I hate Jersey Shore. I saw it just one time, when my daughter was watching the first episode and I happened to be in the room. I found the people horrifying, and the very idea that I was watching them filled me with despair. The only reason I would ever read Snooki’s book is if I was locked in a padded cell, and it was the only available reading material (in which case I’d read anything, up to and including all sixty zillion volumes of the annoying Magic Treehouse series, Cassie Edwards’ exclamation point filled backlist, and my husband’s tax accounting books). Clearly, Snooki and friends are not for me. Two of my colleagues, on the other hand, just can’t get enough of the Guidos and Guidettes. They eagerly await each new season and frequently discuss what’s happening. To them, it’s a guilty pleasure. Are they just idiots? Is MTV irresponsible for producing Jersey Shore? It’s not exactly high brow, after all. What if people start thinking they should be drunk all the time and show up late for work (because Snooki does that – or at least she did in the episode I saw)?
Those seem like silly questions, but last week’s heated discussion about rape and forced seduction made me think about how we get caught up in similar debates about romance novels all the time. Over the years I’ve seen it take many incarnations. Sometimes it’s that an author is stupid, or her writing is terrible, and anyone who reads and enjoys her books must be a moron. Sometimes something about the book is irresponsible – the way they handle a social issue or illness. The sexual behavior of the hero and heroine. Irresponsible and stupid lead to “bad,” and sometimes, to “dangerous.”
During my life I’ve been a critic and/or a reviewer of books, movies, theatre, live events, and art. I’ve written a weekly book review column as well as a weekly art critic column.
Everywhere I’ve worked and for everyone who edited my writing, what a critic or reviewer is and should do has been a bit different.
In the early ‘70s, my editors saw the job as that of critic, the point being to give an honest critique of art pieces I saw in local galleries. Critique, in this case, meant being harsh. I tended to write my columns only about pieces I liked and avoided technical art language in favor of the language used by everyday people. I tried to describe the art in terms of how the piece made me feel, not how the various art elements worked in the piece. Oddly (to me), my columns produced positive letters to the editor, which, of course, made my editors happy.
When I switched newspapers, I became a critic at large, being assigned various entertainment events to cover. This included people like Tony Orlando and Dawn or Liberace, family events like the Ringling Brothers Circus, and generally any event other critics couldn’t cover.
I admit it: I am a Malcolm Gladwell fan girl. I don’t stalk his blog or anything, but I’ve read all his books – two of them twice – and found them all fascinating. I recently reread Outliers: The Story of Success, and was giving some thought to the notion of expertise. If you haven’t read it, or aren’t familiar with the idea, the whole book discusses at length the idea that in order to be an expert at anything at all, you need to put in ten thousand hours of work. Talent is important, but mostly because it fuels hard work.
I got what I’d politely call a very confrontational e-mail from an author last week. She writes for a smaller press (electronic and POD), and referred to herself as an “independent author.” The gist of her e-mail was that AAR unfairly discriminates against “independent authors.”
Now, I’m not new to this job; I’ve been doing it for over a decade now. I learned long ago that there’s no way to please everyone. In fact, there are some days when I feel like I can’t please anyone (reviewers, readers, authors, publishers). But this particular e-mail made me realize that perhaps some clarification was in order.
And somehow I just can’t bring myself to mourn.
I’ve read the Washington Post almost daily since I was a teenager and I am, not surprisingly, a bookie. And I was from the moment I first got a book in my hand.
I remember the days 15 or 20 years ago, when Book World was a lively, interesting place where I’d read about new writers I wanted to explore. I remember discovering Anita Brookner and Elizabeth George from the pages of the magazine. There also used to be a literary quiz question every week that was really challenging, but sometimes I actually knew the answer. I’d be smug for the entire day.
About 10 years or so ago, something happened to Book World. Okay, I’ll tell you exaactly what happened to Book World: Michael Dirda (gaseous bagus humongous) took over as editor. From that day on, the publication became a joke, with its heavy focus on virtually all non-fiction reviews by male authors – and I am totally not kidding.
In a recent thread at our Let’s Talk Romance Novels Forum, the question was raised why reviewers write reviews, what they get out of it (if they don’t receive any remuneration, which is the case at almost all online review sites and blogs), and whether they are beholden to the authors whose ARCs they receive or whose favor they may wish to gain. Reading that thread made me consider why I review.
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.