Writers’ Rights: An Open Letter on How to Review Books Safely

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Dear New Author,

You used to like writing reviews, didn’t you? Goodreads, your blog, even facebook: your opinions were loud and proud. But what now, now that you are joining the ranks of the published?

First off, let me say that I know how you feel. Here’s a bit I wrote (trembling) before my first, post-authordom review (of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Last Night I Sang to the Monster):

I can’t help thinking about what it’s like to put oneself out there in print, to get naked before the world by publishing…·I don’t quite feel free to be “just another reader,” going off on what gets under my skin. Instead, my honesty needs to come with a sincere effort to understand what the author was trying to accomplish. I think this has pretty much been my MO all along, but now it feels… more urgent somehow.

But you, new author, have it even worse because there’s been a lot of chatter lately about the rights (or lack there of) of writers when it comes to reviewing others’ works–and commenting on reviews of their own work… to the point that you might well feel that the only place you can share your opinion of a book is in the privacy of your darkest closet, where (creepiness alert!) you must whisper your thoughts to a glassy-eyed doll who promises never, never to reveal the truth.

Actually, it’s not as bad as all that. You don’t have to hit the delete button on your opinions just because you’ve got a book out there. What you do need to do is exercise a little common sense and caution. As Nathan Bransford writes in his post on authors and book reviews, “writers give up the right to write casually bitchy reviews.” He goes on to give some common-sense (and crucial) reasons why this is the case before concluding that “writers should require themselves to write thoughtful reviews.”

But what does a thoughtful review from an author look like? How do authors engage in discussions about books that they didn’t·like in a responsible way?

If you want to learn how to review thoughtfully, pretend you’re a librarian thinking about books to add to your collection. Suddenly, it’s not just about you anymore. It’s about who the book is written for–and who it might appeal to. (We are not–gasp!–always the perfect audience for the books that land in our laps.) This means reading not just as ourselves but also keeping in mind the reading experiences of other people who matter.

One of my favorite librarian reviewers over at Stacked didn’t like my latest novel. In fact, she even said, “I’ll admit, I had a hard time reading this book because this story was not up my alley at all.” But I think hers is still a great review because it highlights the needs The Knife and the Butterfly meets. Kelly calls the book edgy and powerful and weighs in on its “appeal to reluctant readers,” guys, and kids on the fringe:

Never once do any of the issues come across as inauthentic or pandering. These aren’t issue-driven books but involve characters and situations that are relatable to audiences who often don’t have these sorts of stories written for them. Many times these stories are instead written at them.

Read the rest of the review here, if you like, and notice how attention to other readers brings balance to the reviewer’s own reactions. It doesn’t mean that those reactions have no place in the review; they’re still there. But they have some context. And that’s what you want to do when you review, too.

Ask yourself questions like, if I didn’t like this, who might? What elements irked me, and how might these be working toward an effect? Is that effect legitimate for the intended audience?

And be nice. Above all, think about the words you choose. Because now you know that bringing a book into the world–period!–is a tremendous feat.

Happy reviewing… and welcome to the dark side!

Abrazos,

Ash

 

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