On Reading Your Reviews
Last night Christina of A Reader of Fictions asked a question on Twitter that sparked an interesting conversation.
Authors, I am honestly curious: do you only want to be tweeted five star book reviews, which presumably have no criticism and are raves?
— Christina Megan (@Reader_Fictions) April 16, 2014
What Christina was asking was essentially an online etiquette question, something that has become an issue for book reviewers who run blogs (I don’t love the phrase ‘book blogger’ because it doesn’t really do justice to the work some of these reader/reviewers do) especially when it comes to tagging the author in reviews or tweets. The idea of what reviewers want to rub in the face of authors is at play here; both reviewers and authors are ostensibly in the business of having their views and their words known – you can’t expect zero blowback from either your opinions or your writing, in either case – but the tagging aspect possible on Twitter and Facebook is what Christina was asking about, as this practice makes sure an author sees up close and personal what you think, when perhaps a reviewer doesn’t want to forge that connection.
This made me think about reviews and reviewers and how I’ve come to think about them. Because I only have one book out at the moment and this is my first year being a ‘debut’ author, here some things I’ve learned or discovered in this new experience as a writer.
1) I have read all my reviews of Sex & Violence and yes, I have a Google Alert so I know when they’re out there. I made this decision because I am a particularly sensitive butt-hurt type and I figured the only way to build up a callus, as it were, to this kind of thing, would be to experience it for the first time. I wanted to know what kinds of things people were capable of saying about my book. I wanted to expose myself to it.
2) A lot of people told me not to read any of my reviews. In particular, my friends and fellow authors told me to avoid GoodReads. I didn’t listen to them.
3) I’m glad I didn’t listen to them. Though I don’t know if I’ll bother with reading so many reviews on my next book. (You get the gist after you read a bunch of reviews, actually.) Still I learned a lot about reviewers and reviews and my reaction to such this year. I don’t regret it at all.
4) Did I forward reviews that I thought were particularly hair-brained to my editor so he could talk me off the ledge? Absolutely. He said a very wise thing once (after exhorting me to “get the hell off GoodReads”): “Some reviews say more about the reviewer than they do about the book.” Oh, bless your soul, Andrew Karre!
5) Raves come at a price. If you want to read the good things people liked about your book, or the surprising connections they made, then the price of that is reading some less-thoughtful views or hastily-assembled assessments or even “this book…meh.”
6) Readers on GoodReads are viciously critical about teenaged girl characters. Especially female reviewers. It makes me frightened to ever write a female character. Seriously. The amount of self-loathing and judgment on the part of some of these reviewers makes me want to lay down and die.
7) What I really love isn’t a rave. I mean, yes, I love people who say “OMG THIS BOOK!” because that lets me know I’ve given them pleasure through the story. And that’s important. But what I really love and respect are those reviews that show me the reader has put her whole brain and heart into the reading and reviewing process. This means they might cite instances that they found problematical or off-key or confusing – and that is okay. I KNOW MY BOOK ISN’T PERFECT. I stopped working on it because we needed to stop revising at some point. But being “done” isn’t the same as being “perfect.” Those reviewers who take the time to cite the problems in the narrative in a thoughtful way are at times helping me with my next book. I’m learning lessons with some of these reviews and that’s very important.
8) I don’t accept every criticism, though. Sometimes I can see that a certain reader just didn’t really connect with my book and that’s normal. But I don’t have to adjust how I want to write to accommodate those readers. That’s a stupid waste of time.
9) The length of the review matters. If you’ve read my book and responded with 2 sentences, I have to respond with 2 sentences worth of “give-a-shit.” This isn’t always possible; sometimes I respond with a day worth of “OH MY GOD THIS WORLD IS FULL OF ASSHOLES FUCK EVERYONE WHERE IS THE CHOCOLATE.” But I’ve come to see that I need to have a reaction that matches the effort of the reviewer. There’s only so much chocolate I should be eating, see.
10) Authors should leave reviewers alone, unless they are tagged or contacted. This includes leaving comments on reviews. This isn’t because reviewers should have license to be snarky assholes and require some kind of protection. (There will always be snarky assholes, and there will always be crappy books. A never-ending cycle of supply and demand).
I think this mostly because the whole enterprise of reviewing loses meaning if reviewers start seeing themselves being attacked or questioned in that way. They may hold back; they may avoid certain topics or books; they may altogether quit reviewing. And that’s a loss I don’t think anyone in the book community wants to have. It’s part of the agreement authors – perhaps unwittingly – sign up for when they publish: your words aren’t your own anymore, once you unleash them into the world. Readers and reviewers will get to do whatever they want with them, interpret them however they wish.
That’s difficult, after you’ve spent so many hours laboring over each sentence. But it’s undeniable. What an author ‘thinks’ about his or her book is really the least interesting part for me; it’s why I think it’s weird that book clubs invite me to speak, when really, I’m just one person with a singular opinion.