The stories are epic out there. Authors stalking reviewers in person to berate them about a review. Readers forming gangs to one-star a book to “send the author a message” of some kind. Then there’s authors demanding that readers review their books and that the review be positive – because they’re owed it somehow. And the readers who retaliate by putting the digital file up for file sharing to ruin the author’s market. Too many people publishing where others live, and don’t get me started on GamerGate, either, which is an escalation beyond all decency into rape and death threats in the video gaming critique world.
In the realm of books, talking honestly and critically has turned into a ride in a big city subway through a rough part of town, when most people just love books and want to do their own thing – read them, write them. It’s become a “Shut up and don’t make eye contact” situation, even if someone might actually be trying to say something constructive that could make a difference to an author’s writing and production standards. Because there is some major bat-crap crazy out there.
Here’s some great articles to catch you up. If you read only one, make it this one by Emily Gould which is about how strangely even the high end literary types are behaving, and ends with the Best.Advice.Ever. Check out some crazy trollery and stalking in this Salon summary by Laura Miller. The rules of the jungle and some apt comparisons to road rage and hacker mentality are in this great blog by Anne Allen. Sadly, it’s also observable that a lot of the name calling and creepy behavior is done by women to other women in the book world.
Even when the behavior isn’t outright crazy a lot wouldn’t be tolerated in person, but occurs online so commonly that conversation grinds to a halt. Case in point, this week a prominent entertainment blog for lesbians listed favorite books and specifically engaged readers to explore the romance genre and asked them to use the comments to add their favorites. Within hours a couple of readers who weren’t fans of the genre arrived to point and laugh, while an author used the comments to list her own books, then inserted herself into a thread to discuss her books. I am picturing a live event for readers where either of these behaviors would be considered acceptable… Nope, not if I were the host. Though I sound as if I’m getting to the “Get off my lawn!” stage of life, the former is rude and the latter is both rude and just isn’t smart marketing. Either way, it’s a symptom in what drives people away from talking about books.
Where we’re left is with authors and readers who won’t read reviews because they’re useless for a myriad of reasons, requiring too much filtering and interpretation. Is this one a shill? Is that one a troll? Two things are lost: The simple word-of-mouth where one engaged reader tells open forums what she really thinks about books; and useful constructive feedback that helps writers focus and grow.
I don’t get any of the excessive life-and-death behavior. As Laura Miller’s article points out, too many authors believe that a single review kills their book’s sales when there’s no data to back that up, only anecdotes and outliers, while there seem to be reviewers who want to convince authors that they have this kind of power over their careers. So read the Emily Gould article again if you have to. That’s where I’m living. I survived some brutal early reviews and they were in print in a time when that’s the only word-of-mouth there was. I wrote another book. Then another. No book reached a reader that I didn’t think was as finished and as good as I could make it at that time.
Critical – constructive – reviews have never been plentiful in lesbian popular fiction, and over the last decade or so they have dwindled further. There are lots of reasons why, but lately it seems that it’s simply not safe, and not because the women who read the books don’t have useful, constructive things to say. The whole reason I’m writing this is because of just such a rare review (here).
At the link you’ll find a constructive, critical review at “The Rainbow Hub” for Marie Castle’s Hell’s Belle. There are other reviews like it that have crossed my desk in recent years, but I decided to use this one as an example because a) it’s not about one of my books; b) to my knowledge, I don’t know this reviewer; and c) it’s about a book many readers of my blog may have also read. My reaction is about as impartial as it can be, given that it’s about a book I helped select for publication and personally really liked.
My reaction to a review that includes elements like what made me cringe, what I tolerated, and suggested there was too much telling at times? That the Southern rambling style was perhaps a bit much? If I were Marie Castle (which is kind of funny to think about; hi, Marie!), I’d be thrilled with this review.
- It’s overall very positive, ending with a big endorsement to read the book.
- The negatives are voiced in constructive, contextual ways – the true meaning of being “critical.” This reader was intellectually engaged and the critique offered is thoughtful even though worded in an engaging, casual manner. The reader thought the book deserved the scrutiny and attention.
- It’s not personal about the author in any way, positive or negative. No author likes being name-called, yet lots of personal flattery in a review means all the other nice things must be taken with a grain of salt as well. It also means other readers won’t think this was the work of a friend or shill.
- It doesn’t disparage the book’s reason to exist, its genre or intended audience. One of my first ever print reviews began something like, “I hate romance novels and this book is no exception.”
- It’s clear about what the reader didn’t like and whether the reader felt that might be personal taste versus a flaw in the writing, editing or production. This allows other readers the room to decide for themselves if that negative would be, for them, also a negative.
- It places the book in the context of its genre and concludes by evaluating satisfaction (an emotional reaction) based on its fit within expectations of the genre (an intellectual judgment).
- It’s not plot summary and doesn’t give away key plot points.
- It doesn’t talk over the head of other readers – it’s for other readers. Yet there is much the author can ponder.
All summed up, this is The Gift of Feedback. Yet, it would seem that some authors these days would go into a positive rage spiral at the mere suggestion that their book wasn’t 5-stars picture perfect, even though the review heartily, thoroughly says READ THIS BOOK. In my opinion, if you’re a writer and you can’t even handle this type of feedback, then you should not be on the Internet at all. Do as Emily Gould says, write your book and then write another.
A gift of feedback at this quality is so rare, that I believe it deserves to be processed and considered. I am always looking for this kind of feedback. I set aside time every couple of months, writer brain engaged, to hunt down and read reviews and comments from readers wherever they may be. Yes, there’s some ugly things out there, and it can be time and energy draining. That’s why I have a mental checklist I follow, and it actually weeds out the trolls and helps manage the process.
Every review goes into the Sorting Hat with one question: Can I use what the reader is praising or critiquing in my FUTURE writing? The book in question is finished. Only the future is in my control. Most of the time the answer is a clear No. That doesn’t mean it’s a pointless review, it just means my writer brain can let it go.
- Nothing to see here part one – I have no control over mean or incomprehensible. For example, I still get variations of “I hate romance and so I hate this book” like that print review I got long ago. I can’t do a thing about people who read books they are guaranteed not to like. An insight I could have used those many years ago, because at the time it was devastating. Barbara Grier assured me it would not hurt my sales one bit – the opposite, quite likely – and I have long since had the last laugh. I let it go.
- Nothing to see here part two – I have no control over a lone reader’s comprehension of the book, or other elements in the review that indicate she’s reviewing a book I didn’t write, like the reviewer who railed about a plot event but missed a key point. Other readers got it right, and some were prompted to post a review to say so. Hey, they’re discussing my book, that’s good. There’s nothing my writer brain can use, though. Let it go.
- Nothing to see here part three – I have no control over a reader’s personal taste, and I accept that for some readers, I simply will not click. There will always be readers who say “This just didn’t work for me” or “I tried another book by her and I still don’t like her” or “There’s no f*ckable blonde so that’s 2 stars!” There’s nothing my writer’s brain can do with that information because peaches can’t turn into nutmeg. Let it go, let it go… Sing with me!
- DING DING DING! Attagirl Payoff Review that’s Wonderful for the Muse – Those reviews from a reader’s heart, praising how the book made them feel – they’re not critical and usually have no real useful content for the writer’s craft. But, oh, they are a reason to get out of bed! I hope nothing in this blog comes off as ungrateful for them. They matter deeply. That connection with a reader is the one I hope to make with every book. But I have no control over the reader’s emotional reaction to a book. After thanking the reader (if it’s appropriate, it isn’t always), the writer part of my brain has to let it go even if the slutty muse is using it for lube. Sorry, that’s a bit graphic. Well, that’s how she is.
Sometimes, however, what the reader is praising or critiquing is something that I MIGHT be able to use in my future writing. What’s not useful has been sorted out. Now it’s time to open the writer brain, listen objectively and evaluate the feedback. I consider this step important and necessary to my craft. This is why I welcome critical reviews.
- There’s a difference between the reader who just doesn’t warm to my style at all and the reader who finds one book’s style off-putting. That’s worth asking myself if I did something different with that book. Perhaps I conclude that the answer is no, so then I can conclude that I’m grateful for the feedback, but there’s nothing I can change in the future. That book just didn’t click for that reader.
But I might conclude that this book had a different narrative structure or I did something unusual with point-of-view or character revelations, and that this reader noticed and didn’t care for it. Over time, if more than one reader noticed this aspect then I should definitely give it some thought. A lot of a writer’s tools shouldn’t be noticed by the general reader when they’re well deployed. Was I clumsy? Do I want to give it another try? Talk to my editor about the technique before I get further down the next work in progress?
- Reader criticism can affirm my choices just as much as reader praise, too. After taking in the feedback, I can decide that I wouldn’t have done – and won’t be doing – anything differently. The reason I did X, Y and Z that this particular reader is critiquing were good choices and I would make them again. It’s important to remind myself that most of the time I do know what I’m doing and it’s not the end of the world if a reader doesn’t always agree. As Emily Gould points out, the book’s job is to speak for itself. Sometimes the message isn’t received, and if I say it another way for one person, all the rest of my readers will get lost.
- Then again, a critique can sometimes lead to a true slap to the forehead and an eye-opening moment of revelation. A choice I made might have been done differently and all my readers would have gotten a better book for it. Not just a plot point, but a way to look outside the box of my established genre can be fodder to taking a fresh look at a future book. One of my great fears is writing the same book twice. A reader who says “Why didn’t she do X?” might just spark a new twist for a book I haven’t written yet.
- Then there is the reader who pointed out that my characters usually have their first sexual encounter with at least one of them half-clothed, and she seemed to be sort of complaining. I hadn’t noticed this habit. Not changing it, I think it’s hot. Um, I mean, writer brain thinks it’s a useful and constructive choice in erotic situations.
- “Where are the women of color?” Pointedly in a very early review on a book, this question is the perfect example of something I have control over and no excuse not to change. Something as a white woman with a lot of privilege I always fear not to get right, and haven’t gotten right and have gotten right and am still working on. I’m not alone. Anything worth doing is worth doing less than perfectly, at first. #weneeddiversebooks folks.
- Sometimes, the mirror doesn’t reflect nice things, and there’s no escaping it. The truth hurts. When a book has flaws I could have fixed, that hurts. But bigger truths hurt even more – yet we all know that the worst lesson is the one we don’t learn from. A women’s bookstore review praised – yes, praised – my first book for what amounted to forgettability. The reader enjoyed my book and hoped I could be counted on to produce books that could be read quickly and not linger in the mind afterward. I know these words were meant kindly and I know exactly what the reader meant. I hope that I have disappointed her, and repeatedly. I cannot imagine if I had not read those words twenty-mumble years ago and decided then what kind of writer I wanted NOT to be.
I’m sure that some of this comes off as my sounding like a totally mature, evolved and centered human being who never once thought of bouncing a coffee cup off the head of some Neanderthal who doesn’t understand a metaphor or praises typo-riddled glurge and will always think my other book was so much better than the one she’s trashing at the moment. I do have those urges. They take place in the privacy of my office, where they belong. On occasion I simply must dust my bookshelf, including an array of glass and Lucite objects, and I quote Edith Head, “In my experience…”
It all ends in the same place: If it’s not useful to the future, I let it go. The other choice is to cut myself off from all feedback, which means cutting myself off from readers for the most part. I might as well cut out my heart. As I said above, many words ago, the emotional connection of book to reader is a huge part of why I write. I intend every book to be better than the last for their sake as well as my own.