If you spend any time in the genre fiction blogosphere (and hey, here you are!), you’re probably aware of some of the author melt-downs over bad reviews that have started the year. If not:
- Meljean Brook’s series of “Diary of an Author” posts, starting here, offers a hilarious and spot-on parody version
- Dear Author‘s Jane reflects on the opposing viewpoints that might contribute to such kerfuffles in a much commented-on post on “The Reader Author Paradigm”
- CuddleBuggery has a post rounding up relevant links if you must rubberneck firsthand
- While Janet/Robin’s post on “The Entitled Reader” wasn’t inspired by the Great New Year Author Flameouts, the huge comment thread touches on a lot of relevant issues
I wasn’t going to say anything about all this. But then people brought their English teachers and Robert Browning into the comments on Jane’s post, and it was personal! So I am taking to my powerful platform here to lecture all five of my
minions readers on how you should read and what makes you worthy to review.
Not really! But I was interested (and sometimes annoyed) by the attempts some commenters made to distinguish “reviewers” from “readers with opinions” and the way this distinction seemed to be linked in some people’s minds not just to how someone approaches writing reviews but to how she approaches reading a book.
The categories of reader and reviewer are overlapping, not distinct. Reviewers are readers. I don’t care how “big” and “powerful” your blog is, if you’re still reading books, you’re a reader. (And yes, authors are readers, and they can comment wherever they want as readers of other people’s books, though they won’t make themselves popular if they appear to be merely shills or enforcers for their author-friends. When it comes to their own books, things are trickier.).
But are you a competent reader? I spend a lot of time beating out of students’ heads the things commenters were saying they learned about critical reading in high school English classes.
In my class, the student’s opinion of the text (i.e. whether she liked it) doesn’t matter. Literary criticism isn’t really evaluation, it’s analysis: what does the text mean, and how does it mean it? how does it work? These claims are opinions of a kind, of course, but they can be argued about and defended with evidence from the text. That means that in the classroom, there are more and less competent readers, because this kind of reading is a skill developed by practice. There are no absolute right answers, but there are wrong ones: interpretations that can’t be defended by reference to the text.
But when someone is reading for pleasure, how can she be incompetent? (I guess, arguably, if she’s not fully literate). She can read the text however she likes, and her opinions about it can be a matter of taste, about which there is no disputing. “I love alpha heroes” is as valid a response as an analysis of the author’s imagery. While I’m impressed by the knowledge and thoughtfulness so many romance readers have about the genre, I don’t think anyone has to be that kind of reader to express her opinion on the internet.
And what are we going to call that opinion besides a review? In its most basic sense, a review just means taking another look at something. A reader who records her response to a book on her blog, at Goodreads, at Amazon, etc. is doing just that. “Ordinary,” incompetent readers have always had opinions. What’s new is that they (we) have public places to express them. Once upon a time (in 1975), John Updike could lay down rules for reviewing. They are fine rules if you want to be taken seriously in places that publish critical reviews (not negative, but indepth analysis and evaluation). But when the internet with its proliferating and various sites for “amateur” review came along, such rules no longer made sense.
Reviewers are writers as well as readers, and they have their own audiences and purposes in mind. I’m not the audience for “Squee! 5 stars for Lora Leigh’s latest Breeds book! I love barbed peen!” But probably someone is (I’m not the audience for Leigh’s books, either, but they definitely have one). Reviewers can write according to their own rules, and they’ll find an audience–or not–who enjoys that review and finds it useful. Who has the authority to make rules about all this?
But here’s the tricky part. In the classroom, the Author is dead (even if the person who wrote the book is still alive, that person has no authority over the text). We don’t know his/her intention, and we don’t care either. The words on the page are what we’ve got, and we can interpret them in many ways, as long as we can defend those interpretations.
But on the internet, the author may not be dead. I learned this the hard, very embarrassing way years ago, when I made a flip comment on a listserv about a Philip Pullman speech someone linked to. Guess what? Pullman was on the listserv too, and he responded. (I apologized for my tone.) To me, Philip Pullman was Dead. He wasn’t a real person, just an author-function. It never occurred to me he’d read what I wrote.
I wish I could say I learned that lesson once and for all, but I’m still getting used to the way people you don’t expect may be looking over your shoulder on the net. I suspect I’m not the only one. A lot of reviewers who post snarky reviews are probably thinking about entertaining their audience, not about the author who might see their words.
Once, a reader’s relationship was only with the book. She might not even have had other readers to discuss books with. Now, she may have a relationship with the author, too. In the same way, authors have much closer relationships with their readers, interacting on Twitter and blogs; authors can also respond to reviews much more easily. This is all pretty new, and we’re still figuring out how to do it and what it means.
I feel weird, for instance, when I comment on a book here and suddenly the author is following me on Twitter (but doesn’t actually tweet me). What’s that about? Are those people checking up on me? Hoping my tweetstream is endless promo for them? I don’t really think that, but why do they care what else I have to say? These relationships can be enriching, but awkward too. The enriching far outweighs the awkward, though, just as the authors who don’t have public meltdowns about bad reviews far outnumber those who do. I expect we’ll all figure it out, more or less, one day.
I haven’t really answered the question in my title. I’m a reader, of course, and by the definition I’ve just offered, I’m a reviewer. I don’t think of myself that way, though. My blog posts and Goodreads reviews don’t rise (sink?) to the level of academic or Updikean criticism. They don’t often review in the traditional sense: I don’t bother with a summary if there are plenty out there already, and I don’t aim to influence people to buy or not buy. I just want to record how I felt about a book and talk to other readers about it. If an author wants to talk about books, too, I don’t mind. As long as she remembers she’s Dead!