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On Reading Your Reviews

 

Figure 1. Sometimes you just need The Rust Cohle Lip Curl

Figure 1. Talking about reviews at times brings out The Rust Cohle Lip Curl

 

Last night Christina of A Reader of Fictions asked a question on Twitter that sparked an interesting conversation.

This question brought in authors Trish Doller and Corey Ann Haydu, as well as myself, and another book reviewer, Jamie M. of The Perpetual Page Turner.

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.

 

 

 

8 Comments

  • Jaime on Apr 18, 2014 Reply

    This is a really good discussion topic!

    I keep a blog and write reviews of books and sometimes I like to cc the author in a tweet if I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to my students (I’m an English teacher).

    It is so much easier to criticise something, and I disagree with how some bloggers word their negative opinions. Sometimes I come across reviews that make me wonder why the critic doesn’t just write his/her own book to end all books, since it sounds like no one can do it properly! 😉

    I think authors do not need to defend their work to reviewers. Although they may be tagged in a tweet/online review/etc, it would be better to just treat it as an email-style cc, and view it as an FYI. It is probably more helpful to read other authors and their books, and learn from that exercise, rather than take what every reviewer says to heart.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that we need books in our lives, so I hope with the pervasiveness of social media and the internet that it doesn’t discourage authors from giving us stories and characters.

  • Kate C. on Apr 17, 2014 Reply

    This is such a great question and one that I’ve pondered often. The end result for me (having been through all you talk about experiencing during MY first book), is I don’t want to be tagged or tweeted to or whatever(positive OR negative). Once I put a book out there, it’s for the readers. If one takes the time to email me, I always try to respond back as politely as possible (which is easy because I get the nicest emails). Other than that, I leave reviews and reviewers alone.

  • KLM on Apr 16, 2014 Reply

    I wasn’t sure what my review policy was going to be before my book went up on NG and ARCs went out and all that. Turns out I haven’t been remotely tempted to read any reviews on GR yet. Is that weird? IDK. It’s kinda like getting reviews of my assault on K2. I’m just glad I got to the summit at all, man. I understand if I missed a few style points along the way. I can live with that.

  • Elizabeth Fama on Apr 16, 2014 Reply

    My first book (OVERBOARD) came out in 2002, before book blogs and Goodreads, and even before everyone routinely had access to e-mail. The only reviews I got were from the six major journals, VOYA, and a Chicago Tribune review. Reaction from readers was limited to letters (and eventually e-mails) from 5th graders who had to write book reports. Once in a while I received a fan letter of the “this is my favorite book ever” variety, which was incredibly touching. So really, in those early years my awareness of reader reaction was minimal and strictly positive and I spent many fewer hours of my life worrying about what people thought of me and my work. It’s kind of cool to be old enough to have experienced both regimes as a writer–almost total isolation and total immersion. I also remember life before microwave ovens.

    • Carrie Mesrobian on Apr 16, 2014 Reply

      I also remember life before microwave ovens. We were DEAD FUCKING LAST on our block to get one. My grandfather bought one before we did.

      I neglected to mention trade reviews. There’s a different relationship with trade reviews, I think.

  • Jody Casella on Apr 16, 2014 Reply

    I second everything you’ve said here. It’s a weird dance we readers and writers do with each other, and it’s all further complicated by social media. As a reader, I like reading reviews–especially critical ones; they help me make my reading decisions and they push me think about books in different ways. As a writer, though, they don’t do much of anything. Ok, good reviews make me feel good for five minutes. Bad ones tend to linger longer. What I don’t understand is why a reviewers would tweet a bad review directly to a writer. They’re trying to be honest, they say. But that’s like telling a person to her face you don’t like her hair cut. Yeah, it’s honest, I guess, but really, WHY do it?

    • Carrie Mesrobian on Apr 16, 2014 Reply

      Agreed. We don’t need to share everything we think and we don’t need to know everything others’ think.

      Twitter seems like a place to make connections to me, more than advertise. So not-tagging matters.

  • Matthew MacNish on Apr 16, 2014 Reply

    I hope you liked my review. I certainly loved your book.

    Also – I didn’t know you were a raver.

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