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An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2010-07-01 05:14
Subject: [publishing] Reviews
Security: Public
Tags:personal, process, reviews, writing
Yesterday I tweeted a link to a very negative review of Green. (That link is in this morning's Link Salad as well.) The review closes with my favorite book diss I've ever seen applied to anyone's work. I mean, it's a freaking brilliant combination of disgusted ennui and visceral dislike for a book, distilled into an amazingly simple phrase.

Louise Marley responded via Facebook with You're braver than I, Jay. I shove negative reviews under the rug, where no one can ever find them. And I know a number of very smart writers, thinking specifically of Dean Wesley Smith at the moment, who strongly advise that one never reads reviews.

Louise and Dean are right. But I'm weird. Because bad reviews don't bother me at all. In some ways, I enjoy them more than good reviews.

In part, this is because any review, especially from a reader (as opposed to a formal review outlet like Publishers Weekly or Locus) means that someone cared enough personally about the book to talk about it public. Even if they come to bury the book, not to praise it.

More to the point, reviewers that are unhappy with a book often tell me more about what I did in the book than happy reviewers. Not that I haven't received some brilliant, incisive praise in my day, and been deeply grateful for it. But when someone complains about specifics (such as this reviewer complaining with useful detail about the fight scenes in Green) that tells me that I had a failure of research, imagination or narrative control. Or possibly all three. At least with respect to that reader. The next time I write a fight scene, I will have more to consider.

But even when a reviewer just says, "Nope, not for me, didn't like it at all", that's ok with me. Because I believe right down to the bedrock of my writer's soul that the story belongs to the reader. It doesn't matter what I intended, or thought I executed on the page, or what any other readers thought. If a reviewer (or any reader) doesn't like the book (or story), that's their experience of it, and they cannot be wrong. It's their experience.

The only partial exception to any of this rubric is reviews where the reviewer missed text on the page somehow, and drew conclusions from that. Which I can't do anything about either, and don't get bent out of shape about, but is frustrating, because I'd much rather be dissed for something I wrote than something a reader thought I wrote but didn't. (That's a general life rule for me.) It doesn't come up often, and certainly isn't the case with the review linked above.

I suppose I'm missing a piece in my head that almost all writers seem to have, the piece that cringes at criticism in reviews. Maybe that's because I began my professional career in advertising, where your ego is ground down with a sandblaster very early on. Or maybe all those years of writing, critiquing and rejection before I ever got published wore it away. Or maybe I'm just an attention whore who likes to see my name mentioned under any circumstances so long as they spell it right. I don't know. I do know that I find reviews entertaining, and bad reviews especially entertaining.

And no, that's not a challenge to you wits out there.

How do you look at reviews? Do they inspire or discourage you? Do you even read them?
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Laura Anne Gilman
User: suricattus
Date: 2010-07-01 12:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I like good reviews because they mean I was doing something constructive with all those hours hitting my head against the screen. I like hearing from readers who enjoyed my work because it means I made their day better/more interesting.

(But I felt the same way about reading good reviews for books I'd edited, too.)

Reviews where the reader got the point and had a trigger pushed by it.. well, that's a good review, to my mind, if they had to stop and write about the trigger.

Reviews where the reviewer takes on the actual quality of writing or storytelling.. yeah, that bothers me. Partially because I know that yes, I can write my way out of a wet paper bag, and partially because for that reader, I didn't do it well enough. And that is disappointing, although not discouraging.

Mostly, tho, I accept that there's a percentage that like my work and a percentage who don't and a much larger percentage that's never heard of me and never will (and don't really care). And that keeps it all in balance.
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User: barbhendee
Date: 2010-07-01 13:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Sleeping kittens
I'll read professional reviews from Booklist, PW, Monsters and Critics, Romantic Times etc. Occasionally, I will point fans toward one of those reviews--but not too often.

I don't read Amazon or B&N reviews anymore or reviews from the blogoshere because those reviews get inside my head too much.

I never, ever call attention to a fan/non-fan review or even a blogger's review. I'm afraid if I call attention to a negative review, the person will feel I am trying to shame him or her publicly into not reviewing my next book. If I call attention to a positive review, I feel I'm publicly pushing the person to give my next book another glowing review. I could be wrong, but I worry about these things.
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User: manmela
Date: 2010-07-01 13:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm not at the stage where I get a lot of reviews (although the non-fiction books has some lovely 5* reviews at Amazon)

However what concerns me, isn't reviews that are particularly favourable or critical but a growing habit of sardonicism.

I have a background in product reviews, mainly in pop culture memorabilia. On the surface it was down the low end of reviewing, but the products ranged from the latest Twilight collectible right up to art pieces by established urban artists. I took the job seriously. When people tell you that a favourable review from me resulted in a multi-million dollar distribution deal, or in the case of Street Fighter, practically revised the franchise overnight (I inadvertantly managed to single-handedly double their worldwide pre-sales to retailers)... well, you tell to realise you have a responsibility.

That responsibility is to be fair. To try and understand WHAT that product is trying to do (or in the case of art, SAY) and whether it meets those criteria. Because everything is subjective I tried to identify WHO a product was for (OK, so anyone could do that for a Twilight collectible - it's a Twilight fan - but go up to the art piece, and it becomes much more subjective and clouded). But above all, I always treated the product with respect. Even if I didn't like it, I always strived to be even -handed, making my honest feelings known but trying to justify them.

However, I've had a few writer friends get a few bad reviews lately. Some of them are fair and considered and treat the book with respect. They justify what they didn't like and why - taking no pleasure in the fact - allowing the reader to make an informed judgement. But an increasing number of them are sardonic and pure snark, an exercise in the reviewer trying to be snide and witty in some form of literary masturbation.

Don't get me wrong, I have no issue with the faults they highlight. I agree with them in many ways. What disgusts me, is the way it is said. Literary review should be the pinnacle of reviewing, but instead it's a bear pit.

Now I did wonder if my issue is one of solidarity with my friends, but I don't believe it is. I feel this way about books and authors I've not enjoyed when these reviewers start trying to tear them apart with relish. My issue isn't with the opinion, it's in the way the opinion has been presented - the sheer glee with which some enjoy giving a bad review.

What's worse I've seen this at publications I had a lot of respect for, that have gone past review editors I really respected.

I don't think I'm particularly naive either. I've got into fights with Marvel fans and lived to tell the tale. I just expect more from literary reviews. It's one thing for someone to post their snark on an Amazon 1* review or a personal blog, but if somone considers themselves a professional critic of any sort, surely they should be rising above this. It's lazy writing and lazy reviewing, and authors seem to shrug and accept it as if it's OK. It's not OK. It's a disgrace.

If I wasn't trying to make a career of my writing, I'd make a bigger deal of it - I feel that angry about it. We constantly expect writers to up their game, admonish them to become better writers - why can't we do the same of our reviewers without it seeming like sour grapes?
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Jeff Spock
User: jeffspock
Date: 2010-07-01 13:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I find that by not writing I can avoid negative reviews altogether.

However, if I must, I tend to use the Olympic judge rule: Throw out the high, throw out the low, ponder the rest.
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Christopher Kastensmidt
User: ckastens
Date: 2010-07-02 16:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Very good points, Jay. Any review where a reader took the time to really question what they liked or didn't like is helpful. I've also picked up good writing advice from bad reviews, and never take them personally. As you said, I think it comes from living in the critique/rejection world for so long.

And yes, that last line in the review was a zinger. :)
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Kari Sperring
User: la_marquise_de_
Date: 2010-07-01 14:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I have to read the ones on my non-fiction -- it's part of the profession, part of the discussion we have about our field. Though I get irritated by reviews there that are all about the reviewer showing off (why didn't I include, say, 14th century English field systems? What an omission! [This is a real example. The reviewer seemed not to see the possibility that 14th c. field systems are irrelevant to 9th century Denmark.]) On the other hand, I like to be forewarned about fiction reviews, so as to be prepared for the worst. (The marquis, bless him, does this -- although he says that it's not that easy, as I apparently can latch on to one little minor complaint to fixate on over any and all positives.)
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Little and foxy and sexy... what more do you want?
User: little_foxy
Date: 2010-07-01 14:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
A bad review yes, but I think because he has a greater knowledge than you on one topic... had it been something else he might not have been quite so annoyed.

However it was well worded critique on what he didn't like. Which is soo much better than "it was crap I didn't like it" which leaves you no where to go...

each to their own I guess.
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User: kellymccullough
Date: 2010-07-01 14:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Rave reviews are cool, cooler if it's clear that the reviewer both gets what I wanted to do and talks about it in some depth because that helps me to see that yes I got it right at least for some readers.

Absolute loathing reviews are also cool, in part because it means I got to the reader. You don't say: "It's rare to find really good books, fortunately it's even rarer to find really bad books, so I read it to the end just for the historical significance of it" about a book that didn't get under your skin.
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User: talekyn
Date: 2010-07-01 14:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Or maybe I'm just an attention whore who likes to see my name mentioned under any circumstances so long as they spell it right.

Ah, that's my problem! That extra vowel people keep sandwiching between the d and the n in my last name is the reason I can't find anyone reviewing my work!

As a writer of reviews, I always try to make clear that this is my personal opinion, and that "your mileage may vary." I often wonder if that really eases the sting at all when I don't like something, or if it's just me making myself feel better about writing a negative review.
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paulcarp: pic#67230600
User: paulcarp
Date: 2010-07-01 15:54 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
There are more books that I will never read than there are books I will read. A positive review may push me toward a book I'd otherwise miss. A negative review won't as easily keep me away from a book I'd otherwise read. (There is the exception where a negative review will encourage me to read a book; cf. Edward D. Wood films.) Inertia, though, is on the side of the unread books.

This use of reviews works fairly well, since I think most books will be disliked by most people. It's a means of a book finding the right readers.

I think of a review on a blog as similar to a friend picking or nixing a burger joint; and a review in, say, Locus as more like a food column in a newspaper. Both are useful.
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User: madrobins
Date: 2010-07-01 16:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I look at reviews sometimes, considerably after the fact; I don't like reading them when something is new--it either makes me defensive or makes me unjustifiably content. I do like seeing them sometimes 6 months to a year later, because I'm always curious to see if the reader is getting the story I thought I was writing. But I don't go out looking for them so much.
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A large duck: books
User: burger_eater
Date: 2010-07-01 18:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
If a reviewer (or any reader) doesn't like the book (or story), that's their experience of it, and they cannot be wrong. It's their experience.

I can't help but read this sentiment the way I'd read corporate PR: "The customer is always right!"

Except the customer is not always right. Readers, too. I'm one of them. Occasionally I'll miss something in the text or skim something I shouldn't. Can I really be said to have taken ownership of the story?

I've heard people complain that a movie didn't make sense because of X, when X was specifically addressed onscreen. Sure, they had an experience, but their response (I'd argue) isn't legitimate.

Obviously, there's a wide range of responses here. Sometimes people miss things because they're distracted. Sometimes they miss things because the creator was too oblique. Sometimes they misunderstand because the creator put the story together clumsily. Sometimes they misunderstand because their own experiences interfere with comprehension.

Personally, when I see a negative review, I read through it to see what the person is saying. One time, a reviewer found the characters too unlikable and felt that her feelings were being manipulated by the plot. Totally fair.

Another time, a reviewer thought the character interactions were "random." This guy obviously couldn't/didn't follow the changes in the relationship between the two leads, and I didn't put much stock in his other criticisms.

And hey, sometimes I've been that guy who hated something that I didn't understand. I had my experience, but my experience didn't qualify me to write a review.

Anyway, I collect reviews and post links to them (including a "loved it!/hated it!/wants to buy the next one!/thinks I'm a cankersore on humanity!" summary) when I have a bunch. In fact, all I need is one more to put up my 14th link collection.
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User: msconduct
Date: 2010-07-02 01:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Early in my TV writing career, my writing partner and I got a phone call from a producer who'd received a script from us. We were excited, because as with books, in TV you don't get a phone call unless the news is very, very good.

Not in this case. This guy hated our work so much he had to phone us and tell us. He ranted, railed and basically informed us that we were talentless hacks who should throw in the towel right now.

My writing partner, who took the call, bravely cross-questioned him on exactly what was wrong with the script. He was right in a lot of his criticisms.

It knocked us down for a few hours, but we thought about it, learned from his specific criticisms, picked ourselves up and went on. We ended up writing for shows that won multiple awards.

And the call itself was a review vaccination. After that, nothing negative anyone says about our writing bothers us in the least.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2010-07-02 03:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Props to you. ive NEVER been that brave myself.
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Julie Musil
User: juliemusil
Date: 2010-11-04 17:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I don't have to worry about this (yet) because I'm not published, but I never thought of it that way. You're a brave guy!
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January 2014
2012 appearances