Yesterday, I took a break from writing and read Stephen King’s On Writing (★★★★★ the best book on writing I’ve ever read) tried to beat Word Welder and perused Twitter, where I saw a provocative tweet from an author I follow.
As I search through her bloated Twitter feed and wonder when she finds the time to write between re-Tweeting every review of every one of her followers’ books, I discover she must have deleted the tweet. Which is interesting, because it seemed like very few people on her feed disagreed with her.
Basically, she said if you don’t like a book, don’t review it, just move on to the next book. I disagree, so I replied. And this exchange occurred.
My first thought was her reply explained a lot. She considered my disagreement arguing, which I didn’t intend it that way and, reading it again, I don’t think it comes across that way. But, I know how comments/tweets get lost in translation on the internet. I am also very familiar with the culture of argument online, trolls, etc. So, okay. She doesn’t want to engage, I don’t particularly either. I’ve got better things to do with my time that stroke the fragile ego of an “indie” author. I’ll get to that later.
First, I want to talk about her opinion that only good reviews should be published. What horse shit. Can you imagine if that attitude was propagated throughout our culture? You know that restaurant where you found a roach in your beans? Forget about it. Eat somewhere else. Remember that car that spent more time in the shop that in your garage? Buy another one. Get horrible customer service from your cell phone provider/internet company/clothing store? Don’t say anything because it might hurt someone’s feelings. They’re just doing their jobs. So what if they are shitty at it?
Of course, I understand that reviewing pop culture (books, movies, television, music) is subjective. What is one person’s favorite book/movie/tv show/song of all time is someone else’s nightmare. Usually a bad restaurant is a bad restaurant is a bad restaurant. Not so with entertainment. But, doesn’t everyone involved in entertainment understand this? Being universally liked is impossible and trying to achieve that unattainable goal is just going to make you miserable.
But, writing reviews when you dislike something is just as important as writing one when you like it. Maybe more so. I’m looking at a portable bluetooth speaker I bought my husband for Christmas. When I was shopping for it I read reviews, good and bad, of a few different ones. Because there were a variety of reviews and opinions I was able to make an informed decision about my purchase. It is the same with books. If all I read are glowing reviews how am I going to know that the characters are thin, the dialogue is stilted but the descriptions and story are great. If character and dialogue are important to me, I’m going to pass. If I’m more interested in descriptions and plot, I’ll buy it. If one person says the dialogue is stilted, then I’ll know it’s just their bugbear. If many people say it, well that’s what we call a trend and should be taken seriously. But, without a variety of reviews to choose from, I can’t make an informed decision.
Last year I was searching for a Kindle book to read. I think I went to the best seller page, maybe the free page. I don’t really remember. But, I saw this book with 4+ stars and an interesting description. The reviews were positively glowing, so I bought it and read it. The book was okay, but in no way was it a 4+ star book. Being generous, I would give it three stars. Good, not great. Entertaining and mindless. Perfect for people who don’t want to think too hard. I don’t think that’s a bad review. According to my twitter friend up there, I should probably keep my mouth shut and move on to the next book. Possibly she would prefer I only talk about the things I loved about the book. That would have meant no review at all and I think someone will benefit from the review.
Now, I think Amazon reviews are a pretty good gauge of the quality of any of its items, books, power tools, shoes. Whatever. If there are enough reviews for a legitimate sample. (Can’t think of what that’s called, some statistic thing. I’m a writer not a numbers gal.) It turns out this particular book was self-published through Amazon. It had a decent sample size, over 100 at least, which is why I trusted the good reviews. With all the stories over the last year about authors skewing their own ratings with good reviews, I can’t help but wonder if this author got everyone she knows, is related to or has shaken hands with in her life to give her book a good review. It seems that is the norm these days, which ruins the legitimacy of online reviews and makes every purchase a crap shoot.
Possibly the problem is the subjectiveness of ratings. I’m a bit harsher than most, I suspect. If I enjoy a book, I’m going to give it three stars, love a book = four. I only give five stars to books that change my life in some way or books that I will read again and again. When I give one and two star reviews, I always try to be constructive and give concrete examples of what I didn’t like. To do less than that would be petty and, in my opinion, that is crueler than giving a well-thought out negative review. If the author reads the reviews, they should be able to get something from it. That is, of course, if they are accepting of criticism. Which, obviously, my twitter friend isn’t.
Which brings me to the second part of this post: should authors read their reviews? I would imagine it is almost impossible not to. Since I am not published, traditionally or independently, I have no idea what I will do when that situation occurs. Knowing myself, I imagine I will be too excited about being published to avoid the reviews. After all, I am writing so people will enjoy my work. I will want to know if I’m doing my job. (I know Mark is going to disagree with me and say I should be writing for myself.) You know what? I expect there to be plenty of bad reviews. I expect to be flamed and trolled. I expect people to go into my blog archives, pick out my old reviews and then talk about how my novels suffer from all the things I was super critical about. Of course, if they do all that, if they make that big of an effort, I will be thrilled. Whether or not it was the reaction/emotion I wanted, they sure as hell felt something after reading my book. I hope I will read these negative reviews, think on what they say and, agree or disagree, move on. Won’t the bad reviews make the good ones (that aren’t from friends and family) even sweeter? Again, I have no idea how I will react. I can’t wait to find out.
I imagine Mark saw my tweet yesterday, because pretty quick, he tweeted this quote:
I always argue that you should not accept the value of good reviews, because if you do you have to accept the bad ones. –John LeCarre—
Kenneth Mark Hoover (@kmarkhoover) March 24, 2013
And, that pretty much sums it up. I hope I can follow this when I get published, in whatever form that may be. Unfortunately, the tweeters below don’t subscribe to that theory. I could be wrong, but I don’t think any of them have the success of John LeCarre.
Absolutely be kind. My guess is this is her modified tweet of her original “don’t post if you don’t have something glowing to say.”
All I have to say is this: if you are that thin-skinned you’re in the wrong business. I’ll also go out on a limb and guess she is self-published. It’s called vanity press for a reason.
I can’t imagine the audacity of asking someone to take down a bad review. Wow. Of course, there can be exceptions; if it is profane, obvious trolls, etc. Other than that, I’d say no.
Petty, much? Congratulations, you have become what you abhor.