My internet was full of cognitive dissonance this weekend. On one side, people were wondering whether Twitter has made book reviews too nice. On the other, we were being reassured that aggressive reviewing was here to stay, and we should all learn to live with it. In a way, I think both sides are true.
I love to read. I always have. Books are one of my favorite things, and I genuinely love introducing people to new books and new writers that become favorites. I have reviewed books here on this blog in the past. Usually now, when I review a book, the review is posted at Fantasy Matters, where I am the content editor, which means that I have a say in both what gets reviewed, and who on our staff writes the review. Neither of those things is a paying job. I also have been know to rave on twitter about books that I am reading, and I don't get paid for that either. Last summer, I did a series of rereads of the Bordertown series for Tor.com, and I did get paid for those posts. However, because it was freelance work, I could have said no, and I would have, if I had thought that my reviews of those books were going to be hatchet jobs.
I mention that I don't get paid to talk about books in order to help make clear that when I talk about books it is something I do on my own time. Time is a precious commodity for me. My to-be-read pile is in the double digits, so if I start reading a book and I don't like it, my usual response is to just stop reading, and spend my time on something I'm going to enjoy more. Writing reviews takes time, and mental energy, and I am not going to spend either talking about a book that was resoundingly fine. So it isn't so much that I have crazy enthusiasm for every book I read, it's just that I'm not going to tell you about the books I'm reading unless I have crazy enthusiasm for them. I do not have the time. Five hundred words on a book that was both enjoyable and forgettable is five hundred words I didn't write on my own book that day.
Things would be different if I were a professional critic. In that instance, I would most likely have less discretion to choose what books I spoke about, and a different duty in the framing of my responses. And even though I currently choose not to write them, I absolutely believe that there is a necessary place for honestly negative reviews of books and stories, for speaking about what isn't working as well as what is in a piece of literature.
Most of us talking about books on the internet are not professional critics. Most of us are people who like books, and so we react with enthusiasm. And yes, the picture becomes muddied because some of us who get very excited on the internet about the books we're reading also write books, or know people who do, and so it looks like there's this giant mutual admiration society of people trading hearts and exclamation points and congratulations for other people's saccharine enthusiasm.
Maybe some of that is true. I know that I am inclined to be more generous when reading work by someone that I know and like - I am less inclined to ascribe problematic thoughts or motives to someone who is a genuine friend. I tend to have overlapping interests in fiction as well as in life with people who are my friends, and so I am more likely to fit in the intended audience for their writing. And even when it is a friend whose writing is not necessarily my thing, I am still enthusiastic for their achievement - I will cheer their publication, their good reviews, their award nominations, because that is what you do for your friends - you support them.
But the thing about the internet is that it doesn't just make it easier to see the enthusiasm and support. If you know someone's Twitter handle, you can make sure that they are tagged when you review their work. Most writers have either a contact form on their website, or a public email address. Many writers have some form of alerts activated that will tell them when their name or the title of their work is mentioned.
Which means if you want to be sure that someone knows you hated their writing, it's very easy to send that hatred to them directly. It also means that if you are a reviewer who believes in reviewing the author as well as the work, it's very easy for you to make sure that writer finds out that you believe they should die in a fire or get burned with acid or get raped for what they wrote. Yes, those are all things that I have read in reviews. No, I don't think comments like that belong in reviews. Yes, I do think they ought to be taken seriously as threats. No, I don't think that sort of "reviewing" is going away any time soon. It certainly gets attention.
So when it comes down to wondering if we've all become too nice, too friendly to each other here on this series of tubes, my response is to laugh and say no. No, we haven't even come close. But if I had to trade, then yes, I would rather live in a community of cheerleaders and enthusiasts than one ruled by hate.