So, as I've often pointed out, being an author means being part of a community. Like any community we have our Reggies from the "Archie" comics and our Franks from "M*A*S*H" and even our Barney Fifes from "The Andy Griffith Show," but it's a community nonetheless. You notice no matter how exasperating Frank or Eeyore or whoever got, when it came down to the community vs. the outside world, the rest of the gang never excluded them.
The point is: the literary world is an ecosystem. Everybody knows everybody and every writer starts out as a reader and every reviewer aspires to be a writer. A lot of publishing is predicated on favor-swapping, as well as paying it forward, which I've covered in other posts. But what this all boils down to is that at some point in your career you will be asked to read a crappy book.
I don't think it matters if you're J.K. Rowling or if you're Crazy Eddie in the tin foil hat, you will be asked to read a book, and you will feel obligated to do so, and it will be crappy.
Imagine, for instance, that a reviewer who has bought, read, reviewed, and shared all eight of my extant books came to me and admitted they wrote under a pen name and asked me to review one of their books. Or imagine one of the authors who I go to conventions with and who literally sits there for days at a time and sells my book to strangers asks me to review theirs. Or even just suppose some wide-eyed young naïf comes up to you at a book-signing and holds out their book and says, "You inspired me to write this, Mr. K!"
If you're any kind of a human being, you'll have the proper sense of obligation. And if you have any kind of integrity, you'll be struck by how difficult it is to tell someone their work sucks. The way I see it, you have four options:
1.) Pretend You Never Read the Book and Put Off Reviewing it Indefinitely
Overall, this is a bad option. It doesn't really solve your problem, which is that you feel obliged to return a favor or help someone else out. But assuming you don't get a bad case of the Jiminy Crickets, this might be a serviceable choice. You can say you're totally swamped every time they bring it up for a while, and eventually they may stop bringing it up.
The downside of this is that you haven't exactly burned a bridge, but you've shown someone exactly how little you think of them. I think it's very likely after this your friend won't do a whole lot more to help you out. If they had been reviewing your books, the reviews will probably stop. If they had been helping to pimp you, pimpage-free you will probably soon become.
I think if you actually are J.K. Rowling-type successful this is not such a dangerous option. I don't expect the living legends I happen to be friendly with to ever actually read my stuff, and it doesn't stop me from pimping them out. But I'm thinking if you're that level of successful probably everybody and their mother wants a piece of you anyway, so there's a whole other set of issues I probably can only guess at.
2.) Advise Your Friend You Can't Review Their Book
This is kind of a gut-check option. In a disturbing sort of way, it may be the best option to maintain your integrity, but it's one of those tricky moral quandaries like, "Do I tell the devastating truth or use a little tact?"
There's also a gray area here because you might lie about why you can't review their book. You might go the tactful but not 100% truthful route of saying it's some kind of conflict of interest, you don't review any friend's books, you have dyslexia, or some other excuse. The thing about excuses, though, is that persistent people will continue to pester you. And you might run in to the same problems as the infinite delaying tactic of #1 - people may just come to stop supporting you.
And then there's the gutsy move of saying, "Your book wasn't very good so I'm not going to review it." Professional and amateur reviewers say this from time to time, and since that relationship is a professional one, it doesn't hurt my feelings any when they do. Of course, the problem here is we're talking about a peer. Are you willing to screw with somebody's self-esteem like that? Of course, that's part of the danger of getting into this business in the first place, but still, hearing from a trusted friend that your book is crap can be really devastating.
3.) The Soft Review
I wouldn't say this is the best option, but it is an option. Remember in the '90s before people got really jaded about movies how there would be all these ellipses in the quotes on the movie posters? And something that said "This is a great film..." would actually read "This is a great film if you have insomnia and want to be bored to sleep?" Or how when someone looks terrible but asks you if they look all right you can say, "Well, those shoes look great on you?" Well, it turns out you can write whole reviews that way.
You could write a short review, only focus on the positives of the book (or, if it's a really godawful book, fudge it with vague statements about how you love this genre and that sort of thing) grit your teeth, give it a few stars more than it deserves, and put it up.
I'm not saying I've ever done this. I'm also not saying I've never done this. On the surface, it solves the problem you have with your friend. They are satisfied, and they will keep on supporting you. It is slightly dishonest, though, and where it can really come back to bite you in the ass is when people start to think that you hand out stars to your friends like candy, or that you really don't know shit from shinola about books. This is always the danger of not being 100% honest in your reviews. People will read your reviews, and if they notice that you are always praising crap, they will cease to take you seriously as either a reviewer or an artist. And that can be bad in the long term. Plus there are the moral implications. You did just lie to someone and maybe they needed to hear the truth.
4.) Write An Honest Review and Ask Your Friend if You Should Post It
This is also a trick reviewers sometimes use. It's sad, but a lot of authors don't take bad reviews well. Some even go batshit crazy if you review them poorly, and "poor" varies from person to person. I know people who think a three-star review is like being spat at in the face.
(For the record, for reasons I've outlined ad nauseum here on the blog and elsewhere, I appreciate any honest review, and I know damn well bad reviews are better for sales, so feel free to go medieval on my ass.)
So, knowing how crazy authors sometimes get, some reviewers have a policy not to post two-stars and below without permission. So this is an option you could use with your friend. Again, this is kind of a gut-check, but it might overall be the best option. You can go to your friend and say, "I read the book, I wasn't real enamored of it, but I believe in you and I know you will improve. So do you still want me to post this?"
Of course, as with anything, this could all blow up in your face and your friend could get pissed at you, or it could go down as something you joke about long into your eighties. It's kind of a crap shoot.
So, there you have it. I think these are the main ways to deal with reviewing a terrible book you feel obliged to review. There's really no great way to deal with it, but this is a people business and in any people business there are going to come times when you have to manage feelings and expectations.
What about you? Have you had to deal with this issue? How did you handle it? Let me know in the comments!