A few weeks ago, a fellow romance reviewer tweeted a picture of a note she’d gotten from an author:
As expected, Twitter (or at least the romance and book review sections of Twitter) lost its collective mind. How dare an author explicitly state that she is soliciting positive reviews, and that reviewers who negatively review her work will no longer be granted ARCs?
Those familiar with our reviews probably already know this, but: we are not down with censoring ourselves. All of our reviews are 100% honest, and that means that we sometimes write scathing takedowns. Having a one-strike rule is a fucked up practice. What else is there to say?
But…this conversation stuck with us because it highlights some things that are ugly but true about life in the land of book reviews. Which brings us to our extended sex metaphor.
Part I: Virgins are Bad Lays, or, Practice Makes Perfect
Writing is like sex in that no one is good in the beginning. Maybe there are some sex savants out there (our experience points to no), and maybe there are some writing savants out there. But we think about the terrible sex we had as younger women, and we’re like…ugh. Why did we even put up with that bullshit? Similarly, it’s not uncommon for authors to disdain some of their own works, especially their early works, when considering them in retrospect. As Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird, “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.”
Even after only a year of writing reviews, all three of us have noticed our review processes becoming more refined (here’s Holly’s take on her evolution as a smut reader), so getting better at writing is not just on authors – it’s on us too.
How does this relate to the reviewer / author relationship? A couple of ways.
An author might benefit from some critical feedback (how inflated our reviewer egos are!).
An author might develop their craft and write a better book, a book that the reviewer would genuinely enjoy and rate positively, the next time around. Every author writes a dud sometimes.
A reviewer might learn to write more nuanced and thoughtful reviews, even of books they don’t love. As they read more, they may become more discerning and realize what’s important to include in reviews.
A one-strike rule cuts off opportunities for a relationship to develop.
Part II: That’s My Fetish! or, Finding the Right Audience
The thing about sex is, everyone is secretly different. For any given sex act, one third of people will be like:
One third of people will be like:
And one third of people will be like:
In other words: Different strokes for different folks.
Here at The Smut Report, we definitely have some overlap in taste. We aren’t generally drawn to Inspirational Romance or Romantic Suspense. We have feminist sensibilities. We have different tolerance levels for alphas, but extreme alpha-holes need not apply. But we also sometimes vehemently disagree on books (see: duels).
No book will please all people. The point of a review is to give another potential reader a better sense of whether a book will be enjoyable. And frankly, sometimes negative reviews give more useful information because they identify information that at least one other reader has deemed important. (We try to be informative even when we’re gushing, but it doesn’t always happen.) Furthermore, in order to uphold our own integrity as reliable reviewers, it’s extremely important to us that we give honest reviews. No one can love every book they read. (If you do, you are exceptionally good at selecting books. Please tell us your secrets!)
Part III: Power Plays are Sexy, Unless They’re Not, or, The Crux of the Ickiness
After talking it over, we decided that what really bothered us about the discussion that followed was that other reviewers felt that there was pressure to self-censor more broadly.
It’s sad that reviewers on Twitter felt like they needed to cede power to authors/publishers because of fear of retaliation – either by not reviewing at all if they felt the review would be too negative or by including straight up dishonesty in the review. Some reviewers also stated that they simply focused only on the positive aspects of a book, which we also feel is its own form of dishonesty. (See notes on the value of negative reviews above.)
Despite statements to the contrary, the fear of retaliation is real – this conversation was making explicit an expectation that already existed. We, too, would be annoyed to receive a memo explicitly stating that an author has a one-strike rule, but let’s be honest. If we review someone’s book, and pan it, we don’t expect that author to return to us when they’re trying to drum up publicity for their next book. An unspoken one-strike rule, if you will. Similarly, if we give an author a glowing review, we’re not surprised when they ask us to review their next release.
However. There is a distinct power imbalance in the relationship between reviewer and author. Much as we like to THINK we have power, as small time reviewers, we really don’t. We’re not Kirkus. The threat of being cut off for writing negative reviews taps into a real fear, inherent in the unequal power dynamic, that we COULD be cut off if we piss off a publisher or an author. Of course, we would only be cut off from receiving advance copies of books, so it might not be the end of everything, but receiving those new books is undeniably a big part of the fun of doing this work.
Bringing it back to our sex metaphor: playing around with power in the bedroom can be fun, as long as both parties are into it. Similarly, the inherent power imbalance between authors and reviewers is generally not a problem – until someone makes an unwelcome power play.
Part IV: Simultaneous Orgasms, or, A Mutually Beneficial Relationship
With all that said, we find a lot of joy in reviewing – and not just because we love talking about books with other people. It’s a great feeling when we like someone’s book, and then they think our review is funny or smart or insightful. Win/win! And while it’s super exciting when a big name in romance boosts one of our reviews, we see our main niche as helping new and independent authors reach a wider audience. It is these opportunities that occur on a more intimate level that bring us together in a broader community.
Obviously, the best scenario in the author/reviewer relationship is when we are doing mutually beneficial work – reviewers get free books, authors get free publicity, and readers (the voyeurs in the sex metaphor) gain information to help them choose books they would enjoy. Just like simultaneous orgasms, this connection can’t be faked, because if it is, both parties won’t stay happy for long. But when it’s done well, the results can be intensely satisfying.