudge these women the chance to make some money off their blogging, but nobody reads that trash. It's not a real post. It's an ad. A good sponsored post should cost a company $500-1000, and even so nobody reads them. If you do a lot, you lose your whole readership. That's one reason why I decided not to do any, though I get inquiries sometimes.

However, there is one blog I make an exception for. She does reviews, but actually gives her real opinions. Of course since she's getting paid she tries to find something good about the product. But often she will say, "While this was nice, I probably wouldn't have spent $X on it. If you do a lot of Y, you may find this more useful than I did." Or she does posts comparing many similar items and ranks them. I've actually bought things on her recommendation because I trust her opinion.

My point is that if you always rave, no one trusts you are being honest (because you're not). You have to be willing to say something negative.

Now, I do think it's good to remember that when you critique something in public, the author might see you. And if the author feels about his writing the way I do about mine, he'll probably be very upset if you are unduly harsh. I don't want to hurt someone's feelings. So *polite* criticism is helpful and appropriate. Ridiculing an entire book isn't something I'd make a habit of, unless the author is dead. Or it's Twilight.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I like your posts on books, Sheila! Summing up your favorite parts is your style, and I think it works. =)

In the book blogosphere, there are already "book blitz" and "cover reveal" posts which are obvously ads, which is why it's hard to see that a lot of reviews are also essentially promotion rather than thoughtful critiques. As you've said, this is all very well. Why get in the way of authors who want to get the word out and bloggers who are getting the opportunity to read free books? I just think they're missing something essential . . . but I confess that I can barely articulate what it is myself.

Here's another brick in the wall . . . A few weeks ago, I read an interesting critique from a librarian who said that some children's books are not really books, but toys. I get a similar sense about a lot of novels written for older readers. I get that sense from how they are marketed and how they are reviewed.

Emily J. said...

Although I also usually read books by dead people, once a living poet showed up in a comment box. I can't find the link now - I think it was on my sister's blog - but it was a very surreal experience. He basically said, no, you are reading me wrong!

DMS said...

What an interesting post. It really got me thinking.

Most of the books I review are books I have found on my own and enjoyed (so those reviews are positive). When I have been asked to do a review- I am willing, but I let the author know that if I don't enjoy the book that I won't review it. There are books that I have been asked to review that I don't end up reviewing because I didn't like the story or writing (and since my blog is focused on MG books, I try to stay positive- but it has to be genuine). From time to time I will take part in a book tour where I am just helping to promote a book- but I don't post a review unless I read and enjoyed the book.

I do find it refreshing to read reviews in which the reviewer is honest about their feelings. I like finding out what people liked or didn't like about a book.

Thanks for giving me so much to think about!
~Jess

love the girls said...

Sheila writes :
"A good sponsored post should cost a company $500-1000, and even so nobody reads them."

A post that no one reads should cost $500 to a $1000??

I can guarantee that level of readership. and will be glad to write reviews at $500 to $1000 each.

Where do I sign up?

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Emily -- Oh, my! LOL! How did she feel about that?

I'm not sure how I would react. I'd be a bit excited to know that my post had caught his attention, but if I were in the middle of working out my thoughts, I might be a bit miffed at having been interrupted. Even if my conclusion and his point would have been the same anyway!

Jess -- Yours is one of the few MG book blogs I regularly visit, so I'm glad to know about your policy. =)

LTG -- LOL! The catch is that other other posts should be well read. I think companies which sponsor reviews don't mind them not being read as long as they get the "halo effect" of being on popular, respected blogs.

Shaz said...

As someone who does receive ARCs, I've spent a fair amount of time pondering my participation in the publicity web. I'm still not sure where I stand. Right now my unwritten policy is generally only accept books that I have already had an interest in ... which means self-published works tend to be given the cold shoulder. I do not want to wade through all the dreck and drama on the off chance that I might find the next Shakespeare.

I review books, not authors so I don't understand the concept of author baiting. What purpose does it serve?

As far as interacting with authors ... I once met Anne Rice at a book signing. For weeks I had practiced a short and concise speech expressing my admiration for her work. When I actually got up to the table after a 5 hour wait I said "Ah, um, mmph." My boyfriend translated "She really loves your books." :D

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Thanks for your invaluable perspective, Shaz! I especially love the line, "I review books, not authors," because it's so true! This is why I'm not too comfortable with authors piggybacking on my blog posts for PR. Their books should be able to speak for themselves. I'm not going to read something just because an author appears nice and friendly (though I may think twice about continuing to read the works of an author who is so intrusive!) and I wish that authors didn't have to resort to such tactics to be read.

To answer your question more directly . . . Based on the evidence, there seem to be quite a few online reviewers who thrive on the drama that comes from having an onion-skinned author respond to a bad review. So that's what they get out of it. But I don't think that writing a negative review, even in a "bombastic" style, is automatically author baiting.

It's funny that you should mention Anne Rice, even if it was in a different context. I know that she is notorious for responding to online reviews, but I'm not sure of the details.

Shaz said...

Yes, Anne Rice did go through a period of leaving comments on Amazon reviews. I don't know the specifics as she and I had gone through a very bitter literary breakup shortly before, but I remember it caused a stir.

A few authors have linked to my posts. I'm not quite sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, I wrote the review knowing full well that I was essentially providing free advertising for the book. On the other hand, there's something creepy and at the same time rather sad about having an author search for online reviews and then include them in a self-congratulatory post.

I once found one of my reviews posted without credit on a Christian webstite. I know exactly how I felt about that!

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Literary breakups are awful. =( I went through one of my own a while ago and still wish that things could have been different.

I think a lot of bloggers would love it if an author linked to their reviews. After all, what's PR for the goose is PR for the gander. ;-) There may be a bunch of authors who don't like doing this any more than you like it being done to you, but still feel pressured to go ahead because it's part of the business to scratch the backs of those who likely believe they're scratching yours. (Sigh!)

What I really don't like, though, is authors sending their readers to harass someone who has written a negative review. (Still on Anne Rice: did you hear about the reader who used an old copy of Pandora, a novel she had intensely disliked, to make a decoupage bowl? I believe Rice linked to the post on Facebook and soon her fans who most resembled howler monkeys descended on the unsuspecting blogger. Luckily, the latter had a sense of humour!) In some cases, when the balance of power favors the author, this kind of response is like sending an MMA champion to play King of the Hill with kindergarteners. Of course, I also think that a hugely popular blogger should be extra considerate where self-published authors are concerned--which doesn't necessarily mean pulling punches.

Reviews being taken and used without permission is a whole other issue! I don't think even publishers or authors who provide free copies should reprint reviews without asking the reviewers first.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I tweeted Shaz's comment "I review books, not authors," and received this reply from NoelCT:

This is why I like going through a single author at a time, because their development as a storyteller is a story in itself. :)

Worth considering, aye?