Why I (mostly) quit reviewing

If you follow me on goodreads, you may have noticed some changes recently. I removed most of my stars and am no longer posting a lengthy review of each and every book I read. I initially thought I might stay mum about this change, but the other day I found some speculation online about my motives–was I bowing to the pressure of my author-peers?–and so I thought I might offer some clarifications about this decision.

The truth is, no one asked me to stop reviewing. Not my agent, not my editor, not my publisher. If other writers ever thought it, they never asked me outright–though perhaps they sensed that I would have given them a death glare if they did. The decision was entirely mine, made independently and on my own timeline. For that, I’m actually very grateful. I’ve heard stories about author/reviewers facing threats or mean girl gossip. I’m glad the decision was mine, and no one else’s.

There were several aspects to this decision. For one thing, it’s true what they say: it really is awkward meeting an author you’ve panned at a book event. Other bloggers have surely experienced this. I’ve come to realize that publishing friendships are, at times, built on polite fictions. “Why no, I haven’t had time to read your book! I’m so sorry!” There was a time when I prided myself on my radical honesty, but by requiring myself to always be honest, I was also forcing myself to have social interactions that made me feel panicked and uncomfortable. I have social anxiety already, and I was triggering myself over and over again. No fun.

But my friendships with other authors caused additional complications: I’m doing more beta reading than ever before, often for books that are very likely to eventually see publication. I know that beta reading has compromised my objectivity; once you see someone’s first draft, it colors all subsequent readings of a book. And so I didn’t feel great reviewing those books, either, even if I revisited them in finished form.

And what about books for blurb? When Lenore Appelhans sent me a lovely, flattering email regarding her blurb for my book–a few months before publication of her own Level 2–I realized that I, too, might someday be in a position to evaluate manuscripts for blurb. I couldn’t in good conscience review those books. It’s just too much of a conflict of interest. Blurbing is as much a sign that you want to support another author’s career as a celebration of a book you love, and reviewing comes out of a very different place–one of taste and execution of intent. I knew I couldn’t do both at once for the same book.

But all those reasons are trifling compared to the big one: I was burnt out on reviewing, stretched thin by work and deadlines and revisions. I knew that the next several months would be busy ones, filled with guest posts and planning for the launch of Starglass. And frankly, the idea of continuing to slave over long reviews for every single book I read made me want to cry. Reviewing is a ton of work, often for low reward. I no longer viewed the review copies I received as wonderful or exciting. Frankly, they began to look like homework. I was less enthusiastic about my reviews, too. After four years of reviewing, my critical writing felt formulaic. I was taking fewer risks in terms of style and composition. I wasn’t having fun.

And why do it, if you’re not having fun? The next few months are going to be intense ones, full of pressure and expectations. I knew I was robbing myself of what had once been a source of solace for me. Books were no longer a comfort; they were work, and obligation. I missed taking joy in them. I wanted to reacquaint myself with reading for fun–in much the same way I had to relearn to love books after graduate school, come to think of it. And for that, my reading experiences had to be quieter, more solipsistic. I needed to step away from writing about books for an audience to rediscover the joy of them for myself.

Which isn’t to say that I’ve stopped completely. I’m still reviewing sporadically for Strange Horizons (here’s a recent review for Mandy Hagar’s The Crossing); I’m still posting scattered thoughts when the spirit moves me on my goodreads account; I’m still going to ramble about television and movies here, on my blog. But I no longer feel obligated to churn out a thousand word (unpaid!) essay for every single book I read. And it feels good. It feels liberating!

But as grateful as I am to have made the decision to stop on my own timeline and my own free will, I’m also very glad for the time I spent reviewing and the friendships that grew out of it. Some of my closest writer-friendships arose from my reviews–creative friendships that are incredibly enriching and rewarding. I would have never found my agent if it weren’t for reviewing; I wouldn’t be part of YA Highway; Sean Wills would probably not be one of the closest friends I’ve never even met. And I so value all the goodreads friends and blogger friends and reviewer friends I made, too. You guys are so smart, and work so hard. Knowing you has humbled me.

It’s common to encounter doom-and-gloom pronouncements on the internet about reviewers-turned-authors–about how you’ll never get ahead in this industry unless you just shut up and toe the line–but frankly, they never jived with my experience. In my experience, your choices–with critical writing, with social networking–are deeply personal. My experience may not be your experience. It’s unlikely to be, in fact. You know yourself better than any stooge on the internet, especially me. Follow your own internal compass. In my experience, it will never steer you wrong.

Excelsior!

PhoebeWhy I (mostly) quit reviewing