Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Defense of Book Reviews

This is something I posted a little while ago on DeviantArt, and in light of recent developments decided it was something I should share here as well.

If you've never been to DeviantArt, here's a little background info for you. dA is a site whose primary goal is the sharing of art. When you upload a piece (a deviation), whether it be a photograph, drawing, or text piece, you are given a number of categories to list it under. Under the Literature category there are the following choices:

That's 46 different options just for Literature! I use the Literature->Prose->Non-Fiction->Reviews & Guides category for all my book reviews I post there (mirrors of the ones here).

Another thing to note about dA is that it has groups. Groups can be about practically anything. From Dutch Jewelry Artisans to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Fans to Any And All Poetry, there's pretty much a group for anything. And if there's not, it's super easy to make one. Groups are essentially for connecting members (deviants) with similar interests, collecting and displaying art/literature that appeals to that member pool. Some groups require membership in that group before submitting pieces, others allow any pieces from anyone so long as it fits the theme and abides by the rules.

And thus my story begins.

I've been a member of dA for about 5 years and I've never been much about groups. Sure, I run a LXG fan-group when I have some spare time, but as for my own work, I've never been much for exposing it.

That all changed when I started promoting our Smiling Moon Creations account. I realized if we were ever going to get any customers I'd need to start submitting our work wherever I could. We're in over 300 groups now...

But as for my own StormyWolf account, I still didn't do much in terms of promotion. Sure, I uploaded my reviews and linked them back here, but I don't think I ever got many clicks.

And then I read and reviewed Rusty Fischer's Vamplayers. Not only did I love the book, but I found out that it was being offered for FREE through the end of February. And as a book-blogger, I naturally wanted to spread the word to as many people as possible.

DeviantArt provided the perfect audience to get the word out. Between the vampire groups, the literature groups, and the review groups, I figured I could at least reach a couple interested people. So I joined and submitted my review to probably upwards of 30 groups.

A lot of groups turned it down. No big deal - I half-expected it from them. Keep in mind that a lot of literature groups don't accept non-fiction at all, and I don't have a problem with that. Sometimes groups' rules and guidelines aren't 100% clear, so I take a chance and join & submit my pieces anyway. If they're declined, I shrug it off and go along my merry way.

One rejection, however, rubbed me the wrong way.

I came across this particular group fairly late in the scheme of things. It was a literature-based group, and the group description said it would accept all prose, but not non-fiction, fanfiction or character guides. Okay, not a problem, on to the next group...

But wait! There's a Non-Fiction folder in their gallery. Probably a small change that they forgot to edit into the group description. So I thought I'd give them a try. I joined and submitted my review.

Some time later (the next day? I don't honestly remember) I receive a message in my inbox:
Group Admin: Please,submit works written by you,we do not really accept reviews.
Now, I wasn't completely certain what the message meant. Was I declined because they don't accept reviews? Or did they think that my review was copied from another person/source? I mean, I do link to this blog in each review, so perhaps they thought I was copying off another website?

On the off-chance that it was merely a miscommunication, I wanted to clarify that I had in fact written the review. At the same time I was a little insulted so I replied a bit tersely:
Me: So a non-fiction piece written by me isn't accepted? ...okay then.
Honestly, I didn't expect a reply. Oftentimes group admins are busy enough with reading through subscriptions that they only allow one communication per submission. But to my surprise, I got a response within the hour:
Group Admin: You did a review of a book,every person can do it and give a different aspect of a book and our group is not for promoting books,so,this group is about literature: poems,stories,visual poetry,etc...

Non fiction would be a story from real life,perhaps an anecdote in which you are plasming your own experience about something you lived.
Understandably (to any fellow reviewer) I was more than a little peeved, so I slammed back a reply:
Me: No clue what plasming is, but at least I know your narrow definition of non-fiction now.
No, seriously, wtf is plasming??? Anyway, after that I immediately unregistered from the group.

Well, this weighed on me for a few hours (the reply as a whole, not plasming). I mean, did book reviews really deserve such a brush-off? And what about the group description (or lack thereof)? I run a group and I know that as much as I don't approve of some of the art or lit I receive, I haven't made any guidelines or restrictions to the contrary, so I feel I'm obligated to receive those works. I know others don't share this opinion and use themselves as quality or appropriateness judges (honestly, I wanted to save myself the headache).

In the end, I figured the least I could do was address the rest of the group admins (all 26 of them) with my concerns. I sent the group a private note (only visible to the group admins) with the following:
Me: In response to the decline of my submission to the non-fiction folder...

For the record, yes, everyone can give their own opinion of a book, relating their experiences while reading it. But millions of people can also write about how they experienced 9/11, or what they're thinking about for 15 minutes. If what you're looking for is "Creative Non-Fiction," which is in fact a genre, then state that.

In fact, it would be most helpful to post that somewhere in the group rules, folder description or group description. Because right now, all you have concerning non-fiction is in the group description where it states, "We accept all genres of prose except fanfic, non-fiction, and character profiles." Obviously that's not true since you have a Non-Fiction folder.

In short, please don't insult me. I put just as much effort into what I do as anyone writing those non-fiction pieces that you have accepted in your gallery. And if you're rejecting it because of quality of the piece (which I doubt you've checked), then say that.

[followed by a transcript of my conversation above]
I received a reply in my inbox the next morning with (in my opinion) an even more flippant and insulting reply than I'd received previously:
Same Group Admin: Nobody insulted you,I gave you an explanation about why we declined your submission,non-fiction has nothing to do with reviewing books.

As I said,we accept literature,we don't need adding 'special names' to the non fiction in which we display or portray the experiences we have lived and we always check all what is submitted to any category,we decline all those works that simply lack quality as well.

Besides,why complaining if you left the group?
Note: I'm not sure whether the missing words were because of attitude or because English isn't her first language (as indicated on her profile page).
I was absolutely livid.

As much as getting into fights is kind of invigorating, I know that hurting and getting hurt doesn't give nearly as much satisfaction as reaching an agreement. It's not about being proven right (though that does feel great for a while) or wrong, it's about reaching a hard-fought state of common ground.

As such, I usually vent a lot, then delete most of what I write and go with a more tactful approach. I don't know if I achieved that in the following reply or not, but I believe I at least provided in a few important defenses for book reviews... This was my reply:
Me: Non-fiction is any written piece that is not fiction. This includes essays, opinion pieces, memoirs, biographies, historical accounts, etc., etc.. A review would be classified as an essay or an opinion piece. Rather than giving an opinion on religion, politics, or how my breakfast was prepared this morning, I gave my opinion on a book.

In other, yet similar, words, Non-Fiction is the over-arching category of all prose that does not fit under the category of Fiction. You/this group is obviously only accepting a small portion of Non-Fiction, of which the proper title is "Creative Non-Fiction" (Creative nonfiction (also known as literary or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives. Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as technical writing or journalism, which is also rooted in accurate fact, but is not primarily written in service to its craft.)

I'm merely pointing out that as your group lacks any visible definition (wrong or otherwise) of non-fiction, 'mistakes' or 'disagreements' such as mine are likely to happen again. Obviously I can't force you to take my reviews, but I can advise you toward preventing a repeat of this situation. I may not be submitting my work (non-fiction or otherwise) to this group, but that doesn't mean I can't take an interest in what my fellow writers may come across.

(In short, I agree with _________)
[I discovered before I posted the reply that another Group Admin had posted a reply of his own:
Group Admin 2: my personal opinion is that book reviews are, categorically, considered non-fictional prose, as are guides, essays, letters, position statements, etc. if we're going to preclude this specific type of prose, then we need to state that in our group rules.]
And for the record, I wasn't insulted that you declined my review. Your first response made it sound like you didn't think I wrote the piece, so I clarified that I had, it was my work, and it was non-fiction. Then you come back with a slight against book reviews as a whole. The "anyone can do it" line applies to EVERY form of literature, so why are reviews singled out?

Only reason I come up with is because they must inherently lack as much effort as other pieces. This could be the case if a book reviewer merely regurgitated the same drivel time and time again about every single book she read, but that would still come down to a quality issue. Since this was not sited in your reasons for declining, obviously quality was never investigated, such that it was a stigma against the sub-genre (yes, sub-genre of non-fiction) as a whole.

In your eyes, my work is inherently inferior to stream-of-consciousness or I-remember-when pieces. It's of no consequence that I put hours into researching (aka reading the book, possibly looking up additional information) my material. Or that I spend another few hours crafting my review so that it not only conveys my opinions in a tactful manner, even when I'm stating negative opinions, but so it also appeals to and engages my audience in a way that they are then compelled to act.

And this is different than any other piece of "literature" because...? Oh, because I'm recommending the reading of a specific book? I guess it would be more literary if I were telling them to support local animal shelters. Or take a stance on pro-life/pro-choice. Or telling them that poaching or terrorism or slavery or rape is bad. Yes, all those opinions are literary, but my reaction to the violence, desolation, and other horrors in The Hunger Games trilogy isn't because I have "review" in the title.

And I shouldn't be insulted because?
On some level, I'm still angry. It really is hard to separate yourself from a dispute when you've worked your butt off on one side of it for the past 2 years. I took hiatuses because I was overwhelmed by all the work I'd heaped on myself. I stressed myself out to the point where I didn't want to read at all. Was that all for nothing?

Sure, anyone can read a book. They might need a dictionary for some books, or cliff-notes for others, but the act of turning a page and absorbing information from the words on a page (or words being spoken from an audiobook) is accessible to anyone literate.

But a review isn't a simple, "This book was good!" or "I give it 4 out of 5 stars." A review's goal is to speak to its audience, connect with them, take them on a journey, and ultimately convince them to take a chance (or not) on a book.

Some audiences require critical literary analysis - what metaphors are used, how does the juxtaposition between the character and the setting work in this novel, did the author's divorce during the writing of this novel impact the outcome, etc.. Others might just need that star rating.

In my case, I try to appeal to an audience that reads Young Adult literature, so my tone is typically informal, my analysis focuses on the characters and key plot points, and I include what I think to be an appropriate age-range for each book based on language, violence and relationships/sex.

I write because it makes me happy. I'm not paid for it. I typically don't get much response from it. I've written a few fiction pieces, and even contemplated writing a novel once or twice. But writing reviews allows me to combine my two favorite hobbies: reading and writing. I don't know if I'll ever publish something of my own, but in the meantime, I can recommend the fantastic works that are already here. And that's why I review.


A couple days after I posted the above journal on dA, I got a reply from Group Admin 2 (the nice one):
Group Admin 2: That was about as well put as could be. FYI, I noted the group founder concerning this question of whether we accept this type of prose. I even suggested that we add a gallery just for this type of piece. I really like that you were able to define the group's slant as being towards "creative non-fiction". If nothing else, this exercise will help us better refine our galleries and define our audience. So, you have done us a service. And I would like to thank you.

And now, here it is almost a month later and I am ecstatic to announce that the group has recently re-named their "Prose - Non-Fiction" folder to "Prose - Creative Non-Fiction" AND added a "Prose - Essays and Reviews" folder to their gallery!

I haven't yet decided if I'll give them another chance, or if I'm going to resign myself to being happy for them and reviewers in general. What do you think?