Bias and reviewing


While I was at Conflux, I heard a lot of talk about the importance of reviews. This wasn’t limited to the panel on reviewing, but cropped up at book launches, at other panels and in conversation. With the rise of e-publishing, competition is fierce and it is important to stand out from the crowd. Reviews are one way of doing this. I heard many writers and publishers encouraging readers to leave reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. These sites are configured so that the more reviews a book has, the more likely it is to be seen. It is better to have dozens of two star reviews than a couple of five star reviews.

However, reviewing becomes tricky when one is involved in the publishing community. I read a reasonable amount of work written or published by people I know. I do this partly to keep up with what’s going on in the industry, partly out of curiosity over what my acquaintances have been working on and partly out of genuine interest for the work itself. One of the reasons I started this blog was to share what I read with people who are just as excited about books as I am. Can I do that when I know the people whose work I’m reviewing? I got a few looks of horror at Conflux when I suggested I might attempt it.

I can understand why. On the reviewing panel at Conflux, experienced reviewer Satima Flavell suggested that a review had to be sympathetic to three people: the publisher, the author and the reader. Being too kind to a publisher or author can give a reader the wrong impression about a book. This wastes the reader’s time and money at best and ultimately breaks the trust between reviewer and reader. On the other hand, criticising a work too strongly–whether warranted or not–can hurt the feelings of someone the reviewer knows and will have to encounter again in the future. It is a difficult balance.

The panelists approached the situation in different ways. Writer David McDonald simply avoids reviewing Australian material. Shaheen of Speculating on SpecFic chooses to maintain some distance from the writing community and is able to do so because she isn’t a writer herself.  Satima Flavell and Helen Venn negotiate the tricky path of reviewing while still being part of the community. All of the panelists agreed that the key to this path is to be as honest and upfront as possible. Let readers know who you know so that they can make an informed choice about how to treat your review.

This commonsense approach seems to work well for Tsana Dolichva of Tsana’s Reads and Reviews, who had the following to say during her interview for the 2014 Australian Speculative Fiction Snapshot:

I think a lot of the controversy comes from worries about authenticity and potential antagonism. If a writer is friends with the author of the book they’re reviewing, for example, will they write an honest review if they don’t like it? Is a fledgeling writer worried about criticising a Big Name writer in their review? But I think we’re all grown ups and should be capable of writing critical reviews without being rude, or, on the flip side, dealing with negative reviews of our work without having a breakdown on Twitter. I understand some of the hesitancy around the matter, but I don’t think that should be a reason for writers not to review, if that’s what they want to do.

After giving the matter some consideration, I’ve decided that this is also the approach I’ll be taking. Restricting my reviewing to only non-Australian authors or those I don’t know would leave me unable to share so many exciting, well-written books. If I can’t share what excites me, what is the point of reviewing at all?

However, I acknowledge that it is a contentious issue and one I’ll no doubt continue to wrestle with as I become a more experienced reviewer. Do you write/review? How do you approach the matter? I’d love you to share your thoughts here.


15 thoughts on “Bias and reviewing”

  1. I think that as long as you give full disclosure, and always aim to be honest, then that’s all you can do. I write my reviews under a pseudonym, because I don’t want them to intersect with my writing-side (it also leaves me free to be honest). I always state my source for free books, and usually include somewhere in my review if I’m a big fan of a writer, or if I know them personally. If I do know a writer personally, and have perhaps beta-read for them, I’ll say that too, and likely not give a rating.

    Reviews are, and should be, written for readers. As long as you lay all your cards on the table, then it’s up to your readers to take what they will from your review. Today I wrote a review of something I absolutely loved. I don’t know the author, had never heard of them before I picked up this book, but I was so effusive it probably reads like a shill review. I don’t care. If I love something I will say it, if I don’t, likewise. (Similarly I left feedback today for a book I really didn’t enjoy and knew I couldn’t do justice to in a review. I was sad about it, but I can’t like everything.)

    There’s been a lot of stuff going on in the reviewing world just lately, which makes me sad (and appalled). I’m a reviewer because I love to read books, and as a reader I find other people’s reviews so important when deciding whether to buy something or not. I look forward to reading your reviews, and seeing which books you’re enjoying soon. I’m sure you’ll find out what balance works for you.

    (Have you looked into NetGalley yet? I’ve been sucked in, and have to admit it’s really worth it. I may have gone slightly overboard just lately though…)

    1. Becca, your point of view is very much in line with what the panel members were saying. Shaheen spoke of honesty and allowing the readers their own interpretation. For example, a statement saying she didn’t enjoy a particular book because she doesn’t enjoy love triangles may be exactly what convinces a reader who adores love triangles to pick up that book. As you said, it is good to lay all your cards on the table.

      That said, I still have some misgivings about reviewing while still being part of the publishing community. Especially considering what has been going on in the reviewing world.

      I also find other people’s reviews to be important when deciding when to buy (or even borrow) something. One of the (debatable) drawbacks of beginning to review is that I’m reading more review blogs and my wish list and Mt TBR are rapidly growing (which is why I haven’t looked into NetGalley. Yet).

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

  2. I rarely review, mostly because I don’t like doing it much, but also because I really don’t want to get up in the author-reviewer-reader drama that seems to pop up, um… all the time.

    I have to roll my eyes at authors who get mad when people give ratings and don’t review, or give a very brief review. The reviews are not for them! I really like what Satima Flavell said.

    1. Clare, I can certainly understand where you’re coming from. Reviewing can take quite a bit of time and effort… time and effort that may otherwise have been spent on writing (particularly important when you’re working on a serial!). And we’ve certainly been recently seeing a bit of the ugly drama that can happen, which makes me a little bit nervous. However, I do love a good book conversation and I tend to see reviewing as just such a conversation, albeit a little more public than it may have been otherwise.

      Satima had some wonderful things to say on her experiences as a reviewer. I wish I’d had the space to write about more of them.

  3. I’m very much in agreement with what Becca said, though I don’t write reviews under a pseudonym. I try to be honest about any potential bias I might have, so readers can draw their own conclusions and make better-informed decisions about how far they want to trust my reviews.

    I do have a policy to keep reviews predominantly positive. I won’t review something I didn’t like and while I will note issues I had I’m less inclined to focus on them in a lot of detail. I do write negative reviews, but even then I do my best to focus on something positive. And I usually resort to writing a very quick one-paragraph summary of my reactions instead of a full review. (I think this month will feature my first wholly negative comment on… anything. And it’s a film.)

    And then, of course, there’s the author/reviewer drama. *shudders* I have misgivings about reviewing too, but I love sharing stories (whether my own or someone else’s). I want to keep on sharing stories because I like talking about them. So I’ll keep on doing it as long as I’m comfortable enough to do so and if I’m ever not… Well, I’ll consider what to do when I get there. ^_^

      1. I’m pretty sure we all have days like that 🙂

        I’ve long thought your approach to reviewing was a good one. I think you do a very good job of being open about your potential biases and allowing your genuine enthusiasm to shine through. I also like the way you keep your less favourable reactions to those one-paragraph summaries. I’ve been thinking I might do the same.

        Have you ever had any negative reactions to your reviews?

        1. *ducks head* Thank you. I try. I don’t always manage, though.

          Not to the extent we’ve seen recently (thankfully) and not at all from authors. I think the most negative a reaction I’ve had has been someone disagreeing with me politely because they loved a book that I had major issues with.

  4. From the Northern Hemisphere PoV, if all the Australian reviewers avoid reviewing Australian work, how will we ever find out what gems we’re missing?

    There are issues around reviewing work by people you know, but most active reviewers are likely to develop links into the literary community, so maybe we should all just take potential connections as read and get on with reading what the reviewer thought. I do think there’s something to be said for being open about connections, but, with that one proviso, surely a review and thoughts, even if connected, is better than no review whatsoever!

    1. David, I think your comment touches on a key problem for the Australian publishing industry. It really is a tiny field where everyone knows everyone. If we all tiptoe around reviewing each others’ work, there’s very little hope of reaching a wider audience.

  5. I’ve pretty much settled – as a writer and reviewer – on only reviewing books that I really like. I basically consider my form of reviewing as squeeing about the books I love, because I think that other people might love them, too. And yes, given how small our community it, it’s inevitable that you’re going to know or be friends with authors sometimes, but I try to be honest – if I don’t love the book, I generally just won’t review it.

    Reviewing is a huge way that people can give back to the community, by helping to publicise books and hopefully increasing sales for some of our authors. I totally understand why some authors chose not to, but it’s something that I love doing.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Steph. I think you do a fantastic job as a reviewer. I’ve always found your book reviews to be well-balanced and informative, so I think you do a good job of staying fair. I’ve picked up a few titles on the strength of your reviews (I think The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf might have been one) and I’ve never regretted it.

      What is your approach to books that were middle-range (so decent enough, but didn’t provoke a strong emotional reaction)?

    1. Thanks, Deborah!

      I know you’re a pretty avid reader; do you tend to read reviews at all?

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