Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sticks and stones...?

“Nasty and mean-spirited.”

Me?! The editor’s email set me back, and I’m still processing its impact. I’m fairly confident most people who know me even a little would not use such descriptives. Am I in denial? Maybe she sees something in me I refuse to acknowledge.

Or maybe she’s full of it.

Over the past two years or so, I’ve written book reviews for a respected online journal. I received some excellent volumes, added a number of decent bylines to my writing credits, and enjoyed the experience. But it didn’t provide an income. I found another site, which shall remain nameless, that offered cash for each review in addition to the book. I sent in my clips and was accepted to their roster.

My first assignment was a disappointment. It was a self-published non-fiction book which could have used another good round of edits, and probably another rewrite. Decent enough, I suppose, but if I’d paid money for it, I’d have regretted the expense. Unfortunately, that has been my experience with self-published volumes in general. I know there are exceptions, but I’ve found very few. I danced around the issues and submitted a bland, vague, unsatisfying (to me) review. The editor loved it.

I nearly dropped the site after that first round, but decided it really wasn’t a fair evaluation of their offerings. I should have heeded my instincts.

The second book was an unmitigated disaster. It too was self-published, with a graphic cover and fancy text. Inside – formatting issues galore, random punctuation, disjointed scenes, huge chunks of information-dump narrative and dialogue. I plowed through, missing my deadline for the review, but with every intention of finishing. A politely-worded email from the editor to half-a-dozen reviewers reminded us of the due date. Strike one against me, from the editor’s perspective. I fully admit my responsibility in that regard. I’m usually very good with deadlines; this was too much of a struggle and I didn’t meet my obligation.

Then my laptop died, and with it, my email archive which contained the site’s guidelines. I still had an email address, and I knew the expected word count, so I figured I could get by. My memory was faulty and I didn’t provide all the pieces they request (title, author, publisher, 25-word quote, all at the beginning of the piece). Strike two.

I tried very hard to abide by the AWW workshop dictum of love notes first, then criticism when reviewing a manuscript. It was tough to find anything good to say about this book, but I did try.

And then I laid it out in plain language. Strike three.

Since my honest effort was summarily rejected, I’ll let you be the judge. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, and telling details have been omitted:

While the premise for (title) is mildly intriguing, this misidentified “trilogy of novellas” is a rambling attempt at a novel that never quite lives up to its potential. The characters are flat and largely indistinguishable; the protagonist (John Doe) elicits more scorn than sympathy as he bumbles through an unlikely string of scenarios…(Doe) fumbles through a series of increasingly improbable situations as dead bodies accumulate. The final “novella” is dedicated to long rehashes of the crimes from the first two sections which brought (Doe) to the improbably-convoluted ending.

The writing is uneven, with stilted dialogue and largely information-dump narrative that too often tells a tale that would be better shown. Another good round of editing could have eliminated the many punctuation errors and smoothed out the choppy text. I truly wanted to enjoy this book, but in the end, I had to force myself to finish reading. This is yet another self-published effort that should not have been.

Harsh? Most definitely, but how does a reviewer write an honest critique of a terrible book without harshness? “Nasty and mean-spirited”? That was certainly not my intent. I tried to imagine the author, what he must have felt about putting his work out there, who told him this effort was ready for publication, if anyone did (and the vanity press that took his money). I know how terrifying a prospect that is whenever I submit my pieces and I feel great compassion for his efforts. How is a wake-up call more gently delivered after a book is on the market? Should I simply have declined to write the review?

Doesn’t the very fact that the author put his book out there, expecting people to pay money for it, open the work to more pointed criticism than what might be received from a standard submission to an agent or publisher? If I bought a book because of a glowing review only to find something so thoroughly lacking in polish as this was, I’d be furious with the author and the reviewer.

Needless to say, my days as a book reviewer are over. But I’m still stuck on the “nasty and mean-spirited” comment. The possibility of being perceived that way certainly gives me pause. Maybe when I rushed to get the review in, on an admittedly frustrating day, I let my emotions spill onto the page unfairly. Even as I reread it though, I can’t find anything I disagree with. I always tell Hubby, “It’s in the delivery.” Did I ignore my own advice?

To any other book reviewers out there, how do you handle such situations?


  1. Harsh maybe, but writers need that, especially when they are self-publishing crap and wanting people to pay money for it. Mean spirited and nasty? Hardly! Imagine what Query Shark would have done to it! Sometimes the truth hurts, but it's part of being a writer. Don't worry over this!!

  2. Thank you...I've been beating myself up pretty good over this!

  3. I agree. If I received the book for free I might be a little more forgiving but if I paid good money for a book, I expect it to be polished and interesting. I rely on book reviews to make purchases, I really do and I often look at the negative remarks because they are often more truthful. While I am known to give nicer reviews to blog buddies, I still don't want to lie. I don't think your review was bad. Would I want you to say that about my book? No. But if my book was that bad, I would want truth like that.

  4. Thank you, Clarissa. I feel the same way.

  5. I thought it was cool, but not venomous. I certainly didn't see anything mean-spirited, thoug if it was me I might have stricken that final sentence.

    I guess that's reviewing, though; even objective reviews are going to be taken personally. I think all you can do is try to be fair and honest. It's sort of pointless if it all becomes cheerleading - if everything gets the same stamp of approval, the stamp becomes worthless.

    1. Thanks, Bryan. I've been second-guessing everything, including that last sentence, since I received the editor's comments. Fair and honest is my goal.


Your thoughts?