Just over a week ago (only a week?) as the July residency at VCFA was winding down, I sat in on an informal “professional development” session headed by Kathi Appelt and Franny Billingsley. I won’t be delving into specifics, as it was part of the MFA program and as such is meant only for students, but there was a moment where my blogging came into the conversation, accompanied by a caution that came back to haunt me last night.
The reference was to blogging reviews, and about how the community is small and that we kidlit writers shouldn’t generally write negative reviews of each others work. This triggered a response in me that I tried to sit on, but couldn’t. I don’t happen to feel that you can really know the value of a reviewer or critic’s abilities if you cannot see the full spectrum of their opinion. If the only reviews Roger Ebert published of movies were glowing ones, would you assume he was following “if you have nothing nice to say…” rule or simply that he wouldn’t know a bad film if it bit him?
I tried, I really tried, not to speak up but I couldn’t help it. Since my blogs were pointed out I felt the need to explain that when I do post negative reviews it’s because the book has moved me to stop and examine what bothered me about a book. My review blog is a public record of my exploration into the craft, and not simply a platform for showing off or a ploy to get free books from publishers. I comment on what works and what doesn’t, for me, and why it didn’t work to the best of my ability. Maybe that sounds a little defensive, but that was the reason I started the blog in the first place.
Okay, so that was last week. Last night I was hanging out with the weekly #kidlitchat on Twitter and things sort of meandered (as they do) into some of us longing for agents and editors and mentors and whatnot. Toward the end a side chat took place between me and a published author and, casually, she brought up a certain review I once wrote about one of her books.
Kathi’s caution raced through my head as I dug through the digital archives and discovered the review in question. I referred to the narrative voice as condescending. I compared the prologue to “party appetizers made from leftovers and canned cheese, heated to a greasy sheen.”
Oi. I was really having a difficult time articulating what I felt there, wasn’t I?
Let’s just say the author in question was all class. She hadn’t meant to call me out in public (something I didn’t feel) and we did a little private back-and-forth to make sure it was all good. The book was well-received critically, and I admitted to just not feeling it in the review, and she could live with that. One day down the road, when I’m published, I’d actually look forward to running into her at a conference and have her give me a dose of my own medicine. Really, she seems like an awesome person.
Even before all this happened I had been questioning the point and purpose of the review blog. I know agents and editors scope out a writer’s web presence when considering them, and the warnings have been there for some time that negative reviews could come back to haunt me professionally. I also don’t happen to believe that. Here’s why: agents and editors don’t seem like the sort of people who would actively punish people for vocalizing their opinions. They would seem to be the people least concerned about what a writer thinks publicly so long as they aren’t malicious, libelous, or just plain mean about it. I’ll grant, I can get harsh (c.f. above) but I write about the book, and my experience with it, and not for some sort of arrogant holier-than-thou stance.
But this idea is out there that writing negative about children’s books is akin to murdering puppies or stealing toys from toddlers. In a totally separate Twitter chat a few weeks back (the YA chat) the vibe was very much negative reviewer = baby eater and people reTweeted the comment someone made that negative reviews would create a serious career backlash for new authors. That YA community seemed to have some pretty rabid rose-colored glasses attitude, where the notion of self-censorship was the goal and the ideal, and I haven’t gone back since. There’s probably a connection to be made about that attitude and some of the problems of mediocrity that I see in YA, but that’s for another day.
Suffice to say, when asked if anyone had heard directly from an agent or editor that they should stop blogging negative reviews, Twitter was all crickets. You want to know what I think is more detrimental to the kidlit community? Rumor and wild speculation and people repeating what they think they know, not honest opinions.
Anyway, I’ve been away from reviewing for the last six weeks and I’m feeling like it’s time to get back into it. I can say I’m going to watch that I don’t go cutthroat and that I lean toward more concrete reviews, but in the end the blog reviews are what its like for me as a reader to experience a particular book. It’s a gut response with a little brain action thrown in, just so I can understand the gut response better.
Hopefully the authors, and agents, and editors can see that.