As I see it, there are two types of witers in this world: those that read their reviews, and those that tell people that they don’t.
Ask just about anybody, and they’ll tell you “don’t read your reviews.” It’s the one thing that everyone seems to know about writing, and really, it’s not bad advice. Good ones can make you inflated, bad ones can make you mad, mediocre ones will make you annoyed – and none of them will make you more productive.
However, it’s impractical advice. It’s not that the temptation is truly overwhelming, because it is, but writers don’t do what they do in a bubble, and we need feedback. Also, if there’s one thing publishers these days really drill into you, it’s that self-promotion is as important (subtext: more important) as the actual writing of the book, and so it’s in your best interest to plug into all of this stuff in order to create a ‘presence’. Which I find odd, since if novelists were any good at creating a presence, then they would most likely be actors. Or musicians.
Anyway. Reviews are one type of feedback, although they are a skewed form of feedback, and in the case of online reviews, often completely warped. A review is seen by reviewers as a performance art – an act of creation comparable to writing the novel itself - and in a bad reviewer, it’s that performance aspect which can threaten to take over. Often, these impulse can be quashed by a good editor. Online, these impulses run rampant with little or no filter at all.
That said, we all have our opinions. Heck, I’ve written an online review or two in my time, so I guess I can say that I know what I’m talking about. The inherent flaw in reviews is obvious, and it’s the reason that I’ve shied away from reading them, always, even before I became a writer. There’s just no accounting for taste. It’s as simple as that. Unless you can find that reviewer whose tastes almost completely complement yours (it’s not impossible – my tastes in film are almost identical to Jonathan Ross’), then I would question your motives in reading a review at all, especially for an art form as intimately experienced as a novel. I have absolutely adored so many books that have received completely dismal reviews from very respectable reviewers to now be totally convinced that any bad review can be disregarded completely. Good reviews, probably less so, but the logic still stands. There’s no accounting for taste. Heck, some people claim to enjoy John Fowles (but we all know that’s impossible).
Anyway, that’s all prologue. What I wanted to share was the inside of what it’s like to be reviewed.
First off, it’s a thrill, no doubt. After all, people are talking about your book! The thing that’s been inside your head so long, and which was so hard to get on paper, is out there, and people are reading it! In the first couple weeks, many more good reviews come in than bad ones, which gives you a false confidence. What’s happening is that the people who enjoy the book are reading it quickly, and those that don’t like it, quite naturally, are reading it slowly. But even when the bad ones come in, it’s still a thrill because after all, people are still reading it, and if you’re the sort of writer that I am, then you’re kind of glad that not everyone likes it, because you didn’t set out to write a lowest-common-denominator book that could be understood by every casual reader. You wrote some DEEP stuff that really needs to be read a couple times to be appreciated, or even understood. That’s what you tell yourself.
Then the niggles start, and this is what your friends had been trying to protect you from. (So don’t go complaining to them.) What niggles initially is just the plain laziness of most of the reviews. 67% of the time, they just copy and paste the synopsis on the publisher’s website with a paragraph tacked on the end and a link to the same review that they posted on Amazon.
But that niggle soon pales in comparison to the larger one of people just plain getting things wrong. This one is very puzzling, and annoying, since it buzzes around in your head like a fly that just won’t go out the open window you’re shooing it towards. What book, exactly, are people reading? My very first review from Publishers Weekly contained two factual errors which betrayed the reviewer not having read past, most likely, chapter three. Here’s a quick list of things people have gotten wrong about my first book. I’m not printing them as a vain attempt at trying to set the record straight, these are just convenient examples:
1 - The titular Realm Thereunder is another world (akin to Narnia or Middle Earth). It most explicitly is not, it’s this one, and I make a point of saying this repeatedly in the book.
2 – The names and lore are Celtic (akin to the influences in my dad’s books). They most explicitly are not, they’re Anglo-Saxon, and I make a point of saying this repeatedly in the book.
3 – The book is intended for teenagers. It most explicitly is not, and the publisher made a point of saying this on the back of the book.
4 – The book is a stand alone title, and not part of a series. It most explicitly is not, and the publisher made a point of saying this on the FRONT, BACK, and SPINE of the book.
5 – The book is a thriller. I don’t get this one. Maybe we just jumped the wrong way on the whole ‘should there be people running on the cover’ issue.
6 - SPOILER ALERT. The good guys win in the end. They most explicitly do not, and I make a point of saying that, repeatedly, in the last two chapters of the book. Obviously, the reader was just lazy. Or maybe jaded from too many Ben10 episodes. But I hope it was lazy, for their sake.
Those are the top few, but durnnit if they don’t keep on piling up.
Quick on the heels of the niggles are the major annoyances. These are few, but significant. They seem important because, bizzarely, you think you can do something about them. The major annoyances are the patterns of commentary that form to illustrate complete disconnects between you and the reader, which are mostly circumstantial. Nonetheless, they make you question not only continuing as a writer, but also as a member of species: sapiens, genus: homo. My publisher has an initiative in which any blogger can request my book free of charge, only for the asking of it, provided they review it. It doesn’t have to be a favourable review, it just has to be written. This has been… instructive, since it has exposed my book to a whole spectrum of people who, by rights, probably don’t have any business even hearing about it.
The negative reviews have all fallen into two categories (regardless of how many of the above niggles are mixed in), which illustrate my two disconnects with my reviewers.
1 – They don’t enjoy the Fantasy genre. At a guess, 80% of my negative reviews start this way. Full marks for taking a chance , and I don’t want to discourage that in the slightest. However, in most of these reviews they go on to say that if you do like fantasy, then you’ll probably like my book — and then they give it a two star Amazon review. Where’s the sense? One guy apparently asked for it by accident and spent the whole review literally begging my publisher to let him out of his obligation to read it. Of course, his review is still online.
2 – The good characters aren’t good enough, the bad characters aren’t bad enough. It may be the door I’ve chosen to enter through into the Fantasy party that gets me this response. Secretly, I’m quite pleased about this one. I know that there’s a time and place for unnuanced unrealistic fiction (I just can’t think what it is right now). These guys usually try to enforce some sort of personal morality rating as to who the book is appropriate for, which is really just warped. Some people sound quite upset, and in a way, I do feel bad about opening a little window of doubt into their small, black and white world, but I swear, it’s only to let some light in as well. Not to make things grey, but to make them colourful.
These are the two main problems I’ve been grinding my gears on, and really I shouldn’t, because it’s completely out of my control and probably isn’t important in the least. There’s a part of you that does think, though ‘If only I could do X, and explain Y, then just about everybody who reads my book would love it…’ but that’s almost certainly not true. It’s frustrating to be misunderstood, especially when you’ve expended every pain to be understood, but I think that’s par for the course.
There have been a very small percentage of reviews (two, so far) in which the reviewers have been familiar with the fantasy genre and didn’t like the book (and also seemed to possess decent reading comprehension levels), and to those people, I am genuinely regretful of taking up their time, and honestly intend to strive harder in the future to please. Your intelligent criticism has been noted.
But to the rest of you: “huh?”
In summation: don’t read your reviews. However, that being impossible, do read them, but don’t get mad. But that also being impossible, do get mad, but tell yourself that it happens to everyone. And always remember, you’ve written a fricken book, man. You’ve added a brick to the cathedral of literature that no one can ever possibly remove.
Even if they wish they could.