Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Ask Winston

What wisdom do you seek from Winston today?

Before I dig in to today's question, I have to say I've sniffed and sniffed around but haven't found any additional questions in my inbox. So, unless some of you inquiring minds out there fetch some up, I'll be retiring my Ask Winston column. Not that I want to cause you to howl, but that will mean that the Two-Legged Writer will be responsible for even more postings and we all know what that will mean. So toss me another question or two!

Back to the task at hand: A writer recently contacted me with this worry: 

Dear Winston: I've just finished reading a book by a friend. And I didn't love it. He's going to notice when I don't post a review on my GoodReads page. What do I do? Signed, Faint Hearted Reviewer

I personally prefer chewing paper to reading it but lots of you two-leggers seem to enjoy curling up with a good book. By nosing around on the Two-Legged Writer's laptop, I found out there are two reviewers she relies on and, by sheer good luck, they were both willing to tussle with this bone.

Liz Burns is a public librarian. She blogs at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy, which recently moved to School Library Journal. She loves all types of stories, which means she reads a lot of books and watches a lot of TV.

Dear Winston,
Well, that is the dilemma! 
I have had a good friend publish a book and thankfully did not have issues with it. Still, I wondered as I put together my review if I was truly being objective about it or was my entire reading experience impacted by a close friendship and a long-term relationship with the actual book. Christine Marciniak has been my good friend since 4th grade. Last year, her first book was published: When Mike Kissed Emma (Climbing Rose Press, 2009). I knew that book almost as well as Christine did by the time it was published! I had read the original version, later drafts, gave her comments about plot and the like. Frankly, I knew WMKE was too close to me to really "review." Impossible. It would have been like being the judge at a talent show where my niece was a contestant. So what I ended up doing was a post that disclosed our friendship and didn't even try to be objective and just listed the top five things I liked about the book. 
Most of my other relationships with authors are "on line friends": we connect via blogging or twitter or facebook, chat over those social media sites, occasionally see each other and meet in real life at a conference or event. We may have coffee (like I did at ALA with the Two-Legged Writer you live with) or breakfast or just run into each other on the exhibits floor. I don't disclose these types of things on my blog reviews because I think it's becoming more common and, truthfully, it can be hard to track. I'd disclose if it got to the point where it was the type of friendship where we invited each other to dinner at our houses. Have you cooked for me? Have I cooked for you? If the answer is "yes", it's going to be hard to be objective. I guess it's lucky that I don't live closer to author-heavy locations like New York City; if I did, and such friendships developed, then I'd have to confront and re-evaluate how to handle that.
What also helps is I view my blog as two-fold: I post about what I truly love (hence the need to disclose if there is a relationship) and also what I think other people will like to read. I may point out inconsistencies or uneven writing, but I don't do snark. I evaluate honestly, but the point of my reviews is not a laundry list of errors but rather what made me like a book or want to recommend a book.
That said, when an online friend wants to send me a book? I say the blogger's prayer: "Please let it be good, please let it be good, please let it be good." Luckily, my prayer is usually answered.

Your friend,

Linda Johns
writes middle-grade fiction, including the Hannah West mystery series (starting with Hannah West in the Belltown Towers), and is a librarian at The Seattle Public Library in downtown Seattle. She is working on a teen novel and dreaming about the day when her basset hound will bark a little less so that they can be a duo in the Read to Rover program.

 I like every book I read. At least that’s what you’d think if you looked at my Goodreads page. And it’s (mostly) true.

Earlier this year, I toyed with the idea of giving every children’s and YA book I read a five-star rating on Goodreads for several reasons, chief among them is that I truly agonize over reducing the experience of reading a book to a number system. This seems extra difficult when trying to separate myself from the author of the book, particularly if it’s someone I know and like. In the end I’ve decided from this point forward to give every book I mention publicly (and there are lots of books that I read – or perhaps start and abandon -- but don’t list anywhere) a four- or five-star rating.  

Since I’m a librarian in my day job, I’m constantly thinking about who out there might like the book I’m currently reading. Sometimes my enjoyment of a book is skewed by my excitement of wanting to tell a library patron that I came across a thriller she might like, or that I found something that truly is funny for a 13-year-old guy. I look at each book to see how it stacks up for what it’s supposed to be. Is it a really good cozy mystery? Did it succeed as a middle-grade page-turning adventure story? Is the lush language something that works for the story and its intended reader?

Now, let me try to defend my position of not giving critical reviews. First and foremost, I am a writer and I know – and am continually humbled by -- the overwhelming amount of work that goes into creating a book. We have a tight-knit, supportive group in the world of children’s and teen publishing, and I can’t distance myself from the authors and illustrators I respect so much. I genuinely enjoy their work because I see these friends in their stories and artwork. And, I’ll admit, on the most basic level I don’t ever want to hurt someone’s feelings.

I no longer review children’s or teen books for publications or websites for these same reasons. Besides, journal reviews are primarily for librarians and booksellers these days, and have very little influence over individual reader’s inclination to pick up a book. Most of us come to books through friends and coworkers, whether it’s a personal recommendation, networking on Goodreads or Library Thing, an application on Facebook, or something you see in a blog reader or Twitter feed. We can’t underestimate the words that any of us use on any of these platforms. The most casual mention, whether it be a rave or a snarky dig, can have a tremendous influence on what people in our networks might choose to read.

There’s a reader for every book (and a book for every reader; just ask a librarian!), and I can’t imagine being the person who gets in the way of a reader’s enjoyment.

Oh, and Winston – I’m giving five stars to everything you write. You totally deserve them.
Love, Linda
Well, thank you Linda, for that vote of confidence. And thank you, Liz, for sharing your insights on this topic, too.While I personally have no problems putting my paw down when I don't like something, I can see it can be a bit problematic for you two-legged critters. Of course, we all want more folks reading kids' books and that can be a good place from which to start a review!


  1. Thanks for these perspectives. I think it helps when the reviewer explains up front the kind of reviewing s/he does. And of course, if there's a personal relationship that's good to disclose.

    I don't think it's snarky, though, to call out a book if it's been hyped up to be something it's not. I figure those books are fair game, and if someone has a valid criticism, it ought to be shared. I pay a lot of money for my books and I appreciate knowing where to turn for a good review.

    I have a question for Winston: Is it a good idea for a new writer to establish herself in a specific genre or form? Or is it okay to explore?

  2. I just want to put in a vote for Ask Winston. It's answered some questions for me. I'll try to think of something to ask in the future.