There’s a bit of a debate going on about what constitutes inappropriate bias in reviewing. If authors and reviewers (or authors and editors) are friendly on Twitter, should readers infer that a positive review is the outcome of that friendliness rather than the genuine opinion of the reviewer? Over at All About Romance’s blog, Senior Editor and Publisher Sandy Coleman argues that congeniality on Twitter means the author-reviewer relationship irrevocably compromises the review process and by extension undermines the credibility of the online review community. Not surprisingly, this post has generated a lively discussion in the comments, and since Jessica highlighted it in her Monday Morning Stepback column, the debate has heated up over there as well, with Sandy chiming in to clarify and reinforce her position.
I don’t believe that friendliness precludes honest reviewing (and I’m sure as hell not taking print reviews as our guide when this stuff has been going on for at least a decade), but I find the post’s emphasis on Twitter particularly odd. This is medium which limits each comment to 140 characters and allows participants to use pseudonyms and make up information about their whereabouts (I’m pretty sure that @jane_l was not tweeting from Tehran when that was her listed location). The format is not conducive to creating strong bonds among its participants. Relationships may begin or be reinforced there, but authentic friendship is going to go well beyond tweeting and incorporate email, phone calls, or even (horrors) face-to-face contact. The rest of us will never see those interactions. We may see manifestations of those deeper relationships in Twitter conversations, but we can only make inferences about what they represent. Some seemingly intimate Twitter buddies don’t have relationships beyond Twitter, while others who don’t tweet at all have deep friendships. So focusing on Twitter to smoke out author-reviewer intimacy may be fun for weaving conspiracy theories, but it’s at best incomplete and at worst useless as compelling evidence.
I regularly have enjoyable conversations with a handful of authors on Twitter, but these are professional friendships. What I mean by that is that we have a common interest in romance, I like their books, and I like talking with them about issues in reading and writing romance, but we don’t talk about personal stuff, and we don’t have regular email communication (if any). Our twitter dialogues may go on for a while and even turn into something that looks like cliquish friendship [sic], but they are no more signals of real friendship than dinner-party flirtations are signals of affairs. So I don’t really worry about Twitter relationships corrupting my ability to review those authors fairly.
A particularly unfortunate aspect of this latest Twitter-centric complaint is that it obscures all kinds of other biases that creep into reviewing. We regularly debate a predictable set of issues that arise from the ways in which author-reader closeness in the romance community affect the author-reviewer relationship. But as I’ve been reading certain genres and publishers more systematically over the past year, I’ve run into a different issue that I haven’t been able to resolve to my satisfaction. It’s about my relationship to an author’s voice, or style, rather than to the author as a person.
Readers frequently talk about authors who are autobuys; they expect to find every book an autobuy author publishes to be worth reading, even if they don’t like all the books equally. Sometimes we have a love-hate relationship with the author’s work, in which case variation in response comes naturally. But sometimes an author’s style just works for a reader, to the point where the reader can legitimately recommend every book the author has written. Now, this is the holy grail if you’re a reader, but it raises certain difficulties for a reader-reviewer.
The biggest difficulty for me is that if I recommend every book by an author, I am afraid I lose credibility as a thoughtful reviewer. I’m not worried about the people who think I’m a friend of the author; I know I’m not, and if you assume all my positive reviews result from friendship I’m not going to waste my time trying to convince you otherwise. I do worry, however, about whether people find my reviews less useful when I tell them that a particular author is an autobuy for me. And since I review at Dear Author, which, according to a longtime member of the romance community, is one of the Big Two blogs, my reviews apparently have the potential to be quite influential.
I can’t change my attachment to authors’ work, and I don’t want to (hey! I’m a reader first!), but I want my reviews to be useful. So how do I accomplish this, aside from the obvious, i.e., I state clearly in each review that I am a big fan of this author’s work and make clear the aspects that work/don’t work for me? These options have occurred to me:
(1) I review the books I think are particularly good. Upside: Readers get reviews of what I consider the most successful books. Downside: Each reader’s idea of what is good and bad in the genre is different, and I lose all credibility, because not only am I a cheerleader, I’m useless for those who don’t connect the way I do.
(2) I review some of the work but not all. Upside: If I choose a random sample, then my reviews will vary. Downside: The variation will still be within the recommended range, and I may still lose credibility.
(3) I review the author’s work very infrequently. Upside: The reviews are utterly credible, because no one thinks of the author as an autobuy given the paucity of reviews. Downside: the author gets much less exposure on a major (Big Two!) review blog. This is especially unfair to authors I read whose books aren’t consistently reviewed on mainstream blogs.
(4) I review everything, or as much as I can manage given my time constraints and let the chips fall where they may.
I don’t really like the first three options, so by default I’m following option (4). But I’m obviously somewhat dissatisfied or I wouldn’t have written this post. So I would love to get feedback, suggestions, and/or comments, from both authors and readers. Forget about reviewers becoming friends with authors. What happens when a reader who is also a reviewer falls in love with a voice? How does she write trustworthy and useful reviews?