Critical Opinion

“Just the omission of Jane Austen’s books alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.” — Mark Twain

“Tonstant Weader Fwowed up.” —Dorothy Parker’s Book Review of The House at Pooh Corner.

“People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” — Abraham Lincoln, in a book review

Reviews. The thought of them can strike terror into an author’s heart. Will the reviewer appreciate the sly wit and clever heroine? Find the hero dreamily attractive and powerful? Or will she point out that if the hero and heroine had only cleared up one little misunderstanding, the book would have been over after fifty pages?

My first book comes out on Tuesday, and it’s already received one review, a complimentary one from Romantic Times. When it reaches the general reading public, chances are good it’ll get some bad reviews, too–after all, I made one huge historical inaccuracy, which will bother some people, my heroine can be perceived as snotty, and the plot, well, is not so layered.

I welcome any and all reviews. Prior to writing fiction, I wrote music reviews for 15 years for two different music industry publications. I fielded many, many calls from musicians and record labels who wanted reviews, people who disagreed with my, and my staff’s, reviews, and people who thought our magazine had been accurate in its subjective opinion. So for me to dismiss any bad review out of hand would be hypocritical.

What I do not like, at all, are sycophantic reviews. You do romance authors and their potential audience no favors when you gush about a book, or an author, with no degrees of assessment. For example, I love Anne Stuart. Do I think Shadow Dance is as good as To Love A Dark Lord? No. That doesn’t mean I’m not supportive of her work, don’t love her as an author, won’t buy her books in the future. A few posts ago, Elena posted about Laura Kinsale, an author who inspires fanatical devotion from her fans. If a fan of her dark books didn’t like her light books as much, would that mean she was somehow disloyal? No.

And yet, it is a peculiarly romance genre thing to insist on blind devotion. The New York Times Book Review usually features reviews written by one author about another’s work. Is that author accused of disloyalty if they don’t like the book? I should hope not. It’s an opinion, a subjective one that, if written well, should demonstrate exactly why the reviewer didn’t like the book. It doesn’t mean the reviewer isn’t a nice person, or isn’t appropriate to review the book in question, or has a personal vendetta against the author. It simply means that, in the reviewer’s opinion, the book wasn’t that good.

When I first started writing romance, I also started writing romance reviews for the website All About Romance. I was proud to review for them because I got to state my opinion, recommending plenty of good books and advising readers to avoid some others. Although I don’t write for them any longer, I still go to AAR for reviews, and lately I’ve taken to visiting readers’ blogs to find recommendations (I’ve got a sidebar full of links on my Writer’s Diary page: (www.meganframpton.com/diary.html).

I don’t look to reviews to corroborate my own opinion. I look to reviews to help me decide what to read, not to cheerlead. I want honesty, and if someone doesn’t like my book, or books that I like, I won’t take it personally.

Do you read reviews? If so, why? If you’re an author, do you hunt for them, or avoid them? As a reader, do reviews influence your buying decisions?

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4 Responses to Critical Opinion

  1. Cara King says:

    Hmm… When I was more a reader than a writer, reviews could definitely influence me to try new authors. Of course, recommendations from friends (such as the ever valuable Heather, who introduced me to Carla Kelly early in her career, as well as Jennifer Crusie and oh so many others) generally take precedence, but I do recall buying my first Jo Beverley (I believe her first book!) due to a rave review in Romantic Times.

    As far as being reviewed — my first book isn’t out till November 1, so I have yet to read a single review of it! I expect I will be ridiculously sensitive, and whine at my husband (he has to put up all my whines nowadays — and he’s amazingly tolerant) even over a good review. (I hate having my picture taken too! Similar thing, I think, in a way.) 🙂

    Cara

  2. Todd says:

    The kind of writing I do–scientific publications–doesn’t get reviewed the way fiction does; but before it can be published, it has to be reviewed by anonymous referees, and revised to their satisfaction. Sometimes one referee, sometimes several. Sometimes they are enthusiastic. Sometimes, not so much. It can be a very unpleasant experience, though I think it’s a good system on the whole. The public doesn’t see those reviews, though.

    I’ve also been reviewed for acting. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. (I was once called “inept” by Dramalogue! A claim to fame of sorts, I suppose.) It is possible to glean helpful things from reviews; but one must always remember, when it comes right down to it, they are one person’s opinion, highly subjective, and to be taken with a grain of salt.

    Not, I suppose, that that makes a bad review, or even a not-quite-good-enough review, very much fun. But hey, that’s what the whining is for.

    Todd-who-only-whines-on-important-occasions

  3. Elena Greene says:

    I feel naive to admit this, but before I started writing, I didn’t even know that romances were reviewed anywhere. I read books we had around the house, browsed my way through libraries, and my purchases at stores were a mix of favorite authors and random hit-and-miss.

    When I started writing and joined the romance writing community, I found a new and excellent source of recommendations–writing buddies with similar tastes. I.e. “If you like Mary Jo Putney, try Laura Kinsale. If you like LK, try Judith Ivory,” etc…

    So for the most part I’ve related to reviews as an author. I have always been serious about the craft of writing, studied craft books, attended workshops, worked with critique partners, etc… So I was interested (and a bit scared, I’ll admit) to know what reviewers and readers thought. I hoped reviews might help me further improve my work.

    I have to say it hasn’t really turned out that way. What I discovered is that reviews could be all over the place. Just so that this isn’t all about me, I’ll give an example. I know a category romance author, Leslie Kelly, whose first book got a “2” (a very low mark) from Romantic Times, but the same book won the Notable New Author and National Readers’ Choice awards and got high marks elsewhere.

    For the most part, my books have gotten positive reviews, but there have been some odd disagreements among reviewers. My previous book, SAVING LORD VERWOOD, was the last of a very loosely connected trilogy. Several reviewers specifically stated that the story stood well on its own, but one reviewer said exactly the opposite. Now, I’d worked hard to make the stories standalone. I even asked one critique partner to hold off reading the earlier books until she’d given me her comments, and I made some changes based on her recommendations. So this criticism stung a bit!

    I consoled myself with the standard “just one person’s opinion” argument. I also think that sometimes reviews tell as much about the reviewer as they do about the subject book. So if you find a reviewer whose tastes jive with yours, that is a great way to find books you’ll enjoy.

    Which gets me back to Megan’s question.

    I think if I didn’t already have a staggering pile of recommendations from writerly friends, I would go out and read reviews. However, I haven’t found just one review publication or site that consistently fits with my reading tastes, so I’d never base a buying decision on just one review.

    I’d read as many reviews as I could. Unless there were a strong consensus, I wouldn’t look at the number or letter rating too much. I wouldn’t read the plot synopsis part too closely either, because I find they often give away more than I want to know ahead of time.

    What I would look for is why the reviewer did or didn’t like the book.

    Elena

  4. Elena Greene says:

    Oh, and an afterthought, triggered by what Megan said about blind devotion. I’ve certainly seen it in the romance community, but I have to say I’ve seen it in other genres, at least at the reader level. If you look at the reader comments on Anne Rice’s and Jean Auel’s latest books, you will see a sharp division between those who feel the latest books are a disappointment and others who (rather vehemently) disagree.

    Elena, who always wants to write her best but thinks she would like to have such devoted fans!

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