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Archive for September, 2010

Snark

The Web has greatly increased the number of book reviewers available these days, both for ebooks and print books. And that’s all to the good. Given the number of books being published, it’s always helpful to have lots of people posting their own reactions to the latest books available, particularly if those books may appeal to a specialized audience who might not hear about them otherwise.

Some of these review sites present straightforward reviews, the kind of thing you’d find in Entertainment Weekly or Time or The New Yorker, assuming those magazines actually deigned to review romances. But there are also some sites that are largely the creatures of the Web, the ones I think of as snark sites. The reviewers on these sites do like some books, but it’s not the positive reviews that their readers look for. Instead, it’s the negative reviews, the books that the reviewers hate, that get the most hits. There’s something about seeing somebody eviscerated in a few well-phrased paragraphs that really appeals to a lot of readers.

Predictably, most authors hate these sites. At RomCon last summer, some authors argued that reviewers owed authors at least some respect for the fact that they’d actually finished a book and gotten it published, which is, granted, more than a lot of the reviewers have done. While I can sympathize with this point of view, I don’t necessarily share it. Reviewers don’t really owe us anything. Much as the snarky reviews hurt (and having been on the receiving end of a couple, I can testify that they do, in fact, hurt a lot), reviewers have an absolute right to say whatever they want.

Above and beyond this right, however, I actually do understand some of the impulse behind snarky reviews because I’ve felt something similar. As I’ve said before, I once was on the faculty of Enormous State University in South Texas. I started teaching in the English department, and then moved into Communication. In this capacity, I read more papers than I want to remember—thousands, possibly tens of thousands. Early in my career I took workshops about writing comments on student papers, and I did my best to follow them. Start with something supportive. Concentrate on one or two problems the student can work with rather than trying to list everything on particularly hapless papers. Try to couch suggestions in positive language.

As I say, I did this for many years. And with many of the hapless papers, I could offer something helpful because I could see that they students were trying, albeit not getting very far. But the longer I taught, the more I lost patience with some of the papers. Some students clearly hadn’t spent any time on their writing, and the results were sloppy and often well-nigh unreadable. Sometimes students went on making the same mistakes over and over, not because they couldn’t recognize them but because they couldn’t be bothered to do anything about them. Some students simply plagiarized something from the Web. These students pissed me off, and I found it increasingly difficult to write helpful, supportive comments on their papers. I longed, in fact, to tell them precisely what I thought—that they were wasting my time and their money in blowing off assignments. That other people wanted their seats in the class and that they might profit by seeing what awaited them in the “real world” if they continued to screw up. I wanted to write comments on their papers that were decidedly snarky.

Although some snarky reviews may be written just because the reviewer knows snark is popular, some may come from a similar impulse. The reviewer was hoping for something good and instead got something that didn’t meet her expectations. The author has wasted the reviewer’s time and the reviewer is, consequently, pissed.

Now the author may legitimately reply that she did the best she could, and that she (and her editor) believed the book was actually pretty good by the time it was published. But the reviewer may well be operating from the same set of feelings I had on reading the third plagiarized paper in a row. Maybe she’s spouting off because she expected, and wanted, a lot more.

In romance terms, you can think of her as a disappointed suitor. And as romance writers, we all know what that leads to!

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There’s been a running discussion about Facebook on one of the author’s lists where I’m a member. First of all, the new Facebook place app had everyone (including me) annoyed and getting instructions for turning it off. Then the discussion took a sharp turn, as these things are wont to do. One author had received a comment from a stranger who said she was a “cutie.” She took umbrage. After all, her photo only showed her eyes peeking out from behind a book. How could the guy call her a cutie? Wasn’t it vaguely creepy? Did it mean she was facing a potential stalker?

After that the messages came hot and heavy, mainly from authors explaining why they weren’t and would never be on Facebook or MySpace or that Twitter thing (whatever it was). According to many of these authors, this social media stuff took too much time. If you got involved, you spent all your time posting instead of doing what you should be doing: writing. Better not to post at all than to waste time you could be devoting to your craft.

Dangerous, all of that stuff. Rife with mental cases, all looking for potential victims. Liable to cut into your writing time so thoroughly that you’d never finish that 200,000-word historical you’ve been working on for years.

Be afraid; be very, very afraid.

I must admit that, as usual, I kept my mouth shut, largely because I couldn’t think of any way to staunch this flow of near-hysteria. I’m on Facebook, of course. Also Twitter, MySpace and Goodreads. As of now, I’ve received no inappropriate messages, and I find they’re a helpful way to connect with readers and with people I know personally. But then again, I’m also a ebook author, which most of the people who were having hissy fits were not. Which means, of course, that I use digital media a lot (and it hasn’t bitten me yet). I know there are cyber stalkers out there, but I haven’t ever encountered one on Facebook or Twitter. I’m pretty careful about who I friend, and I don’t automatically follow everybody who follows me.

As for the time issue, I’ve known people who were addicted to Twitter and spent an awful lot of time out there. I’ve known people, similarly, who spent hours on Facebook. Needless to say. I’m not one of them. I post two or three times a day and do a quick check to see what my friends have to say. Then I do, in fact, go back to writing.

But the people who never post at all are somehow certain that all of this is threatening. If they once give in and start using Twitter, they’ll be sucked into some kind of infinite time sink that will keep them from ever finishing anything. And should they post anything on Facebook, Hannibal Lecter will show up on their doorstep tomorrow.

I think there’s a certain retrograde flavor to all of this. A lot of print authors would very much like the publishing industry to return to what it was in, say, the nineties. Or, better yet, the eighties. At any rate, they long for a time when publicists took care of all this, and when communications from readers arrived in envelopes with stamps.

And I can sympathize with that idea up to a point. The problem is, of course, that it’s not going to happen. Some writers can afford to ignore all this Internet stuff. Linda Howard, for example, still doesn’t have a Web site of her own separate from her publisher’s site, and I haven’t seen Nora Roberts posting on Twitter lately (although, Lord knows, a lot of people post about her). But most of us have to work harder than that.

Facebook, Twitter, MySpace et al. aren’t evil. They’re not salvation either. They’re just another way to reach people. If you prefer not to use them, more power to you. It’s your choice. But please don’t try to justify that choice by implying that they represent some kind of Sinister Plot to undermine the time and integrity of romance writers. Take a deep breath, pour yourself a glass of something, and get back to work.

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