If You Can’t Say Something Nice, Don’t Say Anything at All?

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.

11 thoughts on “If You Can’t Say Something Nice, Don’t Say Anything at All?”

  1. I think authors should be able to criticize other authors. I’m not one, but how else would you get better at writing if everyone praises you constantly? Shouldn’t someone who understands in fact be the perfect one to provide constructive criticism?

    I really hate when authors say they’ve done extensive and thorough research and then come up with something that’s completely unlikely or worse, has been proven wrong but the author has followed the older books. I’m a bit of a snob about this, not being an author myself, but I think you really have to step into that time period and think for a while, talk to professionals who do this every single day, and get up to date on the most recent research and discoveries before you try to connect the dots with fiction. After all, there isn’t that much difference between studying to become a historian and trying to write historical fiction. We’re both trying to figure out what probably happened. One of us can make up more, but we’re still both trying to be as realistic as possible, and I think that historical fiction authors should be held to a certain standard, especially if they’re attempting to gain a reader’s trust. If they fail at that, I will criticize them.

    Sorry, I’ll get off my soapbox now. I hope that made sense. LOL.

  2. I flat out disregard most reviews being written by authors – they're all just mush and gush over each other's work. I've had one too many times in the last month or so when I've seen so-and-so's name on the book jacket raving about how well written and researched it is and I end up scratching my head wondering if we read the same book? Also, thinking back on the Deborah MacGillivray faffe over her and her co-authors at Kensington giving each other glowing reviews (let alone the clicking on report abuse to get the negative reviews removed) has flat out left me very jaded on the whole process.

    I think it's unfortunate that authors are afraid to critically review another's work, sometimes their insight (as a writer and researcher) is different than mine and while I don't follow HN reviews I have read and appreciated Susan's reviews on Amazon.

    Bottom line, between so many of these *professional* reviewers that post on their own sites as well as Amazon, the Harriet Klausners of Amazon (and she posts many other places besides Amazon including B&N), authors gushing over each other's books and the anonymous Amazon accounts set up by author/friend/family to post one five star review it's quite a mine field for the uneducated consumer to negotiate.

    What's happened is that these authors have become used to having nothing but glowing reviews and when an honest opinion comes through on a less than five star rating they don't seem able to take it gracefully – as Michelle noted at Reader's Respite. Targeting an Amazon consumer over an honest review with the idea of having him/her banned from Ammie is just a tad bit over the top. Kind of reminds me of a child being denied candy and the resultant feet stamping and pouting that comes after.

    Now I'll get off my soapbox.

  3. I must have missed the latest soap opera over at Amazon regarding reviews, but I agree that it’s a shame that writers feel they can’t post an honest review for fear of retaliation or other negative consequences. As someone who reads for enjoyment and who readily admits to not being anywhere near an expert of any historical period, I appreciate others stepping forward to point out inaccuracies in someone else’s work, especially if as you say, they have made an effort to point out what a good historian/researcher they are. It is then up to me to decide what to make of it and whether or not i want to go ahead and read it (often I do.

    The type of high school behaviour that seems to be becoming more prevelant in the online bookd review world says more about the person doing it than of the person who wrote the review. But since it can happen to anyone over at Amazon, it’s the reason I don’t post reviews over there I don’t need the stress of worrying about someone tracking me down and making threats just because I didn’t happen to like their book.

  4. Michele at Reader's Respite

    Thanks for the mention, Susan. You know, I have to admit that it’s the blurbs that get to me. When I see an author whom I really respect give a cover blurb to a poorly written, shoddily researched book, I just shake my head in disappointment. Of course, I must allow for differences in taste, but sometimes bad writing is just bad writing (for example…any novel I tried to write would be bad writing, LOL).

    On a different note, I received an arc of softcover of The Traitor’s Wife today. Don’t think I’ve ever let out a “whoop!” when opening up a package from a publisher before. 😉

  5. Pedant as I am, I have concluded it’s impossible to write a 100% historically accurate novel. Not least because new facts are being uncovered on a daily basis, and also interpretations change over time. Historians used to believe in the infamous short-bow, for example, which is now dismissed as a total myth.

    So for this reason (and other technical reasons such as use of language) I am prepared to cut my fellow authors a fair bit of slack. As long as it doesn’t get to something stupidly unhistoric, as in the famous case of Anne Neville drinking chocolate.

    But I agree that reviewing books is a very delicate business; even fair criticism can hurt. What might be called a ‘professional discussion’ held privately between two authors is one thing; publishing it to the world is another.

    Personally I am very reluctant to review a book unless I can be reasonably positive about it. I will not praise something I think is poor, but I also recognise that even a ‘poor’ work is somebody’s ‘baby’.

  6. Susan Higginbotham

    Meghan and Anonymous, I love soapboxes!

    Daphne, it does resemble high school after a while. Maybe someone should remake “Mean Girls” and entitle it “Amazon Girls.”

    Michele, thanks! (And should you not like it, I promise to be good.)

    Brian, I agree that slack should be cut. (What happens to all of the slack out there, by the way? Is it in a landfill somewhere?) I’m thinking more of the stuff that 15 minutes of research could have cleared up, like one novel that has Elizabeth de Burgh founding the Poor Clares or another novel that has Anne, Duchess of Exeter refusing to attend Richard III’s coronation (as she had been dead since the 1470’s, she had a perfectly valid excuse).

    I’ve not yet encountered the famous Anne Neville chocolate scene, sadly enough.

  7. Susan – I so know where you’re coming from. Reviewing the books of fellow authors – especially in such a smallish field as historical fiction can now and again be a thankless task. Which is why I rarely do it. Good job you’ve got the weeds though 😉

  8. Very interesting discussion! It’s promted me to seek out more scholarly review for my book. While my book is meant as adventure fiction first and historical second, it could not hurt to make the extra effort to do both. So I’ve invited some of the scholars I read for research to comment on the finished text.

    Speaking of which, if there are any experts in medieval Islam or the Byzantine Empire out there, I’m at http://www.saintmarksbody.com.

  9. Susan, this is an interesting topic. I write negative posts on my blog fairly frequently. I am not an author, and I try to avoid the term “review” also, which has certain connotations. I am just a reader and a blogger and if I don’t like a book I say so. I do sometimes wonder if I ought not do this, to go back to the title of your post. I hate to be discouraging to an author and I never want to be the kind of blogger who just writes negative things to get a laugh. And there are also lots of books I don’t write about because I hated them so much I could only read a few pages. I usually avoid talking about those because it seems trite. But if I stick with a book long enough to get a good idea of what’s going on and I feel like I can identify problems with it, that I ought to say so and not soft pedal.

  10. I will be doing some book reviews on a variety of different fiction topics in the coming months for one of the major publishers. They don’t expect perfect reviews if the book is found lacking. There are a couple of debut books that look good but could possibly be pretend books. I had one of those a couple of years ago where I couldn’t get past chapter one. There are bound to be books I won’t like and yet to do a proper review, I will have to read the whole thing.

  11. As an added comment with respect to the reviews, I think it would be good for some writers to find out their book wasn’t up to par. But the reviewer should tactfully mention ways that it could be improved upon in the specific areas rather than making a comment that it wasn’t for them and that someone else might like it better. I have seen those types of comments.

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