["The mouse besought him to spare one who had so unconsciously offended."],The lion and the mouse., Digital ID 1699108, New York Public LibraryWe were lucky to have Betsy Bird and NYPL host the Kid Lit Con on September 29, 2012. Kid Lit Con is an awesome experience, and I completely recommend it.
The afternoon session on Critical Book Reviewing was especially scintillating and enlightened me to realities inherent in the author-reviewer relationship that I was completely unaware of. I previously was unaware that authors contact reviewers and try to sway them into not being critical about their work. I think that is unethical.
I strongly believe that honest positive and negative constructive criticism helps readers and authors alike improve and pick out the gems of literature that exist in the world. This conference spurred me to take the plunge and jump into the foray of being more critical with the comments I post about the books I read. Previously, I was too timid to post critical comments, but I now realize the value of doing so; it makes for a much more informed audience about the work of literature in question. The panel was moderated by Jennifer Hubert-Swan, and the panelists included Betsy Bird of NYPL, Liz Burns, Monica Edinger, Sheila Barry, Maureen Johnson and Marjorie Ingall.
Liz Burns mentioned the difference between a blog post and a blog review. A post is a reader reaction and an explanation of what the blogger likes. A blog review is critical literary analysis.
One of the panelists stated that she worked as a matchmaker for the books she blogs about.
Are Book Reviewers Too "Nice"?
Swan said that book reviewing these days can be too "nice," meaning that literary analysis is only practiced when the reviewer likes the book, and important criticisms of the work are not mentioned, to the possible detriment of the blogger's audience.
Barry stated that there are many back scratchers out there. She has had authors ask her to write a good review of their books, which makes it much more difficult to be honest about the literature.
Johnson mentioned that her books get reviewed on blogs, and all of the reviews are definitely not nice. A lot of people write nice reviews, but some reviewers want to watch the world burn. Authors get good, bad, and indifferent reviews.
Burns acknowledged that there is a difference between knowing what someone writes in the social media and knowing them in real life. Also, some people think that if a review is retweeted, that is going to affect the review, but that is not the case.
Bird said that she knows of some reviewers who will not post critical reviews. However, that is not reviewing if the reviewer will not mention anything critical about the literature.
Ingall stated that she posts positive reviews because she wants to engage kids with reading.
Can Reviewers Critique Friends?
Swan asked the panelists if they could critically review a book authored by individuals that the reviewer knows on a social level.
Burns said that she had no problem reviewing books from authors that she had been to Kid Lit Drink Night with, but that she could not review books written by friends. If reviewing a work written by someone she knew, she would reveal the relationship up front, so that people would be aware.
Bird asked Edinger if she could critical review Phil Pullman's work.
Edinger said that she knows Phil Pullman and that would be difficult. She did not start blogging to review books; however, now she posts reviews on her blog. She separately writes paid reviews. Different reviews are for different audiences, so she writes for the specific audiences. There are ongoing feuds and animosity about bad reviews out there. There is a lot of conversation about "nice" and "not nice" reviews.
Swan pointed out that she mostly posts positive reviews because she wants teens to read.
Johnson mentioned that teens are very critical, and a lot of teen blogs are for general audiences. She has no feelings about reviews. They exist; they are like stars in the sky, but she does not read them. Reviews are really for readers, not for authors. Once books are published, they cease to belong to the authors. Each reading experience is unique, and each reader brings something new to the experience. She usually does not read reviews of her own books because they would make her crazy. She has a master's degree in fine art, which was useful. For two years, she got an earful of criticism. It helped her to determine what is constructive criticism and which criticism is not useful. Of course, in the theatre, you can change content, and in books you cannot.
What is a Critical Review?
Swan asked the panelists who read reviews to define a critical review.
Bird said a good critical review is thoughtful and critiques the literature without being nasty. It is particularly important to be careful and not nasty even in a very funny way if the reviewer feels personally offended by the book's very existence. Nastiness is not helpful, and it generally makes people who like the book mad. She asked what is the point of a review.
Edinger said that she did not write many critical reviews. However, when there is a significant problem with the book, she does mention inaccuracies in that particular book review.
Barry mentioned that reviewers should not cavalierly criticize books without being thoughtful.
Ingall said that the book reviewer's primary focus should be the reading audience of the work.
Burns stated that critical reviews can be positive. Constructive criticism is not necessarily negative. Reviewers can discuss why elements of the book work, as well. Sometimes she reads reviews of books that the reviewer does not like, and then reads them and likes them because what the reviewer does not like, she likes.
What Reviewers Do the Panelists Read?
Swan asked the panellists what book reviewers they read and why.
Bird reads a lot of other book reviewers because she wants to know what other reviewers say about the literature she will review. She has been yelled at by authors for her reviews; one author yelled at her about a review she did for amazon.com.
Burns says that she likes to read other reviewers to determine what everyone else is saying about the book and specifically not include that material in her reviews because she wants to add new information to the online discussion about the work.
Johnson likes blogs with a lot of news and shiny bits that she can cling to.
Ingall likes librarians a lot; she reads a lot of librarian blogs. She likes anyone with breadth of knowledge. She is predisposed to read anyone who is funny or who is a very good writer.
Bird likes a blog that she always seems to disagree with. It is amazing how often they come up with opinions that are diametrically opposed to her own. As a reviewer, she said, there is nothing that makes her heart drop more that receiving an email from an author that she has reviewed because she never knows what they are going to say. She says that she gets responses from authors who she has reviewed about 25 percent of the time. She also gets responses from family members, including spouses and children. She has gotten emails and postal letters regarding the reviews.
Burns stated that most of what she writes is playing matchmaker and matching the reader to the book. People can disagree with what bloggers write about their work. However, she believes that writers should be able to tolerate reviewers disagreeing with certain elements of their work.
Edinger stated that it is very hard for her to give a book a negative review, but if the book is completely flawed and she feels a need to discuss that, she will write a negative critical review of the work, so that people are aware of them. However, she is a teacher and she wants to be nice.
Authors Contacting Critical Reviewers
Swan asked the audience members if they have ever been contacted by an author about a negative review, and what did the author say.
One audience member said that the author mentioned that the blogger was wrong about the part that she did not like.
Barry said that she knew of an author who would try to visit people to explain how the author disagreed with the review.
Swan said that the nature of the relationships between and among publishers, authors, and reviewers have changed with the advent of social media. She asked if there should be some rules for the relationship, and if publishers could go over ground rules so that authors could learn how to act if they get negative reviews.
Burns stated that social media can sometimes be "not so nice." However, social media can help people become aware of what they might like to read. She likes to be balanced in her reviews. She will review authors who are not on social media.
Ingall stated that it is important for reviewers to fully disclose any social relationships that they may have with authors.
Swan believes that authors should never contact reviewers about negative reviews. However, maybe she will feel differently if she ever publishes a book.
Advance Reader Copies (arcs) Enable Book Reviewers
Swan asked if arcs (advance reader copies) undermine critical reviewing. She asked if providing free copies of a work are given on the assumption that reviewers will provide positive reviews. The general consensus was that this is not the case.
Burns gets such a high volume of galleys (arcs) that it would be impossible for her to read them all. However, she does track how many books she reviews from each publishing house. She reviews books from small and large publishing houses; she wants to spend time on all of the publishing houses so that her reading audience can see what authors and books are out there for them.
Bird also keeps track of which publishing houses the books she reviews come from, and she tries to even out how much attention she gives to each publisher. She reviews galleys. However, if the review is critical, she may wait until after the publication date of the book to post her review so that it is out there with all of the other reviews of the work. This can be a problem with galleys. Reviewers can get a lot of criticism for publishing a first review of the book if it is critical.
Johnson mentioned that the purpose of arcs is to provide reviewers with the material so that they can review books. This is the function of arcs: to be reviewed by potential buyers, librarians, and reviewers. Some kids think that they can get free books, but this is not the case.
Bird mentioned that a few people coming up with "the rules" of how authors should respond to critical reviews could generate a lot of negative feedback.
Burns has heard panel discussions in which authors were told that they have to communicate with bloggers who review their books. They are told this is part of self-promotion, and that they should be re-tweeting, even to very critical reviews.
Authors Can Contact Publishers About Social Media
A publicist from the audience said that her publishing house disseminates information to the authors about what to expect from the social media, and she advises her authors to bring any complaints about critical reviews to the publicist.
Book Reviewers Write for the Book's Audience
Jeanne Lamb asked if reviewers give special consideration to being especially careful with the wording of critical reviews for authors who are just starting out.
Edinger stated that bloggers do not write for authors; they write for potential readers of the literature.
Burns mentioned that if authors are published (even self-published), they are putting themselves out there. They should be aware of the industry, and bloggers may not post positive reviews if they find fault with the authors' first books.
Johnson said that this is one of the reasons that she tells teenagers not to publish a book.
Edinger recently reviewed a book that was written by a teenager; fortunately, it was quite good.
One of the panelists mentioned that some reviewers write negative things about books written by teenagers.
One of the panelists mentioned that authors can be pressured into having web sites. However, if they are going to do it badly, they should not have web sites. For example, one author did not have his or her three most recent books on his or her web site.
This panel on critical literary analysis was one of the most interesting panels I have attended. We had a variety of authors on the panel, a librarian, and publicists in the audience who gave us their perspectives. Kid Lit Con was definitely a success in New York City!
Books by the Panelists