Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

A Despatch from the Dark Side

Back at the beginning of the month, Book Fox Anne Brooke was invited by a publisher to a ‘bloggers’ lunch’ they were arranging – the idea being that selected bloggers would meet selected authors and – presumably – bond over a chummy sandwich or two.  Anne was delighted to see that one of the authors was going to be Chris Cleave, author of The Other Hand to which she had, in her own fearless and inimitable style, given what is generally referred to as a  ‘mixed’ review.

She had every intention of making time in an insane schedule to attend the lunch and there was much joking behind the scenes about asbestos knickers, stab-proof vests and hand-to-hand combat.  Then, fatefully, she found out at the eleventh hour that someone had come up with the idea of using a ‘speed-dating’ format for the gathering and, well, you couldn’t see her heels for dust.

She and we thought no more of it until Chris Cleave himself popped up in the Guardian yesterday with this piece. Some of the article is dedicated to The Blogger Who Didn’t Turn Up (aka the Blogger who gave him “the worst review I’ve ever had”).

Now much of it is very funny and thoroughly enjoyable;  we particularly liked this bit for instance:

Bloody hell, it was a piece of work though. It was like a hunting spider – so alien, so purposeful and so cold-hearted that by the end of it I had developed Stockholm syndrome and formed a certain tentative admiration for my captor. The worst part, of course, was that so much of what she said was insightful and true. Like the greatest art, it had a very powerful effect on my emotions. And in saying this, perhaps I am admitting that her review was high art.

Having said that, some of it is also rather misleading and gives a false impression of Vulpes Libris, why we blog and how we operate – even though we weren’t specifically named.  We have to some extent been cast as the villains of the piece.  More than that, we are apparently villains  who are rolling in our ill-gotten gains – filthy lucre generated by a 6% kickback from Amazon for all those referrals we send them.  Sort of “Have Litblog, Will Trash any Book in Return for a Small Consideration”.

Let me tell you a story …

Back in 2008, when we were still a little baby blog, we thought it would be fun to see if we could generate some money via Amazon’s Associates Scheme – whereby visitors to the site clicked on Amazon links in the review.  For every click that turned into a sale, the blog received a small financial reward.  We intended to donate all the money generated to a charity;  we even hoped we might find one for orphaned foxes.  The thing is, in order for the scheme to work you have to remember to put the links in, which – if you’re as technologically illiterate/pushed for time/bone bloody idle (delete as appropriate) as we are – is an almost insuperable obstacle. We hardly ever did it and gave up even trying to remember after just a couple of months.

I checked our Associates Account this morning, out of curiosity. Since February 2008 we’ve amassed the grand total of £4.58.  I’ll be blowing the lot at lunch time in the local tearoom.  Just so you know.

And for the record:

  1. We run Vulpes for love, not money.  It’s an old-fashioned attitude – but it’s the one we’re stuck with.
  2. There isn’t a vast army of us.  We are a handful of people with lives of our own – day jobs, families, commitments – who run VL in our spare time because we love books and the arts and we enjoy writing about them – taking pride in doing it as well and fairly as we can.
  3. We try never to lose sight of the fact that there’s a real live human being on the receiving end of our reviews and we certainly don’t do ‘casual meanness’.  We aim to be honest.  Often, we cradle our honesty in humour – but that doesn’t mean we don’t take what we’re doing seriously.  We  take it very seriously, and have mulled the matter over more than once in public – as witnessed by the links below.
  4. Many of our contributors are writers themselves and are all too painfully aware of the power and effect of negative or mixed reviews on their fragile egos – but they also know that it’s the risk you run when you’re a published author.
  5. We try not to look at our statistics too often, because the realization that people are actually READING what we write induces a blind terror that robs of us the ability to put together a coherent sentence.

Come what may, what we believe in and what we so powerfully respond to, and will continue to do so, are books. We like to think that the reviews you read at Vulpes Libris are always passionately committed, deeply considered and honest, no matter whether the overall conclusion of the review is negative or positive. We will also continue to point out, even in the most negative of reviews, one or two things in the book that are admirable or which moved us. We hope our readers continue to appreciate this.

Right.  Off to the tearoom now …


Fox in the City.

Blogs Rule

What Makes a Good review?

(The beautiful photo of the melanic fox is courtesy of Mynette Layne on Flickr, and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.)

14 comments on “A Despatch from the Dark Side

  1. Anne Brooke
    February 22, 2011

    Great article, Moira! Though I have to admit that, being an Essex Girl, asbestos knickers are my standard fare (don’t other people wear ’em?)!…

    I was rather taken with the idea of being alien, purposeful and cold-hearted too – if only I had the energy, eh!



  2. John Self
    February 22, 2011

    I was invited to this event, though I never considered going (largely because I live in Belfast so it would have been rather a trek just for lunch). However the invite didn’t make clear the ‘speed-dating’ nature of the event so I think Anne was right to cancel (and three other bloggers did too, whether for the same reason or not). Perhaps the idea occurred to someone when they realised they had the same number of authors as bloggers lined up.

    It would be terribly uncomfortable anyway. I could probably spend hours talking to the lovely Jill Dawson, but I would be too intimidated to say anything to Alexei Sayle, and what is there to discuss with an author you’ve never read and who has presumably never read your blog (which would constitute the other seven for me)?

    For the record, I don’t think Cleave’s piece made Vulpes out to be the villains of the piece, nor did he imply that you are raking in the shekels through affiliate links. He makes it clear that it was Jackie from Farmlanebooks who mentioned that arrangement. Like you, I don’t have any affiliate links on my blog, and I raise my eyebrows at the stats suggested too. A hundred thousand unique visitors per month? I get twenty thousand page views a month and consider myself lucky.

  3. Lisa
    February 22, 2011

    Thanks for writing this response, Moira, and also for the beautiful picture of the fox.

    I very much liked Chris Cleave’s spider imagery – although I must admit that the idea of Chris Cleave dressed head to foot in black (and in his tall shoes intended to elongate his legs) waiting for Anne to set foot through the door made me think of him as rather more spiderlike than our dear Anne in her stab-proof vest and asbestos knickers.

  4. kimbofoI
    February 22, 2011

    Hehehe. I do well remember that review of The Other Hand, a book I did not like for similar reasons.

    Yea, we all get rich on Amazon affiliate links! LOL. I tried the affiliate thing for a few years on my blog, wracked up the grand total of about £6.50 and then cancelled my membership. (Indeed, I’ve gone the whole hog and deleted all my Amazon reviews, too, when I realised that you sign over your copyright to them whenever you post anything on their site.)

    (As to the blogger’s lunch, I wasn’t invited. I don’t think that particular publisher even knows of my existence.)

    Off to read Cleave’s piece on The Guardian…

  5. RosyB
    February 22, 2011

    Hi John – thanks for that interesting comment. I think the last minute reveal of the speeddating idea could perhaps have put off a few of the bloggers. It certainly isn’t something I would want to do and doesn’t sound like a relaxed and informal prospect and I would wonder what the purpose of the whole thing was.

    What I dislike about this article is the talk of “good guys” and the implication of correspondent “bad guys”. What is it that makes a good guy? It doesn’t say, beyond that one of them keeps bad reviews to herself. (I note that both the “good guys” do have glowing reviews of Cleave’s books on their sites. Impartiality, or the lack of it, cuts both ways, you know.)

    And also, where is the research in this article? Not only, contrary to what Cleave says, is the impartiality of bloggers questioned – it is questioned by the bloggers themselves on their own blogs. Kimbofo ran a fascinating post on it (quoted in Blogs Rule – see above) and we have covered this ground many times ourselves – the impossibility of objectivity and the problem of knowing people etc . Again, see above links. Yet this article quotes nothing, just declares some general unsubstantiated statement that none of the litblogs that I read would claim themselves.

    Plus, the quick switching between the specific and the general in Cleave’s article does set up a lot of insinuating. Farmlanebooks talks of Amazon affiliation and immediately the impartiality of bloggers in general is questioned along with the implication that some are raking in a small fortune. Well I’m sorry, but that sounds very melodramatic to me. I imagine some internet set-ups could make money – if a site is little more than a paid promotion site and there is, of course, a lot of room for people not to declare their interests. But VL and the sites we know about personally, aren’t in that category. We get nothing. Literally. And Moira’s just afternoon teaed out on our profits so the rest of us don’t get a bean!

    In fact, taking Cleave’s argument to its logical conclusion, the only way blogs could serve themselves financially in this manner is by posting rave reviews – preferably of best-selling titles. In which case an over-the-top positive review should be the subject of much more suspicion, than a mixed or negative review. Depressing for all us writers, but there you go. And I suspect there is some truth in this. Writers continually criticise blogs for any negativity (see Susan Hill’s comments in Fox and the City above, with which I strongly disagree) but never seem to call them to task for positivity – and yet thoughtless uncritical cheerleading can be as detrimental to good reviewing as casual meanness. The rise of the ubiquitous blog tour, in my view, is a much more dodgy affair in terms of impartiality and what it does to ideas of good reviewing – being little more than free advertising for publishers with very little critical questioning.

    In my experience, voluntary lit blogs generally tend towards the positive than negative in their reviews, due to the fact that, because it is voluntary, most reviewers are simply unlikely to give up their spare time to stick with a book that they dislike. But this is not necessarily a good thing. If you hold any kind of value for reviewing and good criticism in general (as opposed to just publicity or the much vaunted “word of mouth”) there must be negative reviews as well as positive ones. As it is, VL tends more towards the latter than the former, which could even be seen as a failing.

    Bloggers are all sorts of different people with lots of different attitudes, negotiating similar issues and questions in different ways. On VL we are nothing like some of the larger operations, nor are we just an interested individual. We don’t all have the same attitudes between us and constantly thrash out what we think about things behind the scenes…which, I admit, is one of the things I love about this site. We don’t pretend to know the answers to all the questions posed in this article or all the articles Moira has linked to. Indeed, we have opened the issues up for our readers to consider themselves by writing about many of these issues ourselves. Unlike many newspapers – we don’t pretend that complete impartiality can be achieved, and – again, unlike newspapers – we declare it openly when we review work by people we know.

    I wonder why Cleave doesn’t question the impartially of newspapers here. I would never dream of suggesting that any reviews he got – even though he might work for the same paper – were not rigorously impartial – but I think there is an interesting point raised by one of the commenters on Cleave’s article that getting a review in a broadsheet in itself is like golddust these days and simply unavailable to many writers. I think a lot of writers that work as journalists are perhaps unaware of this.

    That is one thing that VL has tried to do – consider books that many other blogs and papers don’t consider – whether self-published, esoteric, specialist or completely out of print. This is because we are deeply strange and rather eccentric. But we do give people an opportunity that many other outlets do not. But we give a proper chance – and we declare upfront to anyone seeking a review that we cannot guarantee a positive review, nor any review.

    On a lighter note, I was put in mind of this article I wrote a while ago after a writer took on the mighty Scott Pack and the ensuing furore. I had a lot of sympathy with the writer at the time as he was a rather lovely guy who just lost his cool for a second and I imagined myself very easily in the same boat – after all, nobody likes to be criticised. But then, as the following piece concludes, neither do reviewers – they have egos too. 😉

  6. Simon T
    February 22, 2011

    I was at the event, and don’t warrant a mention at all…! I rather thought he might be referring to your review, so I went back and read – seems fairly even-handed to me! But, then, I haven’t read the novel. Oh, and the speed dating was much less painful than it sounded!

  7. elizabethashworth
    February 22, 2011

    If all these reviews and comments were put together to create a novel I think I would give it a very positive review. Thanks for a very entertaining hour – though now I’m wondering if Anne is actually moving house in an attempt to avoid the hate mail. 😉

  8. Edward Champion
    February 23, 2011

    I must confess that Chris Cleave’s mean-spirited and bitchy little article infuriated the hell out of me. And I’m both stunned and humbled by how well you folks across the pond are taking it.

    Maybe I’m bothered because I spent a portion of the day talking with an author who is extremely successful, who didn’t HAVE to give me the time of day but who did, and who was patient, gentlemanly, and genuinely curious even when my questions and remarks weren’t always top notch.

    But I think it was boorish for Cleave to use the bully pulpit of the newspaper (and his position as bestselling author), a decidedly unfair media advantage, to pick on a few bloggers, most of whom attended or hoped to attend the event with good intentions, clean hands, and composure. And as many have already mentioned, the review was hardly scathing. Name any week last year, and I could probably dredge up harsher words directed my way. When it comes to criticism, you can either take offense, ignore it, or attempt to determine where the other person is coming from. I genuinely choose the latter. Most civilized people choose the latter two options. Those with too much time on their hands or those who are socially clueless generally choose the first option.

    And speaking of socially clueless, that last-minute speed dating element was about as brilliant as asking McDonald’s to sponsor, in 2014, the thirtieth anniversary of the San Ysidro Massacre — given that some bloggers are diffident, especially around authors they tend to like.

    All in all, Cleave pissed into the vast pool of possibilities, where book bloggers spend their own time and money to convey to any and all parties why they enjoy reading books. Cleave has essentially communicated to all of you that, unless you approach him like some sycophantic lapdog diffidently pawing his way to a god’s altar, your selfless writing is worthless. That’s a catastrophic tactic for a writer of ANY ilk to take. I don’t care how successful you are. A reader, even one who doesn’t get your work, is a friend. And a blogger who takes the time to write at length about your work should fall, as a matter of course, into the same category.

    Thanks to Cleave’s petty behavior, I now have about as much desire to read or buy his books as I would guzzling a giant jug of Drano. If he issues an apology for his nasty words, I might reconsider. But I don’t think he will. I am now wishing that Borders hadn’t promoted his book so his terrible behavior wouldn’t be so insulated by his fluke-like success. On the other hand, if he wishes to carry on being an asshole, karma has a funny way of getting back at him. And if there’s one dependable constant in the publishing industry, the wine and roses don’t always carry over from book to book.

  9. annebrooke
    February 23, 2011

    Tee hee, Elizabeth! Any mail here in the outback would be appreciated – our post is hopeless!! 🙂

  10. annebrooke
    February 25, 2011

    Interesting comments, Edward, though apologies that you seem to have got temporarily lost in our system and only appeared now – the peculiarities of the web, I fear!

    I do agree about the response to reviews – plus also I find, in my own far smaller book world, that negative ones can teach me a heck of a lot about my own writing and give me something to work on for the next story. Though of course at the moment of reading, one is weeping like a baby and running screaming from the room, sometimes at the same time … 🙂

    I think it’s always worth thanking reviewers though as, at the very least, they’ve had to plough through the thing and give it some thought before writing their review.

    On another note (or dare I say: on the other hand …), I’d be interested to see more of Cleave’s work at some point, and certainly I’d be fascinated if he produced any poetry, as part of me feels that’s where his real talent may lie. Something to ponder anyway!


  11. Jackie Luben
    February 27, 2011

    Fascinating stuff, Anne. I read through the whole drama. And I was a reader of the book and, on the whole, didn’t like it, nor the blurb, which had the same effect on me as on you.

  12. annebrooke
    February 27, 2011

    Interesting indeed, Jackie – that blurb does seem to have backfired with a significant minority of people …


  13. Ela
    March 14, 2011

    Well, Chris Cleave’s Guardian column has put me off reading anything he’s ever written! Anne’s review was very well-balanced, I thought, pointing out what she thought was good and bad in the novel.

    There is a tendency I’ve noticed (honed by reading Private Eye) for writers who also work for national papers getting good reviews in their respective papers. However, it’s only places like Private Eye where one can discover these affiliations and take very gushing reviews with a grain of salt.

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This entry was posted on February 22, 2011 by in Uncategorized.



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