In Which We All Sit Down For A Serious Chat

Some of you may recall how, when I reviewed Sophie's Choice, I offered at least a 2/3 rating to any of the Top 100 books that included a Saskatchereference, and suggested that the authors of those books should revise their novels accordingly. I was of course being facetious. Still, every now and then I've paused to wonder how I'd feel if one of the authors of one of the books I've reviewed were to see what I've said.

Usually I dismiss those thoughts as ego-stroking, since I'm pretty confident that I actually have about five readers, and all of them are my IRL friends.

However, I always check my site stats on Sundays when I'm preparing the week's blog post. And this morning I noticed a little spike in the number of visitors on July 22. To cut this really long story short, I did some more investigating via my Google Analytics and discovered that Anna DeStefano read my review of her book.

Needless to say, I'm a little astonished. I wasn't sure whether or how to respond. I wrote my review of Ms. DeStefano's book early in the project, before mellowing to the tropes of the romance genre, and it's admittedly pretty scathing and mean.

I feel like it would be dishonest of me to backpedal, so I'm not going to do that. It seems to me that Ms. DeStefano interpreted my review as an attack on her and her readers, though, and that was never my intent. I was extremely frustrated by her novel, and expressed myself in a stylized way to convey my frustration. I don't mind her criticism of my word choices, because I was criticizing her writing as well.

Although I've never explicitly stated this before (and the engineer thing could be a bit misleading), I am in fact a woman. I'm not a man mocking women and their sentimentality, I'm just a person who doesn't like this genre, but thought I'd explore it alongside the Top 100 books. (By the way, it's proving to be an interesting contrast between my reactions two types of books that are generally thought of as inaccessible to most people, the one because it's aimed primarily at women, the other because it seems comprehensible only to the type of academic snobs who compiled the list in the first place.) When I say that I think romance novels are "erotica for people who are too shy to realize that erotica is what they want," that's exactly what I mean. I'm not saying that women who read romance novels are prudish housewives, I'm saying that as a young woman I feel like maybe other women aren't really in touch with their sexuality and their options for expressing it in our society. I have no idea who generally reads Harlequin romance novels, but a very nice young woman was reading one in the seat beside me on my flight home from Mexico this winter.

Furthermore, I promise that I read every single word of every novel I review on this blog. I don't think I've ever skimmed through a book in my entire life, and there are only a handful that I've been unable to finish. I don't think it would be fair of me to draw any conclusions about these books if I didn't read them all in their entirety.

In any case, I just want to say that it's easy to lose sight of the person behind the work. I've actually been thinking about this sort of thing a lot lately, i.e. whether art is separate from the artist (for example, if Roman Polanski makes The Pianist and then gets charged with raping a 13 year-old girl, is The Pianist still a great movie?). On the other hand, I don't feel like there's much question of whether the artist is separate from the art. Meaning that while I'm not sure if great art can be considered out of context from its creator, I'm sure that the creator feels a connection to the work. So whereas I may review a book without thinking of the author, the author would be totally justified in taking it personally, and I suppose I should've thought a little bit more about that and how I feel about it before I started this project.

So now I'll throw this out to all (five) of you readers. What do you guys think about all this? Also FYI I'm going to be sending Ms. DeStefano a link to this post.


  1. I think that when we publicly review a book, we do have a responsibility to remember that we don't know who's going to read our review. We don't know if the author, or fans of that author, will read the review. I don't think we need to apologise for our opinions (e.g., I refuse to read Jodi Picoult's books, and I have said so in several places online, because I don't like being mistreated as a reader, and I don't like the ways in which her books treat individuals with disabilies), but we do need to remember that there are people attached (in whatever way) to these works, and our words can (and often do) hurt them.

    I also think that artists are sometimes far too sensitive about criticisms that are sent their way (and I say this as an artist myself). I mean, let's be realistic here. A novel is a story. When we write a novel, we are putting down our ideas and fleshing out characters (who do often feel real to us, I admit), but this is not an autobiography, so people criticising our work are not telling us we are horrible people for writing whatever crap it is we put on the page, they're telling us they don't like our particular type of crap. (Note that I am using the word "crap" in reference to all novels. I haven't read Ms DeStefano's book, and probably never will since I mostly read YA novels and fantasy novels.)

    We all have a responsibility here. Those of us who write reviews (and I do that, too) need to try to remember that people created whatever it is we're reviewing. And those of us who create art (again, I do that) need to remember that the people reviewing our work aren't reviewing us, they're reviewing our work. They really are two different things.

  2. On the Roman Polanski note, and the note Jannalou left on, I have come up with a graph (4 quadrants) to express how I feel about art and artists. On one axis is "RESPECT" ("I believe the artist is honest and good and that their work comes from a really strong conceptual place that the artist, as a person, stands behind") and on the other is "PLEASURE" ("the work is beautiful, interesting, enjoyable, clever, etc.") This is how I have started to think about art... So it means that the pianist might do well on the pleasure axis and really poorly on the respect axis. Graphs are fun.

    That said, everybody who puts a piece of art out into the world should be cognizant of the fact that it is now a THING for others to make with what they will. But also mindful of their audience. I think in the case of you (reviewing) and Anna DeStefano (writing), each author got someone outside of the intended audience, which totally changes the game.

    So the game is just a little different now for each of you. I think good things can come of it.

  3. Oh man, excellent points from both of you guys. Thanks so much for commenting! Part of the reason I wanted to post this instead of ignoring the situation or giving it some kind of flippant dismissal was so I could get some perspective and some more neutral reactions than my own.

    @Jannalou, your comment re: public reviews is something that I definitely hadn't thought of prior to all of this happening (obviously). Whereas I feel comfortable expressing my opinions about movies, books, tv, etc. with my friends and other peers, now that this has happened I'm having to assess how I feel about putting those views in a public forum. The key here is that this blog hasn't really felt like a public forum prior to this. Still, would I say a lot of these things to an author's face? No, probably not. Would I want them to say these things to my face, about my writing? Probably not that, either.

    @Alison, graphs! Yes! I'm curious as to how the RESPECT axis crosses over into negative values, though. All artists probably deserve some minimum amount of respect based on the fact that they are human beings, right? But that's another kettle of ethical fish entirely. OR IS IT?

    Art as a function of audience is another puzzle that I have a thousand half-formed thoughts about. I definitely have an intended audience, whether that audience is a small group of friends, or just like-minded strangers perusing the internet. Anna DeStefano and I are not trying to entertain each other, and I guess that makes it difficult for each of us to understand what the other is trying to achieve, or has achieved, with her work.

  4. It's one thing for a reviewer to be as honest as possible about a book review, but being unnecessarily mean or scathing is unjust. As a reviewer it is your job to be UNBIASED, and it is clear from your review that you mock those who read romance. You don't take it seriously, therefore your reviews can never fully be unbiased. There are many great romance titles (category and otherwise) that are best-sellers, but just because they aren't recognized by Ivy League graduates and don't involve some holier-than-thou philosophical subplot doesn't make them any less important. It would behoove you to know that category romances are the number one best-selling books in the market, but because they are not on a "best-seller list" they are given slack.

    I'm not saying that as a reviewer you should walk on eggshells or pacify the author, but maybe you should try articulating what makes a book so good (or bad) and put your own feelings about the genre aside. Of course if you don't take romance seriously you're always going to bash it -- you're setting romance up to fail, and that isn't fair.

    I say get off your high horse or get the hell out of dodge.

  5. ^ bahahaha

    And yet, Apache Nights was amazing.

  6. @Anonymous, in case you come back: Listen, mea culpa. I agree that meanness is uncalled for. Your point about a reviewer being unbiased is also a good one, except that it seems like you'd like me to be biased in favour of this genre. None of the so-called category romance novels I've read so far can in my opinion stand up to the finer literary novels. To me, to be truly unbiased, it's necessary to judge all books by the same standards, and since this is my blog, the standards are my own, and these romance novels don't meet my standards. Not to mention that my standards are pretty arbitrary, thanks to my technical background.

    Also, I think you should be careful of asking me to put my own feelings about a genre aside when you appear to be dismissing the entire List for having "holier-than-thou philosophical subplot[s]." Dubious merits of The List aside (it's what I'm trying to assess on this blog in the first place), I'd be willing to bet that a lot more of those books have had major impacts on people's lives than any similar sample of 100 of the bestselling category romance novels, especially since that genre basically excludes anyone who isn't a straight woman with traditional values (and I hardly think good literature is exclusionary).

    That a lot of people read and love romance novels, I won't deny, and I agree with you that that's important. I just think that you're really misunderstanding my motives. I've been treating this whole thing very seriously because I don't want to come off as hostile or childish, but the fact is that I'm writing to entertain just as much as anyone else who's creating specifically public content (by which I mean that I could just as easily do this project on my own and journal about it, but I'm posting it on a blog for anyone who's interested to read and hopefully discuss). There's a certain amount of hyperbole in my reviews and an effort (perhaps failed) to be amusing. I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

    If I wanted to get on any high horses, I wouldn't be a Star Trek fan.

    @Laura, Apache Nights was so amazing, as was the symphony it wrote and performed for me.