Living and Dying by Reviews

I love online review sites. I discovered most of my favorite restaurants on Yelp, I rarely see a movie I haven’t checked out first on Rotten Tomatoes, and I plan all my vacations using Trip Advisor.

I tend to take bad reviews with a grain of salt, because it’s easier (and more fun) to vent about a bad experience than thoughtfully praise a good one. I also have a theory that most of those snarky, caustic reviews are written by frustrated writers who want to feel the rush of publication.

Personally, I mostly write good reviews. It seems like a waste of everyone’s time to post negative or “meh” reviews. My only exception is when I feel obligated to warn people about a particularly shady place — like that nail salon in I stumbled into in Jackson, Wyoming with the filthy files and nail tech who I’m 99% sure was detoxing from drugs in the middle of my manicure.)

I’ve never posted a negative review of a book in my entire life. Not even for books I can’t stand, but everyone else seems to adore. (I’m talking to you, “Eat, Pray, Love.”) Reading a book is in intimate experience, and reviewing one is completely subjective.

And then there’s the question of how to review the books of authors with whom you are acquainted. Some people say you can find something positive to say about any book, and it’s important to support other writers with positive reviews. Others say it’s best to say nothing at all than give a clearly forced, mediocre review.

But with so many new authors being published in e-book format with little or no support from their publishers, new authors feel an enormous pressure to rack up reviews. Authors obsess over getting to a magic number of they think will trigger Amazon to promote the book. (The rumor mill says that number is 20, though more likely it is the number of sales triggering the recommendation, with X number of sales usually corresponding to about 20 reviews.  But when an author has an above-average amount of reviewers compared with sales, 20 reviews doesn’t represent X number of sales, and the whole thing goes out the window.)

For me, the biggest challenge regarding reviews is how to take them in — both the bad and the good.

I haven’t gotten any nasty reviews yet, but I fully expect they will come. Snarky reviews are especially en vogue right now, and sites like Goodreads have become a place where reviewers can find a little bit of fame by writing an especially “clever” caustic review. (See my earlier suggestion that negative reviewers are often themselves frustrated writers.)

And then there are the whackadoos, who receive a book as a gift, and instead of saying, “Oh, well. This one wasn’t my taste,” feel compelled to warn others away. One of my fellow Crimson authors, whose book was sailing along on a sea of praise, was recently smacked with just that kind of unnecessarily harsh review. Not a constructive analysis of the book, not a recommendation as to who should avoid it, just a “this book sucks” rant.

The other Crimson writers and I consoled our friend and told her the reviewer was obviously nuts. I even suggested that the only possible explanation was that the reviewer was someone she went to high school with who’d always been jealous of her.

Writers face so much rejection on the path to getting published, that once our work is out there, it seems especially shitty to have it torn apart by strangers. And so we circle the wagons and tell each other it doesn’t matter what some crazy lady in Idaho thinks.

And it doesn’t.

Unless some crazy lady in Idaho thinks your book is fabulous. Then, it matters. Then, it becomes the reason you write.

I sometimes struggle more with the idea of good reviews than bad ones. Like most writers, I delight in them. How much of that is ego and how much of it is something more noble, a true artistic yearning to move a stranger with my words?

I studied Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements in my twenties, and like with so many other spiritual books, the lessons have long slipped through my memory — except Agreement Number 2, Don’t Take Anything Personally. The idea is that what you say and do to me is not about me; it’s about you. You are motivated by your own flaws and needs, so when you are critical, it’s a reflection of you, not me.

I take comfort in this when people treat me badly. I especially lean on it in ongoing difficult relationships.

But the flip side, as Ruiz points out, is that the same is true for flattery. When you fawn over me, it still a reflection of you.

I know this intellectually, and yet I still crave praise. Is that so wrong?

Perhaps it’s all part of the yin-and-yang of being a writer. We spill our soul on paper, then have it torn apart, critiqued, edited, rejected, and hopefully, finally published. After all that, don’t we deserve to revel in a little love?

ImageLisa Weseman‘s romantic comedy The Name of the Game was released July 23 by Crimson Romance. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and adorable Doodles. Follow her at www.Facebook.com/LisaWesemanWriter.

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22 Comments

  1. Great, very preceptive post, Lisa! And than you for the “what you say and do to me is not about me; it’s about you” quote, I’m adding it to my favorites.

  2. I think everyone loved to get great reviews but I don’t think you can totally rely on them since writing is so subjective. What one person loves, another hates. At least that’s been my experience with my own books.

  3. This was an awesome article, Lisa. It’ll help me a great deal in trying to get the whole “after launch” obsession in perspective. Thank you so much. Reviews are subjective, always a good reminder, like “one person’s junk is another man’s treasure”!

  4. Ohhh, so true! Part of it, too, is you fall in love with your characters and you want someone else to appreciate them the way you do.

    Like when you have that new favorite song and play it for someone, holding your breath, and then ask, “Isn’t it awesome?”

    “Uh, yeah. It’s good.”

    Such a disappointment!

    But what if it turns out the other way? “Oh, yeah! Man, you’re right! This is the bomb! What’s the name of this group again? I’m going to download it when I get home.”

    I think the more mature you become, the more you understand that what one person likes may be completely different from another, and that’s okay. That’s great, in fact. It’s what makes this world interesting.

    Just remind me of that when my first bad review comes in.

  5. SO true, Mary! I think of my characters as friends, and when someone rejects my story, I feel like they are rejecting my friends, too!

  6. I love this post, Lisa, and I remember reading Ruiz’s book a few years ago. Crappy reviews will definitely sting, good reviews will always send us flying…

    It’s funny, I take book and movie reviews with a grain of salt – its the subjective thing! – but bad reviews of restaurants and other businesses can turn me off for good.

  7. I have an M.A. in English literature. I have taught at universities and in private high schools. My specialty is in the Novel as a genre and in domestic fiction (literature written by and for women) specifically. Currently, I am working on a video for TED-Ed about reading and our personal and cultural responses to books. I tell you all this just to give some of what I am going to say a little bit more credence…

    You are absolutely right to say that what some readers love, others hate. (There’s actually a branch of literary studies called Reader Response that covers that.) Still, while I absolutely agree that “Reading a book is an intimate experience,” I can’t agree that “reviewing one is completely subjective.” If I accept that, then I have to accept that my degrees are the equivalent, of say, years training to read tarot cards or fortune telling: fun, interesting, but more hokum than science.

    I write negative book reviews.

    I admit it.

    I love word craft. I worship at the house of narratology. If a book has problems, I say that on my blog. I try to be objective, and when I or my co-blogger say there are things we don’t like, we say it respectfully and we love to hear people disagree with us. What we want is discussion. In our experience the writers, editors, and reviewers like what we have to say–even if it isn’t always glowing. And we have actually been cited on other blogs as having respectful reviews and open, friendly dialogue.

    Still, I feel troubled and put in the middle, like a child whose parents are divorcing. When I say to friends who also review that I give reviews using an A to F system, and that some books fail, they often congratulate me for my willingness to be honest and truthful. When I say that to friends who are writers, I can sense tons of uneasy tension.

    As writers it is so hard to take negative reviews. There is no objective standard, no way to reassure ourselves. How can we ever know that our work is good? Quite simply, we can’t. And we have daily battles with our own words and egos. We are our harshest critiques. To hear or read negative things about our books is painful, traumatizing, and scarring. And we do deserve love and reviews simply gushing from praise.

    But we don’t necessarily deserve it from everyone.

    • Thanks for contributing! Your degrees certainly make you a expert at literary critique/analysis which I’m sure help you in your role as a blog reviewer. But I think that’s different from reviewing as a reader on a site like Goodreads or Amazon.

      While there are elements of writing we’d all like to think we can objectively review (story structure, characterization, pacing, dialogue), I find that even those things are subjective. What one reader finds a fun, fast pace another might find disorienting.

      Even grammar, which has a defined set of rules, seems to impact readers differently. I recently started a book that was so poorly copy edited I had to put it down. That same book had several glowing reviews by other readers who apparently weren’t confused by the author’s run-on sentences and lack of commas.

      For me as a reader, it seems a poor use of my time to pen a Goodreads review letting people know that while I love Carl Hiassen’s “Skinny Dip,” I could barely make it through “Nature Girl.” But as a blogger, that’s part of what you do and why people go to your site.

  8. Good post. I think it’s important to keep it all in perspective. While good reviews certainly feed our ego, the intention is to boost readership(sales) if we want to have an income as a writer. So, I wonder if we get a really bad review that’s extremely controversial, would it have the same effect? Just curious.

    The saying “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” comes to mind. Sometimes negative feedback can be flipped to positive changes if we step back and look at it from a non-personal perspective. I’m sort of playing Devil’s advocate here, because personally, I’d never give a bad review or trash someone’s work. We all have different taste and that’s a great thing.

    On a similar vein, here’s an example.

    A few months ago I entered a manuscript in a contest. The feedback was amazing — and confusing. Two judges loved it and were very close in their scores. The third completely trashed it. Whoever it was had a lot of criticism for so many things that I subsequently wondered if the person was just genuinely unhappy or wanted the book to be written completely different (in her own style). Some of the suggestions just made no sense at all (they gave away the plot too early and thus removed the tension). Other comments were sensible but the delivery really stung. Still, the person was a published author and there were one or two nice recommendations (once I got past the tone of the delivery.)

    The end result gave me a chance to rewrite portions of the manuscript and submit it with the revisions. As much as I cringed at the one judge’s style, it certainly did make the work stronger. As did the suggestions from the other two.

    So, maybe even the bad reviews help because that means more people are reading your work, taking the time to review it, and as a result you may see more interest from other readers?

    Final note — the rewritten manuscript was accepted by Crimson Romance and will be offered in 2013. Like everyone else, I hope it gets great reviews because I’m personally attached to the characters and feel like they’re family!

    • Agh! Shelley, I wish I’d seen this before dinner last night so we could have chatted about it! I had a similar a horrible experience with a contest recently. One of the judges was extremely snarky, tearing everything apart in an almost childlike way, writing notes in the margins like “This girl’s a wimp. I hate her.” about my heroine. I have no idea if any of the comments were constructive because I was so blinded by the unprofessional tone.

      I’m glad you were able to find a way to use that bad critique for something positive! And congrats on the sale!

  9. This is a great and timely post, Lisa. No one appreciated Van Gogh during his lifetime. His paintings are now among the most expensive ever sold ($100 million). I am a Madonna fan. Other people hate her. Receiving thoughtful or thoughtless criticism is part of being an artist. Please tell our Crimson sister that she has my support! Whatever was written about her book is better than INDIFFERENCE. Her writing hit a nerve in the reviewer. Good for her!

  10. Reviews – I believe are for the reader, not the writer. Just like your reviews of places you visit. Now, I haven’t received my first scathing review yet, although I did get a three which broke my heart – then I tried to take my own advice. DON’T READ REVIEWS.

  11. Great post and I love the quote from The Four Agreements.
    I don’t know if the average reader has any understanding of how many years it takes to learn how to write a book. I’ve had many acquaintances say, flippantly, that they should write a book when they learn that’s what I’m doing. I always let them know how many years I’ve studied this craft. Not many people understand we could have spent that time learning to become a brain surgeon (I stole that from Margaret Atwood).
    We worked hard to get our book to publication. This is why I would not rip a book apart in a review, but find something positive to say or leave it alone. It’s not the writer’s fault that they didn’t write a book to my tastes.
    I loved Eat, Pray, Love, but I don’t love abstract art. I do appreciate that many people love it, and I would certainly not criticize an artist for not painting something I love.

  12. Lisa- I started typing and then deleted it. Because I realized that I was about to review the post you made on reviews. And then I realized that commenting on blog posts, regardless of the subject, is in and of itself a review a lot of the time. Now my head’s whirling! But I DID enjoy reading your post…very thoughtful and thought-provoking.

    I agree about the motivations behind seemingly senseless negative reviews. There does seem to be a trend that ‘snark rules’ and that’s a shame, because the concept is SO tired.It’s no different than any other type of bullying. The good thing is that snark wears thin…fast.

    There’s a line spoken by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in ‘Almost Famous’. And I’m paraphrasing but it was something like: “Don’t worry about those people…you’ll meet them all again on their long journey back to the middle.”

    That’s how I feel about negative reviewers. No good can come from bad. 🙂

    As for positive reviews, I think there’s a lot of value in a review coming from a person who normally wouldn’t read your genre. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying: “I normally wouldn’t pick up this type of book, but….” It’s what comes after the ‘but’ that could convince other readers to do the same thing.

    • Bahah! I never thought of that, but yes, posting a comment CAN be a review of the blog.

      I love what you said about reviews from people who don’t usually read your genre. I was surprised and delighted when a male friend posted a review of my book on Amazon, which started out, “As a man, I don’t usually read books…” Not romance books. Books. Hahah. But I do think it showed that the book can be appreciated by more than just die-hard romance fans.

  13. What great responses! Thank you for starting this awesome discussion, Lisa. It’s helped me put things in perspective. I’ve gotten amazing reviews, but really wanted a few five stars (an A, not a B… on the report card!) and am having a hard time letting that go. Ego… how tender they are. But they make us more sensitive writers, able to see and feel everything from an omniscient POV so I’ll take a fragile ego over a five star review anytime. A pox on bad reviews!!

  14. Lisa that was a fabulous post and I loved reading the responses! I recently read a book that I didn’t like, yet the book got five stars from others. Makes me wonder if I missed something. But with so many books out there, I’m not about to go back and check!

  15. Obviously you struck a chord here. Just look at all these comments! And I’m even back for seconds!

    I was reading a book about publishing recently by Zoe Winters and she talked about her best review being one where she received two out of five stars. The reason it was good was because it was well thought out, offering both what the reviewer thought Zoe did good, and what she could improve on. Zoe thought this feedback was valuable and would help steer the RIGHT people to her book, people who could appreciate it. I thought that was a very insightful point.

    I have come to appreciate all kinds of feedback, as I’m sure you have, too. After sending out manuscripts and getting dozens of form rejections, I hungered for any type of input!

    Plus, at the end of the day you have to ask yourself, “Does this review diminish me in any way? Am I still the same person I was before this review? Am I still blessed with…(name your blessings…friends, family, health…)?” We need to keep perspective and not lose ourselves to the ultimately unimportant. If you’ve had your book published, you are talented. Let that be sufficient for you. And that’s what I’ll be reminding myself of when my reviews come in.

  16. Great food for thought, Lisa! If I come across a book that may not be my style, I will always find something good to say about it as everyone has different tastes & will love it 🙂

  17. Love’s Little Instruction Book is my first fiction, but I wrote three nonfiction books before this one. I’ve always made it a practice not to look at reviews, and I’m hoping I can have the same amount of willpower wtih the new book

  18. I found myself nodding while reading your post. Thanks Lisa for your insights. You’re right negative, we should ignore nasty reviews, I know in an intellectual level, but they still hurt.


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