[personal profile] rj_anderson
There's been a lot of talk lately about authors behaving badly in response to negative reviews -- in some cases really, really badly. And having had some past experience with less-than-stellar reviews of my work, I can understand the disappointment and frustration that the authors involved were feeling when they allowed their emotions to get the better of their judgment. Nobody likes to be told that the book of their heart, the one they put months or years of effort into creating, has fallen short of excellence -- even if it's only in one critic's opinion.

On the other hand, I've often heard it said by wise and experienced folk that book reviews are written for readers, not for writers -- so in a sense people like Ms. Hoffman and Mr. de Botton are eavesdropping on a conversation that was never intended to include them, and shouldn't be surprised when they don't like everything they hear. I know many authors who deliberately avoid reading any reviews of their work whatsoever (meaning reviews written after the book is published, when it's too late to change it anyway), for this very reason.

Mind you, I am still a publishing n00b myself, and therefore unable to resist reading every review of my book that crosses my path. So if I get a bad review, it's my business to deal with it -- privately that is, without swearing vengeance on the reviewer and their descendants unto the third and fourth generation. (Though it can be tempting.)

Fortunately, I've noticed something about the reviews I've received so far that makes me a lot more relaxed and philosophical about getting the occasional bad one.

"There are too few faeries introduced to us in the book -- it would have been nice to meet some more of them," said one of my early reviewers, and I felt a little sad about all the incidental characters who vanished in revisions. But then, a few days later, I came across another reader lamenting, "There are too many faeries mentioned in the book and I couldn't keep track of them all."

"This book has far much romance for its intended audience!" complained another reviewer on GoodReads. And then, a couple of months down the line, a young reader complained "This book is not a romance AT ALL."

"The antagonist needs more villainy," mused one respectable critic, but then a commenter elsewhere said, "The antagonist's villainy made me so furious I could hardly get through the book."

A review which stated, "The story was muddled and confusing, I couldn't follow it" was followed almost immediately by another saying, "The plot was too plainly spelled out, I would have liked to figure some things out for myself."

Oh, well, okay then.

Of course, there are times when multiple reviewers (or worse, nearly all the reviewers) agree that a particular aspect of the book or story is weak. In which case I think it's the author's duty to swallow their pride, make a note of this particular fault in their writing, and try to do better in future... but in my experience of reading and writing book reviews, this happens a lot less often than one might think.

Anyway, all this has made one thing very clear to me: there is no point in getting upset over one bad review, or even a whole bunch of bad reviews, because every reader brings different tastes and expectations to a book, and it's impossible to please everyone. The best thing I can do when I'm disappointed by a particular review is to remember that I don't love every book I read either, and that some of the books I love best have been heavily criticized by others, and try to move on.

Good stuff.

Date: 2009-07-06 08:42 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Good insights. I feel that I can relate a little bit. I have encountered similar things with software. You cannot think of users as a single entity, but different people with different likes and dislikes. Reading between the lines you usually find the most productive criticisms. Of course with software we get to "re-publish" and fix things that are way off-base.

Tim Oakes

Date: 2009-07-06 08:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] renisanz.livejournal.com
You brought out some very good points.

When decided to publish my first fanfic, I was terrified that I would get bad reviews about not staying true to the characters or the story not being believable. However, that didn't happen, and I realized that many of the people that read your stuff (especially fanfic) are probably not going to have a very critical eye. That takes the pressure of in once sense, but in another, at times I don't know if what I'm writing is actually good or not.

But then I started to branch out from the usual themes, writing AUs and people who wouldn't normally read that type of genre read it because I wrote it, and they actually liked it.

I think it also had to do with where the reviewer is coming from, how much stock you put into what they have to say. Some are gonna like everything, some are gonna be less discerning, and some people are going to have your similar tastes and really get what you're trying to say with the story and maybe even tell you how to improve it. (Incidentally, that's why it's so hard to find good beta readers.)

Wow. I'm really rambling on.

It is very interesting though how polar some of your reviews are.

Date: 2009-07-06 09:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Not rambly at all! Thanks for sharing your experiences.

And it's true that some reviewers are easier to disregard than others. It's easy to discount the ones who leave reviews like "U SUCK!!11!1," but harder to take the reviewers who write intelligent, coherent comments and perhaps even have some professional (or fandom) credibility established to go with it, and then go on to tell you in detail why your book/story sucks. :)

Nevertheless, it's the author's responsibility to deal with that in a professional and self-restrained way, rather than going off on the reviewer and trying to prove them wrong. Not always easy to put into practice (especially when you feel that your work has been carelessly read / misunderstood), but a skill worth cultivating nonetheless. :)

Date: 2009-07-06 09:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] elisem.livejournal.com
Very sensible!

I've seen some writers make themselves crazy over reviews. I keep thinking, "If it's not helping, it's not helping. Maybe go write, yah?" Others read them in a measured fashion, not taking any one comment as make-or-break, but finding some useful things in the aggregate trends sometimes, as Tim Oakes said above. It seems to vary not only from writer to writer and from venue to venue, but also the same writer can have very different experiences dealing with reviews for two different works. And I keep coming back to "Is it helping you do better work?"

(And I should take my own advice about going and writing. *blush*)

Anyhow, yes. Very sensible.
(deleted comment)

Date: 2009-07-06 10:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] po-thang.livejournal.com
"But on the other hand, if half your fandom stands up and complains (Hello, Laurell K. Hamilton!)"

You know, her name came to mind for me. I normally don't think of reviewing a book simply because just because I don't like something doesn't mean there's something wrong with the book.

However, with Ms. Hamilton? She kinda turned me off of her entire series of books (both of them) by changing almost everything about how she wrote that I liked. And it wasn't only me...my sister was a HUGE fan. Now, I don't think she reads anything, and I do mean anything, that Laurel K. Hamilton writes.

Kinda sad actually because there are so few writers that I adore anymore. I hate losing one. *sigh*

Date: 2009-07-07 01:11 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Yes, very good point -- especially about the business perspective, though as an idealist I'd like to hope that authors would at least care more about the craft than the money!

Date: 2009-07-06 09:31 pm (UTC)
ext_7845: (brains first)
From: [identity profile] yunitsa.livejournal.com
I try to be somewhat zen about reviews, or in general the experience of coming across people talking about one's work between themselves - I see it as an honor really, that at least they're thinking about it, and it's nice to get some insight into the reading process. I did, however, get rather discouraged after a recent conversation with a couple of highly intellectual writer friends that went like this:

Intellectual #1: I bought the magazine with your story, by the way.
Me: Oh, thank you...
Intellectual #1: I didn't like it.
Intellectual #2: Yeah, neither of us liked it.
(They take turns describing why.)
Me, out loud: Well, I can see your point, but I felt satisfied that I accomplished what I set out to do with the piece. Another drink?
Me, inside: *cries*

Date: 2009-07-06 10:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] yahtzee63.livejournal.com
I personally like the Thriller Writers' method of dealing with bad Amazon reviews: Authors can send in the most abusive, incoherent ones for the annual competition. The writer who wins the Worst Amazon Review is honored at the group's annual banquet with, among other things, a dramatic performance of the offending review. That is a way of dealing with it using humor and class, bringing the writers together instead of getting angry and focusing that anger on readers.

Date: 2009-07-07 01:11 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Hee, that would be hilarious!

Date: 2009-07-06 09:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sartorias.livejournal.com
The review that cured me forever of seeking reviews was by someone who got my name wrong, and said that within five pages of Crown Duel she could tell that it not only was utterly rotten, but it was by far the worst book put out by that publisher, and into the donate box it went, though maybe it should go into the trash, as the service people who'd be getting the donate box would probably hate it, too.

No more reviews for me!

Date: 2009-07-06 09:59 pm (UTC)
kerravonsen: An open book: "All books are either dreams or swords." (books)
From: [personal profile] kerravonsen
Heh. I always read at least 50 pages before a book goes in the donate box... 8-P

Date: 2009-07-06 10:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jennifer-j-s.livejournal.com
And yet, it's hard not to read them, if only because you want to quote a snippet for your website...

Date: 2009-07-07 01:12 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
O_O

I think that would cure me of reading reviews, too. What in the world?!

Date: 2009-07-06 11:41 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tapinger.livejournal.com
Hmm, that user pic looks more subdued than the actual cover to me. I like it!

About reviews: If I already plan to read a book, I've found that reading reviews is a very good way to talk myself out of it. There are always negative ones (and if they are all luminous, that's a bad sign in itself). Although, a negative review is not always a bad thing: I think the negative reviews on Amazon tend to be better (though not, perhaps, by much) because the reviewer tends to explain the salient aspects of the book more clearly than someone who's in love with it. This is particularly useful when the thing they disliked is something I like, or just something that I don't care about.

On the other hand, most of the books on my to-read list come from (mostly online) mentions that are in a context other than a review. Perhaps saying too much spoils the mystique of an unopened book.

I have no idea where to go with this so I'll stop here.

Date: 2009-07-07 01:16 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Re the icon, that's the original Brian Froud art for Book 2, which has been my desktop wallpaper for about four months now. :)

Admittedly, I don't pay a whole lot of attention to book reviews as a reader unless I've already read the book and formed my own opinions about it -- then sometimes I go looking to see if other reviewers felt the same way I did (for good or ill). But unless the reviewer is a personal friend whose tastes I know to be similar to my own, I don't generally put a lot of stock in them.

Date: 2009-07-07 01:45 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] dichroic.livejournal.com
Jo March taught you that already, right?

"Well, it was printed, and she got three hundred dollars for it, likewise plenty of praise and blame, both so much greater than she expected that she was thrown into a state of bewilderment from which it took her some time to recover.

"You said, Mother, that criticism would help me. But how can it, when it's so contradictory that I don't know whether I've written a promising book or broken all the ten commandments?" cried poor Jo, turning over a heap of notices, the perusal of which filled her with pride and joy one minute, wrath and dismay the next. "This man says, `An exquisite book, full of truth, beauty, and earnestness.

All is sweet, pure, and healthy.'" continued the perplexed authoress. "The next, `The theory of the book is bad, full of morbid fancies, spiritualistic ideas, and unnatural characters.' Now, as I had no theory of any kind, don't believe in Spiritualism, and copied my characters from life, I don't see how this critic can be right. Another says, `It's one of the best American novels which has appeared for years.' (I know better than that), and the next asserts that `Though it is original, and written with great force and feeling, it is a dangerous book.' 'Tisn't! Some make fun of it, some overpraise, and nearly all insist that I had a deep theory to expound, when I only wrote it for the pleasure and the money. I wish I'd printed the whole or not at all, for I do hate to be so misjudged." "

Date: 2009-07-07 01:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] bookaholicgirl.livejournal.com
There's also a section of Emily's Quest by L. M. Montgomery where Emily also gets conflicting reviews on her first published novel (sorry, don't have it with me to quote from). So with Jo and Emily (and presumably their authors), you're in great company!

Date: 2009-07-07 02:11 am (UTC)
ext_26933: (amelie - bookish)
From: [identity profile] apis-mellifera.livejournal.com
As someone who used to be a writer and engaged in critique of other writer's work and as someone who is currently a book reviewer... They're two completely different animals. When I'm writing a book review, I'm definitely writing it for the readers--if what I say is helpful (or hindering) for the author, that's completely unintentional.

I do try to be fair, though--I try really, really hard to judge each book on its own merits. There's nothing I hate more than reading a review that is basically a complaint that the book the reviewer read isn't the book they wanted to read.

I also only have, at most, 185 words and a fairly strict format. One critical paragraph followed by one or two plot summary paragraphs that generally gets cribbed from the back cover copy because that's what it's there for, dammit.

Date: 2009-07-07 03:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sannalim.livejournal.com
Heh, my teaching evaluations tend to run like that, too. One student will say I perform badly in a particular aspect, and another will say that I do very well in that same aspect. So I allow the really negative and the really positive reviews to cancel each other out, and focus on the trends and the comments that are constructively critical but overall positive in tone.

Date: 2009-07-09 04:37 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] shoebox2.livejournal.com
My favourite take on reviews is the Emily's Quest chapter mentioned above, because Emily's reading them in the company of her loyal family.

The nifty part is that their reactions are played as counterpoint to both bad and good notices. Both can miss the point equally badly (Cousin Jimmy, on a gush of 'intellectual' praise: "I know I was dropped down a well [as a child]...is that why I can't make heads nor tails of that one?").
Montgomery's major point - and it's a good one, I think - is that criticism ultimately exists to satisfy itself, not the author. You alone understand your own work, so your satisfaction with it is what really matters.

The next most important thing is satisfying that portion of your readership that really cares about getting your message clearly and correctly. If they consistently aren't, then you have a problem, and the burden's on you to figure a better way of communicating.

Random people who consider themselves clever for being cranky on the Interwebs - probably the vast majority, among experts & amateurs both - those, you can discount totally. :)
Edited Date: 2009-07-09 04:38 am (UTC)

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