Hypothetical time. A friend has written and published a book, and you, having seen small samples of their writing and finding them to your taste, have enthusiastically said you’d read it. The problem?
The book turns out to have a major flaw. Not irredeemable, definitely fixable, but a glaring problem nevertheless, something that is blocking your friend’s writing from shining out and keeping you from enjoying the book at all. In fact, you can’t see how anyone could enjoy this book, considering the flaw in question.
The caveat: your friend did not ask for your feedback. They did, however, mention that they hoped you’d post a review.
What do you do?
As I see it, there are a few options here. The easiest, of course, is to say nothing. Don’t review the book, don’t message the friend, keep quiet. If said friend asks, “Have you read my book?” be non-committal. Avoid conversations about said book. Maybe they’ll figure out the problem by themselves. Maybe. Hopefully. Probably their feelings are hurt, because you said you’d read it and you apparently haven’t, but perhaps that’s better than their feelings being hurt by you telling the truth.
Next option: mention The Flaw to them privately. This could end in tears very easily, and is giving unsolicited advice. Some people would say, “Well, they should expect advice and deal with it,” but at some point or another we’ve all received some well-intentioned bullcrap. Not everyone appreciates getting opinions out of the blue when they have not been requested. People usually don’t want to hear it, and it could end in an argument, which is stressful. It could really hurt this writer’s feelings. The problem might get fixed, but the friendship also might end.
Third option: write the review. You have been asked to write a review, after all. But that review will stick to that book like glue. You can mention everything you think is great about the book, and you will still have to tell everyone in the world The Flaw, and with a flaw like that, you can’t give it a high rating. And that rating will stick. And that person will end up quite unhappy, and possibly feel betrayed. And even if the writer fixes the flaw–as they might well do if it’s made public–that review will be there forever. No unsolicited advice. There you have it.
Fourth, which I would hope none of you would do, is leave a high-star review and lie. Wonderful book, amazing, not a single flaw or problem! Rather a compromise of integrity, and solves nothing, but makes everyone feel good in the end. Except you, with your growing feelings of guilt.
Say nothing, say something, say everything, or say lies. What do you do?
Now, if I were the writer, I would prefer someone send me an email. I’d want them to mention all those good things they loved, tell me all of them in beautiful detail, keep going and going and then, a few paragraphs in, mention the Problem. Spend a few sentences on it. Keep it short, to the point. Give me another good bit of feedback, then end with well-wishes and a hope that I will continue making my book the best it can be. Gentle. Very gentle, but still there. Constructive, private, and kind. I might shed tears over it, stomp around, hide from the internet for a day or two, but in the end it’s better to know than not to, and believe me, I’ve been in the place where I knew nothing.
See, I’ve written the book with the fatal flaw. When I finished the first draft of my first book–two years ago now–I sent it to a few friends and asked them what they thought. I was hoping for a few general thoughts, a few pokings in the right direction, some encouragement.
What I got was silence. I didn’t hear from them for a year.
In that year, I was very busy. I quit a job, found a new job, was eaten alive by that job, quit that job, moved internationally, got married, started a business, bought a house, demolished a good bit of that house, etc. But you know what? I still wanted to know about my novel. I asked a couple times, and they said ‘oh, I’m working on it.’ No, they weren’t. I knew it, they knew it, but they couldn’t seem to say to me the Problem, and I assumed the worst: that I’d written the worst book in the world.
No, I hadn’t, but I had written a seriously confusing beginning. I had no idea–it made perfect sense to me–but it needed to be fixed in a bad way.
You know how I found that out, though? By going out and finding a beta who was willing to say, “Hey, the beginning is really confusing!”
All’s well that ends well. My book is fixed and in better shape than ever. So much has changed since those people read the first forty pages that I doubt they’d recognize it now. I have moved on and learned to write beginnings that make
So that’s what I’d prefer: an email telling me what was wrong. But then again, I was asking people for feedback. In this case your writer friend has not asked for advice, and might bridle at receiving it unsolicited. They asked for a review. You can comply, but then they have a bad review stamped on their book for a problem that you believe to be fixable. You could say nothing, do nothing, but would that simply make you a coward rather than a friend? You could lie, but then the problem would never, ever be fixed.
It is, I believe, an ethical dilemma. So I turn to you, dear readers, many of whom I know are also fellow writers. What would you do in this situation? What would you like others to do to you?