Reviewers Who Cry Wolf

"This is the BIGGEST TREE EVER and I'm the lord of all I survey in it!!!! Wait. No, actually, it's just a tiny tree. And I'm just a cat."

Since I’ve become more of an avid Twitter-follower (because there are so many awesome writers, contests, blogs, and just plain old entertaining people on there), I’ve noticed a disturbing rise in overly-glowy peer reviews. I love that some people are keen to toot the horns of their friends or writing peers, and when one of those peeps gets their book published, said friends and peers want to give it a stellar review – not only because it sometimes deserves it (yeah.. I went there… I said, “sometimes”), but because they want shiny reviews back, and want to be seen to be positive and cheerful and just *likeable*. And there’s nothing wrong with any of that in my opinion. I’m in that boat.

But I do know a little bit about reviewing, from a film background. I took two years of film journalism at university on my film degree, and I’ve been writing since 2008 for a film magazine. Critical writing was a huge part of my course, and I loved doing it. We were taught to be honest, have thoughts to back up whatever we had to say, and of course, be mindful of the house style, voice, or tone of whatever publication the review would be placed in. Basics, right?

Then why do I see so many scorching film reviews out there – fearless, unrelenting – but when it comes to book reviews, a lot of the Tweets I see are all, “5 OUT OF 5!!!! OMG, BEST STORY EVER!!”?

To quote Lester Bangs (in Almost Famous), “Be honest…and unmerciful.” I can hear Philip Seymour Hoffman in my head when I see Tweets like that, and I know they’re nowhere near following that advice.

I do understand. No one wants to look like negative, or seem hurtful, or God forbid, sound disparaging, including me. I know that professional (good) advice tells us writers to be very mindful of how we present ourselves online. With excellent reason. But nowhere does it say that we cannot be honest. The old adage, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” may apply here. We don’t want anyone in the industry, or the reading public for that matter, to think we’re displaying sour grapes or worse. So then, how do we fit in a bit of honesty? Maybe saying less is saying more, in that case.

Seriously, no one wants to send vibes out to those working in publishing that they’re negative or picky. After all, they want a following who will be kind to them, as well. They want the publishing industry to approve of their blog and reviews. And when I say, “being honest,” I am *not* talking about tearing people down, name-calling, mud-slinging, or anything. I’m just saying the more you say how amazing something is, the less inclined I am to believe you. What’s wrong with just saying, “Hey! Just finished THIS BOOK by Author Woman. Thoughtfully written! Check it out!! (insert link).” Personally, I’d be much more likely to click that link than if you start drooling and shouting at me in caps about how uber-fantastic it is.

This is why I’m wary of GoodReads. I admit I haven’t spent a lot of time on there, BUT most of the reviews I’ve read are glowing. So the day I posted a not-so-glowing review, I felt guilty, which is dumb. I was being honest. One book I had high expectations for, because of the press, publicity, and people on Twitter, fell really low below those expectations. I found it poorly written but with clever marketing. That was before my naivete was stripped away and I realised that many author-written reviews on the internet seem a bit overreaching.

It’s like the boy who cried wolf. Instead, the reviewer who cried “OMG, A-MAZING!!!!! WANT TO DIE, SO GOOD!” And the general reading public has every right to share those thoughts and scream with ecstasy over every book they love. They should– that’s celebration!! That’s a great feeling. I do it! I dwell on how freaking-amazing I think x, y, and z books are. I rave to my friends about LORD OF THE RINGS (because to me, it is the best book ever). But I’m talking about writers–who are represented or published–telling other writers and their readers.

I don’t mean to make fun of people who do that, because I love a gleeful optimist as much as the next. But c’mon. Are you really being honest? I know I’ll be re-reading Tolkien’s work, Harry Potter, Jane Austen, etc. ’til I’m 90. But if you tell me a book is so good, or a hero so drool-worthy, or a heroine so inspirational, but you’re not likely to re-read this book in 5-10 years to relive its awesomeness, it might be time to be a little more Lester Bangs and a little less Sally Sunshine.

To keep this post from sounding utterly negative (it’s not! I promise!) I do understand that this is how the industry works. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. I’m all for that! If a friend asks me to review her book, I’m totally going to help spread the word. If it’s well-written, then even moreso. I’ll post glowing reviews. But they won’t be filled with, “OMG, SOOOOOOOO PERFECT!” because while the industry of arts criticism is pretty harsh overall, that immediately tells me the reviewer is not thinking critically.

I often read a scathing review online or in the Guardian and still go see the film, and still LOVE it, because I rarely agree with film critics anyhow. They can say what they like, but I try not to let it colour my interpretation.  I would, however, rather read a scathing review tearing apart something I liked, if they can back up their statements and approach it intelligently. I have respect for the fact they put thought into it, even if I disagree. But I’ve read a lot of critical reviews that make me think the viewer watched the trailer and 20 minutes of the film and decided it wasn’t their style so they’re going to rubbish it completely. But that’s another topic for later on 😉

It’s a personal thing, though. Some people only need to see an OMG-alert and they’ll buy it. That’s cool!! I’d love someone to OMG my writing. Many someones! Just to clarify, I’m talking about writers and people in the industry, not the general reading public. If you are an avid reader and lover of books, then OMG away!! But if you’re a writer or editor or publisher, if it’s in all-caps, my personal taste tells me, for my own sanity, I need to look elsewhere if I want help in deciding whether to read it 😉

Besides that, if you’re a writer and OMGs and BEST EVERs are populating your reviews of others’ work, I’m going to be skeptical about your own work 😉 But that should go without saying.

There. Good-natured non-rant over 😉

Rainbows and ponies and happy, sunshine, smiling flower faces!
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