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What-To-Read Wednesday: An Essay

This week, I was planning to recommend two novellas my friends wrote.

I was thinking this morning about writing the post, and it occurred to me that I had feelings about recommending these stories — nervous, uncomfortable feelings — and that my feelings were in reaction to a conversation that’s been woven through a number of different blogs lately about authors as reviewers, authors reviewing their friends, and the ethics of reviewing and recommending when you’re an author or a writer.

I’ve paid attention to this conversation, but I haven’t said anything about it. Today, though, I realized that I want to, if only to share with you the perspective from which I recommend books here almost every week (and the perspective from which I frequently recommend my friends’ books to you). So this week, I’m giving you this essay instead of a recommendation.

My perspective is this: I am a reader. I’m thirty-six years old, and I think if you counted up all the hours and minutes (not counting sleep), you’d find I’d spent the vast majority of my life reading. I can’t go to the bathroom without something to read. I can’t eat breakfast alone without reading. I read all the time.

I’m a reader, and I’m also an analyst. I was an English major in college. I took a bunch of grad school lit classes. The relationship between my desire to protect reading as a pure emotional experience and my training as a scholar and analyst is somewhat fraught. I don’t analyze every book I read because I often don’t want to. But I know how.

I’m a reader, and I’m an analyst, and I’m an editor. I spent a decade as a professional editor of academic books. I got paid to rip other people’s work apart and put it back together, better. This is a thing I know how to do.

I was a reader and an analyst and an editor before I became a writer. All of those roles — they still belong to me. Typing my own stories didn’t affect my ability to read them, analyze them, edit them, or enjoy them.

When I began writing, I sought out relationships that would help me become a better writer, and I also sought out friends whose writing I admired. I joined Twitter because I wanted to talk to Cara McKenna, and thank goodness, because she’s such a great person and a fabulous friend. Twitter has brought a lot of other wonderful people and books into my life. Because of Cara, I met Del Dryden. Then I met Serena Bell. Both of them are my friends — good friends — and after them, I met others, read others, admired others, became friends with others. Everyone at Wonkomance. A lot of the people whose books I recommend here. The first thing I do, often, when I read a great book, is email the author, or tweet at her. I’ve done this dozens of times. In other cases, I’ve befriended people because I fiercely admired their brains, and then it turned out that I also loved their work.

I wouldn’t be a writer if it weren’t for the companionship, support, and pure joy I get from being friends with other writers. This is a fact. I would long since have become discouraged or bored, and when I get discouraged and bored I wander off and find other things to do.

Furthermore, I’m the kind of person who wants all my friends to be friends. Mary Ann Rivers calls me a matchmaker, and maybe I am, I don’t know. I just know that if I meet X and she’s amazing, I want her to meet Y. When I found out that Courtney Milan and Tessa Dare are great friends, my reaction was along the lines of That is the best thing that’s ever happened. I want connections. I want synergies. I want none of us to be working in isolation, discouraged and alone, when we can email or call each other on a bad day and receive the response that turns it all around. If we could all live together at a giant romance-writing collective with drop-in child care and free Wifi, I would be ecstatic.

So. To return to the point: I was a reader and an editor and an analyst and a writer before I became an Author. Writers write books, but Authors have Readers. Once you become an Author, you are, suddenly, a “brand.” You are encouraged, in order to sell books, to behave in particular ways. You are flooded with advice: do this, don’t do that, never say that, don’t talk about X, don’t forget to talk about Y, promote this thing on your Facebook, and hey, will you read this book and blurb it, maybe, for this person you’ve never met?

When you become an Author, you have to decide how you want to negotiate a hundred different sorts of situations. You have to consider how you want to behave and what kinds of ramifications your behavior will have. You have to think about your work and the reception of your work and the sales of your work, and at the same time you have to think about your feelings and your principles and your needs as a human being.

All of that. Every day.

Or else you have to opt to NOT think about it for your own sanity, which is also a thing you’ve thought about and decided.

Now, I am, as I said, thirty-six. I’m an adult and a professional. I’m educated and intelligent. I have thought about all of these things, and I have made choices. My choices aren’t secrets, but at the same time, I don’t believe I’m obligated to make them transparent to anyone. Ask me, if you want. Maybe I’ll tell you. Maybe I won’t. But it’s worth remembering that opacity isn’t the same thing as thoughtlessness.

I have made choices, and my friends who are writers have made choices, and we haven’t necessarily made the same choices. We haven’t colluded on our choices. We’re all independent women with the ability to choose and differ and still enjoy one another’s friendship.

One choice I have made is not to lie. If I say, in this space, that I liked a book, it’s because I liked it. That doesn’t mean you’ll like it. It also doesn’t mean I thought it was perfect. I don’t actually seek perfection in the art that I consume. I read for other reasons — engagement, fascination, attraction, mirroring, emotion.

Furthermore, I’m not writing reviews, I’m writing recommendations. The way I see it, a review is obligated to analyze. A recommendation is not. A recommendation is just me saying, “Hey, I liked this book. You might like it, too — let me tell you some stuff about it.”

The reason I recommend rather than review is not, in fact, because it’s more comfortable to do this when you’re an Author (although, in many cases, it is). I recommend rather than review because, very simply, I don’t like writing reviews. If I had to write a review every week, I’d never do it, and then this feature wouldn’t exist.

I do what I can, what I enjoy, in the hope that my enjoyment will foster yours.

And the thing is, that’s where I’m coming from. I’m coming from a place of good feelings, and of wanting to amplify those good feelings. I don’t believe in objectivity as a thing that exists. I spent the first two years of grad school having endless conversations about history and knowledge and theory and the subjectivity of everything, and if there was any part of me that believed in objectivity as a value, I lost it a long time ago.

What I believe in is love. I believe that if I love something, if I admire it, if it makes me feel good, I should share it. I believe in the power of supporting the people who inspire you, the causes that matter to you, and — in my guise as a writer — the fiction I think is doing the very best sort of work in the world.

So that’s what I’m doing here, on Wednesdays. Supporting what matters to me, what feeds me, what amuses me, what I think will change the world. All of it. With you guys.

Which is why, next Wednesday, I’m going to recommend two novellas my friends wrote to you.

22 thoughts on “What-To-Read Wednesday: An Essay

  1. I loved this post. It was insightful and honest, and it was almost as if you were forming your opinions as you were writing. I’m an aspiring (!) writer, who also writes reviews/ recommendations, on Goodreads, Amazon and on my blog. A couple of books I’ve reviewed have been from friends, but the majority are just stories I’ve picked up and bought. I only post about books I love, so it may seem like I’m being biased, but if I don’t like something I just don’t write about it. Other blogs and reviewers do, which is great, it’s just not something I feel comfortable doing.

    Anyway, enough about me, let’s talk about you. I love your thoughts as much as I love your stories. Thanks for sharing them all.

  2. “I believe in the power of supporting the people who inspire you, the causes that matter to you, and — in my guise as a writer — the fiction I think is doing the very best sort of work in the world.”

    *hugs*

  3. Thank you for that essay Ruthie. I LOVE to read as you do. Always have, always will. I really enjoy your books, and when you began What to Read Wednesday I made a point of checking the authors you recommended. Mary Ann Rivers, Laura Florand, Serena Bell, and Cara McKenna, all authors I now love to read. I also will try and contact authors when I’ve particularly been pulled into their story. Sometimes I feel like a stalker! :). I could never believe you would lie to promote peoples books, so recommend away. I’ll be here next Wednesday!

  4. All of this.

    I can only add, too, that life, including the life of a writer, is a process. What I choose to do or try now, may not be what I always choose to do or try. I’m learning. It’s a continuum. There are lots of voices to listen to, including my own. I can’t know what feels good, what feels right, how something holds up against my developing ideas and beliefs, unless I engage with it. My translucency is a process, as well, and I think, in such a dynamic and organic and changeable landscape as all of us are a part of there are reasons for opacity — like personal protection (even the protection of a decision making process that isn’t complete), or simple lack of knowledge *because* the environment is so dynamic.

    I know, first hand, how personal a process writing a story is, so when I read something, and my mind and my heart engages with it deeply, I have this beautiful clue that the person that wrote this may be kindred, in some way. Often, I reach out. Often, this has resulted in incredible relationships. However, my mind did not stop being engaged because I am in a relationship with this person. In many respects, my mind became more engaged, more critical, more expansive of the artistic efforts of my friend.

    Writers have been writing about and recommending their friends, always. It’s a valuable perspective. It’s even more interesting to know if the writer friends saw the development of the work in question. It’s a rich and interesting part of life as a writer, and a writer, and a critic.

    I have never felt obligated to make a recommendation in any venue, including venues more ephemeral and organic like Twitter. I feel pretty secure, as an adult forever in process, that I RT when I want to RT. The groups of writerly communities I’ve made, like wonkomance, are also without obligation. I’m there because I have things to learn about writing, story, my own process, the writing life, from the fierce intelligence and ongoing experiences of these friends and writers. It is not surprising that many of my recommendation have come out of groups of writers that I have *sought out myself.*

    I learn so much, all the time, it’s overwhelming. Like you say here, so well, it’s constant and daily negotiation, and everyone’s in conversation.

    It’s a privilege. It’s a process. How it looks now won’t be where it is with the introduction of a single piece of information or experience.

    The only thing that doesn’t change is the yearning to read, to reach out, to make stories.

    Thank you so much, Ruthie.

    1. I know, first hand, how personal a process writing a story is, so when I read something, and my mind and my heart engages with it deeply, I have this beautiful clue that the person that wrote this may be kindred, in some way. Often, I reach out

      Yes! That!

  5. I’m neither a writer nor an author but, like you Ruthie, I am an AVID reader. I go nowhere without something to read. As a reader I truly enjoy hearing the opinions of authors. You are first and foremost human and therefore have opinions. I would truly prefer to hear what an author has to say about others works over someone who decided one day they wanted to be a blogger! Please please….regardless of what others think…keep those recommendations coming.

  6. Nicely said! I’ve been aware of all the review controversies and ups-and-downs over the last couple of years. As a result, I’ve felt uncomfortable reviewing (or even recommending) books since I self-published my own. I’ve also resented that discomfort, though. I’m a reader first, an editor second, an author merely a playful third, and it’s not cool that my fun hobby takes away from my obsession. But what you said — (“Typing my own stories didn’t affect my ability to read them, analyze them, edit them, or enjoy them”) — is perfect. Every once in a while I’ve broken that “no reviewing” rule anyway (I couldn’t stop myself from loving up “Big Boy” on Amazon), but the next time I waver over whether I should write something about a book, I’m going to remember what you wrote here. Thank you!

  7. YES! And this essay brought tears to my eyes. I love that you’re a matchmaker (yay Mary Ann for being awesome with words) and I truly believe this is one of the best ways for a more harmonious society. Not going to get into the philosophy of this, though. I’m too lazy to type atm.

    I totally agree that authors weren’t authors first. We are ALL readers and there’s no reason for a published author to not be able to write a review or a recommendation. Hello, no one’s forcing anything on anyone.

    Xoxo

    E

  8. In real life, I love when a friend recommends another friend as a possible friend. Why wouldn’t I love that in my books? Who better to know someone or something than a friend? So I say recommend whatever and whoever you love, with enthusiasm and a clear conscience!

  9. I think recommending friends’ books on your blog is fine. Other readers can figure out where their tastes fit with yours, especially if you a) acknowledge the friendship, b) make it clear if there’s additional bias potential because you were also a beta-reader or editor, and c) give explanations for your recommendations. A blog post allows room for all of that. Twitter does not, which is why a lot of us get grumpy about the seemingly unending stream of “HeyreadthisbookIlovedit” tweets that seem to flow almost tit-for-tat between certain authors.

  10. I for one enjoy your recommendations so don’t feel the need to apologize here. That said I am very happy and respect you more as an author that you did apologize.
    I read your recommendations BECAUSE of the fact that you pick and chose the stories you recommend in the perspective as a reader NOT because you are obligated to as an author. I appreciate that and come back every Wednesday for more. That doesn’t always mean I read all the books but I have found quite a few new authors here.

    As Ms Rivers said “I know, first hand, how personal a process writing a story is, so when I read something, and my mind and my heart engages with it deeply, I have this beautiful clue that the person that wrote this may be kindred, in some way. Often, I reach out”. I too feel an affinity with authors. That is why I come back for more.

    I think Ms. Rivers also said that an author grows. Well a reader grows too. I think thru these multi media forums I have learned much about myself as a reader. I am more selective in who I follow and read. I am more selective in following authors’ recommendations. It goes back to feeling a kindred spirit.

    Therefore, I thank you for your blog and being honest about and in your reviews/recommendations. That above all is what I ask as a reader. That is why I will continue to read your books and blogs. Than you.

  11. I sympathize with authors, I really do, because on the one hand you’re trying to sell books and getting all this advice from various places about how best to do that, and on the other you’re interacting with readers on social media, and those readers are telling you things that contradict that advice.

    Here’s the thing, though: when it comes to the recent discussions and complaints about just how much promo and author recommendations there are on social media, the “authors are readers, too” defense doesn’t work. It’s disingenuous to claim that you (that’s general “you”) are just readers who want to talk about books like everyone else when you refuse to take part in half the discussion. And that doesn’t mean that I think authors are obligated to also talk about books they don’t like (I might not if I were an author), but when readers are talking about that, let us talk. Take it as another data point. I don’t think there’s an ethical issue here, and I don’t think anyone is pointing fingers at individual authors–that would be impossible. But as a group, it seems pretty obvious that the ratio is way off. There’s a whole lot of recommendations compared to negative comments and discussion. Readers notice this, so we talk about it. That’s just how it is. Do authors have to change how they talk about books with readers? No. But let’s not pretend readers are imagining things, either.

  12. A blog is a good place to make a recommendation because it allows context, and context is important.

    But here’s the thing…although you’re still a reader, especially in your own mind, first and foremost, you’re not just a reader, you’re a reader who writes and sells books and has friends who do or aspire to do the same. It’s really hard to gauge someone’s recommendations or reviews when you only know what they like, not what they don’t like. Books, restaurants, movies, etc. It’s all the same. The don’t likes can be as informative as the likes. And readers who just happen to write and sell books hardly ever talk about what they don’t like. And why is that? Because they’re also authors who have professional relationships. So huh, not really just a reader. You see the problem? (And yeah, I know you have a midwestern politeness cultural thing going on, but still).

    All that being said, I enjoy reading your recommendations, even if some of the books you recommend are not to my taste. Oddly enough, just because someone writes a book you like, it doesn’t follow that they will be able to recommend a book you will like, but I don’t mind that. I’m always fascinated to see how an author of a book I really admire can adore a book I don’t.

  13. “opacity isn’t the same thing as thoughtlessness”

    You are so awesome, Ruthie. I’m sure I was thinking some of those things about all this, because they sound so great. But you went and made it all well-articulated. Like you do.

  14. Oh wow. I have a lot to say. Starting with: life is easy so why make it hard? I would understand the point of this whole epic debate if authors put a gun to peoples’ head and forced them to buy the book they recommended but that doesn’t happen so if you’re a reader who doesn’t like it when author recommends books, just skip over the tweet/blogpost. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. So easy. God, it really is SO EASY. Fact is, you’ve recommend more books by people who are not your “friends” (or well, as far as I know, authors you’re not familiar with) than books written by your friends and I know that because I read these posts every Wednesday and when I can’t decide what to read, I come here and go through all these What to Read Wednesday posts and find something and that’s not because I love you as a writer, that’s because I trust your opinion as a reader and because I think we have similar tastes. Nothing more, nothing less. You’ve recommended books I’ve loved so hard and books I’ve merely enjoyed and that’s not because you lied about your friends’ book being amazing, it’s because all readers are different.

    Maybe this is a naive and simple thing coming from a 17 year old but…. who cares? Really. I think this “controversy” is ridiculous. Because, again, no author forces anyone to read anything. So if you see something you don’t like, author “behavior” you don’t like, just go right past it (unless it’s illegal like plagiarism). Why waste your energy when It. Does. Not. Matter. The author brand thing you’re talking about makes me really, really sad. Authors should use social media THIS way. Authors should should talk about books THIS way and THAT way and NOT THIS way. Oh who the hell cares if an author promotes her book on Twitter every hour? Don’t follow her. Don’t read her book then. You we’re never obliged to read or follow her in the first place so let her do whatever she wants even if you thing it’s “wrong”. Authors are people too and the whole, “oh no at the end of the day authors are trying to sell books to they’re not readers” doesn’t work for me. No. Sure authors are trying to sell their book and maybe their friends’ book but AGAIN, no author forces a reader to buy a book. So. WHY is this a thing? I honestly don’t get it. I’m thinking of reasons why author recommending books or recommending books by their friends is “ethically wrong”. Ok. If it is WRONG, just don’t listen to the recommendation. Don’t pay attention. Go back to the books you own or to the people you trust and ask them for a rec. EASY. Easy as oh, I don’t know, BREATHING? I guess not though because if it was that natural, this wouldn’t be a debate.

    So I’ll shut up but I have to say: thank you for not letting the unwritten, author behavior manuel keep you for doing something you want to do. Yes you’re an author, but you also get to do whatever you want like any of us. If an author wants to recommend their friends’ book every day of the week, they should do it. It’s their blog after all. If people don’t like that, they should stop visiting the author’s blog. If people do like that, they can come get their recommendation but everybody can just go on with their lives because god good, what is this even about? A dictatorship? “No! I don’t like your behavior so do what I say and give me what I want!”. It’s selfish. Readers wants this and this and this and this and this from authors and authors don’t get to say anything because the reader made the decision, on their own, to buy the author’s book and oh some readers think with the book they bought, they also bought the right to dictate what the author can or cannot do. Please.
    It’s all a joke.

    And I hope this makes sense. I wish I was eloquent and not prone to ranting.

  15. I’m a reader, not a writer and I love seeing your book recommendations, Ruthie. I respect that you’re a reader first. I check out the books and may or may not buy them, depending on my final decision. Without you I’d never have discovered Mary Ann Rivers…and I still consider Brian from The Story Guy by book boyfriend. ;)

  16. Oh, Ruthie. I just want to grab you and squeeze you and snuggle you to pieces. Ahem, um, I mean…I really, really, really, really like the words that you splash onto my screen(s). I am the same kind of reader (as is my daughter) – I’ve been known to take a cereal box into the bathroom with me, just because I was reading when I discovered that I needed to pee. If there are words physically or digitally printed on it, I don’t want to live without it.

    I get the sense that we’re a lot alike in more than the you-publish-me-inhale way: similar humor, sensibilities, life stages (were you a younger ’95 grad or older-than-me ’96er? ’78 was THE year to be born, yo), interests (I’d totally read Things-I’m-Knitting Thursday or UFO Tuesday features!), motherhood, transitioning from one career in which you were well-established into something else that offers a fresh perspective on life but less name recognition and time logged as a measure of your competence, lots of qualities that are hard to describe in a blog comment but inspire continuous recognition that you just get it when I read your words. Plus, there’s the WI connection! If you ever decide that you want to meet a random reader for lunch, just give me a call. On my way north, I’d detour over to Eau Claire and pick up Michael Perry, and then I could sit between you and get googley-eyed over all of the funny and awesomeness surrounding me. :)

    All of this is to say that when I am able to read/hear/see the kind of product that you create and evaluate it to find heart, understanding, honesty, reality, a little bit of fantasy, and all of the magIc that I sense whirling around as you do your thang, I trust that I’m in good hands. Your writing wouldn’t resonate with me as much as it does (to the point that I subscribe to your blog AND read it faithfully when my personal life requires me to be as choosy as I have had to learn to be to maintain internal peace as I heal from long-term untreated PTSD) if it did not include some of the fundamental truths in my belief system. I am a voracious reader, and yet you are one of exactly two authors (howdy, Jill Shalvis) who strike me as important enough to be a part of my daily life. Recommend on, sista, and thank you for what you do.

    (I might have been joking about the squeezing thing. Please don’t call the authorities.)

  17. Good topic, Ruthie. I would rather see all-positive recs/reviews/ratings from authors than none at all. I don’t think authors (or any readers) need to share dislikes in order to legitimize their likes. I prefer a thoughtful review over a rating or brief rec, but author recs are useful to me because authors tend to know good writing. I know you do. I like your writing, so it follows logic that I might like your recs.

    I’ve never agreed with the idea that authors are readers first. We all started as readers, of course, but I’m an author first when I interact online. I’m aware that every comment and tweet can be seen by readers. Clearly that doesn’t stop me from voicing my opinions, but still, I’m aware of my status and understand the consequences of speaking out on political issues etc.

    About transparency and friendships. I’m hardly the poster child for full disclosure, but I do think it’s important to acknowledge that some relationships make recs/reviews less valuable. I’ll use my mom as an example. I’ve noticed that she loves all of my books. I’ve come to the realization that she can’t dislike them. It’s not that she won’t *admit* she doesn’t like them. She’s literally incapable of not liking them. My friends are similar, although I think they fall into the “won’t criticize” category. They rec me to everyone and claim I’m not *just* a romance writer. They are very biased. My mom is biased. She can’t write reviews for me. I had to tell her not to.

    Anyway. I’m not saying that authors are incapable of disliking their friends’ books. Maybe my mom is capable of disliking my books, and she’ll hate the next one. Who knows? I kind of doubt it, though. Love isn’t always blind, but sometimes it is. That’s why a mom rec or friend rec is not the same as a reader rec. It’s not bad or wrong or dishonest, just a little more biased.

    1. Jill, I do think that’s a concern, at least for me. I mostly trust people to be genuine in their comments but it’s trickier to suss out your bias for someone you like and admire personally from your opinion on their work.

      It’s the opposite of the Tom Cruise effect. I’m not mad at him for his outbursts years ago or anything but I cannot watch his movies these days without thinking “wow, he’s kind of a jerk.” There are a couple of authors who with really exceptionally mean-spirited actions have ruined my enjoyment of their books.

      It only stands to reason that the people who I enjoy benefit from the warmth of my feelings for them (even if they don’t know who I am).

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