This week’s topic is reviews and reviewers.
For me, the term “reviewer” always conjures up an image of an erudite literary scholar conducting a painstaking examination of an author’s work and saying insightful, revelatory things. Which is kind of funny when I think about it, because by and large, that elbow-patched, pipe tobacco-scented fantasy doesn’t correspond to my own experience.
At the start of my career, Ed Bryant, writing in Locus, gave two of my early horror novels generous, thoughtful reviews. But then the horror field virtually collapsed for a time, and I moved into writing tie-in novels (Forgotten Realms, X-Men, Pathfinder, World of Darkness, etc.) Until Blind God’s Bluff, they were the only novels I was putting out.
For the most part, professional critics don’t comment on tie-in novels. Thus, in recent years, most of my reviews have come from bloggers, posters in fan forums, and Amazon customers. So that’s the kind I’m going to talk about.
I’ll start by saying I endorse the right of readers to hold and express any opinion, good or bad, about an author’s work. In fact, a writer should arguably be grateful for even negative comments. In today’s overcrowded entertainment marketplace, it may well be that any mention is better than none. Still, that said, reviews occasionally make me wince.
Sometimes the problem is pure inaccuracy. One guy who reviewed my X-Men novel attributed it to Christopher Golden. Now, Christopher Golden is a fine writer who wrote some terrific X-Men books back in the day, so maybe I should have taken it as a compliment. But I would rather have had my story credited to me.
At least that bit of confusion was comprehensible. A guy who reviewed one of my Forgotten Realms novels trashed it because of a single scene he didn’t like. His description made it clear to me that the sequence in question is not actually in the book. I have no idea what story he was thinking of, but it wasn’t mine.
It’s also exasperating when reviewers elevate their personal preferences into Absolute and Universal Principles of Art. For example, if someone gives zero stars to a paranormal romance because he hates the whole paranormal romance genre, or stomps a novel for being told in the first person because he never likes stories told in the first person, that’s unfair, and it doesn’t say anything useful to anybody reading the review.
And sometimes bad reviews have a frustrating lack of detail. “Byers is a lousy writer, and this book sucks.” Okay, but why does it suck? What didn’t you like about it?
But of course, much as writers might wish the poorer reviewers would up their game, it’s never going to happen. People are going to write manifestly wrongheaded comments on our work from time to time, and in fact, readers who aren’t so easily dismissed will take shots at us, too. We have to learn to cope with bad reviews.
For me, it helps to realize there’s no such thing as a writer whose work has universal appeal. Some people don’t appreciate H. P. Lovecraft and Fritz Leiber, and if even the true giants of our field can’t please everybody, I’d be crazy to expect to do better.
It also helps to remember the reviewer was only speaking for himself. He wasn’t giving voice to a silent multitude of disappointed readers.
But the most important thing to understand is that no matter how stupid and abusive a review might seem, the writer should resist any temptation to answer back. If the reviewer didn’t like the book, nothing the author can say will persuade him he actually did. And more importantly, no matter how courteous and reasonable the writer’s rebuttal (and he may not find it all that easy to be courteous and reasonable if he’s pissed off), he runs a significant risk at being seen as a thin-skinned, arrogant jerk lashing out at a poor little reader just for daring to express a less-than-adulatory opinion. That’s not a good public image to cultivate.
Basically, the advice above boils down to shrug off bad reviews and move on. But is that really always the best response? Can’t writers learn from criticism?
If dozens of reviews pointed to the same alleged defect in an author’s work, I guess that issue might conceivably be worth considering. But in my experience, that hasn’t been the case. Those who’ve disliked my stuff have given diverse and indeed contradictory reasons why. Considered all together, the comments essentially canceled each other out.
Even if they hadn’t, though, it’s questionable that the feedback could have helped me, because it was commentary on work finished a year or more before. In the interim, I’d written other stories, and I hope, grown into a slightly different and more accomplished writer. Moreover, when the review appeared, I was in the middle of a new project, which may well have posed very different problems. Even if the criticism was valid, there was a good chance it was no longer relevant.
Thus, those who post reviews thinking writers will alter their approaches in response have unrealistic expectations. Fortunately, that’s not the only reason to do it. It can be satisfying to express one’s opinions to other readers. Imagine, for example, the pleasure you yourself might experience by posting a glowing review of Blind God’s Bluff on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Hypothetically speaking.