Issue #111 (February 15, 2001)

And the winner of our 4th annual Isn't It Romantic? Contest is...Karen Boml

Karen's story, though it happened to her parents and not herself, was too romantic to pass up. Congratulations, Karen - I'll be mailing your special Nora Roberts t-shirt, signed by the author herself, shortly!

The year was 1942.

My Mom was engaged to a man, and her marriage bans were already announced in church. While working at the local theatre, collecting tickets, she was approached by a young man who introduced himself as "the man you're going to marry." Hee didn't mention to her that he, too, was already engaged to another lady. My mom thought he was just crazy and told him in a nice way to "get lost." He kept trying to explain that he had fallen in love with her by looking at her picture in another sailor's wallet.

This man didn't give up - no way! He used every wile to get her to agree to marry him. He'd show up at her house and honk the horn enough times that she just had to go outdoors just to make it quiet in the neighborhood! He called her and kept asking her out, with no success. One night, after much horn-blowing, she came out in her slippers to get him to leave; she didn't know what it was about the handsome fellow, but she honestly felt "that something special" in her heart. Then he asked her to sit in the front seat of his car and pointed to the back seat to show her his suitcases. He told her he'd join the French Foreign Legion if she didn't agree to marry him - she didn't know the suitcases were empty. He also didn't tell her his best friend was knocked out on the back floor from excessive drinking. What a surprise when that fellow groaned and sat up! My mom opened the door and ran into her house saying "he's crazy, he's crazy"!

The next few weeks brought flower deliveries to her door, candy, and lots of phone calls pleading for her to go out with him. She finally agreed and at the end of their first date, she too knew he was her "destiny."

One evening a short time later, he proposed to her, taking off her ring from the other man and putting on the one he'd bought for her. He'd paid for the ring on his father's charge card! Even though the families on both sides tried talking them into staying engaged with their original choices, they broke it off with the others, went to see the priest, and made plans for their wedding. From that point on, they never set eyes on anyone other than each other.

They were happily married for over 40 years until my Dad's death 17 years ago!

P.S.: From the day my Dad first saw my Mom until the day they married, only six weeks had elapsed!

"The romance market has plateaued and will start heading downhill unless publishers and readers start paying attention to what is good and what is not...If there are only glowing reviews of romance novels out there, something is wrong, and if readers or writers cannot admit to lousy stuff out there being marketed as romance we are hurting our credibility...."
-- Pat Rice, in a brand new Write Byte

LLB Rants Again:
I consider myself an advocate for romance readers. That's the reason I joined The Romance Reader when it was begun, and it's the same reason behind All About Romance. As most of you know, I love to read, and I love to read romance, but am saddened by its reputation in the mainstream world. Indeed, that's why I consider AAR "the back fence for romance readers," a place where romance readers can come to talk about the books they love without fear of embarrassment.

I've always said that if the genre is to gain respectibility in the mainstream, those involved in the genre need to follow the same "rules" that the mainstream adheres to. Call us the "Anti-Romantic Times" if you will, but the first place to start is with the idea that any romance published is "acceptable," (which is the lowest rating at RT). Mainstream media reviewers have long understood that this is simply not the case (for ample evidence, please click here, and/or here, and/or here - this link includes a brief interview with a reviewer from Entertainment Weekly - and/or here). So long as the romance genre continues under this misconception, we will never be taken seriously. As long as a truly horrible book cannot be called a truly horrible book by a person reading and reviewing it, we deserve derision.

Another guideline followed by the mainstream media is this: there is a definite line between reviewing and paid promotion that shall never be crossed. My recent interview with the Books Editor at the Fort Worth Star Telegram could be repeated by any paid reviewer anywhere - I learned it both in undergraduate and graduate level courses taught by professional journalists, and when I spoke last Friday with a reviews editor at a major industry magazine that reaches nearly 100,000 people, he agreed completely, saying there is definitely a conflict, and that it's derived by motivations and audiences. The motivation behind a review is criticism designed to inform the reader. The same cannot be said about a promotion, and a distinct line, he said, must be maintained between individuals involved in either profession. He added that publications such as Romantic Times blur the lines by publishing reviews that assume all books are, at the very least, acceptable. He said, "Romantic Times is really a fanzine."

Here, for those who may have missed it on the special message board I set up last week for input on this column (we've included excerpts from it here), is that brief Q&A with Jeff Guinn of the FWST; I believe his statements are fairly standard in the mainstream media; in other words, you would hear his words echoed at newspapers and magazines across the country:

LLB: If a book reviewer embarks upon a career as a paid book/author publicist, is it alright for that publicist to continue to review - even if he/she does not review books she is promoting.

Jeff Guinn: If the purpose of the review is to serve potential readers, then the reviewer must be able to legitimately claim objectivity. It can be a Caesar's Wife situation - the reviewer must be completely pure.

LLB: You are books editor for the Ft. Worth Star Telegram. If you started a promotions business, would the paper allow you to still write reviews - even on books you would not be promoting?

Jeff: Even if I could, I would not - due to reader perception, and it works both ways. Did I hope to gain favor and gave a good review or did the author decline my services and I gave a bad review?

LLB: Any final thoughts?

Jeff: I think that reviews should only be assigned to individuals who have no personal or financial stake in the opinion that is being authored.

Something I've always considered as part of my "job" as an advocate has been the education of those visiting AAR. After reading many of the posts on that special message board, it's apparent that most who posted did not realize that crossing that line is something that should not occur. Someone who actively promotes authors for pay should not be involved in the reviewing of books.

Well, what about sites who host author sites as well as review books, possibly including reviews of books by authors hosted by those sites? And, what of sites who accept advertising from authors and/or publishers? This is where the line is fuzzy and the need for internal separation of duties is important, along with disclaimers.

I mentioned on that special message board that I see a real difference in terms of potential conflicts of interest between accepting advertisements for books at a site that also reviews books, and the hosting of author pages at a site that also reviews books. That difference, in my mind, is validated every time I open a magazine or newspaper and see reviews for books and movies and also ads for books and movies. As long as there is a distinct line between editorial content and advertising content, as long as advertisements are so labelled, things seem kosher in my mind. We handle it that way at AAR - all advertisements are so labelled, and none of our review staff has anything to do with the business end of running the site.

Where things get fuzzy is where the "fanzine" concept is mixed in, and by that, I mean sites that both host authors and review books. We've seen many of these sites come and go, which may mean the situation is working itself out in the economic marketplace or the marketplace of public opinion. But just as not everyone seemed to realize the conflictual dilemma posed by reviewers who are also promoters, it's quite possible that readers visiting such sites that are, in essense, fanzine sites, don't truly realize they are fanzine sites. This is a problem I believe started with RT and continues today. When I heard my editor colleague call RT a fanzine, I was taken back a bit myself, after all.

(February 16, 2001: We learned from one of our readers today that one of these combination sites just posted a new policies page that sets some boundaries in this area. Whether coincidental or not to our special message board last week, we think this is a good idea.)

One suggestion made on our special message board was that perhaps a disclaimer be posted on sites that not only review but host authors. I personally think this is a good idea; perhaps the index pages for reviews at those sites might add a disclaimer. At AAR we have made a further separation and will not place banner ads for authors or publishers on any review page, either the individual review or the index pages for those reviews. The only advertisements on those pages are on our DIK reviews and are for a new/used book store in order to help readers find books they may otherwise be unable to find. Ads are limited to non-book-specific pages or our advertising supplement, and all ads in that supplement have a disclaimer at the top that reads: "This is a paid advertisement."

My views on the matters discussed above are by no means shared by others; I would say that approximately 80% of the posts made to our special message board were in disagreement. However, many of those posts were not made by "AAR regulars," but by those who do disagree with the way AAR conducts itself.

Regardless, a great majority of those posting do not believe it is a conflict for someone who is paid to promote authors and books to also write reviews, particularly if she is not reviewing her clients. While most of these messages stopped after I posted my Q&A with Mr. Guinn and indicated he is most likely representative of other editors nation-wide, some posters persisted that this was not enough proof of an industry standard. In fact, several of those who posted apparently do not believe there is an "industry standard." I have not included these posts in the excerpts page because they tended to be quite personal in nature in defense of the webmaster who does promote and do reviews. It doesn't matter if the owner of website X is the nicest person you ever met if their actions run contrary to accepted norms among other professionals.

Additionally, many of those who posted believe I'm not giving them enough credit to determine the source of the material they are reading; in other words, if they read reviews at a site that also hosts author sites, they already know that the reviews will be different than at sites that do not. You will find echoes of this on the excerpts page.

One thing I did find curious was that it seems de rigeur to find fault with Romantic Times, but it is forbidden to otherwise name names. Indeed, it made many members of AAR's own staff uncomfortable that in the special message board set up, I did name some names (although they have mostly been removed from the excerpts page). I believe in consistency, and if it's "okay" to talk about Romantic Times by name, it should be "okay" to talk about other sites by name. Another curiosity is that, when asked in general whether reviews that contain negative material are acceptable, many readers would agree with that, but when it occurs specifically, some of those same readers find they are troubled by it.

Why the difference? Do we act under a misguided notion that since we're all (or mostly all) women, that we need to act as a sisterhood? I honestly cannot fathom this discussion occuring, or these distinctions needing to be drawn were this a discussion of action/adventure novels and reviews - a genre written primarily by men for men. It bears repeating - it doesn't matter if the owner of website X is the nicest person you ever met if their actions run contrary to accepted norms among other professionals. Even if we are all working toward the same goal of better books and more respectability in the mainstream, we cannot reach that goal if those with some influence in the genre don't follow the same set of guidelines the mainstream follows. Yes, the Internet is re-writing some of these guidelines, but not all of them.

The remainder of this column comes from AAR's staff - my views on the necessity of mainstream-style reviews have been made often in the past, although I'll include a list of links at the very end of this column for those interested. Included in that list will be a link to some reviews we've posted here at the site from mainstream publications - it's important to keep the mainstream in mind, at all times, if we want to be considered at the same level as the mainstream, and not as an ugly step-sister.

Those reviews! by Robin Uncapher:
When Laurie called to ask me to write about how I felt about the topic of romance reviews I felt a little shiver go down my spine. It's not that I have nothing to say. It's not that I don’t have a strong opinion. I have very strong opinions on the topic of romance reviews and knowing them explains why I write for AAR and not one of the other romance websites, though I would be the first to agree that The Romance Reader also offers objective reviews.

The reason for this trepidation is simple. I am an unpublished romance writer myself and, as such, I was initially hesitant to go out on too much of a limb. People in the romance community have forceful opinions on this. Many of them, reading this, are going to find they disagree pretty strongly with me. But at AAR I write as a reader, not a writer. In this case I write not just as a reader, but as a reader and columnist who has observed the romance writing community and the on-line romance community pretty closely. It’s a tight little group, as we all know. In fact it is so tight that many of us who love romance can forget the main purpose of these books, which is to entertain readers. Some members of the romance community have become so vehemently opposed to negative reviews that it has stifled conversation altogether. Why do I say this? Because I have discussed the issue of negative reviews with romance writers often enough to expect the inevitable, “Please don’t quote me on this. It would hurt my career.” It has gone so far that some writers who read our columns and message boards regularly are reluctant to admit it to their writer friends. How do I know? They tell me. And no, I don’t quote them, nor would I. But as an At the Back Fence Columnist I can hardly keep silent on a subject so important even if many romance authors, editors and unpublished writers disagree with me. So, foolhardy as this may be - here I go!

When I started reading romance two years ago I was at sea as to what to read. The mainstream press ignored the books at best, insulted them at worst. I wasted a lot of time and money reading terrible books before I found All About Romance, which distinguished between books that were entertaining and those that were a waste of time. I read piles of regencies that sounded like bad Jane Austen, Indian romances (Heather Graham’s Hostage comes to mind) that were so overwrought they sounded as though they were written for the silent screen, and historical regencies (Pat Coughlin’s Merely Married - yes, I know you all loved it) that seemed not to be occurring in historical times.

What a great thing, I thought, when I read the AAR reviews of Putney and Balogh, to find a group of really great writers.

Okay, you are thinking. What is so controversial about that? Well nothing, except that in order for me to determine that the great review of the Putney meant something, there had to be not so enthusiastic reviews of other books. If reviews of all books are good or even tactful, they take away the meaning of those reviews that are for books that are truly great.

Now there are those in the on-line community who would say that if a book is not very good perhaps a tactful review should be published, one that does not rave quite so much. Well, to me, all this does is to make readers into interpreters of reviews. All of us know the sites that write such reviews. There is one site where a one star review is pretty much indistinguishable from a three star review except for the stars. The reader is forced to do her own interpreting. When I read such reviews I am reminded of readers in China interpreting whether a particular policy was favored based on lines of poetry uttered by Mao Tse Tung. Sorry kids. This is a democracy and I should not have to devote too much time to interpreting romance reviews.

After a short time reading AAR reviews I got involved with All About Romance and began reading posts on the newsgroups and message boards. I was amazed to see how many people found negative reviews upsetting. But as time went on I also became aware that the on-line romance community is so closely influenced by the world of writing and publishing romance novels that many of its members cannot be considered objective on the subject of receiving criticism.

Some authors, I found, hated to receive critical reviews, but that was not the whole story. Many authors took reviews good and bad for granted and understood that their good reviews could only be meaningful if there were less flattering reviews of books that were not as good. But to my shock, I learned that these authors felt constrained from saying anything about this. They could tell me privately that they agreed that good reviews were meaningless without bad ones but they would ask me not to share their thoughts with other writers for fear that their words would have a negative impact on their careers.

My visit to RWA Conference last summer was similarly revealing. As I listened to the strategizing and planning among romance writers - some of whom were published, many of whom were not - I began to understand why some romance authors and unpublished writers misunderstand the need for objective reviews and actually believe that there can be a case to be made for less than honest reviews. I also picked up on a general "them versus us" feeling about negative reviews. Apparently some RWA chapters even counsel their memebers to defend fellow members who receive negative reviews. I have no problem with a writer or anyone else disagreeing with a review. But the idea that chapter members would argue with a review based on the membership of the author rather than the quality of the writing really depressed me. There can be no intellectual honesty in a conversation where one person is arguing because she is the member of a club.

I think the problem is based on a series of myths I'll enumerate here:

If it is good enough to get published it is at least a “C”

The fallacy of this statement should be obvious to anyone who buys anything, watches any television program, goes to any movie or buys any book or magazine. There is good stuff out there and there is junk. Why is there junk? There are a lot of reasons but at least one of them is that somebody thinks that he or she can sell it.

At RWA last summer I heard many, many unpublished romance writers talking about how to be published a manuscript had to be excellent. Oh would that this were true! But the truth is that excellence is in the eye of the beholder. To be published a manuscript has got to be something the editor thinks she can sell. Editors judge books on many criteria. If they could I am sure that all of them would require that every book published was excellent! But there are only so many excellent manuscripts and unfortunately that means that editors have to buy some less than excellent ones in order to have enough books on the shelves. There are well over 100 romances published each and every month - could anyone say they are all excellent?

Among unpublished writers there is what I will call the myth of the great unpublished book. According to this myth, there are hundreds of wonderful books remaining unpublished due to the illogical whims of romance editors. Now I do know of one outstanding author who has a manuscript that she can’t get published. Knowing this writer the book is probably wonderful. But there is a reason she can’t get it published. The book is set in a place and time that romance editors are not buying. And, inevitably if you ask questions you will usually find that the great unpublished manuscript being described by every unpublished writer has just that kind of predictable problem. It is 130,000 words long. It is set in medieval Spain. It lacks a happy ending. Then there are the unpublished romance authors who refuse to write a proposal, preferring to send their entire manuscript to the publisher or agent. Who has the time to read a 100,000 word manuscript to find out if a book is worth reading? Answer: Nobody. Lastly - and this is the most common problem - the book is just not very good. An editor or agent has rejected it for something that sounds trivial: the heroine is the wrong type, the book is set in a depressing era. But when you read the manuscript you realize the truth. The book is just not very interesting to read.

Some of these books get published. This should not be a shocking statement. We have all read them. Why not admit it and move on?

Reviews should be constructive

Because I am an unpublished writer myself I have gotten my share of constructive critiques of unpublished work. All writers need to share their writing with others and hear ideas for improvement. There is a bond of trust between the writer who shares her work and the person who agrees to read it. Part of that trust assumes that the person reading the book is giving the criticism to help the writer improve. Every once in a while a friend, sometimes a published author, sometimes an unpublished writer, asks me to read something. When I critique such a book I am really honored that the writer is asking my opinion. Sometimes the writer is more talented than I will ever be, and yet she is asking for my opinion! Wow. I don’t always like what I read but I am extremely careful to explain what I say in ways that will help the author improve. Quite often the writer may decide that I am simply wrong. She may be right. I am just another pair of eyes on a work in progress.

Unlike critiques, reviews are not written for the benefit of the writer. They are written to help other readers decide if the book in question is worth the money. If I had to write every review feeling that I was speaking to the writer I would probably get blocked. This would be unfair to other readers who are reading the review to hear my opinion.

Books that are being reviewed are for sale. That is the reason they are being reviewed. Authors who complain that their books were reviewed despite the fact that they did not submit them for review miss the point. If the book is for sale then readers are entitled to hear about it from an unbiased source the way they deserve to be able to learn about anything else that is for sale.

The reviewer is always assumed to be right

I have a greatest hits list of controversial reviews. Though people agree with me pretty regularly, they probably disagree just as often. There was just a thread on the Reviews Message Board discussing Merely Married. I wrote that review ages ago and many, many people disagree with it. It won a RITA! Do I think I was “wrong?” Nope. I just think lots of folks have different taste than I do. My review of Robin Schone’s The Lady’s Tutor has garnered similar criticism. Some people loved that book but many did not and the ones who disliked the book disliked it strongly. My review of Emily Hendrickson’s Miss Haycroft’s Suitors sparked a thread started by a reader who suggested I didn’t like history. Some people loved Nell Brien’s Veiled Journey but I heard from others who disagreed strongly with the Desert Isle Keeper (DIK) status I awarded.

Like most AAR reviewers, I have noticed that my decision to award a DIK is as risky in terms of reader opinion, as my decision to award an “F.” In fact I have awarded more DIKs than Fs and have heard more criticism of them. But I am convinced that one reason my DIKs are controversial is because I award very few of them. The famed Harriet Klausner seems to like virtually everything she reads and I doubt very much if her raving is noticed by anyone save the publishers who conveniently use her blurbs to sell books.

Bad reviews are bad for the genre

Not long ago I heard Thomas Friedman, the wonderful writer and columnist for the New York Times speak about listening to a group of people in North Africa. One man was railing against the United States. “The Americans want to destroy us,” he said. Friedman smiled rather sadly at the man and shook his head. “It is much worse than that,” he said. “The Americans don’t care about you one way or the other.”

Well, fellow romance readers, that is our current situation. Nobody out there cares what we say about romance novels. Furthermore, if we pretend to like what we do not, we will become like the Soviets who drew false maps to fool the west and ended up not knowing where their own streets were. If we want to know what is really happening in the romance world we must write about it honestly.

I love romance novels. What you love you want to make better. Nothing gets better without candid conversation. If we write honestly about what we read, then readers who look for our opinions will be more likely to read Ruth Wind than Cassie Edwards - one can only hope! That can only help the genre. As it is, the average non-romance reader doesn’t know the difference between Madeleine Hunter and Kathleen Woodiwiss. In fact, they assume that the writers are all like Woodiwiss.

Reviewers sometimes trash books because it makes a more entertaining review

It is true that a really bad review can be very entertaining to read. When I write an “D” or and “F” review it is almost always funny. Well. At least it is funny to me.

But in fact a D or an F book is a huge disappointment. Being funny helps to mitigate that feeling of disappointment. But it is quite literally impossible to write a funny review of a book that is not funny on its own. The really negative funny reviews I have have written have practically written themselves. The Woodiwiss slave feeling sorry for the whites, the Cassie Edwards wheel-chair bound heroine miraculously regaining the ability to walk and then being saved by wolves and vultures who talk to the hero. As Cindy Adams would say, “Folks, I couldn’t make this stuff up.”

Reviewers are assigned books for authors they don't like

I can only speak for AAR but Blythe Barnhill, our managing editor, goes to great lengths to avoid foisting books on reviewers. We not only get to choose the books we like, on occasion when a reviewer discovers that she dislikes a book purely out of her own tastes (it is too violent, for example), she can tell Blythe and it will be reassigned.

This is an unpaid job and it is really no fun to read books that you dislike. This is as true for reviewers as for anyone else and all of us do our best to avoid it.

A review can kill a career

Every once in a while I read a post on one of the message boards citing how influential we are. The truth is that an AAR review is just one of a number of voices talking about a book. The on-line community is relatively small. Many books hotly discussed on AAR boards are barely known outside the on-line world.

A review can’t kill a career. Sadly a good review can’t save one either. There are wonderful romance writers who have been positively reviewed by AAR who are having significant difficulty selling books.

If a favorite book of yours gets a negative review, get on the message boards and tell everybody how good you thought it was. Say why. Write a DIK review if the book is really good. Your opinion won’t sink or save the book but you will be be helping romance readers who want to hear another view.

The Ugly Baby Theorem

"How can you do what you do? Isn't it like telling someone that her baby is ugly?"

I heard these words again last week, from a surprising source. These are words I've heard a lot in the past few years, sometimes from romance readers, and sometimes from authors. This time I was hearing them from a friend in my book club who had never read a romance in her life. I was taken aback, because I truly thought this was something only "romance people" said. But I gave her the answer that I've given before: I would be hurt and offended if you told me my baby was ugly, but then I'm not trying to sell him to anyone. I think my children are the cutest, smartest, most adorable children ever to have been born, and I'm sure every mother thinks the same thing about her own. However, if I were going to even sell pictures of my babies (and I'm not, btw), I would have to prepare myself for rejection. Just because I think they are perfect doesn't mean everyone else will agree with me or pay money for them. They might think my kids are too short, or too tall, or too noisy. They may not want to buy a picture of my youngest because, just like an Amanda Quick book, he looks an awful lot like the ones that came before. When you put something you have created out on the market, it's not just for you anymore, and when you ask people to pay for it, you have to expect some people to say that it's not worth the price.

When I review a book, I have to think of the readers who may want to buy it - or not buy it. The author may be the nicest person in the world, but if I'm thinking of what she will say when I review her "baby," I'm not doing my job. The author may love hearing that I thought her dialogue was stunning and original, or hate hearing that I thought her one sentence paragraphs were annoying. But my goal when I review is to help readers decide what they might like to try, not provide the author with a snappy cover quote. I'd love to see my name inside a book cover someday, but I'm not going to compromise my integrity to get there.

So why do I review romances?

My husband asks me this often, usually after I complain about a book that I don't like. I'll tell him the heroine is TSTL and the hero, though born in 1968, has more in common with the average Neanderthal. "So how can you even finish that?," he'll ask. Well, sometimes it isn't easy to finish a real clunker, but the reason I do it is because I don't just love romances; I love to talk about them. When I finish a terrific book, I want to tell everyone about it. When I finish a bad book, I want to tell everyone about that too. And when I read a book that was just mediocre, I want to explain to the world why I thought so. Reviewing is addictive, in a way.

AAR reviewers come from all walks of life, but we all love romances and we all love to tell people what we think about them. One of the reasons I personally started to review in the first place is that it offered challenges and interaction I didn't get anywhere else. When I started reviewing I had three young children (I've since added one to that number) and I didn't work outside the home. I read plenty of romances, but hardly anyone I knew was interested in discussing them. My husband is supportive of what I do, but he is not really interested in the intricacies of Shattered Rainbows or the annoyances of the Big Misunderstanding. My children love books, but even the oldest hasn't moved much beyond Harry Potter and Nancy Drew, and the three year old won't read anything that doesn't have a car in it.

I took to reviewing like a duck takes to water. I wanted to move beyond just posting on a list or a message board that I liked a book; I wanted to tell people why I liked it, in a detailed and thoughtful way. I immediately came to appreciate that reviewing made me look at books differently. Of course, reviewers are readers first and foremost, but knowing that when you finish a book you will be putting your thoughts down on paper makes you read in a more analytical way. Suddenly I was thinking about books and reviews while I put away laundry or made dinner and writing my thoughts down when my kids went to bed - and I loved every minute.

There is a certain hubris involved in reviewing. You have to assume that someone out there actually wants to know what you think about the books you read, and whether you love a book or hate it, you are sticking your neck out. And some readers may not want to hear a book criticized, ever, but this isn't an attitude I will ever understand. Anyone who thinks every book ever published is at least "acceptable" either has very low standards or hasn't read many books. Some books aren't acceptable, or even readable. As a reviewer, I've read books I could scarcely get through. On the other hand, I've read lots of terrific books that I could read again and again. Good or bad, I like to talk about all of them, and I'm thrilled to have a forum for my thoughts. Whether I can hardly stand a book or I can hardly stand to put it down, I look forward to writing about it when I'm finished.

Sometimes you are judged by the company you keep, and I feel lucky to be working with a group of people whom I truly respect. I've learned that different reviewers look for different things. I scarcely noticed shifting point of view until I started reading Anne Marble's reviews. Sometimes my fellow reviewers are so eloquent I almost want to post a second review that just says, "What she just said!" And I love that every once in a while someone writes a review that sets the bar higher for the rest of us. Some of my favorites are Ellen's review of Winter Garden, Mary Ann's review of The Sound of Snow, and on the other end of the spectrum, Robin's review of Miss Haycroft's Suitors and Marianne's F- Connie Mason critique. At the end of the day, it's fun to work with - and write for - people who "get it." Especially when I also talk to people like my sister, who took one look at the two large binders that hold printed copies of my reviews and asked, "Why are you wasting your time doing that? You could have written your own book instead!" ARRRGGGH! We're not curing cancer here, but we love what we do, and as long as someone's listening we'll keep on doing it.

If You Ask Me

My personal opinion about reviewing has been that anyone can write positive reviews about books they enjoy. Those reviewers who just stop reading books they don't like and refuse to review them; well, that's fine and dandy, but it doesn't help other readers make informed decisions. There are many readers who come to AAR and specifically buy books that a reviewer has disliked, because those are the elements they want to read in a book.

Being nice all the time is a cop out. It's a refusal to take responsibility for your own opinion. If reviewers who won't write a negative review believe they are doing a service to readers, they are deluding themselves. And - they're not really doing a service to authors either. Most authors know everyone can't love their work all the time. Why would a site that only posts positive reviews about everything be anything other than an ego stroke? Sure everyone likes that now and then, but is it reality? Is it truly informative? Can authors or readers truly believe that the site has credibility or is valid?

I'd like to be a cheerleader more often - who wouldn't? - but I'm not writing reviews to stroke an author's ego or advertise for them any more than I'm going to put the book down and refuse to talk about it, either.

It's a wonderful feeling to read a great book, but my responsibility as a reviewer is to read the good, the bad, and the Cassie Edwards (only once, thank the goddess), and to present an accurate position about my opinion.

AARlist, AARlist Members, and AAR

When I became the moderator of AARlist in the fall of 1999, I knew that although the list is a part of AAR, our views would often be in the minority. After all, shortly before I became the moderator, the list had been experiencing heated discussions about book reviews and about author attitudes.

I inherited a very diverse list. Although AARlist is run as a part of AAR, not everyone on the list is a regular visitor of the site. Some have never visited it. In fact, many of its members make it clear that they dislike the AAR style of reviewing. One list member even makes it a point to mark negative reviews at Amazon as "Not Helpful" because she feels offended by negative reviews.

AARlist is a patchwork of diverse opinions. (Uh-oh, that sounds like a quilting romance.) Some people love Julie Garwood, while others hate - whoops, excuse me, "don't get" - her books. Some list members have refused to buy a single Janet Dailey book ever since the plagiarism incident, others think she deserves recognition for the contribution she made to romance novels.

AARlist has been very accommodating to anyone who wishes to join, regardless of their philosophy of reviews and criticisms. Romance lovers on the list include readers, authors, magazine editors, and publishers of web sites. They can even post promotional posts on AARlist (within limits, of course - hint, hint). On top of that, I have a "live and let live" attitude about other types of reviewers (and the authors who love those reviewers) on AARlist.

I don't even say anything when someone says they don't like "demeaning" reviews or reviews that "trash the author." In my opinion, I've never written that type of review. Yet it's clear those posters are referring to AAR (and to TRR as well), and that makes me sad. Since when did it become "demeaning" to say that a book didn't work for you and to explain its flaws?

To keep the list from getting too chatty in an off-topic way, I try to start discussions. So do other list members - I couldn't do it without them. Many times, we've tried to start discussions about both dislikes and likes. While many people respond with likes, it seems harder and harder to get readers to respond with posts about dislikes. Yet even when I ask about a "negative," I try to include a positive aspect in there. I know that not everybody will see something as a "negative." I don't mind that. I'm glad to hear from people who view my "dislikes" as "likes." Someone on AARlist recently referred to me as "the Evil She Who Must Be Answered," so I must be doing something right.

We've all read bad (and mediocre and disappointing) books. Why is it hard for some people to discuss them? Could some list members be refraining from making comments that could be taken as negative because that type of comment makes them uncomfortable? Or because they're afraid the authors on the list will be upset with them? (Because of that possibility, AAR offers a readers-only list - canwetalk.)

Or maybe they just wanna have fun. Some people join AARlist because they want to chat about books rather than discuss what doesn't work for them. Some people find chatty posts to be more fun. Who wants to go to a fun lunch with friends to talk about sexy movie stars, only to hear one of the friends discussing the ways in which "Braveheart" veered away from historical events? On the other hand, many people on AARlist want to figure out what makes the most popular archetypes of the romance novel tick. They may even want to talk about flaws in romance novels, so they're bored or annoyed by those "fun" posts.

One of my favorite things about AARlist is that it has so many diverse opinions. The best discussion groups are like this. (The Glenn Gould discussion group I belong to ranges from professional musicians to people who can't read a note of music. Sometimes, opinions clash, but we're all connected by one thing. We love the music - and writings and documentaries and minutiae - of Glenn Gould.) Sure, some people on AARlist don't like AAR's style of reviews. Sure, some people prefer a chatty experience to discussions. Sure, some people don't like the writers I love. (gasp!) I can live with that. Yet while I'm sometimes frustrated, I'm glad that AARlist has something for everyone. And I try to be patient. (OK, sometimes I feel as if I'm bashing my head against a wall of electrons.)

There are, however, limits to my patience. <grin> Such as list members who not only refuse to discuss their dislikes but who also try to make others feel bad because they had an opinion that was critical of a romance novel. This happened recently, when a list member posted a sample of "purple prose" from an older book she had been trying to read. She wasn't demeaning in her assessment of the prose; yes, she was critical of the story, but that's her right on AARlist. Yet one of the authors on the list posted a message saying that she was offended by this. She announced to the whole list that she was going to have to leave the list temporarily because of both deadlines and because of a clear difference in sentiment on the list. What a pity. I thought the whole idea of a discussion list was that members were able to talk about things.

Then there was that thread about reviews on AARlist. Several authors on the list have made it quite clear that they dislike the AAR style of reviews. One even said that reviews make her so uncomfortable ever since she became an author that she no longer reads reviews.

I realize that some authors dislike reading critical comments - about their books or someone else's. Yet those authors couldn't have been published if their editor hadn't picked their book instead of someone else's book. Also, what about critique groups? What about comments from editors? Most authors don't get published without going through these stages. Why is it unfair when a reader wants to discuss what doesn't work for her in a book? Or what makes a book annoying to her? Or even what makes a book a wallbanger (just that term alone is considered not politically correct among some AARlist members)?

I know that some people dislike the way I try to ask questions about the flaws of romance writing. One author blithely refused to answer one of my questions because she thought that it trod down a negative path. (I never thought I'd offend someone by asking for her opinion about the silliest theme for an anthology!)

I strongly believe that discussing the negative side of romance novels can be healthy for the genre. Readers don't have to agree that something is a "negative." As long as the discussions make them think, I'm happy.

Is discussing the flaws of romance novels cruel to authors? Is it negativity? I like to think of it as critical thinking. Whether you're a published author or a reader, you're still a fan. (As the guidelines of AARlist say, AARlist is a reader list. Authors are invited, but they must wear their reader's hats.) Fans are the lifeblood of any genre. If many romance readers are tired of a certain type of plot device, then maybe that says something. Sometimes, we just have to discuss the "bad reads" that just won't leave us alone. Maybe even vent.

Besides, if I read one more post that refers to asking critical questions as "negativity," I'm gonna scream.

But of course, that's just my opinion.

Now I have a couple of words about our reviews.

Some people have accused our reviews of demeaning the readers. I don't think that's true. I've been reading romance novels since I was in high school - heck, I was reading Sandra Brown when she was still "Erin St. Clair." I used to love alpha heroes and big misunderstanding plots. So while I don't enjoy books like Diana Palmer's Heart of Ice anymore, I know what it's like to love those plots, and especially those heroes.

Do we trash authors? No. I can be disappointed in a book, even disappointed in the author for writing it a certain way, but I never trash the author. I have even bought new books by people to whom I gave negative reviews because even in a D book, I saw promise.

Those Links I Promised:
Library Journal op-ed piece entitled "Don't Kill the Reviewer" - 2001
Salon article entitled "When Authors Attack" - 2001
Excerpts page of comments posted to that special message board I mentioned in the column
Write Byte by Patricia Rice on reviewing - 2001
The Author & "Formal" & "Informal" Criticism by Adele Ashworth, with comments from LLB and our readers - 2001
Mainstream reviews from a page associated with our FAQ page
Mainstream reviews and a couple from The Romance Reader from a 1999 issue of Laurie's News & Views
Some Entertainment Weekly reviews and an interview with Ty Burr of EW from a 1998 issue of Laurie's News & Views
Mainstream reviews compared to those from Romantic Times from a 1996 issue of Laurie's News & Views
Write Byte by Laura Lynn Leffers: Authors & Reviewers: A Symbiotic Dance - 2000
My article for the Spotlight newsletter for eclectics.com - 1999
Write Byte by Kathleen Eagle on reviewing - 1997

Time to Post to the Message Board:
Once in a while we've decided that rather than post specific questions for you to consider, it might be better to let you reflect upon the contents of this column, the excerpts page we've set up to go along with it, and Patricia Rice's brand new Write Byte. There's an awful lot of material on both pages, so feel free to comment about one first, and then the other, or to "save up" your comments until you've had a chance to digest it all. And, if you are like some of us at AAR, you may be a reviews fan yourself. If you'd like to share some you've found, now would be a fine time to do so.

In conjunction with Blythe Barnhill, Liz Zink, and Anne Marble

Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

Click here to join aarmaillist
Click to subscribe to AAR's twice-monthly mailing list