July 12, 2010

The Painful Side of Reviewing

No...it's not what you think. The most painful side to reviewing isn't reading a crappy book. It's reading a book by an author you enjoy, taking issue with a big component of said book, and having to write a negative review.

Publishers Weekly, of course, insulates its reviewers by not linking individual reviews to their reviewers. Regardless, sometimes to "man up" is the right thing to do, and that's what I just did.

I'm not going to pour salt into a wound with a name and author because I've already tweeted and FB'd it. Besides, the point of writing this is not specific to any one book. It's something that's happened several times in my career as a reviewer, at PW, AAR, and even TRR. My point in writing about it today is that I thought readers might be interested to know how it feels to write a review for an author whose work you've previously enjoyed...and would like to enjoy again in the future...knowing that it'll dash their hopes.

It feels lousy.

It's the flip side to the joy I get requesting a starred review at the magazine, particularly if the author is little-known or new to publishing altogether. Helping build excitement over a book I loved is fun. Writing negatively about a book by an author I've previously liked a lot, whether I know them - in a cyber or real sense - or not, hurts.

The first time it happened was at TRR, very soon after I'd begun reviewing online in 1996. I'd read my first book by a certain author and liked it so much I'd interviewed her for the site. When she sent Leslie McClain the next book in the series, Leslie forwarded it on to me. I hated the book, and when I turned in my absolutely scathing review, I requested that the review be published online with a byline not my own. I wouldn't compromise my review, but suggested a female derivation of Alan Smithee, which is what Leslie used. I was too new to reviewing to handle an author I "knew" reading such a negative review of her work, particularly since she'd requested I review it.

It didn't take long for me to get over some of that but I continued and continue to feel badly when I write negative reviews for authors I've previously enjoyed. That ill feeling extended to finalizing reviews others had written when I published AAR, particularly if an author sent us a book because I'd liked their writing in the past. An author I became quite friendly with over the years received only strong reviews from AAR. The reviewer for her last book before going on hiatus as a published author for a couple of years did not care for it whatsoever, and I dreaded sharing that information. Chalk that up as another reason I'm glad I no longer publish a website.

But even here, on this itsy-bitsy blog, I gave a qualified recommendation to an author who'd sent me her book for review. Even though I gave it a B-, I soon realized she wasn't happy with the review. Subsequent tweets mentioned and even linked to stronger reviews, but never mine, and I'm fairly certain she won't be sending me her next book to review.

I've often written that the hardest reviews to live down are A's or F's; it's equally hard to laud a book others hate as it is to criticize in the strongest words a book other readers love. I don't know that I've ever written about how it feels to come down on a book when there's a personal connection. It sucks.


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