Conflation of Review and Critique, or How to Annoy Me

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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November 28, 2015

I’m at a convention this weekend. It’s a nice little convention and they have a better Code of Conduct and accessibility policy than World Fantasy did, despite being a fraction of the size of World Fantasy. Imagine that.

But that’s not what I’m here for. I am here to talk about a panel I attended this evening about how to respond to criticism without being “that guy”.  The description and the fact that the panelists were all writers or editors (or both!) lead me to believe that this would be a panel on critique and revision–and it was, after the first half of the panel.

The first half of the panel conflated reader reviews posted in consumer-facing spaces such as Amazon or GoodReads with ones published in trade publications. There was no acknowledgement of the difference between the role of reader-reviewers and peer/colleague/editorial feedback (not even going into reader or academic criticism, which I feel to be substantially different from reviews). Reviewers for trade publications have different considerations as well and have additional editorial oversight. There was also no acknowledgement that there is usually a power differential between a reader-reviewer and a writer. 

I asked about this at the end of the panel because I feel that conflating these things does a disservice to all parties because their functions are different, and while I was somewhat satisfied with the panelists’ responses (although I did not like the moderator’s invocation of this situation as an example of the power differential because that had nothing to do with reviewing or criticism), what happened next was very much, well, a thing.

Someone else asked the panel if they had opinions on people “hate-reviewing” books and flooding sites with bad reviews and the people on the panel all agreed that reader-reviewers “bullying” authors was a real thing that happened and that if you dare respond to such “bullying” that you are only “feeding the beast”.

So in one breath the panel acknowledges that they’ve been conflating all different kinds of responses to a work into an amorphous blob without acknowledging that there are different audiences and different purposes for each kind of response–which, yes, and any panel on criticism/review quite frankly should define its terms at the beginning and try to be consistent which this panel was not. 

But then they turned around and basically gave credence to the idea that it is possible for reviewers to bully authors and that there are, apparently gangs of readers who go around doing this simply to make authors’ lives difficult?

I don’t buy it. I know that semi-organized shitpiles have happened, but they are not anything usual outside of GooberGate circles (who regularly downvote all sorts of things just to be harassing assholes about it). I just don’t know. The panel went to a weird and bad place and I was left with a really bad taste in my mouth and the feeling that most of the people on the panel believed this and I really hope that wasn’t the case.

Because the advice to not get involved in the shitpile if one happens to you is excellent advice, but the belief that these things happen all the time and that they’re organized or some readers’ main purpose in writing reviews is not a helpful belief to have or to propagate. 

Reviewers are not reviewing for authors. I don’t know why that is so persistently hard to understand. People who take the time to review your book usually aren’t doing it as a favor for the author, they’re doing it because they’re either being paid for it or because they feel that the act of reviewing, in and of itself, is valuable (or sometimes both!).  Publicly posted reader reviews–of all sorts–can help sales and visibility but that’s not the reason they exist and I am beyond tired of authors thinking that reviewers work for them and that they should be able to define the limits of reviewer discourse.

In summary: I probably shouldn’t go to these sorts of panels if I’m not on them because I only get riled up. And I have ridiculously high standards for panels, thanks Readercon.

And in conclusion:


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  1. Jonathan M

    It’s kind of unfortunate that convention programming has arrived at a place where they think it both useful and reasonable to have a panel about reviewing that doesn’t contain any actual reviewers.

  2. teleseparatist

    I think there is a useful discussion to be had about hate-reviewing, and bringing authors into it (as though they were the most important party) effectively silences it. I think it’s a sad thing when 1-starred DNF reviews that frequently misrepresent the reviewed books tend to get 10 times as many likes / reblogs / etc. as positive reviews, because they are liked by people who *haven’t* read the book, just for being entertainingly awful. Why do we enjoy reading people be mean — that seems a valid question to ask. Not “why are reviewers mean to authors” — they aren’t. They are mean for the enjoyment of other readers, and it’s sometimes really undeserved, and yet it’s still not an attack on the author, and they have the right to do that — though I wish others didn’t actively encourage it.

    As a reader, I do feel iffy and sometimes even get upset observing the hate-reviewing that seems to be growing on GoodReads, my platform of choice. When I see a book I loved, a book that I feel deserves to be appreciated and read by many, 1-starred by a popular reviewer (I mean, people for whom this is clearly a main hobby and whose reviews get dozens if not hundred of likes), it does make me somewhat sad, especially when reading that review reveals that the person only browsed through the book, is willing to misrepresent plot points completely (whether on purpose or because of reading very fast / skipping parts). I feel like we should encourage thoughtful reviews (I don’t mean we shouldn’t be harsh critics – I have 1-starred a book in my life) instead…

    But when it becomes a “goodreads bullies” meme this discussion becomes impossible to be had.

  3. Heather Rose Jones

    I wasn’t at that specific panel (we seem to have not intersected much except in the lobby!) but I’ve been to several nearly identical at other conventions. In all cases, the panelists and the conversation seem to be coming out of the indie/self-publishing community rather than mainstream publishing and reviewers. In part, I suspect it’s simply different cultural expectations, but it’s also the case that authors who have large mainstream publishers can afford to make light of 1-star reviews or ignore them entirely. In contrast, when a book struggles to get into the double digits of reviews in the first place, even a small concerted effort of hate-reviewing can be disastrous.


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