One thing I noticed being discussed at BEA Book Blogger Convention this year was keynote speaker Jennifer Weiner's statement that bloggers should focus our energies on "sprinkling fairy dust" on what we do like instead of blogging about what we don't like.
Given all the spats and arguments on GoodReads and Amazon, and the flamboyant author accusations of the existence of a YA Mafia or YA Opus Dei or the secret secret cliques of "Mean Girl" Bloggers ("her swag bag is so big because it's full of SECRETS"), a lot of people have been given to wonder about the relevance of everyone's mother's favourite saying, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."
Should bloggers all take a deep breath and just focus on being nice?
To that, I have to say: no. If as a blogger, you personally choose to only publish reviews of books you enjoyed, that's definitely your call, but I don't believe that's the mindset all bloggers should have to work by.
1. Book Bloggers are Critics, Not Promoters
This fact was definitely on my mind for much of the blogger convention, since a lot of what was presented in the speeches and panels I was present for dealt with how bloggers can serve publishers. Two of the authors who came to my table at the Networking Breakfast acted under the impression that if we liked how they pitched their books, we'd put them up on our websites. Amy Sohn (whose book I will, amusingly, be reviewing next) actually ranted about those "damn reviewers getting her book wrong" - entirely oblivious to the fact that she was speaking to a table of reviewers.
Because that's what book bloggers are. The cost-effective, positive promotion that publishers want from bloggers is only a by-product of what we actually do. If we like a book, we'll say so - and people will read that and take our recommendations accordingly (by the by, have you read anything by Cecilia Grant or Rose Lerner lately? Please do!). But I don't blog to promote books. I blog to read and review books - and if my positive reviews serve as free publicity, than it's a delightful happenstance!
I know there are other book bloggers out there who do cover reveals and contests and memes now for books, even ones they haven't read, which can explain the confusion. There probably are bloggers out there who feel they are book promoters rather than critics. I can only say that from my personal experience as a blogger, who reads other book blogs, and who's discussed this matter with a fair number of other book bloggers, that the majority of us got into blogging to review and discuss books, not promote them. And honest reviews and discussions will naturally produce reactions both positive and negative.
2. Honesty Trumps Positivity
One concern I've heard come up in discussions with book bloggers is the notion of integrity and honesty. There was that whole kerfuffle in the U.S. a couple of years ago about whether bloggers should explicitly mention in their book reviews where and how they received the book - based on the readers' worry that a blogger would be more inclined to write a positive review of a book they received for free than a book they paid for themselves.
Now there's an interesting situation - readers distrusting a positive review! But shouldn't all bloggers just want to bake a cake with rainbows and sunshine in it so that we can all eat it and be happy? What about Jennifer Weiner's fairy dust?
Authors and publishers may worry about negative reviews, but to bloggers and, more importantly, to readers, their main worry is dishonest reviews. Did this blogger really like this book, or are they being paid to like it?
While I've read and enjoyed some "positive reviews only" publications (Locus magazine is one), I've noticed that readers and other bloggers tend to distrust them unless the blogger explicitly mentions that they choose not to review books they didn't like. I like to call this the "Paula Adbul Effect." That delightfully kooky former American Idol judge couldn't give a coherently negative critique to save her life - she was always sunshiney and supportive of all the performers. But because of that, her positive critiques had no impact on the audience or the voters. You could never tell if she really was physically incapable of disliking something, or if she was just too afraid of audience censure to really admit what she felt.
Simon Cowell, on the other hand, despite being kind of a prick, always gave really detailed critiques of the singers - so on those occasions when he did give an effusive response, you could tell that he meant it. Viewers felt they could trust that his opinions were honest.
That's not to say you have to be cruel to be kind - after all, Randy Jackson was far less of an ass than Simon Cowell, but his remarks still carried weight because he pointed out both the positive and the negative aspects of a competitor's performance.
What I'm saying is, positive promotion only works if the readers trust the source. There's a reason people fast-forward through the commercials on their DVRs - commercials and advertisements are nothing but positive. However, they're made by people with a financial stake in the product's success, and viewers know that. No one in the world likes every book they've ever read. Just like every contestant on American Idol isn't going to be a shining beacon of musical enlightenment. If you want to promote your book effectively, it's better to gamble on a positive review from a blogger known for their honest reactions to what they read than to hedge your bets with a literary cheerleader.
Well, then, you may ask, what's wrong with every blogger simply being transparent about only writing reviews of books they like? Why not just not post reviews of books you don't like, and let the utter lack of press speak for itself? See my final point:
3. There's No Such Thing As Bad Press
This is the kicker - even if someone is giving your book a negative review, they are also reminding people that your book exists. Its name gets brought up, its cover is revealed, it sticks in the human memory and consciousness, which translates to what jumps out at you when you go to bookstores. If no one is talking about your book at all, and no one knows about it, good or bad, how is anyone supposed to find it?
I can also ask you, as a fellow writer, which is better after submitting something to a publisher - a rejection in the form of absolutely no response, a standard "not for us" rejection letter, or a detailed letter explaining what didn't work for them? I can tell you I would rather have people telling me what they didn't like about my book than not talking about it at all and leaving me wondering whether they received it or even read it.
One of my personal rules of Blogger Etiquette is that if I accept an offer of a free ARC, I will review the book. Even if it's negative - because it demonstrates that I took the time to read the book cover to cover, took the time to analyze it, and spend hours thinking about it and writing about it. Even if I dislike the book, I respect the work that went into making that book, and I demonstrate that by crafting a detailed review of it.
It takes time and effort to write a review, even a negative one. It takes no effort at all to say nothing. So really, which response is less respectful?
This is my take on it. I'm not going to stop writing negative reviews, and I don't think you should, either. We blog because we like expressing how we feel about books. And some books are going to make us screaming, hopping, hair-pullingly mad - so we're going to express that. To Snark or Not To Snark is a different argument for a different time, but for now, let your Lit-Nit-Picking Freak Flag fly.