Writing Book Reviews in the Age without Boundaries

As is my habit on Sunday nights, last night I got caught up on my book-review writing. My Goodreads account is connected to my Twitter, so this morning I found that M.D. Waters had “favorited” the tweet that linked back to my review of her book, Archetype.

The review was mixed, and even a little snarky in places. I got a copy of the book through Netgalley and found it to be average, so my review reflected that. Thus, when I saw that M.D. Waters had connected with the review directly, I had a few responses at once.

  1. Admiration – I admired her for favoriting the review even though it wasn’t wholly positive, and not jumping in to defend the parts of it I didn’t like, and all-around, just taking it in stride.
  2. Guilt – Should I have written a nicer review?

I don’t think I’m the only one who feels conflicted about this as the boundary between authors and readers disappears in the wake of the Internet. Once upon a time, I wrote my book reviews in a tiny, private journal. Then I wrote them in a community (though public) Livejournal and was astounded the first couple times authors came by to thank me for favorable reviews (and once, to diss a favorable review and tell me I ought to read his book instead. I didn’t.) Then along came Goodreads, where authors and readers all hang out in the same space, in much the same capacity, and in which you are forewarned with a little asterisk next to an author’s name if that particular individual is also a Goodreads member.

Those little asterisks used to make me very nervous when I wrote reviews. Could I say something negative about an author, knowing how likely it was that she would read the review? I discussed this at length with a friend and fellow user of the site. She said she used to feel “intimidated” by authors being present on the site, too, but that she got over it. This is a paraphrase, but she said something along the lines of, “They wrote a book and published it, and some people aren’t going to like it. They just have to deal.”

I agreed with her, and now barely register the “Goodreads author” indicator when I write a review. To water down a review because I’m afraid the author might read it feels disingenuous to me and, well, like lying. I’ve taken the same sensibility with me when it comes to reviewing books I received for free for the purpose of writing a review, and am upfront about that in my Netgalley profile, so that publishers who don’t want to risk a negative review can deny my requests for their work.

The truth is, I am not easy to please when it comes to books. I love books, but there are a lot of particular books that don’t impress me. I rate most of what I read as “average” (3 stars). I try to be fair in my reviews, and find something good to say even about the books I disliked, and something critical to say about the ones I liked. But sometimes my opinions can be strong, and sometimes, they can come out snarky. Is this appropriate in an environment where it’s increasingly likely that the person who dedicated weeks, months, or years of her life to a book will read your review — which took you all of 20 minutes to pound out? (Although, to be fair, it is a significant time investment to read most books, and you’ve earned your right to vent if you invested that time and don’t feel that it paid out.)

The recent debacle about authors being bullied on Goodreads has me rethinking my own reviews as well. Do any of them cross that line? I try not to personally attack an author, but the truth is that authors and their work are inexplicably intertwined.

I try to practice kindness on the Internet and not use it as an excuse to say nasty things to or about people that I’d never have the guts to say in a face-to-face conversation. I’ve often “walked away” if I “can’t say something nice” (or at least constructive). My book reviews may be an exception; I don’t think I could give a scathing review to an author if I had to look her in the face while I did it. So what does that mean for the reviews I write?

Although I am also a “Goodreads author,” I use the site more as a reader than as a writer. I was a long-time user years before I set up an author profile. Yet, as I plan to launch my first ebook, I often find myself afraid that I’ve built up a lot of “bad review” karma for all the harsh reviews I’ve doled out. I wonder whether I’ll have the courage to read bad reviews of my own work. And if I do, will I be big enough to share them?

And this is why M.D. Waters’ response to my tweet, while making me somewhat uncomfortable, also impressed me. By “favoriting” my tweet, she’s sharing a mixed review with a wider audience. So while I may have given the book a C, I give the author behavior an A.