Fandom Versus Criticism

An opinion piece from the New York Times popped up in my Twitter feed today that preempted today’s planned review post. It was ostensibly about 50 Shades of Grey, but really, it wasn’t. What it was about was the relationship of fandom to criticism, exploring the concept of whether critics are out of touch or fandom is superficially concerned with literal representation and uninterested in artistic merit. The author doesn’t given an explicit answer, though he hints at one when he acknowledges how Twilight temporarily transformed him into a 13-year-old girl. In other words, there’s a place for both.

Personally, I’ve been struggling a little with my blog over the past couple of months. There’s a tension in what I do here at Cooking Up Romance between fandom and criticism. Broadly speaking, my “reviews” aren’t criticism. They’re personal reflections on media I consume largely for fun, interpreted through the lens of food. The most enthusiastic of them are more like fan letters than reviews, but because I am who I am, I tend to reflect more on thoughts than feelings, which might fool people into thinking I’m writing criticism. Reviewing implies a critical process at work in the body of the piece, which is mostly absent from my recipe reviews, if not necessarily from my overall selection process.

I recently closed my blog to unsolicited ARC submissions and I’m slowly working through a very small backlog of Netgalley advance titles. I don’t think I’ll be opening it back up any time soon. The reason is at least partially aesthetic. There are a lot of badly-written, badly-edited books out there. Some of them have robust marketing behind them and/or writers committed to getting sales. Some aren’t even bad exactly. They’re just…same-y. I’m tired of feeling like I have to sort through a ton of chaff to get to the wheat when there are stacks of books by authors I know I like and other books that come highly recommended by people whose taste I know I share. I’ve felt pressure to review the latest thing, the popular stuff, a breadth of work by a wide range of authors in all the sub-genres, particularly because what I do here is unique.

But I had stopped enjoying myself. I’d read so many bad books in a row–books with no conflict, books with glimmers of a strong voice that wasn’t fully realized, books with dubious or incoherent themes and moral positions, books with cardboard characters that never move beyond archetypes and yes, books with typos, grammar errors, missing words and other mechanical defects in inexcusable quantities. I enjoy thinking “deep” thoughts about the books I read, but a lack of underlying quality is supremely uninteresting for me to think about and talk about. Plus, in order to meet my Year of Doing Hard Things goals, I really need to be able to cook and photograph and write. I can’t waste time scheduling in ARCs only to end up scrambling because I didn’t particularly enjoy eight books in a row, which is what happened in February.

Reading that New York Times article though, I had an epiphany: I might be a critic at one level, but I’m also a romance fan. And being forced into the role of critic over and over by books that didn’t work for me was making my inner fan super cranky. Like, tired, hungry toddler cranky. I wrote a review recently that I’ve since pulled from the blog because it was written by that tired, hungry toddler. I wouldn’t have been so annoyed by perceived inconsistencies if I hadn’t read a bunch of stuff in a row that I didn’t enjoy. So instead, I’m going back to writing about books I may have read months or even years ago. I will also still likely write about some new things as I discover books and writers (like Shelley Ann Clark last year) whom I adore. But I’m also going to stop resisting the temptation to blog all the Laura Kinsale just because I worry that people will get sick of listening to me rave about her.

Being a fan doesn’t mean I’m uncritical. Choosing to write fan-aligned reviews with pretty pictures of food doesn’t mean I’m not making aesthetic and ethical decisions behind the scenes. And there have been ethical decisions, particularly as I make friends with authors whose books I also enjoy via Twitter and, more recently, in person. I will likely continue to write some essay-type posts (both here and elsewhere) because writing is how I process overarching critical issues. I’m just not going to process those issues through the lens of particular books like other critics do. It’s not because I’m not capable of it. It’s because it doesn’t bring me joy. I had an innate sense that this would be the case going in, which is why I’ve always said I won’t write negative reviews here. But I got to the point where I felt I had to start because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t write at all. Having something to write about isn’t worth the price though. Not of feeling unhappy. Not for me. Nor, as a fan, do I feel the need to comment on a book’s flaws if those flaws are outweighed by its’ strengths. As a critic, both seem equally important to share.

Finally, there seems to be an ethos of disclosure, of separating the reviewers from the writers (born of the ethics of professional journalism) to book reviewing online. And while that seems to work very well for The New Yorker and even big romance reviewing blogs, that’s not what I ever wanted to be or what I ever wanted to do. So from now on, I’m not going to fret so much about writing about books by people I know beyond the text (though I will continue to disclose those relationships, indicate where I’ve read a draft in any form and report when I’ve received a book free for the purposes of review). And that is likely to diminish my level of respectability in some peoples’ eyes. But why, as a fan, would I want to give up relationships I enjoy, reading early versions of stuff (SO FUN) or writing about books I love because of an arbitrary standard of behavior that I never aspired to adhere to and don’t necessarily value? As a critic, I felt guilty. As a fan, I don’t have to care.

I didn’t set out to write some kind of critical manifesto even though that’s kind of where I ended up. Nor do I expect my conclusions to correlate to anyone else’s conclusions. I just wanted to explain where I’ve been and where I am now and why there may be some subtle changes. For one thing, if I don’t like my TBR Challenge book, I’m going to skip that month. Readers may see some of the same authors pop up more frequently because that’s just reflective of the books I’m enjoying at any given time. There will probably be fewer reviews of new books and more reviews of “classic” books, though my definition of classic might include a random Harlequin Presents from 2007.

So that’s where I am at the moment. It’s extremely freeing.

5 comments

  1. I'd like to do a slow clap for this – except that I'm acutely aware I'm one of those "crossing the line" authors. Still, I face very much this same thing. I'm still a reader, even as my best friends are also writers. I am the severest of critics, but I don't share that publicly. All of my public reviews are positive to gushing. If I can't fangirl I say nothing at all. So it goes!

    In the end, I think we should do exactly as we wish. Nothing else honors our true selves.

  2. Well, I guess that was sort of my point, though an ancillary one. I think there are bloggers who do and should worry about "crossing the line" with authors. And people who want to write exactly what they think about every book for the purpose of helping other readers make purchasing decisions have to take that perspective, I think. I'm just not one of them. I'm aware that when I blog about a book, people do go out and buy it. But I feel like that response comes from those purchasers sharing my taste more than an overarching belief in my impartiality. I don't understand why that shouldn't be an equally valid way to share book love. It's more like what happens among friends than what happens when someone reads a review in the New York Times.

    Besides, I like the back-and-forth of getting random food questions about manuscripts that are still in the proposal stage. Why on earth would I want to give that up? 😉

  3. LOL! That's certainly a fun part for me, too! And you're absolutely spot on about friends sharing enthusiasm. There are definitely reviewers (like E and others) who heavily influence my reading with their book crushes. I know if they love, I likely will also. Objectivity means nothing to me in those cases.

  4. I wrote up a reaction, partly to this, today 🙂 http://www.jeffekennedy.com/authors-interacting-with-reviewers/

  5. […] are disclosed in the body of review posts as I don’t avoid my friends’ books. I’ve talked about this before so I hope that’s not news. In many cases, I became friendly with authors after reviewing a […]

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