The Demands of Reviewing with Shadowhawk

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Shadowhawk kicks off a new guest post series for the blog.

“Over the next few weeks, expect to see some prominent and fantastic book bloggers share their insights on the moments when reviewing gets tough to handle.” ~Shadowhawk

First things first: Reviewing is not an easy thing to do. It demands a very specific commitment that is different from most other styles of blogging, and requires a near constant amount of online and offline interaction and eats up a significant chunk of “real time”. It also means being critical of things you love, and in a short while, your brain gets wired a certain way.

What I mean by that is that after you start reviewing anything, be they movies or comics or whatever else, your brain automatically starts to think of things in a certain way, and you start picking up on things that you never would have otherwise. It’s not all as simple as just reading something (or watching or listening) and then writing about what you liked or not. It’s more than that.

Anyway, I could have easily chosen the more positive aspect of the hobby to show off here in this series, but some recent experiences put paid to that. And that is why I want to explore the topic that is at the heart of the whole idea here.

The tone of this post and the others to follow can be somewhat negative at times, but keep this in mind: there is a lot that happens behind the screens for a book blogger, and we are all giving you the chance to see some of it. And the most important thing is that this is a hobby that we love to do, so despite all these hardships, we are still committed to doing what we do best: share with your our thoughts on the good and bad stuff both (the balance may vary of course), and help you decide your next reads.

Now, to the important things.

This is a new series of guest posts for the site here. Once a week, I will be inviting a particular blogger and he/she will share his/her thoughts on what they consider to be the demands of reviewing. This is something that I’m quite excited about, and hope that you all enjoy it. Spread the word, discuss these posts, and just have at it!

Anyway, I’m kicking off the series (and I will be closing too, so this is a “limited” series), and here’s what I have to say.

*****

I came up with the idea of this guest post series last month. I had just published my first negative review of the year, Pariah by Dan Abnett, and I slammed that book. Normally, I like most of what he puts out, but every now and then, he puts out something that I don’t like, something that I, perhaps, even dislike very strongly. This was a case of the latter.

Immediately, and then on for about ten days or so, I got slammed in several venues, including right in the comments section of the review. People took issue with the spoilers I mentioned in the review, and that my tone was overly negative, that Dan Abnett is the best thing since sliced bread and I must be crazy to down rate one of his books, that I had no idea what I was talking about, that I had poor grammar and sentence structure and should learn how to self-edit if I ever wanted to be an author, that the review was a jumbled rant.

And on and on it went.

I took a stand on all of it of course. Emails were exchanged. Tweets sent. Facebook discussion threads dissolved into a bunch of name-calling. Forum discussion threads (some moderate in their criticism, some extremely vocal) often went off-topic.

And on and on it went.

It was one of the most disillusioning moments of my time as a blogger, the second such that I’ve had to endure ever since I started my personal blog in late March 2011. The other was last year, when I reviewed Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Night Lords audio drama Throne of Lies, and gave it a low score. That one actually got me a ton of hate-mail, and I’m quite relieved that the same didn’t happen this time, at least not in the same kind of volumes.

Such instances are almost enough to make me give up on the whole thing altogether. The amount of vitriol people show, not to mention all the rants of their own, is just staggering. And I thought religious fanatics were… well, fanatics. Author fandoms can be extremely short-fused as it turns out

Normally, whenever people comment on my reviewing style/skills, I don’t give it a second thought and just move on. I try to discuss whatever the person in question took an issue with, but it’s almost half-hearted on my part. The reason is this: it is bound to happen. Just like not every novel is a bestseller and is not liked by every reader, so it is with reviews. So it’s not really that big a deal when people look upon my work with disdain and hostility. They are more than welcome to it.

What made this instance different was this: I get regular comments from people that I lack integrity as a reviewer since I don’t do negative reviews, especially for Black Library books. They think that is a great disservice (to put it mildly, and in my own words!) for me to go about with this mindset and that I shouldn’t bother with it.

Now, there are several things that go with it, and it is something that most of these people, about 99.9%, just plain overlook.

One, I actually do write negative reviews. I have a few up on The Founding Fields, and a couple or so on my blog. I am not opposed to doing negative reviews in any way, it’s just that I don’t focus on them. My reasoning: I read about 114 books last year (many of them trilogy-sized omnibuses!), listened to 39 audio dramas and 9 audiobooks, in addition to about 153 comics (single-issues and graphic novels both). You can check out my last year’s entire reading list here. That’s a ton of reading in a single year. I can count on a single finger the amount of people I know who read more than me in 2012. All that reading means that I cannot really give every good novel and bad novel and everything else reviewing space.

It’s just not possible. And most people fail to realise this.

So I must, by needs, pick and choose what to review. And I focus overwhelmingly about books that I enjoyed, that I loved. Why? Because these are the books that excited me, that made me think. With books that disappoint me, that I find to be tediously written, I always consider a trade-off in terms of how bad the book was, and whether I really want to discuss all that disappointment. And most of these bad books fail in the latter department. I’m just not motivated to review them, especially the really bad ones.

I’m far more amenable to discuss the bad stuff in forums.

I do this as a hobby, not as a job. I have the freedom to do what I want with this hobby, and that is what I do. I don’t want to have any restrictions on myself, especially not outside restrictions. The community expects that I should or should not do certain things. I respect the community, but respect is also a two-way street. If all that ends up happening with my negative reviews is that I have to deal with a bunch of idiots and jerks every time, that I must read dozens of vitriolic comments, then why would I do these reviews? I’m not that much of a sucker for punishment, thank you.

I do have some self-dignity, some self-respect.

Two, people focus too much on ratings. For me, a negative rating is a 6.5/10 or lower. The problem with the community is that they focus too much on the rating, and not the content. There really is no way to get the community to consider both the rating and the content together. It’s an uphill battle. Several reviewers don’t do ratings for this reason. They want the content to mean something on its own. I’d like to say that I’m the same way, but I also recognise that ratings are an important part of the book blogging culture all the same. Every online bookstore has a ratings system with its reviews, and ratings can sometimes be the make or break for an author, especially debut people.

So I tend not to publicise my bad reads so much. I don’t want to spread too much negativity, and I choose to focus on the positives.

Now, I also realise that my ratings system isn’t clear, and this part of the problem. People have taken issue in the past with certain reviews where I mentioned one or two flaws for a book and still give it a high rating. This is where the trade-off happens again, and I consider whether that flaw is enough to take off that crucial point, or whether the book truly deserves the full score I want to give it.

It’s all subjective people, and there are no hard and fast rules about it. I stand by everything I write in a review. Sometimes I may get details wrong, sometimes my prose may not be all that readable for some of you, but I still defend what I write, how I write.

One thing I can say however is that going forward, I will be a bit more strict with the ratings.

Three, I do a negative review for a Black Library book, when I’ve been slammed for not doing such before, and suddenly a few vocal voices get started on a condemnation… campaign. *sarcasm* Definitely did not see that coming! *sarcasm* And I am serious! There were comments by a particular person on the review itself, on our Facebook page, and on at least one forum! Talk about dedication!

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. Here was someone I have barely engaged with previously, and mostly ignore, but then all of a sudden, said person is all over the place, proclaiming how I essentially suck as a reviewer, and how the review reflects badly on the fan community and all of The Founding Fields crew. I dealt with it (mostly) in the best way that I could think of: with amusement and derision, rather than seriousness. I suppose everybody needs a nemesis of sorts, and you got to handle this kind of stuff with humour, and not let it get to you. It’s tough, but it is what it is, and we all just have to deal with such things as they happen.

So like I said, there were endless discussions everywhere, and walls of text in several places, and in the end, I just got really sick of it. A few author friends and bloggers and other friends who had been keeping an eye on things thankfully offered up some great encouragement, and I’m quite thankful for their support. Without that, I probably would not be sitting in my front of my computer typing up all of this with as much nonchalance and ease of mind as I am right now.

Four, that because I get books for free and do only positive reviews, I’m nothing more than a marketer and my opinion is not worth it. I’ve already talked about one of these points, but let me talk about the other: getting books for free. I ask you: so what? Most bloggers get books for free. Many of them, as I’ve already said, don’t do negative reviews. Does that mean that they lack integrity? I’ll be honest, that’s a point of discussion I absolutely detest. My choice of what type of reviews to do or not do should not, in any way, cast aspersions on my integrity. Any time that my integrity is questioned, I see red.

I like to think that I’ve worked pretty hard to get to where I am today. I started off reviewing books I paid for, and then reviewed. I’ve exchanged emails for months on end, trying to get marketing folks to send me eARCs/ARCs of upcoming releases. I’ve done tens of interviews and invited authors for guest posts. 157 reviews in a single year (my 2012 output), thirteen reviews a month, is not a breeze. And that’s on top of maintaining my own blog, doing an occasional movie review, having a day job and having the time to read and listen to all that stuff!

And I’m at a point today where I automatically get offered advanced copies by publishers. I’ve had a review quoted in a print book written by one of my favourite authors. I’ve been asked to do interviews and guest posts by my fellow bloggers. It surprises even me, but there are people out there who value my opinion and trust in that opinion. Some of the friends (author and otherwise) I’ve made in the almost 2 years of my blogging career trust in my opinion that they will at least consider buying a novel that they would not have otherwise.

That kind of respect is not easy to earn or develop, and I take any attack on my integrity very seriously.

Yes, I’ve gotten dozens of books for free in the last 13 months. It doesn’t mean that my opinion should be dismissed out of hand. I write a review how I feel. I don’t enforce any kind of partiality. If I like something, I like it. If I don’t like something, I don’t. It’s as simple as that. What you read in any of my reviews is my honest opinion, and should be given the basic courtesy due such an opinion, as if it were yours. Otherwise, why come back again and again to read my reviews? And yes, I’ve seen that happen too.

What really matters in the end is to have a trusty support system. It’s not just authors who need this; bloggers can use it just as much too.

You know, this entire post may come across as an unorganised mess to some, but you know what, I’m not worried about it. Different people see the same thing very differently. This is a topic that I wanted to get off my chest, and I hope I’ve shared something meaningful here.

*****

The next guest blogger will be my good friend Mieneke van der Salm, who runs the excellent website “A Fantastical Librarian“, on the 21st February.

Shadowhawk is a regular contributor to TFF. A resident of Dubai, Shadowhawk reads, reads and reads. His opinions are always clear and concise. His articles always worth reading.

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