When It’s Time to Step Away

At an ad agency where I once worked, the guys in the mailroom had a cartoon posted in pride of place where most of us saw it every single day.  It depicted a group of brain surgeons surrounding a patient with blood gushing out of his head.  The caption read:  “Well, at least it’s not advertising.”

I relate this joke in order to help make a point:  Reviewing romance novels online isn’t brain surgery. What it takes to be a good reviewer is a knack for discerning precisely what worked and what didn’t work for you in a book, the ability to clearly communicate both to a reader, the discipline to stick with books you find about as interesting as a tax return, and the fortitude to do it book after book and month after month. 

If you can do all that and write in a concise and reasonably entertaining way, well, then you’ve got it nailed.

 And that’s where the problems start.

Okay, so I am exaggerating, but there is no escaping the fact that there are many perks that go along with reviewing online.  And they can be incredibly seductive.  How a reviewer handles that seduction makes all the difference.

So what am I talking about?  Well, there are the free books.  Early.  Then there are the nice make-your-day emails from readers (along with the other ones, too).  And, most tempting of all, there is always the chance that you may get to know online – and maybe even in person, too – writers whose work you love.

And it can be a heady thing, believe me.

Let me just get it right out on the table:  If you like an author’s work, there’s a very good chance you’re going to like the person, too.  People usually are what they write, so good – and sometimes even very close – friendships can result.

But that’s when a reviewer has to step away.

Where to draw the line can be a challenge.  Exchanging a few emails is probably okay.  Having lunch together probably isn’t.   But, without going into a litany of possible scenarios, it comes down to this:  The appearance of impropriety is what’s important and when a reviewer nears the line, I think she usually knows it.

And there’s another side to that equation, too.  When reviewers – and I know this is true at AAR and I’d be willing to bet it is also the case elsewhere – don’t like an author’s style, they leave the author’s books for reviewers who may connect better.  That’s only fair.  And it happens.  All the time, as a matter of fact.

From the perks perspective, the luckiest people just might be the owners of the many personal romance review blogs out there right now. Most of them are just that – personal blogs.  Since it’s very clear to visitors that they are what they are, from my perspective they’re free as a bird to legitimately enjoy the perkiest of the perks.  Personal blogs are…well, personal and I think we all understand the difference.

There is a scene from the movie Almost Famous that I think resonates here.  In it the teenage aspiring rock writer gets some incredibly profound advice from the jaded and experienced critic played magnificently by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. 

Truth is many – maybe even most – of us who write online are not cool.  And hanging out with authors you love can sure as hell make you feel as if you’re sitting at the cool table.

I’m not suggesting for even one moment that writers are cynically forming friendships with reviewers in order to garner favorable reviews.   That would be ridiculous.  And, honestly, I think if I asked the ones I know well, they’d also admit to some degree of discomfort when friendship even begins to enter the picture.

Still, I think there are ways you can legitimately work with writers with whom you’ve crossed a personal line. Interviews?  Cool.  Promotional help when you’re upfront with readers about it?  Cool.  Reviews? Not cool.

Because it’s bound to come up, for the record, I’ve been thinking about this topic for weeks now and it’s something I’ve been refining in my own mind ever since I dug up that Almost Famous clip on YouTube. Also for the record, I do not question in any way the ethics of Dear Author or any of its reviewers.

Because, honestly, there’s another inescapable truth about reviewing online:  Everybody who does this does it because we love the romance genre.  It sure as hell ain’t for the money.

-Sandy AAR

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2 Responses to “When It’s Time to Step Away”

  1. Janet W says:

    Fascinating — and oh how timely. A gf emailed me and said there were Pulitzer Prizes for Criticism — so clearly there is respect for and professional standards out there for this field. And yet I agree with everyone that says deep down, of course a reviewer is a fan too — why else spend their life or their leisure this way?

    If you turn it around and ask yourself what best serves an author’s purpose, I would say a heady mixture of fans, new and old, pimping your product in conversation and in blogs and through comments on places like Amazon … but that actual “reviews” like the ones on DA, and AAR and other online review sites, will carry more weight and be more respected if there’s a bit of a Chinese wall between the person doing the review and the author. This is of course my opinion — and I even sort of disagree with you a tiny bit — a lunch with a group of people say at a place like RWA — should that preclude you from being a reviewer? Not necessarily. But a lunch once a week, having a professional and/or business relationship, being a “friend” … yeah, I think so.

    I’m sure this topic will be revisited time and again. It would be interesting if AAR could interview a reviewer from another genre, say a movie or music critic, and ask where the “danger spots” are in that field.

  2. AAR Sandy says:

    Thanks, Janet W, for commenting. I know most of the conversation is taking place on the message boards so thanks for throwing a bit of it over here. The Chinese wall between reviewer and author is exactly my point. And, I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear, but having lunch with authors at RWA shouldn’t preclude someone from being a reviewer, but maybe the authors’ books should be off the table. The reviewer may be well able to distance herself, but that appearance of impropriety thing is a bitch. Still, I think I trust reviewers here at AAR – this is the only online site that I know what happens behind the scenes, so I can’t speak for anyplace else – to know when they’re nearing the line. And I think we do.

    I’ve interviewed authors and emailed authors and knew that I was still clear. And, actually, the number of authors I’ve actually taken off my table is pretty low. Just when I know I should, it’s crystal clear..

    There is a lot of schmoozing at RWA and I am one of the schmoozers. That’s where it can get complicated.

    That cool table is…well, very, very cool.

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