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!

8 Comments

  1. First Shirley Marr, now you. It’s just so damn sad. Well, at least you’re not leaving it indefinitely. Yay! And if it means more books coming our way, then get the heck out of here already! But really, don’t go AWOL on GR for too long, please.

    Reply
    1
    • I promise I won’t be a stranger. :)

      Reply
      1
  2. I noticed that as well. I figured you were busy with book stuff. And I completely agree. I’m well prepared to handle awkwardness (well, because I tell people I know in RL that their stuff sucks all the time), but reviewing is a complete time blackhole. I will sit down to write a review when I get home, around 7, and realize it’s already 10pm.

    Combined with revisions for agents and beta-reading and querying and class, I don’t have time to read. I’ve been stuck 25% through Choke for the past week.

    Reply
    2
    • Yeah, funny thing is that I thought I’d handle the awkwardness better than I did. Turns out, it’s easier for me to be brutally honest with friends than with people I’ve just met, though.

      Congrats on the agent revisions! But yeah, it definitely gets exhausting. If you can, make time for yourself! I highly recommend it. :)

      Reply
      2
  3. I found this post via YAHighway, and I’m really glad I did. I’m a writer, and I review books on my blog, and just this week I debated whether or not I should keep reviewing. It’s just 1 book a week and I don’t review everything I read, so it feels manageable to me, and I also have a policy not to publicly review books written by my crit partners or agent siblings.

    Ultimately I decided to keep reviewing, for now, because I find the exercise of reading something and then critically thinking about it to be really helpful to my writing.

    But I wonder how long I’ll be able to keep it up and post my thoughts publicly without running into the awkwardness you mentioned. I try really hard to review from the perspective of a writer and not a reader, and if I say anything negative, I always make sure to support my thoughts, but yeah, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little worried that some of my less-positive reviews might some day bite me in the butt.

    Reply
    3
    • Kendall, I understand all of those emotions. All you can do is try your best and know that you can always change your mind. It’s your career and how you conduct yourself is up to you. *hugs*

      Reply
      3
  4. I feel like I contributed to the need to make this blog post, somewhat. (Remember my comment on your review of Twilight?) It’s nice to see a more detailed reason. If nowhere else, I wanted to let you know here: the IGA was the first internet blog I ever followed. You and Sean taught me how to review, and you introduced me to GoodReads, as well as recommending me some of my very favorite books. Because of this, it’s a little saddening to see you moving on, but at the same time, I completely understand and support it, and I’ll probably be glad for it once I read Starglass. So, thanks for the reviewing you did, and I can’t wait to see what you’re doing next. :)

    Reply
    4
    • Nah, you didn’t precipitate it, Mike–and besides, I really needed to speak up, so even if you did, no harm, no foul. :) But Thank you for all your support over the course of the IGA! Glad we could help you find some great books! :)

      Reply
      4

Leave a Reply