Reading, Reviews, and Responses
© 2007 Lynne Pierce
Never ask your editor for a favor!|
A few months ago, I had written a review for a book that was past the deadline for JAW, but I really wanted to get it in for that month. I asked my editor if she would do me a favor and make an exception. Certainly, she said, in exchange for writing one article for JAW. Never ask your editor for a favor! Sadly, now I can't remember which book it was or why it was so imperative for me to get it in that month, but here I am paying off my debt. I thought I could get myself out of the assignment by saying I had absolutely no idea what to write about, but, clever woman that she is, Nann Dunne told me to write about how I pick books to read and what process I use in reviewing them. So, here goes.
It used to be easy to choose books if you were interested in lesbian literature. If it was by Naiad, you bought it. Occasionally, you might find a book by someone else, but Naiad was basically it. Not that they were easy to find. Gay/lesbian friendly bookstores were rare or nonexistent in many areas, but Naiad sent a catalog, suitably disguised, and mailed books, also suitably disguised, so a reader could whet her appetite. (It occurs to me here that I'm definitely dating myself and that those of you who have been "out and proud" for years are probably wondering what planet I stepped off of.) Because Naiad didn't publish that many books and most of them weren't very long, that left plenty of time for reading other works of literature.
That began to change significantly in the 1990s. If I put a search in Amazon.com for "lesbian literature," all sorts of books came up by companies such as Alyson, New Victoria, Fortitude Press, Renaissance Alliance, and Rising Tide Press and I quickly became familiar with them. Then Naiad gradually gave way to Bella Books, some of the old presses folded and new ones emerged, like Bold Strokes Books, Regal Crest Enterprises, Bywater Books, P.D. Publishing and Blue Feather Books. (My apologies to any companies I've left out.)
Now there are so many books coming out that keeping up with them has become a definite problem and I haven't read anything but lesbian literature in years. I have about eighty stacked up and waiting, plus a Wish List on Amazon that has another forty in it. I also have stacks of non-lesbian books, so thoughts of retirement grow stronger all the time. Most people think that's because I've finally had enough of dealing with students, but the real reason is that I don't know how else I'm going to keep up with my reading.
Choosing what book to read involves no system at all for me. With so many waiting in my stacks, it usually comes down to which cover or story title appeals to me at that moment. I'll read anything - mystery, romance, adventure, speculative/scifi, anthologies - so I find I still have a somewhat varied diet. Reviewing books has changed my approach to what I read however. I find that most of the prolific publishers are getting their books reviewed all of the time. I decided some time ago that I would make a concerted effort to read books by other publishers so that those books would get some exposure also. Bella, Bold Strokes and the others are in my collection, of course, but I have been known to sit at the Author House web site and go through every fiction offering looking for lesbian themed books. I have the web sites of at least eighteen companies bookmarked on my computer, and I take a tour through them periodically to see what is being offered. This has allowed me to discover some writers, like Constance Irvin and Donna Kelli, whose books I would not have known about if I had chosen books only from the more popular publishing houses. Some have been real treasures and others…well. It's been nice to observe that StarCrossed Productions, for the last year or so, has begun listing books by some of the lesser known presses and that means they're getting wider exposure.
I have to admit that I'm amused when people say they can't write reviews, yet, if I ask them what they "think" of the book, they always have plenty to say about that. What more is a review than someone's opinion? Some may be more intricate or follow more formal guidelines, but in the end, they're simply what someone thinks. When I first approached Nann Dunne about contributing to JAW, she sent me an extensive article about how reviews should be written. Lori Lake also provided some input, and I read everything with growing alarm. The articles talked about mentioning tone and voice and perspective. Passages should be quoted and examples given to support opinions. The more I read, the more I realized I would have to go back to my college English books to write reviews like that. There are other people who have no trouble writing reviews that fit within those guidelines, but I made a conscious decision to keep my reviews from my perspective as a reader.
I started reviewing books on Amazon for a simple reason. I buy my books on a limited budget, and I know a lot of other people do also. Some of the books I read were so terrific that I thought people should know, if you only have $15 to spend, THIS is the one you should buy. Then there were others that were frankly so terrible, I was angry that I was fooled into spending money on them and I wanted to spare other readers from making the same mistake. That has influenced my reviews ever since. My guidelines are, what is the book about and would I want to spend $15 or more to buy it? Does it really make a difference what voice or person a book is written in if it's a good book? Is the mystery a mystery until the end of the book or can you figure it out by the end of chapter two? Is an adventure story really full of action or is just a conduit to carry a love story? Is a love story told in an intriguing manner? Does it have an interesting twist that makes it stand apart from the rest? These are the things I look for as a reader and try to reflect in my reviews.
There are differing thoughts as to the tone that a review should take and how it should be processed. Some will not write about a book if what they say will not be positive. One view is that, with mainstream society giving gays and lesbians such a difficult time, no one needs to be adding to it. The argument is that positive reviews bolster the writers and publishers, plus show support for the community. There are also those people who advocate that reviews should be sent to the author before they are ever published. The theory is that the author can correct any inaccuracies or tell the reviewer if too much of the story has been mentioned, thereby keeping a review from being too "revealing." Both of these attitudes are puzzling to me.
In my opinion, if all you ever have to say is positive, then why bother to write a review? Simply put your name behind the sentence "I like it," and that should be sufficient. How does it strengthen lesbian publishing and writing to let poorly written books be printed and sold in the stores? People who read badly written novels could come to the opinion that lesbian fiction isn't worth reading. When a story is well told, then that should be said. When a story is exceptional, when a publishing house develops a reputation for putting out a quality product, then that should be celebrated. However if the story is poorly handled, if the editing is badly done, or the book falls apart in your hands, isn't there an obligation to point those issues out? How does it strengthen the whole to let the weak hold it back?
And why are negative reviews considered attacks on the literature as a whole? A good gardener prunes the tree to make it stronger. Hopefully, negative reviews can accomplish the same thing. There are standards for all things. And, if you make an effort to be sure that what you write is accurate, then there's no need for an author's approval, not to mention the predicament of what to do if the review is accurate, but the author doesn't like it. I have sent reviews to authors after they were written, but only if they asked me specifically to write a review, and then I sent it as a courtesy, not for approval. As I've said, author approval isn't my focus. I have learned though that the part about not revealing too much of the story can be a touchy issue. Writers have a certain sense of how they developed their stories, and they want their readers to discover plot details in a certain manner. A couple of writers have taken me to task for telling too much, and I have worked on making a summary enticing, without being too revealing.
The most important characteristic for a reviewer has to be that what you write is honest. It has to be based on what you sincerely feel about the book and not colored by alliances to any author or company. Once you start writing reviews based on pleasing authors and publishers, you are no longer a reviewer, but have become a promoter. This isn't always easy. Recently, I've had writers asking me if they can send me free copies of their books to review. This always presents a dilemma because, if someone gives you a book, how can you write that you didn't like the book? I always respond by telling the writer that I will review the book as I honestly see it and that may not be to the writer's liking. If she's willing to accept that condition, then the book can be sent. Fortunately, it's only happened about five times so far and I've basically liked all of the books. I'm not looking forward to the day my good luck runs out.
There's a certain disadvantage to not always writing positive reviews. Some people don't like it. Everyone has favorite authors, and fans can be touchy when you don't praise a book by their favorite. Some publishers haven't been reticent about letting their feelings be known either. If you participate in any of the online groups, the reception can be definitely chilly sometimes. Most authors and publishers are very supportive however, and I've received very complimentary emails from authors even when a review wasn't 100% positive. There's also the added advantage of hearing from people that they appreciate my reviews because they aren't always positive, so when they are, they know I mean it. That's very encouraging.
Finally, if you write many reviews and participate in many groups, you'll find yourself being drawn into the literary community. You get to know more of the writers and publishers, if only by email. One intriguing thing about the Internet is that it can cause people who've never met to feel they actually know each other. Friendships develop. That can make it more difficult to write what you honestly think about a book, especially if it's not positive. If you want to write reviews, the best I can recommend is that you stick to what you truly feel about a book and, if you're writing to perform a service for the readers, remember that you are not the publicity agent for the authors, the publishers or lesbian literature. Buying a light suit of armor might not hurt either.
Lesbian fiction has come a long way since the days when Patricia Highsmith, Ann Bannon and Jane Rule were struggling to see their work in print or Naiad was the only company around. Now there are more companies producing more books. There are certainly more authors, and among those are a significant number who go beyond the old formulas and create stories that focus on adventure, suspense, mystery and science fiction. In today's romances, more characters show up who don't have perfect bodies, have some grey hair and wrinkles, and generally reflect more accurately the daily lives of the readers.
Although gay/lesbian bookstores are becoming an endangered species, the Internet and such companies as StarCrossed Productions and Amazon.com are putting books well within reach of most readers. The industry is emerging from being a garage-based sideline into a rising force in the publishing world. Reviewers can play a valuable part in that process by providing honest, strong evaluations of the books and thereby helping to prune the tree.
©2007 Lynn Pierce
Back to Article