This week’s New York Times book review section featured a pair of essays by Zoë Heller and Adam Kirsch encouraging novelists to review fiction. Both acknowledge the reasons many writers are reluctant to do so (publishing is a pretty small world and people don’t want to burn bridges; writers have empathy for other writers’ struggles). But they insist that reviewing is important. Heller argues that because of their perspective as writers, “their contributions help maintain the rigor and vitality of the public conversation about books,” and are therefore an act of self-interest. Kirsch suggests that critical reviewing is “an essential part of defining their own artistic identity” and that writers like George Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Henry James used reviews to argue for or educate a readership for the kind of art they wanted to create.
These essays felt especially timely to me, because the issue of authors reviewing, and of the conflicts of interest reviewing might involve in the age of social media, has recently come up once again in Romanceland. I’m for more reviewing, not less. I’d love to see more authors write critically about the romance genre, and I think the genre would benefit from it.
I get that it’s not easy. The world of romance writers seems even cozier than the literary world generally, and there’s a culture of mutual support that’s highly valued and valuable. I’m not arguing that writers should all go out and get hatchets and swing for each other. I don’t think critical commentary has to be harsh, and I don’t even think it has to be negative (though it’s better if some of it is; if you never write a negative review, it’s hard to know how to value your positive ones). But even in my few years in Romanceland, I’ve watched what can happen when people’s writing careers take off. As aspiring or newly published authors, they write reviews and thoughtful commentary on the genre (this is often how I discover them). As their professional standing grows, they’re much more likely just to praise their writer-friends’ books and retweet book promo. Partly it’s because they’re busier, and I don’t want review-writing to take over their writing time. But I feel a loss to the critical conversation; as they get stronger in writing craft and more knowledgeable about the genre, they have less and less to say (at least publicly) about these things. At least tell me why your RWA chapter-mate/critique partner’s book is so great.
Also, please tell me that the person whose book you’re tweeting about is your chapter-mate. I find it kind of ironic, if unsurprising, that the amateurs of Romanceland are often much more conscious of and concerned about potential conflicts of interest (as in this thoughtful post from Kaetrin) than the professionals are. It’s unsurprising because reader-reviewers feel a responsibility to speak honestly to other readers, while for authors, we’re customers. It’s ironic because disclosure of conflicts is a professional responsibility (I’ve had to disclose a personal relationship in a work situation where it might have been or have been perceived as a conflict of interest).
I mention disclosure because I think it’s necessary to the creation of a culture where authors can contribute usefully to the critical discussion. At this point, I ignore pretty much everything a romance author has to say in praise of specific romance novels (exceptions would be older books). That’s because I’m often unsure what the author’s connection to that book might be. Is it a random book she loved, or was it written by a friend? (And, you know, if it was written by a friend, did she really 5-star-love it!!!, or did she just feel she had to say so?).
A recent example of the complexity of disclosure for the author-reviewer is the so-called “yellow banner of shame” at Dear Author. I do not mean to criticize Dear Author here; I think Jane’s comments in the yellow header make clear that she gave a lot of thought to how to deal with the potential conflicts inherent in having a soon-to-be-début author review at a prominent site. Both identifying AJH as an author (and using his real name) and not doing so had advantages and drawbacks. And as people pointed out, his author identity was only a click to his Twitter bio away. I also don’t think there’s “shame” in deciding it was time to disclose. There’s nothing wrong with having multiple roles–it’s often a fact of professional life; as Kaetrin points out in her post, in this age of social-media “friendship” between authors and readers, some kind of conflict (of feelings, if not strictly interests) can be a part of amateur life as well.
Still, my own preference would have been for full disclosure from the start. I found AJH’s review of a Suzanne Brockmann book thoughtful and worth reading, but I think readers should have known when it was published that his editor had already been tweeting Brockmann’s raves about his forthcoming book for some weeks. I don’t think, myself, that this is a conflict of interest that should keep one writer from reviewing another. Her praise might bring more readers to his book, but I’m not sure it can really make a meaningful difference to his career. On the other hand, I do think readers of a review should know about any relationship that might bias the reviewer. That way, we can make up our own minds about how to value the review. That’s what disclosure is for.
There’s not nearly enough disclosure in Romanceland. I’ve been surprised more than once to learn through casual Twitter mentions that someone I thought was “just a reader” is an aspiring writer or is working part-time for a publisher. Why not be open? (And if I have to click 5 times to find the information, you’re not open enough). It’s when you don’t disclose that you appear to have something to hide.
This post feels pointless because I don’t believe anything will change. But I’d love to see more transparency and a more honest critical conversation. My Twitter feed seems emptier and emptier in terms of meaningful discussion of books. The promo onslaught, on the other hand, is making me think about quitting.