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Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Blogger/Novelist Relationship, with Alex Kudera (Part 1)

Under most circumstances, this could've been a bit awkward. Earlier this week, I reviewed, somewhat tepidly, Alex Kudera's satirical novel, Fight for Your Long Day. A few hours after posting the review, Kudera, the novelist himself, messaged me on GoodReads. "Ah, crap," I thought. "This is gonna lead to some unpleasantness."

I was wrong. Here's the first line of the message: "Thanks so much for reading and sorry it wasn't quite the book for you." Kudera went on to talk about some of the book's more positive reviews and why he thought others may have enjoyed it more than I seemed to. I was kinda shocked — if it were me in his shoes, I would not have been quite so not querulous.

One of the last lines of Kudera's message again thanked me for reading because ".. what you are doing is clearly helping books--if you like them!" That was intriguing to me, as I constantly wonder what authors think of we amateur book bloggers and what (if any) influence we have. Even though I was in no position to petition for a favor, I asked Kudera, a lecturer in the English Department at Clemson University, if he'd be willing to answer a few questions about the blogger/novelist relationship and the degree to which he thinks bloggers are part of the publishing conversation now. He agreed. Here's what he had to say:

(Note: This is Part 1 of the interview. Part 2 is here.)

Greg: What do you, as a published author, expect from a blogger in terms of review rigor? Do you expect "reaction" — with lots of "I thought..." or do you prefer more academic/journalistic style reviews? 

Kudera
Alex: Hi, Greg, and thanks for having me aboard for this interview. I appreciate your generosity in sharing some time at New Dork although it sounds like my book was not for you. To be honest, when I saw “Dork” in the title, I thought your blog and my book might be a perfect match. Alas, it was not to be.

But back to the question, I’d say that the most important thing is exposure, and that any published author has to be grateful whenever his or her book is mentioned online, in print, on the air, or anywhere else. So, to an extent, as authors, we should be grateful even if the review is indifferent or worse, and we’re not in a position to judge the “rigor” of the review.

At the same time, the most detailed reviews are almost always the best reviews, and we can see on amazon that review readers find these to be the most helpful as well. So perhaps the wide world of readers can help sort out these in-depth reviews from the others?

But because a mediocre review can be a conversation stopper, my personal rule for writing about books and authors is based upon my understanding that it is extremely difficult to write and sell one and that writers have starved and publishers have lost huge amounts of money by making a wide array of literary fiction available to the reading public. For these reasons, I almost invariably post positive notes about books, and so at my blog or GoodReads, there’s a bit of a “if you don’t have anything nice to say..." rule in play. I do realize that one could argue that this jeopardizes the integrity of my blogs and comments.

For Fight for Your Long Day, I like it when reviewers love the book, “get” the humor, and include specific favorite quotations. The more favorable and detailed the review, the more I feel like I’ve connected with that particular writer-blogger.

Greg: What interaction have you had with book bloggers? What has been the nature of this interaction? Contentious? What outcome?

Alex: Most of the book bloggers I connect with are also novelists, and the interactions are largely positive. I suspect this connects to shared experience and understanding. Perhaps surprisingly, we do not always have the same taste in literature.

It seems like authorial suicide to be contentious with anyone, and when I’ve lost my cool, it’s mainly been due to the combined workload and stress of teaching, parenting, writing, and promoting. I try not to get angry, of course, and it has hurt me when I’ve lost my cool in various situations. Teeth Are Not For Biting is one of my daughter’s favorites, and its lessons can be applied to the adult world, too (let’s leave the saying, “always treat children like adults, and adults like children” for another interview). I’ve been teaching for 15 years, and in commission-based sales before that, so I’ve grown accustomed to being on the front lines of a service economy, interacting with lots of people every day.

I guess, whenever a writer is frustrated by the process, my best advice is to try to remember that the potential blogger, reviewer, or bookstore manager could also be an extremely stressed-out, overworked person trying to endure life in a backbreaking world, and that taste in literature can be very personal.

And also, just to breathe, and take a break from book promotion — let it rest for a couple days and then find other readers to connect with. There are hundreds of different ways to find readers and promote books although it can still seem difficult to sell them.

So, what do you think? Do you agree that authors aren't in a position to (or just shouldn't) judge the rigor of a review? As a blogger, do you abide by the "if you don't have anything nice to say..." rule? What rules in regards to the relationship to authors (if any) do you think bloggers should follow to be responsible, ethical, and informative?

18 comments:

  1. I totally understand the "if you don't have anything nice to say" rule. But I think it jeopardizes my credibility.

    If I only review books I liked, then I worry that it will look like I'm not a discerning reader or, worse, that I'm trying to score points with authors/publishers.

    And if I only say positive things about a book that I didn't much like, then I'm doing a disservice to my readers by not being honest. If they dislike that book after only hearing good things from me, they may then conclude that I am a bad reviewer (or that my tastes diverge wildly from theirs).

    But I try to balance the number of positive and negative reviews on my site.

    If I have not promised in advance that I will post a review and I dislike a book, I'll usually put it in the DNF (did not finish) pile and no one was the wiser.

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  2. Interesting discussion. For the record, authors that are pleasant, not defensive in the face of bad reviews earn my respect. I'm much more likely to pick something up by them later. And Kudera's right: not everyone is going to love your book. Accept it, live with it, move on. The audience that doesn't like it probably wasn't the audience you were trying to reach anyway. I think in the book blogging world, most of us don't take each other's opinions as gold. Even if a fellow blogger gave an interesting sounding book a bad review, I'm still willing to try it if it sounds good to me. Different tastes, different books. In the library world, we have a saying: a book for every reader and a reader for every book.

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  3. I understand following the rule of "if you have nothing nice to say..." in Kudera's case. As he says, it could be authorial suicide. However, I think it hurts your credibility as a reviewer if you only ever have nice things to say and you like everything you review. That doesn't mean a negative review has to be nasty, but the review should be honest.

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  4. I think it's best to take the high road when it comes to this;I've seen plenty of instances of authors retaliating against unfavorable reviews online and nine times out of ten,it tends to showcase the ugly side of the writer's personality.

    I don't always get to review every book that comes my way but when I do give a full write-up,it's mainly due to wanting to spread the good word(especially if it's a hidden gem) as much as possible.

    Right now,I'm reading The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson and already planning the review(along with video clips!)in my head.

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  5. Well, this was very interesting. I think the reminder that writers are "people too" is fair, but that means to me to be honest and respectful, not watered down or evasive.

    It is indeed hard to sell books, but it does not follow from that that our discussions of books must protect a book's marketability. Reviewers help readers decide what to read in their limited time and buy with their limited budget. We provide information to spend their time and money efficiently. To shirk a review because it "isn't nice" is an abnegation of that goal.

    I have no idea about this particular book, but there are quite a few mediocre books out there. Saying so is part of the process.

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  6. I don't follow the 'say something nice or nothing at all rule.' In the end, I think that would produce a very dull blog. I can see why an author would follow that rule, but I also remember how fun it used to be to hear Truman Capote or Gore Vidal go off on an author they did not like. Why shouldn't they have the right to do so?

    I do follow the rule that I only review books I've read to the finish, and at this point I only read books I'm enjoying to the finish, with very few exceptions. I say what I want to say; sometimes I might be a bit mean, but this is rare.

    I don't see myself as someone trying to help other readers find which books they should buy, but as someone trying to start a discussion about books.

    I do think authors should not comment on reviews except to correct factual errors the reviewer may have made. It tends to make them look petty.

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  7. What an interesting conversation. I agree with the other bloggers that posting only positive reviews hurts a blogger's credibility. When posting a review I usually try to indicate to whom the book might appeal (even if it doesn't appeal to me). Overstating the quality of a book will lead readers to distrust your reviews, so the *say something nice* rule doesn't really work here. I'm looking forward to part 2 of your interview with Kudera, who seems like a nice guy (maybe I'll check out his book).

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  8. Being a reviewer, I find that if I don't tell my followers exactly what I think of the book, they'll never know. But, what I do is: the first paragraph is dedicated to what the book is about. The plot; in simple terms. The next paragraph is what I think about it; whether I liked it or not and why. What I enjoyed about it and how long it took for me to read; all that kind of thing. The third paragraph is about the author. I do a brief bio about them; then put a link on the side bar to their official website for more information (just in case you're curious). I mention their education, where they're born, if they're married and which books they've published (in the order they published them) and what they're working on now.

    I enjoyed the first part of your interview with Kudera. He sounds like a reasonable guy; and I can't wait to read the rest of it on Monday. :)

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  9. Hmmm. Do I agree? No. Basically, I am reviewing the books I read - that's what my blog is for. If I don't particularly like the book, then I'm not going to avoid reviewing it, just to make everyone's life a little easier. Well done to Kudera for facing up to a less-than-glowing review though :)

    Of course, when (like me) you mainly review books by dead white men, being critical is a LOT easier ;)

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  10. I'm with most of the other commenters re: "if you don't have anything nice to say..." If a paper like the NY Times stopped printing negative book reviews, it would instantly lose credibility. To suggest that book bloggers shouldn't review a book if it'll be a negative one comes close to suggesting that book blogs can't attain the same "credibility rating" as other review sources. As the Ape wrote, it should be more about writing respectful reviews than writing positive ones, devoting as much review space to a book as it needs, writing to help your readers decide whether they want to read the book in question. I can understand why an author wouldn't write negative reviews, though. It's not a problem for me if I write a negative review, but if I were working to, say, publish my first novel, I'd try not to ruin any potentially valuable connections.

    Looking forward to the second part of this conversation.

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  11. Fascinating article and full credit to this author for taking the time to do an interview with you.

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  12. @Melody - Yeah, "credibility" is certainly the most common word used to describe about refusing to post negative reviews. That said, I don't think it's a credibility issue to have an overwhelmingly more number of positive than negative reviews. I always read a lot about the books I read before I read them - so I try as best I can to read books that won't suck, and therefore that I'll review positively...probably. But, sometimes you do find a clunker, and then, yes, the negative review (as long as it's done without ranting [unless it's Dan Brown]) is certainly warranted.

    @Julie - Agreed on the respect-earning. Kudera definitely earned mine! Yeah, he understands not everyone will like his book, and we had a back-and-forth email discussion about some of the specific reasons I didn't - the main one of which was that I went in with the wrong expectations, which is more an indictment of the marketing for the novel than of the quality of the novel itself. Love the library expression too - brings back memories of grade school (pretty sure that was a poster on our grade school's library wall).

    @Red - Agreed - both on the credibility, and especially on the "don't have to be nasty." As many of the commenters have said in Ape's "reader-focused review" post, it's important to explain why you're writing a negative review, and I believe, to try to find at least one positive thing about the book or at least point out why others might like a novel more than you did.

    @lady T - Yeah, as Kudera says, authors can't afford to be contentious - it does far more bad than a good review does good. That said, I can certainly understand the frustration - especially when a reviewer goes out of his/her way to be nasty. So, the high road has to go in both directions, for sure!

    @Ape - Yes - honest and respectful, indeed. Again, there is always something positive that can be found in a book - always. Even if it's just a turn-of-phrase you enjoyed, or a minor character, etc. I really hate writing negative reviews, but at some level it's therapeutic - keep in mind you might be helping someone, and it's also justifying the time spent with the book. At least writing the negative review made you think about it more deeply and to parse the particular reasons that just to remember it as "It sucked."

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  13. @CB - "I don't see myself as someone trying to help other readers find which books they should buy, but as someone trying to start a discussion about books." That's kind of how I see my blog, too - which is why I think it's important to point out the positive in the context of the negative. That starts a discussion more so than "definitely steer far clear of this book." But I disagree that authors shouldn't comment on reviews - as long as they're not being jerks, isn't the author's input a key part of the discussion about a book, which as you say, is the main point of your blog.

    @Lisa - The idea of indicating to whom the book might appeal (if not necessarily yourself) is a very important strategy, I think. I try to do that too - to varying degrees of success. Kudera is a super nice guy - and I'd definitely suggest checking out his book. Again, my main problem with it is was that I kept waiting for it to be what its marketing blurb promised it to be. And it wasn't.

    @Mozette - Well, I think reasonable minds can disagree about what the exact structure of a review should be - and frankly, I think it should vary from review to review (otherwise, you start sounding a bit stale). But, yes, Kudera is a reasonable guy, and I'm thankful he was willing to talk!

    @Tony - Ha, that's true about the dead white man. Then, you don't have to worry about the "authors are people too" idea, as Ape said. I agree though that you shouldn't shirk a negative review to avoid hurting someone's feelings, or as you say, "make everyone's life easier." Well put.

    @Ellen - I think the idea of helping your readers decide on their own whether to read a book, based on starting a conversation about that book in a sophisticated, not name-cally, way is the key. Even professional reviews who write in the NY Times will never say "go buy this book" or "avoid this at all costs" - they point out the positive and negative, and more importantly, why. And if bloggers are to approach that credibility rating, they should consider that tack for reviewing.

    @Rachel - Thanks - and indeed, Kudera deserves a lot of credit!

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  14. Yes, maybe I need to do more research into a book before reading it!

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  15. This is an excellent conversation in that it serves the book-loving community well to see the author's perspective, the book blogger's perspective, and now the publisher's perspective. I chose to publish Alex's book because I thought an adjunct educator's life was an important subject to expose to the general public no matter how much the message was distorted by Alex's satirical method of communicating it.

    Kudera pulled off a whopper of a novel by creating a character whose very existence depends on the students who mostly abhor him, and the apathy and incompetence of the administrators is a sad reminder of the challenges that many bumbling educators face. Whether or not Duffy's predicament indeed was predictably pathetic was beside the point to me as I found Duffy to be a character worth rooting for, no matter how perverse, how despicable, and how dark.

    Bottom line: I must possess a twisted mind as I found the situations in which Duffy found himself to be as funny as hell.

    We (and other reviewers) may have missed the mark in calling Duffy "the subway-scholar Ignatius J. Reilly," but I still affirm that Duffy represents the underpaid, overeducated Everyman in his quest to not only do his job, but make a difference...albeit in as noncommittal fashion as possible.

    A character for the ages.

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