Like many reviewers and bloggers, I read the article from author Kathleen Hale in The Guardian with the perspective of fascinated revulsion (The Digital Reader is just one place you can get some background on this mess). Although she had a few sympathetic authors on her side, most readers of the piece were chilled by the thought that an author might go to such lengths to confront someone who had negatively reviewed her work. I saw many book bloggers around the web had done a blogging blackout as a statement in support of all book bloggers who need to be able to state their own opinions of a book in their own space and not be stalked by crazypants authors. I read today about the SF blogger reviewer Requires Only That You Hate (again, there are plenty of roundups of this situation, but the tl;dr is that she is a blogger – and apparent some-time troll under another name – who is getting called out for the extreme and hateful rhetoric of her reviews, especially now since she is gaining success as a short story writing under yet another name). The whole bizarre situation made me think. It made me think about the act of reviewing.
I actually hate writing bad reviews. Not badly written, of course. But negative. In my role as the Science Fiction and Fantasy columnist for Library Journal, I have had to grapple with this dozens of times in the year I’ve had the gig. I go into reading every book with the expectation that I am going to enjoy it. When I don’t, I try very hard to think about why a book didn’t work for me. As widely as I read, I am not the natural audience for every book in the world. I’m not even the ideal audience for every book in the SF/F world, and those are the books I love the most. So, as a reviewer, I try to think about who the natural audience is and don their reading glasses. It helps.
I find it especially useful for the professional reviewing I do at Library Journal, because I am, in essence, telling libraries which books they should buy for their collections. Not telling one reader what they might like to read today, but trying to guide library selectors in their choices that will serve a whole community. Having worked in (and selected for) a large urban library like Chicago Public as well as college-town/mid-urban Berkeley Public, I know full well that among the millions of books circulated each year there is a book for every taste. Diverse viewpoints and stories are crucial in libraries. When reviewing for libraries, I try to make sure I think about the guys who love military stories, the fantasy fans who are comforted by a Tolkien-esque throwback, the splatterific horror fans, the ‘shippers who want a little romance in every book they read and the readers who like their SF diamond-hard. Am I that reader? Not necessarily. But I know they exist, and if a book scratches that itch, I try to remember that there are readers who eat it up like cake for breakfast.
When I review professionally for libraries I think about whether the ideal reader of “x kind of book” will enjoy this particular example of “x kind of book” and review accordingly. But there is always a bottom line: WILL IT CIRC. Libraries can’t afford to mess around. Their materials budgets, even the healthy ones, only go so far. They have to split their money between adults, kids, teens, DVDs, music, ebooks, graphic novels, magazines, etc. It’s a pie that can only be sliced into so many pieces, and when you devote money to a genre that you know only a certain portion of your community reads, those books have to earn their keep. So if I tell someone in Library Journal (a magazine that the vast majority of public libraries subscribe to – circulation figures are roughly 100,000 – and whose content is licensed to every major selection tool libraries use) to buy something, I know that has weight. I’m telling them to commit a portion of their materials budget to a book. It means they might not be able to buy a different book. So I try to also tell them which books they shouldn’t buy. It’s a responsibility that I take incredibly seriously.
I try not to ever be vicious. Although I love reading the reviews in Kirkus (another professional print review source), their level of snarkiness can sometimes slip over into mean. I try to honestly evaluate what worked, what didn’t and let the selector decide how it balances with their collection needs and budget resources. The thing that makes it hard is that I know that there is a human being responsible for each and every book. An author who devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to putting this thing out into the world. Every time I write a book where I discuss how I think a book failed in its particular objectives as I understood them, I know that there is an author who might read this review and be gutted. But the author is not my audience, and sometimes I have to just suck it up and tell the librarians reading the column that they shouldn’t buy something.
But blogging, man. That is where people seem to take off the gloves, don the pseudonyms, and let fly with the hate. Here at Genrify I know I don’t have quite the same responsibility to be even-handed as I do in print. I feel like this is my space, and I am free to let loose with my honest opinions of a book as a reader. Not as a selector of library materials, but just me. I defend completely those bloggers that write negative reviews that honestly call out a book for its failing.The wild-eyed glee with which some bloggers approach the writing of a soul-crushingly scathing review frankly disturbs me. But I get that it can be satisfying to vent your frustrations when a book let you down badly.
Do I want to spend the time? No. My time is not infinite. I could spend an afternoon writing up a negative review of a book that I hated. I was sitting down to do just that for Sergei Lukyanenko’s new book The Genome when all this spewed out instead. I wasn’t going to post it until I read about the latest hate blogger. Look, I see the value in negative reviews in general — it is the same value as my Library Journal reviews, writ small. A negative review can stop another reader from wasting time and money on something that just isn’t good. Life is short, there are dozens of books that come out each and every month that are worth your time and money. And thousands upon thousands more that aren’t so shiny and new anymore but are still amazingly great reads. So I’m going to focus on those. I still rate everything I read on goodreads (megmcardle is my handle there if you want to follow me), but I’ve decided that in this space, I’m going to focus on the good stuff. Not because I’m afraid of crazy authors like Kathleen Hale, but because there is SO MUCH GOOD STUFF.