Hey, where did the promised other Valentine’s Day posts go? Sorry, folks–I ended up going to a hockey game. (The home team lost badly, but three people received proposals of marriage on the Jumbotron, at least one of which received a favorable response.)
Anyway, Michele over at Reader’s Respite has a post about Amazon reviews today that is well worth a read. It got me to thinking about a related topic: should authors of fiction give other authors of fiction negative reviews?
There is a school of thought that says they shouldn’t. One reason is altruistic: that authors should stick together and be mutually supportive. Yet another is the fear that any criticism of another author will be seen as professional jealousy or sour grapes. The most compelling reason, sadly, is a defensive one: that a negative review of another author’s work might lead to retaliation against the reviewing author, especially if the other author has loyal fans eager to leap to his or her defense.
On the other hand, if fiction authors won’t criticize other fiction authors’ work, a valuable source of opinion is lost. Many authors, after all, are excellent readers. Should they put their critical facilities on hold when they read a peer’s work?
Reasonable minds can and do differ as to literary merit, of course, but historical novelists have their own special concern. Should they sit on their hands when a fellow author–either deliberately or through carelessness–distorts historical fact or slanders a historical figure? Especially when the fellow author touts himself or herself as a diligent researcher, thus giving the reader the implicit assurance that the fellow author can be trusted?
It’s a frustrating dilemma. I review books for the Historical Novels Review, and I’ve turned in the few negative reviews I’ve done with a certain dread, wondering if I might be targeted by a disgruntled author or his or her fans. (So far, no–which, incidentally, works in favor of the author in question. I might well pick up the author’s next work to see if I like it any better.) With books I read on my own, I’ve lately tended toward a defensive stance as far as this blog and Amazon are concerned: I post reviews of novels I’ve liked, but not of novels I haven’t, unless the author is safely dead. It’s irritating to have to keep my opinions to myself, especially as to matters of historical accuracy, but it also seems like a bit of a necessity in an age where some authors can muster online forces with an ease second only to that of a high school clique leader. So I console myself with this passage from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters:
“Mr. Wynne knows all I feel for Miss Gibson, sir. He and I have no secrets from each other.”
“Well, I suppose he must represent the reeds. You know the story of King Midas’s barber, who found out that his royal master had the ears of an ass beneath his hyacinthine curls. So the barber, in default of a Mr. Wynne, went to the reeds that grew on the shores of a neighbouring lake, and whispered to them, ‘King Midas has the ears of an ass.’ But he repeated it so often that the reeds learnt the words, and kept on saying them all day long, till at last the secret was no secret at all.”
There are days when the reeds in my backyard (well, make that weeds) get a good workout. Trust me.