Aboutifesto

Once upon a time, if you got a book published, you’d cross your fingers for a review in the New York Times, but you’d probably have to settle for brief reviews in smaller papers. Now most of those stalwarts are gone, and a review in the NYT or the others left standing is even less likely than before. There’s precious little space for paid reviewers to turn their attention on you.

In order to get that attention, writers are urged to market themselves on social media sites like Goodreads and Facebook. I don’t do this myself. I don’t even have an agent. But I know plenty of writers who jump through all the hoops.

Since I’m not at all sure what the hoops entail, I’m hoping that some of you will hop onto this site and Explain It All For Me. I know some of it involves author pages and asking people to “like” you.

The result: Writers get gobs of reviews from unpaid reviewers. In theory this is a good thing. My publisher tells me there’s little proof that all this attention translates into sales. I have no idea.

Some unpaid reviewers actually are paid—in copies of books. According to Margo Howard, Amazon, which owns Goodreads, also promotes a crack team of elite pre-publication unpaids, “Vine Voices.” These “most trusted” reviewers provide “honest and unbiased feedback,” for which they are sometimes paid by “participating vendors.”

Writers who have dutifully hoop-jumped then get to sit back and enjoy all this critical attention.

Margo Howard isn’t the only writer who has not enjoyed it. Every writer I know has experienced blowback, as opposed to feedback, from unpaid reviews.

I’m not talking about reviews which simply give a number of stars, or which just say “I liked it” or “This isn’t for me” or “I hate hate hate this book”  or “This writer’s books suck.” These are straightforward expressions of opinion. Everybody’s got one, and why not.

And I’m certainly not talking about those unpaids which are well-written and sharply critical.  If a writer takes offense because a reader didn’t like her book, that writer needs to toughen up.  And if a reviewer, paid or unpaid, backs up critical assessments with illustrative quotes and examples, then that writer should be grateful and credit the reviewer’s skills.  We learn from intelligent criticism, whether we agree with it or not.

Finally, I don’t want to imply that writers are entitled to “constructive criticism” from unpaids. “Constructive criticism”—criticism designed to help the writer improve–has a place only in a workshop/class setting. Reviewers, paid and unpaid, are not the writer’s teachers, friends, or fellows; constructive criticism is inappropriate (and presumptuous) in a review.

I’m talking about unpaids who

1. Rant just to hear themselves type
2. Encourage their readers to agree with them when all they’ve done is express their own taste
3. Attack the writer personally.

If an unpaid reviewer actually attempts to review the book rather than simply share her own experience in reading it, then that reviewer has entered that cold and windswept place where all writers wait for judgment. When you put out what you write instead of keeping it in a drawer, that’s what happens to you.

Of course, paid reviews can and should be held to a higher standard. If you’re paid to be a critic, you shouldn’t go on about your own tastes, and you should always back up your claims and observations with examples from the text.   Critics who find books genuinely awful should be forgiven a bit of snark, even savagery, provided they’re not just showing off.  The spotlight should remain on the book.

My purpose in establishing this site is to encourage critical analyses of our reviews.

This is not an “anti-bully” site. For one thing, such a site already exists. For another, I’m not interested in whether an unpaid is or is not a bully. Tedious flame wars erupt over such charges. “Bully” is an important word in danger of becoming meaningless when it’s applied to an ever-widening circle of behavior types. Surely in order to bully someone you must be in a position of power: Employer/employee; big kid/little kid. I don’t see a great imbalance of power between these review sites and writers. This is the Internet. Anybody can post. Mob behavior, yes; bullying, not so much.

I’m interested only in the quality of the writing. The best and worst of writers is on the page, and I want to train and maintain focus on the page.

Writing a good book review isn’t easy. It begins obviously enough with your own reaction to the book, but then you have to figure out why you’ve reacted that way, and then you have to provide evidence (with quotes and examples) from the book to back up your assessment. People don’t read reviews to find out whether the reviewer liked the book. They read to find out if they themselves will like it.

Some talented unpaids and most paid reviewers understand this. Others do not.

Mean Writers is a place for writers to review their reviewers. I’m not sure exactly how this should be done–I think I’ll learn best by doing and observing–but I’m inviting all writers to analyze and assess the reviews they find most objectionable. I have no idea whether the unpaids themselves will benefit from this enterprise, but I suspect that the writers themselves will feel a whole lot better when they’re through.

When I figure out exactly how this is going to work, I’ll amend this page with information.