Saturday, 4 August 2012
Talking Point: Reviewing Books Vs Authors
I haven't really commented on the Site That Shall Not Be Named here on my blog. Mostly because other people have spoken out about it far better than I could. But there's one point that's really been bothering me (I mean, aside from all the stalking and creepiness, which is far more serious), so I wanted to post about it and get my thoughts out.
One of the main "arguments" the Site That Shall Not Be Named makes is that certain reviewers are bullies because they criticise ("attack") the author, and not the book. By their logic (and I use the term loosely), any review that mentions the author is inappropriate; and if the comments are negative then it's a "bully" review. Unfortunately, they're using the recent kerfuffle with hidden reviews to validate their argument, especially Patrick Brown's reference to how reviews should "review the book and not the author."
Now, I agree that book reviews should be about the book itself, and not the author. But to use that idea to claim that book reviews should never mention the author is preposterous; if we hid every one that did this, there wouldn't be many left on Goodreads or in the blogosphere. Does that mean they're all "bully" reviews? Hell no. It just means that in many cases, mentioning the author is relevant to the book in some way. Because book reviews tend to discuss things like language, characterisation, story structure, plotting, grammar... you know, things the author created. Discussing the way the author did these things is an integral part of many reviews, and does not equate to a "review of the author" or a "bully" review.
Of course, an author's personal life should never be discussed in a book review. Unless - and oh god I'm scared to say this but dammit it's my opinion - it's relevant to the book. I studied English Literature at uni, and we always learnt about not just the texts, but the authors themselves. Their lives, personal experiences and beliefs were studied to give context for and insight into their work. As Victoria Foyt, a "victim" according to the Site That Shall Not Be Named, says herself, "Writers pluck bits and pieces from their lives and weave them [into their work], often unconsciously, only hoping the seams between reality and fiction do not show."
I'm not saying that we should know or mention all the gory details of an author's private life. That's creepy (I'm looking at you, You-Know-Who). But if they, say, make public statements about their doubt that African Americans read or talk about their personal horror at being called a racial slur one time (when it was something "usually targeted at blacks"), and their book is about race - then yes, what the author says or does in such situations is entirely relevant to a critique of their work. Especially if those statements have been made in relation the book.
I don't think it's right to rate or review a book that you haven't attempted to read. Note I say attempted - if you do give it a go, and it's a DNF - then I think it's completely valid to explain why that's the case in a review space. It's also valid to boycott a book based on an author's behaviour. This is not bullying. This is exercising your rights as a consumer. It's the same as boycotting Chris Brown's music because he is violent, avoiding a food chain because of their views on sexuality or refusing to shop at a certain store because of their crap customer service. Creating personal shelves on Goodreads - which, by the way, is one of the main purposes of the site - so you can keep track of which books you're boycotting (in addition to reading or coveting, natch) is a legitimate use of the site. Naming those shelves whatever the hell you want is not only OK, it's encouraged - note Goodreads lists "overrated-drivel" as one of their favourite shelves - and it shows you have imagination and a flair for words (unlike certain people who Shall Not Be Named). Seeing additions to your friend's shelves pop up on your home page and investigating why they've shelved books that way, before deciding for yourself where you stand on a book and shelving it accordingly, is also a valid use of the site. It's social networking! That's the whole point. It's. Not. Bullying.
You know what is bullying? Verbally abusing, spitting on and holding down a co-worker; belittling, harassing and physically assaulting a fellow student; telling a teen girl she should kill herself; or even falsely accusing someone of being an alcoholic and a negligent parent. All of those things are examples of bullying. Writing negative reviews, creating snarky shelves on Goodreads, discussing books and authors with friends on the internet, and criticising a public figure on a social network? None of those things are examples of bullying.
If all else fails...