Publishing and Marketing 06: Writers Welcome and Reviewing Etiquette

So right now on Twitter and Facebook, there is an intense debate brewing regarding (as of when I started writing this last night), essentially, the right of authors to step into blogger-space to offer commentary on reviews, whether they are stepping in to correct mistakes in a review, or making narratives clearer by offering their intentions with the choices they made, or whatever else. It all started with a highly condescending blogpost on the Strange Horizons website, by blogger Renay. And that in itself is an extension of a review of Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series on the Book Smugglers blog. The comments sections on both posts are very illuminating.

Now, before I get into the meat of my argument about the behaviour displayed by the people concerned, I’ll say this outright: this kind of behaviour pisses me off. This is why I sometimes hate being a reviewer because it is people like Renay and Ana at Book Smugglers who outright give reviewers a bad name, whether they realise it or not.

Hence, why this article is titled Writers Welcome and Reviewing Etiquette. So, here’s another Publishing and Marketing post. As always comments are most welcome, whether you are an author or a reviewer or just a reader.

First off, let’s get into the core issue at hand here.

Ana posted a review of a book series on her blog. Ben Aaronovitch, the author of that series, then stepped in and offered some, what he thought of as helpful, commentary that he no doubt hoped would clarify some things for the reviewer. Common wisdom in publishing says that reviews are for readers and not authors. Ben was clearly aware of that wisdom when he responded. Nevertheless, he responded in a civil manner and made his points respectfully. Whatever harmless intentions he had, the situation escalated to controversy levels, due to Ana’s massive overreaction. She responded to his comments with hostility and spun the entire issue as one of sexist implications. Here’s the money quote:

A male author steps into a female space to specifically ask her to rethink about the romantic relationship between characters even though the original post has nothing of the sort.

The emphasis is mine of course.

All of this happened back in July. Now, some months later, Renay wrote an editorial for Strange Horizons where the core concept of the piece is that the (so-called) industry is getting in the (so-called) fanspace and that they should just butt out of it. As with Ana’s review, the comments section of Renay’s editorial proved to be a place where author bullying was being rigorously practiced.

Now, the important bit to consider here: did their arguments have merit outside of how they were worded? Yes. I’ve already alluded to this before. When writers step into blogger-space and engage with critics, there is a certain level of caution that needs to be exercised. They need to be fully aware that the situation can bleed over and get out of hand. Yet, at the same time, I find it rather disengenuous when a reviewer proclaims that authors should just plain stay away. That doesn’t help with anything.

The purpose of being a blogger, a reviewer, is that we are creating areas of dialogue and discussion, between us and readers, us and creators, and readers and creators. We are creating a platform where we can engage in civil discourse because the publishing culture has changed remarkably in the last decade. Social media has made these interactions explode in volume and has brought everyone much closer together. All these changes give us an opportunity to interact closely with the people we admire, we respect, and whose work we enjoy reading and discussing.

So why throw it away? Why put up a wall around your “personal” space and discourage these creators from reacting to you?

Because, are we not doing that same thing as they are? We are creating public platforms and we are inviting discourse. A blog is not a Facebook profile or a personal diary, where you can limit who sees you and interacts with you, or where you can keep your thoughts secret. I’ll repeat: a blog is a PUBLIC space. And bloggers make that choice automatically. Anything you say on a blog, whether as a post or as comments, is public. You can pretend all you want that it is your “personal” space, but the truth is that it is not personal space in the common definition of that term.

You have ownership of a blog. You decide what tone and content to promote. You decide who to invite, explicitly. You decide what comments and reactions go up on that blog from your blog readership. That’s all completely true. It is your personal space because you operate and own it. But, it is a platform where you are discussing things publicly. Given appropriate tags and your social media promotion, its all public, easily searchable through any search engine. If you want it to be “personal” then you’d better make it accessible through a password or something.

However, none of that means that you should be pretending that you are operating in some sort of a vacuum from which creators are barred. We as reviewers and bloggers are here to create communities. We build them and develop them with the goal of making them grow further, as far as they can ago. And communities are meant to be inclusive, not exclusive. The moment where we expect our platforms to be restrictive, what we are doing is nothing short of creating a club of elitists. And elitist clubs are best avoided. They do nothing but promote that elitism further. They do nothing but promote segregation of one kind or another. By their very nature, they say that they don’t consider other people to be their equals or that their opinions just flat out don’t matter.

Let me be absolutely clear at the risk of repeating myself even further: I find behaviour like this among reviewers/bloggers to be despicable. It gives me a reason to avoid their platforms despite wanting to actively engage there as a reader.

We review a book or a comic or a song or a short story or a movie or whatever other media strikes your fantasy. We have already put ourselves on a public pedestal by doing that. We are saying: this is what we think. We are asking: what did you think? Anyone should be free to comment as a reader of that blog. And that reader can come from any kind of fandom an in any capacity. The reader can be a straight-up consumer of that entertainment media or be a creator. We should NOT, in any way, restrict their involvement, because that just breaks the illusion of community.

Just by putting a review up, we have given free license to everyone out there to chime in, whether in support or otherwise. This applies to both readers and to the creators. I am fully of the opinion that creators have the right to respond to reviews. We are talking about their work after all. Work that took them however much time it did, whether that can be measured in minutes or hours or days or weeks or months or even years. If we have the right to respond to their work, then they have that same automatic right. You can’t deny it. To do otherwise is to delude yourself. How are they meant to engage with reviewers if we keep them away, deliberately so? If we can interpret what they write in our own way, then they can interpret what we write in their own way. They may feel that we have made some mistake and they have every right to respond to that, in the hope that by doing so, they are furthering the discussion.

Of course, a LOT depends on how these responses are worded, whether we are talking about reviews or creator responses. That’s where we all need to exercise an appropriate level of caution and common sense. Don’t set out to mischaracterise someone or draw obviously wild conclusions and then respond as if they were the facts. Take a look at what your response is going to be, whether it will be worth the effort, both in time and mental stress that it will necessitate, should things do downhill.

Because things often go downhill. There needs to be a heavy amount of restraint on both sides but the sad fact is that reader/reviewer entitlement and self-righteousness is so high these days that its better to ask creators to exercise that restraint. To not give time to any obvious baiting or to not step in to offer any corrections, unless they are already familiar with the reader/reviewer in question and are aware that their interaction will be welcomed.

As a blogger who talks about fiction (comics, movies, novels, etc), I welcome all sorts of discourse on what I talk about. I have only one stipulation: that the discourse be civil and respectful. I’ll admit that I have not paid attention to that myself at times, most notably earlier this year in January when I posted my first negative review (of the year) and got dragged into a flame-war because of that review. But I actively try not to escalate things with incivility. It serves no purpose except to make it all worse.

This is why, from now on, I’m making a very simple statement, a statement that I hope other bloggers will pick up on. I say this because I don’t want to be a part of a restrictive community, I want to be part of a fully inclusive culture of discussion where anyone can speak their mind without fear of any kind of reprisal. Without any fear of bullying, such as the one displayed by Renay and Anna. Without any fear of bullying such as the one promoted through that hateful site-that-shall-not-be-named where authors engaged in shaming reviewers and exposed their personal details.

The caveat of course is that the discussion be civil. The statement is this:

To all authors and readers, you are more than welcome to comment on any of my editorials or reviews and post your responses. I encourage it. I want to engage with you and I want to hear your thoughts. I don’t want to just hear my own echoes. The true currency that is worth having as a blogger is being able to foster a meaningful discussion, whether simple or complex. As long as you are respectful, I do not mind at all that you come to my public space and offer whatever commentary you prefer. I value your opinion, even though you may disagree with mine, because unless there is that back and forth, unless there is any kind of difference in opinions, no one can really grow. You have to come into a discussion open-ended, willing to hear the other person out and then respond in a mature manner. Coming in full of bias, throwing around accusations? That does nothing.

So there you have it. That’s my statement as a reviewer.

Banner

I am the Master of MS Paint.

Now, there needs to be something more visual to go with a statement like this. I am terrible at any kind of visual design. I do have some MS Paint skills of note however, and this is the best I can come up with. Sure, its silly and will most likely make you /facepalm at me, but I think we can use some humour now. There’s been enough seriousness going on.

Blogger and Twitter friend of mine, Gav has already gone ahead and already made a far better button on his blog. Other blogger friends have also responded to this whole controversy here (Ria of Bibliptropic) and here (Sarah at Bookworm Blues). There is an excellent unpacking of Renay’s arguments here. Authors Mazarkis Williams and Joanne Hall have talked about it here and here.

And I’m sure that there are more around the web. If you find any links do send them my way!

*****

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Posted on September 16, 2013, in Editorial, Publishing & Marketing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. First of all, and this is not something that you’re alone in doing, I think everyone is taking both Ana and Renay’s comments way out of context and ascribing intentions and even words to them that aren’t there in the text. As that is exactly what everyone else is blaming them of doing, I find that ironic.

    I’m having a hard time putting this comment into words. It’s not that we disagree on how people should interact – with civility, reason, and caution – but I also don’t agree with your assessment of Ana and Renay’s behaviour. Within the context of Ana’s review and The Book Smugglers’ history of looking at the position of women in genre, her reaction you highlighted in your commentary isn’t unreasonable, and similarly, as Renay said in her column herself, knowing the sort of fandom Renay comes from into SFF, her reluctance to engage with creators isn’t that strange. Context matters, and many people seem to have forgotten that yesterday.

    Now, speaking for myself, I welcome everyone to comment on my blog, whether they agree with my reviews or not, but I think it’s disingenuous to say that because we review the authors they have the right to correct us. If it’s a factual mistake, yes of course, but if I interpret an action or emotion from a character differently than they intended it, they shouldn’t tell me I’m wrong. My reading of a text is my reading of a text, influenced by who I am, my experiences as person and as a reader. Hell, even in my Midkemia Reread, I’ve noticed myself reacting differently to characters and events just because I’ve changed; even if the text is the same, it affects me differently. And no matter what the author intended me to think about a character or to feel about an event, they can’t tell me I can’t feel or interpret it the way I do. We can have an interesting discussion on why it made me feel that way and whether they’d considered that interpretation, but telling the reader no, it ‘should’ be read like this, just isn’t an option in my opinion.

    To end on a lighter note: I stand in awe of your MS Paint skills. I might know my way around Paint Shop Pro and Photoshop (a little), but my and MS Paint are like water and oil, we just don’t mix!

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    • A fair opinion. Having read the entire comment threads in both places, I feel that I stand corrected over Ana and Renay’s comments. Its a little hard for me to take things seriously, or with some kind of objectivity, when someone offers an opinion as if it was a law, which was what Renay did in her SH article. I find myself, at the least, irritated when someone makes accusations of sexism and talks about compassion when it comes to authors responding to reviews etc. At the very least, it all comes off as ridiculous.

      I don’t have any prior experience with either of them, or their blogs, so I can’t rightly talk about their contributions, but based on this one example, I’m not interested in knowing anything really.

      However, I recognise that the post as it is written comes off extremely one-sided and that I essentially gloss over Ben’s own role in this. And as I said to Patty in the comments here, I have a feeling that there might be a scene like this in the future involving Ben, once more. He appeared rather… strident that because he had the right to respond to critical interpretations of his work, he would do it, regardless of what kind of situation he was walking into. He put the onus on the other party, and I’m afraid that that’s entirely the wrong view to take.

      If you are… burned already by an incident, then you should try to stay away from any such incidents in the future. That’s what I’d advise him.

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  2. Well said!

    I think that blogs can be very personal things, an extension of personal space, but in that case, they’re usually personal blogs, not hobby or review blogs. Those kinds of blogs are typically for public consumption, and as such, there’s an unspoken understanding that the public is entitled to have an opinion on your opinion. As many other people are saying, so long as things are kept respectful, then discussion is encouraged and we all get along pretty well. There are limits to what a person can be expected to swallow, and somewhere along the way, that line got crossed and this whole situation blew up.

    A commenter on Twitter said, quite wisely, that this whole thing is ridiculous and there shouldn’t be any need for statements about author-friendly zones. I agree. There shouldn’t be a need. Just like there shouldn’t be any need for minority organizations, or gay pride parades, to convince people that we’re all worthy of attention and respect. But opinion even on this seems to be so divided that yes, there is a need to say it, or else nobody’s going to know, and the assumption is going to be that all review blogs are author-free zones and we don’t want their opinions.

    When 9 times out of 10, the opposite is the truth.

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    • Your second paragraph says it all really. There shouldn’t be a need for such zones or such groups or such movements or such whatever. But sadly, there is, because we don’t live in an ideal world and ideal things don’t typically happen. Gotta roll with the punches, come out smiling and go ahead with a positive ahead. My positive attitude to all this: I positively encourage authors to come to my home turf and discuss things. I want to engage with them in a discussion. I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable or hesitant about it regarding my possible response.

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  3. As author and private reviewer, I agree with you, even though I’m personally in the do not comment group.

    As author, I tend to stay away from reviews for the simple reason that discussing them with reviewers often heads south very quickly, and that reflects well on no one.

    But while this is a personal policy, I can’t see why authors can’t comment if they want to do so. Even if, as reviewer, I’d prefer they didn’t. If all exchanges remain civil, there is no need for restrictive policies.

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    • As has been mentioned by many people already, it all comes down to “righteous indignation”. Nobody likes to be corrected, or made to be corrected, whatever the intentions behind that. Once that starts, its a slippery slope to getting upset over the littlest things.

      And based on the extremely brief conversation I had with Ben Aaronovitch on Twitter, I suspect that something like this might crop up again, sadly.

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  4. sorry it took me so long to come over here and reply. I watched the debate unfold on twitter the other night.

    If you were a street preacher, would you specify that certain people weren’t allowed to stand on the street corner and listen to you? Of course you wouldn’t,right? By running a blog and “shouting my opinions into the internet”, I am effectively, a modern street preacher. And I’m not going to tell anyone they shouldn’t listen to me, or shouldn’t interact with me. An author wants to comment on my review, whether they agree with my review or not? that they even notice me, I am tickled pink.

    this is all already beginning to blow over, which means my 2 cents are worth even less.

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  5. 1) If a blogger doesn’t want an author to post comments on a book review, put up a sign saying so.
    2) If an author decides to post comments on a book review when the aforementioned sign is clearly visible, then he/she deserves to have flaming monkey poo thrown at him/her.
    3) If a blogger is writing reviews for something like, say, Kirkus Reviews, they are part of the industry dynamic.
    4) If a blog is taking part in a blog tour and hosting a giveaway, it’s promotional for the author and therefore, part of the industry dynamic.
    5) 99.9999999999999% of Planet Earth doesn’t read blogs
    6) 99.9999999999999% of the book buying public doesn’t read book blogs
    7) Authors are basically neurotic and we all read our reviews, even when we say we don’t.
    8) This kerfuffle wouldn’t be happening if there wasn’t so much emphasis on authors doing the lion’s share of book promotion when they should be, you know, writing books.
    9) This is going to continue to happen. Just watch. Two weeks ago Nathan Bransford chimed in about GR bullying and a dog pile ensued: http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2013/09/the-bullies-of-goodreads.html
    10) Comment sections filled with bad behavior is nothing new. Flame wars exist every single day in the comments section of a gajillion blogs, forums, online media, newspapers, you name it.
    11) The dynamic is such that “one must prove they are right” at all costs. The anonymity of not sitting in front of the person you disagree with promotes bad behavior on the part of both sides.
    12) I have not seen any empirical evidence that shows a dramatic upturn in book sales because of book blogs that review – I could be wrong – but I just haven’t seen it.
    13) Most book bloggers do it for funzies.
    14) Many active bloggers want to be taken seriously as literary critics. Literary critics in traditional media have an editor, bloggers don’t. Chew on that one for a bit because part of the job of an editor is to call you on the quality of your writing as well as the context of what you are trying to convey.
    15) I am going to get my umbrella now as I expect to wind up showered in flaming monkey poo.

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