The Art of Reviewing?
I was sitting in the audience for a panel, at Eastercon this year, titled "The Art of Reviewing" where some wonderfully interesting individuals talked about their experiences. They made a lot of good points and as well as taking notes about things I could do in my own reviews it also got me thinking.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, they asked the question "Who do you Review for?" which leads, for me at least to "Why do you Review?".
I thought I would reflect on these for myself, you may know that I write/have written reviews for sfbook.com and concatenation.org as well as for the British Fantasy Society and for this website.
Part of the reason I write reviews is to promote British SFF fiction I think we have we have some amazing fiction authors who don't always get the recognition they deserve when compared to US authors. I can understand why, the US is a much bigger market so US authors are likely to have greater sales figure in their "home" market. This means more reviews, and potential budget for publishers to promote them.
Which brings me to another point raised by the panel, "Can you review authors that you know or have met?". The panel seemed to feel that you could not do so in an impartial fashion or at least if you do you should declare the friendship/meeting as part of the review. Doing this should balance out any influence this might have in terms of how it is received.
I find this an interesting point and I think the impact of this depends on the type of reviews that you do. The format of review depends to some extent on the platform, is it set up with a "star rating" eg Amazon or Goodreads, does the review focus on the reviewers feeling about the book rather than themes or a more academic approach? A podcast or video review format perhaps conveys the reviewers emotions more clearly than a printed or written format. Any review that focuses on the emotional response can easily be influenced by the reviewers emotional response to the author rather than the work.
Having said that if you manage your own site rather than posting reviews for others, it is easy to develop a friendship or liking for the publicist of a particular publisher. Does the fact that a book comes wrapped in tissue paper and ribbons or contains chocolates or treats (actual examples) mean that you feel more favourable to the work?
I have met a large number on independent publishers while organising conventions, arranging dealers tables etc. Naturally you can form an opinion of individuals that you are in contact with, does this then have a bearing on how you feel about a book?
How do you declare all these potential emotional influences to your reader without it sounding like you are just inflating your own importance with a name dropping list of people you have met?
Personally I don't. I have met literally hundreds of authors and aspiring authors at genre conventions. If I refused to review them all or insisted on long discalimer of when I met them or how well I now them then I would be unable to succeed in my aim of promoting British genre fiction. Instead I try to ensure that my reviews have sufficient objective information in them to allow the reader to decide for themselves if the book is likely to be one they might enjoy, rather than just conveying my reaction to them. Of course I think all Reviewers do this to a greater or lesser extent, but I find it easier to do this because I don't give a "star rating" and I don't post on sites that require this and I am not on a video or audio platform where tone of voice and body language convey the unsaid.
Having said all that, I'm human and I am not paid for my reviews, so I am more likely to agree to review a book for an author/publisher/publicist that I like than one from someone I dislike. I am also more likely to review an author whose work I know I love.
I also don't, as some reviewers on Amazon do, declare whether I have received the book without payment as the publisher would like me to give an "honest review".
The book I review are sometimes ones I have requested from a list from the review site (sfbook.com and concatenation.org), I feel an obligation to review these, good or bad, as I have asked for them. Some books have been handed to me by an author or publisher I know, some I have bought, got as an attendee freebee at a convention or have been sent to me by a large publisher. My obligation to review these depends to some extent on the circumstances, I love being asked to review, but it depends on my availability and how much I love the book. Obviously if I bought it or got it as a freebee, I'm not obliged to review it at all, but I often want to anyway.
The panel also raised the issue of negative reviews, is it OK to write one and how do you do so if you know the author? While I rarely write negative reviews I have done so and absolutely agree that this is valid. I tend to look for positive things to say about a book and there is usually something good to say to balance out the criticism to some extent. Having said that if I feel the book is terrible quality, I don't want to spend my time reading it or writing about it when I could spend that time on a book that I love. Of course it is difficult if that book has been given to you by the author (rather than sent unrequested by a publisher), particularly if you are friends with them. Having said that I hope all my author friends would accept if I went back to them and explained that I did not feel I could give a positive review and so may choose not to review their book after all.
So I said that supporting British genre is part of my motivation, so why else do I review books? I very much want to review books by authors who are underrepresented, such as women and people with a minority identification.
In most cases identifying female authors is not difficult and perhaps there are clues in a blurb to suggest the author has a non binary gender. I might even find clues, particularly if there is a photo, to indicate racial background. However, unless explicitly stated, its harder to identify, and therefore support, authors who are marginalised due to sexuality, transgender identities, disability, class or other underprivileged backgrounds.
I also want to review books with well written characters, particularly protagonists, who are female or who have an underrepresented characteristic or identity. Seeing ourselves reflected in fiction can be an inspiring experience. I don't underestimate the importance of #OwnVoices but good examples of characters written by allies can be encouraged also.
When receiving books from larger publishers, the books from authors that are underrepresented are, by definition, less likely to be sent to me.
So, a bit of an appeal, if you are an author who fits this description or you have read books from authors who fit this and think I would enjoy them, do get in touch. I will look at adding them to my review list or at least start talking about them on social media.
As a bit of a side note I am really enjoying my recent attempts to create more artistic photographs of books to go on our Instagram account. I'm not sure it serves any book reviewing purpose as such and I'm not sure I am a very skilled photographer, but I am enjoying it!
Other reasons I review is that I love reading, especially (but not exclusively) genre fiction. I want to share books that I love. I want readers to find books that suit them and avoid books that don't. Reading is great for so many reasons, I'm pretty sure I don't need to explain that to you, but if people can't find the fiction they love then they are less likely to do it. Less readers means less brilliant fiction being published, which is not so good for myself and others who love to read.
So do comment below and let me know what you are reading!