Negative book reviews - and I'll define that what I mean for the sake of this discussion is online reviews of the blog or forum variety as opposed to old print publications - have been on my mind lately for three reasons:
1) I have a new book out that's getting a lot of blog attention (so yes, this is all about me-me-me);
2) it's an evergreen topic on writer forums, in particular focusing on Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer;
3) agent Janet Reid had a terrific post, Your Invisibility Cloak Isn't Working, which included a reference to one top editor saying that a negative Internet presence can lead to her reject that writer's work, including "if they publicly bash a book she's worked on."
That last left a pretty sobering impression, particularly on writers whose works have yet to find publishing homes.
So what's the deal? What can you say and how should you say it?
Well, seriously, this is still America, meaning you can say just about anything except "Fire!" in a movie theatre when there isn't one (a limitation I wholly endorse since I had a great-aunt who had a fatal heart attack while getting trampeled under just those circumstances).
You know what? For me, the decision on whether or not to be negative about another author's work stems more from who I want to be than from any Big Brother-ish fears. Years ago, when I was a Publishers Weekly reviewer, my job necessitated me writing a truthful review on any book I was assigned and a lot of what I wrote was negative. But it no longer interests me to do so. It's not that I don't think my reading eye is discerning, but at this point I've lived long enough to know just how subjective reader response is: it's possible to dislike a book because it forces you to look at yourself in a way that makes you uncomfortable; it's possible to dislike a book because you feel some envy or resentment toward the author; it's possible to dislike a book because of your own misconceptions about what the book was really about; and yes, it's possible to dislike a book because it really does suck.
Me, just because I dislike a book, I don't feel called to be the Town Crier about it.
And yet many seem to hear just that calling. I think of these people as Readers With A Mission. It's not enough that they hate what you wrote and say as much on their blogs, but every time anyone anywhere on the Web says something positive about you or your work, they pop up in the comments section to say, "Oh, I read X book by her and I *hated* it!" These people are real zealots. I sometimes envy them: imagine being so sure, all the time, that every thought you have is the only possible conclusion that anyone should have!
Of course writers have been known to do this too, as mentioned above, with the endless discussions of Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer. As stated in previous posts, I just don't play that. Never mind the fact that I actually did enjoy Twilight, I just don't think it's attractive to bash people who are uber-successful because for the most part it does come off as petty jealousy. And in the case of Ms. Meyer, I recently looked up the pre-pub reviews in the four major trades and noted that in three of the four she received starred reviews with the fourth, Kirkus, being, well, not bad for Kirkus! So what does this say? Are the critics always right? I'll tell you one thing, if other writers want to wear those coveted starred reviews as their own badges of honor if they're lucky enough to ever achieve them, it looks downright foolish to declare someone who received three for a single book as "not a good writer." As for Dan Brown, well, I hope his new book does very well so that his publisher makes lots of money, so that in turn benefits all my friends who are published by Random House; because really, it's better to be published by a company that's making money than one that is not.
Getting back to the Janet Reid piece, do editors really reject books based on what sorts of things they see you saying on the Internet when they Google your name? Apparently, at least one does and I can't imagine she's the only one. So what should you, Unpublished Author (or even Published Author) do if you want to discuss books on the Internet and you are further one of those who wants to discuss books you disliked as well as those you loved? Well, you need to actually learn to talk critically. You need to learn, when finding fault, to say things like, "I didn't care for the deux et machina ending in The Thin Pink Line" as opposed to "Doesn't anyone edit anymore these days???" (True story: that really happened back in 2003. The host of a Chick-Lit forum, who I could tell was dying to get her own books published, wrote the latter about my debut novel. I wound up talking to her on the phone and explained that while I was fine with her hating on my book as much as she wanted, it was unwise of her to call the editing into question since, well, that's the editor she was dreaming would buy her book. She was grateful for the advice and further astonished to discover that the book was intended as a satire - previously she'd thought I was endorsing people faking pregnancies!)
OK, this is starting to ramble, which usually means I've either hit a brilliant stride here (low degree of probability) or I'm trying real hard to procrastinate doing something else (high degree of probability).
Bottom line: you're adults, for the most part. You decide what sort of person you want to be.
Me, for now at least I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing: buzzing books that I'm enthusiastic about, spreading the word about what I think is worthy. Really, I've read 234 books already this year, and I don't have time to review all of them, so I'll just keep telling people about the books I've loved and leave it to others to talk about what they've hated.
How about you? What do you think of all this?
Be well. Don't forget to write.