Friday, November 7, 2014

The Politics of Positivity - A ReadItDaddy Editorial

Our usual default expression when reading books. That's a good thing, right? Right?

Something's been buzzing around in my brain this week, sparred on by a mini debate trickling away on Twitter and kicked off by the awesome author Matt Haig (I sincerely hope he doesn't mind me referring to him as awesome!)

The crux of Matt's debate revolved around the worth of reviews that were gushingly (and in some cases quite cloyingly) positive. You can see Matt's original blog post on the subject here. 

Matt makes some incredibly clear points which seem to have been misconstrued by the book blogging community, and other review folk who read a few of the statements like...

“There is too much positivity in the book world. Esp in book blogs and on YouTube. Books can’t all be good can they?”

and also...

“We need a critical culture in books. We need for people to say what they want about a book, for a healthy book culture.”


“Books are ideas. They are debate starters. They are conversation starters. They are meant to spark a range of opinion.”

Reading some of the responses to this, and some of the points made in the above blog post about those responses, people seemed to have overlooked a few of the questions that they should have asked themselves before embarking on a book blogging or reviewing journey. 

1) Why are you writing about books? What was your initial reason for beginning a book blog to share your (or your child's) opinions on books?

2) Do you value other people's opinions on books? Are you prepared to listen to their debate, or are you purely a "My way or the highway" type of person who can't see anyone else's point of view than your own?

3) (and this is a controversial one) If you're fortunate enough to receive books free of charge from authors, illustrators or publishers to review on your blog or reviews publication, would you still bother if those free books dried up? Is that what you worry about if you dare to write a negative or properly critical review? The publisher, author or illustrator might take offence and put a hex on your blog to stop you getting any more 'free stuff' ?

To pick up on those points in reverse order from our perspective - When we started out writing ReadItDaddy, we reviewed books we bought ourselves or from the library. We still do, and we still would if the free books suddenly stopped. Like most bloggers we will write about things we're passionate about and we try to offer a critical and balanced opinion on practically everything we get sent. Publishers, authors and illustrators respect that honesty and the fact that though she doesn't write the blog posts herself, the posts here are drawn from Charlotte's opinions for the greater part, with a bit of a contribution from me too (because, yep, shock horror, a 46 year old male is perfectly capable of forming a passionate opinion about children's books too y'know!)

We value other people's opinions on books, and we read a LOT of other book blogs and follow a heck of a lot of book bloggers and reviewers on Twitter. I'd take the opinion of ten of the top book bloggers who do this for the love of it over any ten folk paid to write book reviews but that's not to say that I'd immediately discount any opinion where money (or free books) changed hands. You'll spot immediately if someone's just blarting out a press release or are actually writing their own piece. 

And point one. Why are we writing about children's books? Simply put, Charlotte has developed a love of books to the point where she describes her dream room in her dream house as being wall to wall bookshelves and a massive library rather than a wall full of posters of One Direction or cute kittens. We didn't force her into that, we read to her from the moment she opened her eyes and we still both do, my wife and I. We initially started writing about books for our own sieve-like memories, to keep track of them and to share the love of them.

We are mostly positive here, and there's a couple of good reasons for that too. One - we rarely meet a stinker. Getting a children's book published, or even getting a whiff of interest in your story is bloody hard work (I can speak from a tiny bit of experience here) so if you're looking at books from major publishers - and even from well-respected indies, they're going to have to have gone through an editor as tough as nails before being green-lit. 

With illustration, it's an amazingly tough game to establish yourself, wring a style of your own out of your scribblings and then fit your illustrations around someone else's words (or for those mega talented folk who do both - to come up with illustrations and a story that will keep people coming back again, and again and again and spreading the word about your book too!)

So we do rarely see 'bad' books and hey, what the hell is a bad book anyway? One person's 'bad book' is another person's treasured story. So we are positive for the majority of the time but will call out a lazy sloppily written half-arsedly trotted out piece of work when we see one (celebrity authors take note, because you're the major culprits when it comes to sloppy work. You really need to up your game if you think you've got any hope of competing with the brightest and best children's authors working today - sorry but there it is!)

Huge amounts of respect to Matt for having a big brass pair to stand in the firing line on this one but we're with you on this. Criticality is a finely tuned instrument, not a feather nor a blunt club. Balance it right and you'll write an opinion that will matter to the creative talent you're putting under the knife,  and others who do what you do. Thanks for reading and apologies for the wall of text, this is a debate that will undoubtedly go on :)


Jen M said...

I meant to comment on this when I first read it. Thanks for writing such a thoughtful piece. I've just started a book review blog myself & I'm going it because I children's books, I love writing about them, & I get asked for recommendations all the time so figured I should put them up on a blog. I love championing the books that I think are good, or great, or even genius. I'm only ever going to write about books that meet that criteria - and they won't necessarily be perfect, and when they aren't I won't shy away from saying it. But while I too think Matt H is awesome he is perhaps missing the point about reviews on blogs. The reason my reviews will always be largely be positive is because I rate those books - the ones I don't think are good (or as good) won't be on there. Surely that's what happens a lot of the time - we talk about the ones we like because we want people to know about them and we don't mention the ones we didn't enjoy? So reviews will always be slanted towards the positive. This isn't the case for people who are given books to review regardless of whether they like them or not, and that's a different role entirely. Anyway - I just wanted to share my views & say thanks for raising the issue in the first place.

ReadItDaddy said...

Huge thanks for a thoughtful comment. Definitely think there's a huge debate to be had about this, and some of the points Matt raises are perfect and spot on.

Definitely don't invalidate the opinions of folks who either review books professionally (so not only receive the books 'for free' but also get paid for their opinions - that's not us by the way, we get sent books but this is far from being a money-earning gig :) - If they're trotting out lazy reviews that are just cookie cutter remarks, you'll spot it a mile off. I hope people don't think that about us because we take a lot of time and effort to write the blog (spare time, squeezed in around Charlotte being in school and me being in full time work that has nothing to do with books, alas) and writing it with Charlotte really is the only way the reviews take shape and make sense for us.

G'luck with the blog and drop us an email if you'd like us to put you on our blog roll :)