by Libby Hellmann
Christmas is over, and since we’ve packed up all our peace and good will until next year, it's time to turn our attention to something less kind and gentle.
You know the story. It used to be you’d write a book. Your publisher would send out ARCs to major trade publications and newspapers. While you probably wouldn’t get reviewed in the New York Times, you could count on Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal. And your local newspapers. Those reviews, for which we sat on pins and needles weeks in advance, helped create buzz. Good reviews could make or break library sales, bookstore interest, even word of mouth.
Not any more. First to go was review space in big city newspapers. All of us can point to a paper that no longer exists or, if it does, has pared reviews to the bone. Closer to home was the demise of Drood Review and Mystery News. Then, just a few weeks ago, the death of Kirkus. Say what you want about their last line zingers, a good Kirkus review was cause for celebration. Even worse, there seems to have been a decline in the number of reviews from Library Journal and Booklist. I could usually count on reviews from them. Not this time.
At the same time, we’re seeing an explosion of what’s being called “citizen reviews,” most of them online, all of them written by “readers” as opposed to professionals. I probably first noticed them on lists like Dorothy L, but over the years they’ve picked up steam on Amazon (‘fess up.. how many of us have asked a friend to write a favorable review?) to the point that they’ve been institutionalized with the Amazon Vine program. Reader-oriented websites, like GoodReads and Library Thing encourage them. And that doesn’t even include the proliferation of book review blogs and websites. There are literally hundreds of citizen reviews these days.
Which is the point. Citizen reviews are filling an important void. Many of these reviewers are professional, thoughtful, and take their responsibilities seriously. I’ve been the beneficiary of their work, and I’m grateful for it.
Then there are others.
I was the recent target of a citizen review that has to be the most scathing review I’ve ever received. Anyone clearly has the right to say they hated a book and why, but I think this individual went above and beyond by inferring the type of person I must be because of the subject of the book. He also threw in several racist comments, which were hurtful.
I don’t care how many good reviews you get -- it’s the bad ones we obsess over. And I did. I waited a week to say anything – I didn’t want to be impulsive -- but eventually I took it up with the organization’s owners. They maintained the review didn’t violate their terms of service. Which made me wonder what would.
But the most offensive (at least to me) part was the discovery of a sub-group of citizen reviewers, some of whom consider it a badge of honor to write clever but snarky reviews. “Writing scathing reviews is fun,” the person who critiqued my book said. Someone else agreed, saying “savaging bad writing is fun, and often necessary.” To be fair, I should point out that others in the group challenged those remarks.
I deleted my page from the organization, but it brings up an issue I believe all of us need to grapple with. On one hand, the void of reviews is filling up with new voices. That’s good. And necessary. On the other hand, how far can a review go and still be considered useful? Citizen reviews will undoubtedly be a permanent part of the literary landscape, but at what price? How should an author handle reviews that are over the top? Should we do what author Niteflyr-one did on Amazon, apparently to her regret? Or should we just crack open a bottle of wine and try to let it pass? And yeah, I know the bromide about any publicity being good publicity. Still I wonder.
What do you think?