Let’s get one thing straight: I am a natural critic.
I doubt. I rethink. I overthink. I was practically born with a side-eye. I love Project Runway and feminist critique and Dorothy Parker’s hatchet jobs. I am one of the many romance authors who started writing because they read something sub-par and thought: I can do better than that. I dissect stories I love and stories I loathe with equal abandon, and I continue to do so as an author because you can’t learn how to fix your own work until you learn what broken looks like.
This does not mean I am a negative person, nor does it make me a cynic. Quite the opposite. I believe, right down to my toes, that a negative review can absolutely have positive effects.
An illustration. Some years back, I was reading a young adult novel. (This one, in fact.) I was thoroughly enjoying myself: the narrator was hilarious and slightly bitter and awkward and had an incongruous love of classic rock records. At one point in the book, quite as a throwaway, he mentions that the Doors are the worst band in history.
The Doors, of course, are one of the great rock legends of the psychedelic era. They still get radio play over half a century later. Val Kilmer played their (tragic, drugged-out, idolized) frontman in a movie once, and there was a recent documentary about them that was supposed to be pretty good. And yet …
The Doors are the worst band in history.
… And yet I kind of hate them. “People are Strange” is pretty great. “Touch Me” can be fun. But “Hello, I Love You”? That is some deep-fried faux-romantic sleaze right there, the kind of song only douchebags get laid to, the lyrics drenched in the lurid musk of the creeper. I realized now I’d hated the Doors for years, in a furtive and guilty silence. I hadn’t felt permitted to confess this, because the Doors were supposed to be great. Their popularity and influence were presented as an objective measure of their inherent artistic worth, and my own individual tastes and preferences were trivial considerations. Who the hell did I think I was, that I could hate the Doors?
The Doors are the worst band in history.
It was like a bell had sounded, deep in some part of me I hadn’t dared to acknowledge. I was allowed to hate the Doors. I was allowed to say that I hate the Doors. I actually closed the book and hugged it, wrapped my arms right around it, letting that sense of relief and freedom and the pure pleasure of not being alone fill me up until, swear to God, I cried.
Critiques, snarky book reviews, live-tweets like the recent #NobodysBabyButMine hashtag — all these have, over the years, given me that same sweet release. Knowing that I am not alone in rejecting alphahole heroes and humiliated heroines, or in finding a lot of what goes on in paranormal romance super-creepy. (Fated mates? UGH UGH UGH.) And I have given as well as received: I recall in my pre-author days, writing a frustrated and intensely disappointed Goodreads review of one highly anticipated romance. Right up until I deleted that account, every few days would bring a notification that some other Goodreads user had liked that review. Some of them even commented, chiming in with relief: Oh, I hated this one too! I’m so glad you wrote this! I am not alone. I am not crazy. I just did not like this particular book.
That book, as it happened, was the first in a series, and the author has not only continued the series but won a Rita for one of the later installments. My embittered review did absolutely nothing to hurt her career — and I wouldn’t have wanted it to. I didn’t swear when I saw her listed as a winner, I didn’t rush to the blog to write a thousand words on why this was a miscarriage of justice. I didn’t send her a copy of the review, either, or write to tell her personally how let down I was. No, I was busy reading something else, something I probably loved, while she was earning a ton of royalties on a popular series.
All that is pretty okay by me.
My review tendencies have changed a bit, now that I’m in the author end of the pool. If a new book by a debut author from a tiny press doesn’t work for me, I’ll usually let it pass in silence. Always punch up; never punch down. Luckily for me, I’m small potatoes, so there’s plenty of room in the up direction and I can vent my spleen with the knowledge that I’m in no position to do damage. Plus, there’s always the legions of passionate readers and critics, amateur and professional and academic alike, writing those witty, sharp, observant pieces that do my venting for me.
But perhaps you, fellow author, are big potatoes. Perhaps you are an author so well-known and established that I can refer to you by the three letters of your initials, or simply your first name, and people will know at once who I’m talking about. Perhaps you were a bit stung that someone from a much less rarefied position in the book world had expressed displeasure at one part of your life’s work, and you expressed that hurt publicly. You have every right to do so — speaking short, brutal truths is precisely what Twitter is for.
But I’m not part of your sisterhood. I’m going to be over here, reading those snarky tweets and gleefully agreeing with them. Not because I’m jealous of success and need to see big names cast down — but rather because I don’t believe negative reactions automatically have negative effects. Because I believe the culture of positivity is often suffocating and silencing, and I have been silent longer than I’d like. If we allow ourselves only nice things to say, we shortchange ourselves, our readers, and our genre. If we don’t talk about what books let us down, we’re going to find it harder to talk about what books lift us up. Criticism is a muscle and it needs balanced exercise.
And the Doors are still the worst band in history.