When Reviews Fail Authors
Much Ado about – Wow, uh, really?
Okay, so bear with me here… I’m mentally rambling on an concept that I want to chew on. Tangents will abound. My sincere apologies if you aren’t quite in the mood for it. Don’t say you haven’t been warned …
So I know people are entitled to their opinions. I know that those comments and feelings that they have on any topic is part of the game. I get that. Having spent a great portion of my life on the stage and having to deal with people’s opinions of the work on offer at the time is part of the gig that I signed on for.
But in this information age I think that it carries far more weight that it’s worth really.
And before anyone grouses out there about my going off on a tangent (you were warned, after all) we all best remember that trolling is a very real thing and can be very detrimental (if not outright scary) when it comes knocking at your door.
The problem is that everyone who isn’t a content creator thinks that their opinion trumps all who came before or after. And sometimes, shockingly enough, touted as being more profound than the creator who did the, uh, ya know: creating!
And I get that we want some sort of feedback as a creator. It is part of the cycle, isn’t it?
But then I read several reviews (and, to be clear, they aren’t all regarding novels, either) where the “review” is little more than a synopsis or a book report of what happened. If we all wanted to know that why would we read the book or see the movie or whatever?
I’ve always said I want an honest review of the work – with all of it’s blemishes and beauty marks as they may be. I am not afraid of criticism – as long as it is warranted. Haters who just love to bash something or do the equivalent of a “drive-by” assassination of the work simply for their own personal aggrandizement or back patting, is rather pathetic and will get an instant cold shoulder from me.
BUT, if you have a specific gripe or take on an element of the work that didn’t work for you – yay you! Doesn’t mean I have to buy into it as its creator – after all it is still my baby. My creation, my world.
So why the rant? Why the extolling and waxing prosaic on trolls, wanna be reviewers, and general haters?
Because I am sort of over the whole “what do you think about it.” At least on a personal level. I think Gore Vidal said it best when it came to the style of a writer:
“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” ― Gore Vidal
Great words. I’ve taken them to heart really. But then again, Vidal pretty much has been a beacon of intellect for me – it’s where I ground myself as a creator. So for me, as an author, I am really not so wrapped up in what others think to the point where it could cause me grief (especially if it appears they have an axe to grind with my work or are just generally mean spirited – that sort of muck rises to the top like floaters in the ocean from a broken sewage main).
What I do sort of grouse about is the terrible language that seems to permeate most of those reviews. In one I saw someone wrote that they didn’t like the vocabulary used (when it was clear that they meant dialog – I won’t cite the actual work out of kindness to its “author”). And they went so far as to confuse dialog with inner-monologue. These aren’t esoteric terms, people. And I re-read it several times to make sure that it was dialog that was the intended meaning. It was. But they used vocabulary – why?
Alas, sadly, that wasn’t the only instance.
In a very real way I sort of see the logic of why in traditional publishing they had that whole gatekeeping to qualify for publishing. Agents and inquiry letters were involved. There was a certain symmetry to it. And a real effort had to be made by an author to be heard. Now, not so much. They were there to ensure that the work was of, at the very least, a certain degree of quality. Experts who knew of proper story construct and characterizations.
Now, with the way things are anyone can (and often do) publish their works and are clearly in it for the adoration they think they so richly deserve. Most of the self-pubbed stuff out there is shit – poorly written, constructed and edited (Jesus, are there ever some crap-assed editors out there). And I am not saying this because I’m a Bitter Betty and want adoration coming my way. It’d be nice but it is NOT a requirement on my part. I will write either way. Why? Because I like what I am doing with it. I like putting worlds together, having characters grapple with it all. I love fleshing out their idiosyncrasies and foibles that have them blunder spectacularly to whip up the inherent drama (as a great opera singer friend of mine once said whilst we were backstage waiting to go on: no one ever comes to a happy opera – meaning: drama drives all).
And even in comedy, there has to be a small sliver of pathos or drama to create those peaks and valleys that allow us that a-ha moment of enlightenment that tickles both our funny bone and our intellect.
But for the most part, I think most reviewers voice an opinion to see their own name in print somewhere. Oddly enough, I actually read reviews. Not because I am envious of some other author being lauded upon to the point that brown-nosing is involved. Or as SJD Peterson once told me:
“…to the point where they are blowing so much sunshine up my backside that I get a sunburn from it.”
Yeah, I get that. There are those reviews where the audience member is simply enthralled with the idea that they are in some way interacting with the author on a personal level and need to praise them to ensure their being counted amongst the author’s favorites. And to a small degree, in some instances, that is sort of true (in a slightly, tilt-your-head-like-the-RCA-Victor-Dog sort of way). I mean it is no different than someone gushing over their celebrity crush or admiration for say, Benedict Cumberbatch’s latest work. I may applaud his performance, I may swoon over his choices as a fellow thespian – I may even be so lucky to have half-a-minute to converse with Cumberbatch himself and tell him so. Does that mean my opinion should be elevated because of this? No. I may have interacted with him but in no way does it mean I take whatever he created and say it has anything to do with me (other than a shared experience).
But with books, I dunno. I mean, they are a bit more intimate because it is just you, the reader, and the author who is imparting their imaginary (in the works of fiction) worlds to you. So in a very real way it is an audience of one. I get why so many readers feel a kinship with their favorite writers. But that line does get blurred by them an awful lot.
And let’s be honest here. Most of what is out there isn’t written for longevity in the populace. It isn’t written for posterity sake. It’s fluff – pure and simple. Most of it is written from the firm belief that “this one will crack through and become a big time best-seller.” It’s all about the sale, isn’t it?
The majority of them don’t make it. In fact, most never will. I read somewhere that like the world economy, the author spectrum is that 5% of authors make nearly all of the money made in books while the other 95% scramble for monetary crumbs. Oh there’ll be those fleeting books who find an audience several years or decades later (some even finding their “mass” audience and adoration after its author has long departed this mortal coil).
But it doesn’t mean that the reader has any real claim on the work at all. They may invest themselves in the work, they may even draw analogies from it and liken the experiences of their beloved characters to their own mundane existence, but they are never really a part of the work. Not to my mind, at any rate.
Take my latest, Angels of Mercy. Marco, Elliot and the rest of the ensemble cast have no knowledge of the reader’s part in the story (even if Elliot feigns breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader directly – yeah, okay, that might’ve been a bad example on my part). They will continue to tell their tale the same way every time the book is opened and someone reads it’s opening line:
“My day at the Q went pretty much like any other day.”
Elliot will always begin the story this way. He won’t alter it for the reader because the reader may be in a particular mood. Those words will be the exact same thing each time the book is opened and read. Period.
Yet, as a reader, those same words can mean a great deal of things given the kind of day they are having. The reader does imbue a part of themselves into it on their part. So I get the connection to the work. But to my mind, and way of thinking, it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) change the dynamic of the work. Unless, of course, that the work was created with the sole intention of selling like hot-cakes. Then we’re talking a sell-out sort of arrangement and not a work that was created because its creator was artistically inspired to create something from a whole lot of nothing.
I get why audiences exist. I get that they will have a takeaway from the experience. But what I grouse about is that there are some pretty fucking stupid people out there who don’t have the life experience (some are born, live and die in the same patch of land they’ve been on their whole lives – how myopic can you get? I mean even a poor man can start walking one direction and be somewhere totally foreign to them within a day), they don’t stretch the meaning of their existence to grow and see what life truly has to offer. In most cases, they just have a general languishing apathy toward anything that would remotely give new meaning to their existence – save for the random book or movie they might experience.
Unfortunately, those are usually the same individuals who feel compelled to write about works as if they have something to offer in the conversation. I come to this conclusion because of people I’ve talked with who are avid readers but purposely do NOT review the books they read. Why? Because they either don’t have the time or the inclination to share their ideas with anyone else. They are in it (reading) for their own personal gain or pleasure from it.
So what are we left with? Book report reviews (seriously, I saw one that made a feeble attempt at a real review by writing a small and concise synopsis of the work before their actual review – thankfully they did their best to avoid spoilers for any blog/review readers who might happen upon the piece). Yet when they moved on from that brief book report, the actual review consisted primarily of expounding upon the synopsis they just wrote- thereby completely negating why they wrote the synopsis in the first place, leaving the last few sentences as bread crumbs on actually reviewing the work at all.
What are my author pal’s takeaways from it? “We don’t read them unless they’re great.”
Yeah I get that. It’s a lot of hard (and often very lonely) work that goes into them. Appreciation is nice if just for the – “wow, you really did that, didn’t you” sort of thing and not necessarily because it has any real entertaining value to it. Purely an appreciation of the mechanics and effort involved. And that’s a very good thing to feel from others – just an acknowledgment of the accomplishment of finishing it.
That’s great! Well done, you!
Fabulous words to hear, indeed. But the rest of it? Eh, not so much. Then there’s the added issue of authors who have padded reviews. Works that are reviewed by readers who just laud the work when it’s only been out for a day or so. Wow, uh, really? I mean when I released Angels of Mercy – Volume One: Elliot, one other author had 7 reviews ON THE SAME DAY OF RELEASE?! How in the fuck is that possible? I mean I know there are beta readers but seriously, this author writes a “book” every couple of weeks. I’ve read one of them – not much to get worked up over. Very thin plot, weakly drawn characters (despite how many fans were gushing about the powerful writing involved).
Seriously, is the bar that fucking low, now?
Perhaps that’s why the life-experienced deprived individual has a voice now. Because the works themselves are not very meaty to begin with. And the brevity of the works… what’s up with that? I can’t be bothered with a short novel. I know some love them. I am not of their lot. Not by a bloody long shot. Hell, I wrote HO’M,O – Henry O’Malley, Omega (a.k.a. – The Shrill of Sparrows (thanks Amazon for that clusterfuck of titles)) as a short novel and it KILLED me to be so damned curtailed in the writing. While I don’t think the story suffered from weakness in the prose because of this, it isn’t what I would’ve originally done. But it was a NaNoWriMo story so I knew it was going to be short as it was written in a month as part of the NaNoWriMo challenge.
But yeah, maybe the rise in mediocre reviews is because there is a lower standard of the works that are out there. I don’t know. I do know that by and large, I am somewhat disinclined to just buy a work because it’s on the cheap and got a boat load of 5 star reviews. Though I am just as guilty of playing the 5 star game. And it rankles me that I do. I struggle with it constantly. But I hired a mainstream promo group and they’re all about the self-promotion as my part in the game – I paid good money for it so I gotta be “all in.“ I bargained for that when I hired them so yeah, guilty as charged on that score. Actually, if it’s on the cheap that is usually a BIG red flag for me. Not saying it has to be worthy of competing with a bracelet from Tiffany’s where price is concerned, but a 99¢ priced novel or novella isn’t going to make me want to buy it on price alone. I played that game early on with my e-reader and have a ton of books I’ve tossed aside as unworthy of my attention.
Instead I’ll read crap-assed review after crap-assed review until I find one that I think is well written and THEY will be my barometer of whether it will interest me or not. In most cases I am simply disappointed that 95-98% of the reviews out there hold very little resemblance to an actual in-depth review that takes a serious look at the work at hand.
And that’s a real shame. I maintain that I will always trade thinly written 5 star reviews for a single gay or questioning boy who decides what I wrote spoke to him and his world – that I made that sort of connection to someone else, who like me, was desperate for a voice to say – You’re okay kid. Things are gonna be okay, somehow. Confirmation that my world, as imaginary as it might be, gave him a bright beacon of light to find a way in his own. That review may not be the best written, but if I can get a strong sense that it’s written with heart and deeply felt? Yeah, that’ll get my vote every time. I look for those reviews. I may write for me. But I also write for that guy and it’s those reviews that matter to me most.
Until next time …
Don’t forget about the rafflecopter author giveaway (I am taking part in this event) – to benefit LGBTQ charities and causes. Adding our voices to combat bigotry and homophobia.
Displaced Queer Youth is at an epidemic level. We need to do whatever we can (if you can’t give money then tweet and blog the event to other social media outlets and networks). Do what you can to get involved and help these youngsters find some place safe and supportive to show them that their lives do matter.