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Reviews: a few general comments (Spiritwalker Monday 27)
kateelliott

I always feel a little embarrassed or even a trifle ashamed that I read reviews of my work. Some manner of antiquated Lecturing Voice in my head keeps telling me that after I write the book, I ought not to seek opportunities for unseemly self aggrandizement even if it is only in private in the comfort of my own office. That Voice walks hand in hand (to mix metaphors) with those ideas that anything that might make you feel good about yourself for something you did should be viewed with suspicion and probably avoided, and the related idea that I think really hit a lot of women who came to adulthood in certain cultures in the 20th century that girls and women ought not to seek praise or notice because it displays an unacceptable self-interest and self-absorption or self-praise.

Yet artists of all stripes need an ego in order to create. As artists, most of us (I think) create as a form of interaction. We offer an experience that others can partake of, if they want.

I know for a fact that different writers have different tolerances for reading reviews of their work. Some read everything; some read nothing; others fall in between or along some other vector, and many change their minds depending on what compulsive combination of masochism, narcissism, insecurity, ego, and curiosity drives them in any given month or year.

I do read reviews of my work. Sometimes reviews boost me or enlighten me; other times they make me feel like I’m never going to get this novel writing thing right, ever. Sometimes I’m just looking for a pat on the head, while other times I’m hoping for a more critical engagement with the text; which of those usually depends on my psychological and emotional state at any given time. Some reviews I read strike me as a little mean or even dishonest, while others–not necessarily positive ones–really hit me as heartfelt and sincere and, at times, useful to me in terms of what they’re saying.Then there are the ones that just hit the sweet spot. That’s always gratifying.

Reviews, discussion, and word of mouth all amount to visibility for an author, and visibility matters a great deal to writers who are trying to build and sustain careers. If people haven’t heard of your book, they can’t read it. The book scene reminds me a bit of that line about tourism in London: 90% of the tourists go to 10% of the sites, the most famous ones. That’s visibility. The more people “talk” about a book, the more likely that talk translates to sales, and good sales allow a writer to sell more books in their existing series and to sell new projects.

However, worrying about reviews or about whether the work is getting notice can also get in the way of writing if it takes energy away from writing.

The most important thing is to be writing the next book.

When I write a book, I absolutely write and revise and rewrite to create the best book I can at the time. Often, although not always, by the time I finish reading through the page proofs, I’m satisfied that it came out well. Then I have to wait for reviews to see how it is actually received, and as we know, these two things may not be in line. One really never knows. The weirdest things can pop up in reviews–sometimes in a positive light, sometimes in a negative one–things that never occurred to you would strike a nerve or that you yourself may not have noticed at all in the text. Complaints or praise that you expected may sadden or please you. Things you wished people would talk about may never get mentioned at all.

But in my opinion reviews aren’t for the author, not really. They’re part of a different conversation to which the author is related but not necessarily directly involved beyond having written the book under discussion. My feeling is that once the book is out of my hands, it’s out of my hands. It’s still mine, but it’s also not mine. I don’t get to mediate or demand a certain reader response. I did my thing by writing it; readers do their thing by reading it. Or by not reading it, for that matter: No one is required to read a book (except in school). Furthermore, if you’re not a bestseller, the vast majority of people have never read you, much less heard of you. Even if you are a bestseller and your novel gets made into a movie, more people will see the film than read the book.

Additionally (and I think importantly) while the old reviewing venues, the gatekeepers of yesteryear, are still around, they are no longer the only game in town (many of these critical venues served, I think, a different purpose, but I’m not going to analyze that here). The old top-down authority has shifted as more voices get heard.

The explosion of social media has really altered the landscape in this regard, although I feel obliged to note that I don’t think creators/artists/writers have to be on social media. I suspect they should not be unless they are getting something positive out of it.

Readers can connect with many more like-minded readers than ever before. Readers can talk directly to others readers about books; of course they could before, but the nature of the internet makes the reach much more extensive.

Book discussions have exploded all over everywhere, raising acrimony at times but also in my opinion creating a vast and enthusiastic network for readers and reading. Frankly, I really like the respectful way so many readers talk to each other (even while disagreeing!) on many of the reader-driven review sites.

I do sometimes thank a reviewer for their review, and I do try to highlight ones that I think were particularly interesting (to me, at any rate), but otherwise I try to stay out of the discussion because nothing kills a discussion between readers more than a writer showing up even if only to politely say “thank you.”

(Needless to say, writers really ought never to argue with a review. Short factual corrections are okay but I mean that in the most concrete and specific way: “The story does not take place in England,” for instance, would be a factual correction if a review stated that the story took place in England and it actually took place in Hawaii.)

As for me, these days I am much more in touch with readers and with other writers as well. It’s hard to predict how this interaction will continue to develop over time.

I can safely say, though, that when I was growing up and a young adult, I read far more in isolation than I do today. It is so much easier for me to talk about books and reading (and media in general) now than it was then.

What do you guys think? Did you come of age in the age of social media? If you’ve been around since before Twitter, Facebook, tumblr, and Goodreads, what sort of changes do you perceive in reviewing, in reader interaction, and in the reader/writer interface? Do you find this to be a good thing, a bad thing, or simply a thing?

Mirrored from I Make Up Worlds.


In the world of academic publishing, it can take years before one sees any reviews because they are in learned journals with a leisurely production schedule. This can mean that they are reviewed by somebody who actually knows about the subject; on another tentacle it can mean that they are reviewed by somebody who knows the subject and has a specific axe to grind.

One of the most cheering things that happened to me this year (is this sad or what?) was somebody giving a 5-star Amazon review to The Book I Co-Authored nearly 20 years ago as the best thing they had read for ages, even though it was for dissertation research.

I agree that one shouldn't argue with conclusions, but I think one should put the boot in very firmly if they get facts wrong.

Yes, academic publishing is a study in delayed gratification. Or, as you say, delayed axe-grinding.

But what about those situations where people argue with the facts?

There are contentious facts, or facts where there are issues of interpretation of what they actually mean, and then there are facts which have been incontrovertibly got Dead Wrong. Okay, I was thoroughly schadenfreudely pleased when someone who had given a less than glowing review had an egregiously Wrong Fact slap in the middle - that book was NOT by that author, the title of the book they did write is really extremely well-known...

Haha. Yes, that must have been . . . satisfying.

Reviews are a conundrum for me. As an author who is still wet behind the ears and via an indie press, the advertising budget is not there as it is with mainstream publishers. You don't get the exposure of being on a physical shelf so in that respect you are left to social media to gauge the success or failure of your work. That means getting reviews on places like Amazon and Good Reads etc. It means following ratings. So, yes, it takes on a very different perspective. I would far rather be that writer there who never comes out of her office. Yes, of course I want acknowledgment that people like what I write, who doesn't to a certain extent? But these days, it seems as though we have to push ourselves as much as our writing. Balancing who we are against what our writing is. While I've been a blogger for years now I suddenly have to think what I write in case someone strange comes along, which I don't in the least mind, but now have to wonder about.
But places like Amazon especially have pushed writers into this horrible 'buy my book' mentality and begging for reviews to get that exposure they can't get elsewhere unless they already possess a big 'platform'.
My own decision on the subject was to, yes, advertise that I am published but to slowly build up from nothing, if you like, and wait and see what people think. I deliberately went through reviews both on Good Reads and Amazon of favourite books to see the kinds of things people said even about bestsellers. I am used to reviews through a writing workshop and have had everything from cruel to glowing, so I am not new to the receiving end, but it is illuminating to see people tear apart a book I personally adored. People used to say that once your novel was out of the door it no longer truly belonged to you but to the people who read it. I am not sure if that is a truism any more. Not when everyone and their aunty has the ability to speak about it through some form of media. They aren't critical reviews as such but the salt on the pie from everyone who is perfectly entitled to their opinion. So you could argue that they don't count, which is a horrible thing to say because, if someone takes the trouble to write anything good or bad, it *does* count in my opinion.
There is sometimes a desperate need to know if something is good, bad or indifferent that has been created by a changing industry and media. The one thing I detest about it is that even writing this I have to think, will she think I am writing this because I want 'exposure', which isn't the case at all. I enjoy reading both your novels and your blog. But that is the kind of thing that social media has created. There are sites on Good Reads which promote that kind of I'll review yours if you'll review mine mentality, which is fine I guess if the reviews are genuine. I spoke about this to my writing friends through FB and while it created a good discussion it is *because* there are so many fake reviews you almsot dare not do it for fear people will think you are falsely gaining numbers and reviews.
So as yet I don't know how I feel about reviews. I definitely wouldn't respond. It is a very difficult thing because from past experience I know that sometimes writers perceive what I have written in ways I never even thought about, and that is one of the most mind blowing experiences going.

That's a good point. I am speaking from the point of view -- and privilege -- of a writer who got established and published before this watershed change with e-book online publication. There are a lot of issues with reviews in this context--not so much reviews per se but, as you say, with the tit-for-tat reviewing, the begging for reviews, the push to get visibility outside of more known and accepted channels (no one ever complains about a publisher buying ads, for ex, which is not seen as pushy but as smart business practice).

I have no answers at all to this. It is going to take a long while to sort out organically, I think.

Best wishes.

Definitely the sense of literary authority has changed dramatically. I like reading reviews by ordinary people, and book discussions. The online world has empowered the people in exactly the ways the Encyclopedists envisioned.

Yes.

It has made the biggest difference for me, for example. All my most influential reviews for my most recent series have come from the new social media outlets, forex, not from the old established gatekeepers.

I'm one of the Young People These Days (I guess, still). I had very limited resources for finding out about books before the internet, in my early adolescence - our household tends towards the Late Adopter model. Even after, it wasn't until around 2004, 2005, when I happened upon livejournal and began to follow several blogs that I began to discover a wider variety of authors and to begin the process of actually learning my own tastes in books, rather than reading everything genre I could get my hands on. (Before then, I was mostly limited to "this looks interesting" in bookshops. My bank account does not approve the change so much as I do. *g*)

These days - or at least, before I started reviewing for pay myself, which is a new enough development that I'm not sure what kind of longterm influence it's going to have on my patterns of discovery* - I tend to find out about new books from a handful of places and people: Tor.com and Strange Horizons, a handful of people who regularly blog their reading on LJ, like mrissa, rysmiel and alecaustin, Scalzi's "Big Ideas," and by checking back for the next book by authors I'm already fond of. Also stuff that comes up in conversation - Twitter has proved interesting for the types of conversations it permits/facilitates.

I distrust "blog tours" and promotional-type posts quite a bit, and I utterly refuse to touch Goodreads with a ten-foot pole. The vast majority of "reviews" - which could more accurately be categorised as "reader reactions" - have no critical engagement with the text, and thus it's impossible to get any idea whether a strange book is the sort of thing that would appeal to oneself. The same is true in general for Amazon, tho' I've sometimes left a response there of my own.

It's interesting, the ways in which the internet facilitates conversation on multiple levels. Writers are usually interesting people to have conversations with, although I wouldn't want to be discussing their own books with them, to their faces: it seems unfair. Unless I'm already friendly, and I want to tell them I liked it, I wouldn't bring it up. (Exceptions have been made for... two books, I think. And the latest of these was a lesbian fantasy romance that well exceeded my low expectations, and so I wanted to find out if that debut would be followed by others.)

As a reviewer, my experience with authors entering the conversation begun by a review has been... not uniformly bad, but the bad ones stick in the memory more strongly. I became convinced the author of Prince of Thorns was someone I never wanted to enter a lift with, after the responses to the Tor.com review: similarly, a number of authors (oddly enough, mostly male!) made an impression on me as Utter Jerks after contributing to conversations on reviews or other items of discussion begun by me or others.

The downside of having conversations out in the public internets is the amount of assholishness that can happen if one has the misfortune to stir up strong feelings. The upside is the number of interesting people and perspectives that can enter a conversation, and the potential for learning new things and new ways of looking at things. (Of course, then one deals with the downside of having done some of one's learning in public. The internet is forever, or at least a potentially embarrassing length of time.) The ability to have conversations is fantastic: it's the best thing about reviewing things/writing columns, for me, the sense of contributing to conversation. I'm a bit shy of contributing to conversations that other people have started (especially since I have a thesis to write and feel guilty about taking too much time to think about other things, unless I have a particularly motivating reason), but I do like following them.

*I suspect it'll take some of the element of discovery away from blogs and towards publishers themselves.

Edited at 2012-12-17 08:36 pm (UTC)

Has anyone figured out when The Young People become The Old People? I slid right past that transition and woke up on the other side going "what? WHAT?"

It's true that I can triangulate my tastes better now and thus save $$ from buying things that just won't work for me, but then I do miss that occasional unexpected gem that I would otherwise never have looked at. My way of finding books is so utterly different now than it was back when I browsed bookstores and libraries.

This element of assholishness is one that I did not discuss in the post. I don't get a lot of that I expect because 1) I don't review and 2) I am evidently a "Name" (this always comes as a surprise to me for some reason). I can find it if I go looking but on the whole my "authority" as a published writer has to some extent protected me from people getting in my face online, although I know that there are many writers who do get abuse online. So I don't know how to unpack that.

But as a reviewer you are certainly going to get hit harder on several levels. I expect you are seen as more vulnerable, and you are of course challenging the accepted order and authority which is one of my theories as to why especially men become jerks in such situations. There is a level of deference that exists online as irl and when people who expect deference aren't shown it or are called out on their -isms . . . well, then.

I totally agree that the ability to have conversations is fantastic. I'm waiting for 2 people I know to finish book 3 of Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series so I can launch a conversation on my blog. So exciting to have others to talk to about the things I love, and the internet is just tailor made for it. I think about me reading alone all those years feeling like a bit of a freak (other meaning of freak!), and I'm so happy for what there is now.


Don't ask me! I figure I've got another ten years of being a Youf of Today in most contexts... at most. *g*

Dublin had a handful of decent bookshops (although with the pullout of Waterstones, we're down to one worth the mention) when I was growing up, but even the best is still fairly limited in the SFF section. I'd never have read Russ, or Willis, or Bear, or your own self, or... quite a few others I treasure, actually, now that I think of it, without the finding-out ability of the internet.

I think part of the assholishness (which has been surprisingly limited in scope, for which I'm glad) is exactly as you say. And the other part is that people conflate "I don't like this/think it's good and here's why" with "You must be stupid to like something like this." (I will admit to believing that it is stupid to consider technically bad writing in the same light as technically good writing, but there is no moral judgement attached to liking bad writing.)

Ben Aaronovitch! The entire series so far has been great, but Whispers Under Ground was the best one yet. Scarred people still have their scars - and get to be awesome despite/because of them. I cannot bloody well wait for what happens next.

(Also, I seriously hope the Beeb options it for a mini-series. And makes it. Because that would be amazing.)

One of my tweeps was talking on Twitter about a theory of fiction kinks vs fiction boners, and by that measure, the Rivers of London series is for me a fiction boner. And yes, about scarred people still having scars. So awesome. Everything about the series just hits right for me. I'm going to write something on Book Smugglers about how Aaronovitch writes about young male heterosexuality in a real and believable way and without being sexist or disrespectful to women. All those people who write that Playboy-inflected, rape, resentment/hate of women blah blah blah stuff as if they have to write that, are forced to write it, are being real in the only real-male-sexuality-view and have no choice: FUCK THEM. Aaronovitch shows how it can be done in a healthy real way.

Oops. Getting worked up!


Also, I just read the comments section to your Prince of Thorns review. OY.

Bulletproof kink! *g*

Yes. Peter Grant is very definitely a guy, and has guy-blindness on occasion, but it's clear the author sees the woman around his protag as real people, not merely trophies or obstacles.

And OY is about right. Although it's slightly amusing, as an example - for an author - of What Not To Do. (I.e., come back months later with "I AM RIGHTER AND MORE RIGHTEOUS.")

The whole sequence with him and Simone in Book Two is completely believable, often amusing because the reader sees what is going on while he is utterly clueless, and also of course rather ominous because there are other forces at play. And his mum gets the crowning moment of awesome in that book.

“My way of finding books is so utterly different now than it was back when I browsed bookstores and libraries.”

Oh my goodness, yes. The internet has made a huge, huge difference in my scouting and purchases when it comes to books. Since I don't know anyone locally (aside from my spouse) who likes the same kinds of things I do, it's my primary source for recommendations.

I guess I’m a generation or two older than hawkwing (born in the ‘60s). I use goodreads and amazon for a scattershot or pointillist image of a book’s “good” and “bad” qualities, and don't particularly register reader names; tor.com, Strange Horizons, et al. for a more considered or literary review where the author is more distinct to me. tor.com is a great source for reviews of books I might not otherwise have heard of.

I don’t get into the social aspects of reviewing at all, aside from feeling a mild gratification when a family member gets attracted to a book through one of my goodreads reviews. They’re my only audience that I know of, and I tend to write specifically with them in mind, avoiding swear words or overt references to my particular reading kinks as simple examples.

This whole element of writing a review or comments knowing a family member (or friend from outside what I call the "greater sff community of relatively like minded people") might read it is another twist in the ongoing changes. Before, when I knew only certain people would read what I was saying (back in the days of GEnie's bulletin board, forex) I never worried about that.

I'm old-school, born in the '50s, but love certain aspects of all this internet social media stuff! I'm a reader, not a writer... but can relate a bit as an artist (illustrator).

I still think that you create and then put it out there. Unlike children or pets, you're not really going to be able teach your artistic creation any new tricks (unless you do a big revision). What's there in print is there forever. And I think that is as it should be. Imperfect or too wonderful to be true, it is out in the world and people who come across it will have their own relationship to it. I think having the author step in sometime during that process is not a good thing. Sure, publicity can help a book get into people's hands, but it shouldn't affect the actual relationship. Things sometimes DO interfere with an individual's reading experience. There can be expectations created by a popular book, or one panned or recommended by a friend or by a review. For myself, I want to find out what the reading experience will be like all on my own. All the other stuff is a distraction to me. My friends can rec a book and I'll pick it up--but I still might not like it, and I can feel slightly annoyed at the blown expectations. I can be leery of a book when I know a little too much about, say, the opinions of an author. This annoys me, too, since it messes with my reading enjoyment.

I don't think this has changed with the advent of the internet. I DO find books through many internet sources and buy books, and I download them and read them on e-readers. I think it's all been positive. I read reviews in order to get some idea of a book, but I know that the only way to really find out if I'll like a book is to actually read it myself. Lots of bad reviews, mostly about how poorly written a book is, will definitely make me pay attention. Short of that, I go by the same things I used to go by pre-internet, which is the blurb about the book which will hopefully give me an idea of what it is about and whether I might want to read it.

I like book sites. They are a place where I can enthuse about something which is usually a really private experience of me interacting with a book. They usually are not terribly satisfying, since I really do find that the experience is just SO individual... but I enjoy writing reviews for books I liked and wish to promote just because I wish to spread out the joy a bit.

I would hope the authors would not take reviews to heart. Everyone's experience with a book is different and unique. Of course, if there are useful comments in a review--that is all well and good. We are all learning and wanting to improve ourselves as creators. As readers, we want all kinds of different things. But we want, love, need, to have books to read--to pick and choose from, so an author who stops writing would just be bad! Those who don't care for their writing might be fine with it, but there are also folks who would seriously miss that next book.

Yes, this exactly.

I'm a writer, but I'm also a reader, and so I have so many reader feelings when I approach a book that isn't mine. Like you, I've had friends recommend novels to me with the strongest enthusiasm only for me to be underwhelmed. Stuff just works differently for different people.

Yet just as before I do rely on word of mouth, only now my sources are far more widely spread worldwide.

I can honestly say as someone who came of age JUST before the explosion of social media (I missed out on Facebook when it was still just a college thing, but only by a couple of years) that my method of finding books and authors hasn't changed AT ALL. I mainly get recommendations from my friends. My circle of friends has expanded a little, I made a whole circle of friends in the online games I was playing in college, but that's about it. I don't get on Good Reads looking for people to befriend, I don't read online review sites.. basically I have a couple of friends I regularly swap books with, and I have such a large stable of currently publishing authors that I'm kept too busy to really feel the need to branch out and find new stuff. Well, okay, I guess sometimes I check out the stuff the authors I follow on Twitter recommend, but that's kind of the same as talking to friends. ;)

The only change in my reading habits that I can point to the internet specifcally for, is I can now ANTICIPATE RELEASES. ;) I don't lose track of series I like in the same way that I used to because bookstores and libraries stocked things sort of sporadically. I remember I lost track of the Crown of Stars in the middle there, I missed one of the releases and got behind for awhile. I completely missed out on the fact that Michelle West is the same person as Michelle Sagara and she had a whole series I didn't know about. Social media and blogs now mean I'm really plugged into what the authors I like are currently working on and when they'll be available. Author blogs and websites have been around for a long time but I found they weren't always very good sources of information. I'd frequently forget to check them and anyways not all authors were good about keeping them updated. Between social media and RSS feeds now I feel like stuff is a lot easier to keep track of.

I agree -- I think this is just a version of the expansion of word of mouth. I have a wider acquaintance on Twitter, forex, and I hear about a lot of books from them.

One thing about the book blogging is that if you follow a book blogger (even sporadically) over long enough you begin to get a sense of her tastes and how you fit with them; also, the main thing I really see about book blogging is that it is emphatically not a gatekeeping venue like, say, literary review journals. It is itself a form of social media, people sharing their love of reading and using reviews and reactions to interact with other readers.

Goodreads seems to be its own specific thing. The latest wrinkle I have personally noticed is people leaving one star and low star reviews for books they can't possibly have read yet.

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