Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Avoiding author meltdowns: twelve tips for reviewers

In my experience, the vast majority of authors are absolutely lovely, but a handful are terrors and everyone has their bad days and tender spots. Bear in mind that these are tips for avoiding author meltdowns, not necessarily rules for reviewing in general:

1. First, put out of your head the idea that you can avoid all author meltdowns. If you write honest reviews of all the books you read, they’re inevitable. All you can do is avoid some of them!

2. You might avoid reviewing a book if you’ll be the only one reviewing it, or if it’s likely to be the only review the author is going to get for a while. The longer they have to stew on it, the more likely they are to kick up a fuss.

3. So far as possible, criticise the book not the author. You’ve no idea what might have happened to the text between author and print. At a convention I once heard an editor say he had rewritten a passage to change the sexuality of a character so that they could seduce a guard and escape from a jail cell. It went to press without the author seeing it. In that case it might well be appropriate to say the book didn’t take its treatment of the character’s sexuality very seriously, but the author might justly feel aggrieved if accused of homophobia. Another book I saw went to press with the final page of one chapter turning up between other chapters much later into the book. A proofreader, noticing this, had added ellipses at the end of the chapter’s penultimate page and at the beginning of the orphan page. Again, fine to criticise the book for what would have seemed very odd to readers, but not the author’s fault (except in so far as they should have checked their proofs more a bit more carefully!). (The corollary of this is that authors must remember that reviewers are considering the entire product, not just the writer’s contribution. There’s nothing unfair about reviews that mention bad cover art, Kindle formatting, proofreading or other elements of the book that are not always within the author’s control.)

4. Try to make your review watertight and avoid woolliness. If there’s something you can’t back up, don’t include it in the review. When reviewing Alison Littlewood’s very good debut A Cold Season, I developed a wonderful theory about horror being about the loss of agency and control over your environment, and that book being the epitome of that, and somehow (I don’t remember how) Peggle was involved! It read well, but on the point of sending it to the reviews editor I suddenly thought of half a dozen counter-examples to my theory and went back to square one. Stick to what you can say with confidence, and if you’re not confident about something say as much.

5. You might want to avoid speculating about the author’s intentions or saying they should have written a different book. It can really bug them: we don’t know what they were thinking or aiming for and if you’ve got it wrong it leaves you wide open to criticism.

6. You might want to watch out for authors who make a habit of nitpicking reviews, and avoid reviewing them. Keep a list. Only review them if you’re feeling robust!

7. Where possible don’t email the review directly to the author or editor of the book. It’s when they try to thank you for it through gritted teeth that the worst things are often said.

8. Another way of avoiding trouble is, when someone thanks you for the review, to just say Thanks, or Hey, thanks, or No worries, rather than getting into a discussion. Everything you said in your review may have been carefully thought out and checked against the book, but if you let slip in an email that you thought Sandy had red hair and Ginger had blonde hair it will fuel their rage!

9. You might refuse to write negative reviews. It’s certainly an option, though not one likely to win you the respect of other reviewers. How much credit can anyone give your praise if you praise absolutely everything? If you’ve made a conscious decision to only say positive things about books, you’re not writing reviews, you’re writing appreciations. It will, however, mostly avoid author meltdowns, though even then there will be people who get angry about being praised for the wrong thing!

10. You might want to avoid writing reviews altogether. It’s inevitable that you’ll have an author lose it with you at some point, and the more reviews you write the more likely it’s going to happen.

11. You might want to keep your reviews on your own territory. Writers are I think more likely to go berserk over reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, partly because of the bigger readership, but perhaps also because there may be the thought at the back of their minds that if enough people complain, they could have the review taken down.

12. You might want to avoid Facebook. It won’t do anything to reduce meltdowns, but it makes it more likely that you’ll be happily oblivious to them!

Wednesday is sometimes list day on our blog. This is list #9.

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