So, for today’s post on the topic of “The Relationship Between Writer and Reviewer” I thought I’d do something a bit different. I asked my dear (almost too dear) friend Nick “Shrapnel” Sharps of The Bookish Mafia, Elitist Book Reviews, and SF Signal if he’d be interested in talking with me about the assigned topic and some other stuff.
(Oh, and if you haven’t read his interview with me on SF Signal, you can find it here.)
ZJ: How did we meet? (Seriously, I have a terrible memory and don’t remember.)
NS: I sent you a message on Facebook asking for an ARC of NO RETURN so I’d have some fuel for my furnace this winter.
ZJ. Ah. Immediate jokes at my expense. I am wounded.
Did you think we would become friends?
NS: Are there any other kind of jokes? I didn’t not think we would become friends. Over the past year I’ve developed a pretty good rapport with lots of cool authors. Without wanting to break any hearts or trample any delicate feelings I’d say that largely these are semi-formal acquaintanceships. The authors I’ve met are pleasant and sociable but I usually try to keep some distance. I don’t ever want to be seen as one of those hardcore fans that just decides they’re best friends with an author and pesters them into oblivion. I’ll totally geek out about talking to you, but I won’t show you the tattoo of your face I’m getting inked on my back.
I was instantly won over by your winning personality—you struck me as someone who was genuinely gracious for any attention you got.
Still, I never expected to make such a good friend in such a short amount of time. Especially with a complete stranger.
ZJ: An insult followed by praise!
Well, I hope I’m gracious. I’m always surprised when authors aren’t upon receiving attention.
And me too! I haven’t made a really good friend that quick in, well, maybe ever . I was amused as hell by your personality and intelligence, and entirely shocked to discover you were in your earliest 20s. It’s been very cool to see how much we have in common despite differing backgrounds and even some beliefs that—on paper, anyway—are conflicting.
Did it worry you at all that we had become such fast friends, and that you’d soon be reading (and perhaps reviewing) my book?
NS: Did it worry me? It terrified me (I scare easily) that I had just made friends with a guy whose book I would be reviewing. It would have been a little different if NO RETURN wasn’t your debut novel. If I’d read some books written by Zachary Jernigan prior to contacting you and buddying-up, that would have been one thing. But to befriend a debut author? I had no clue how awful your writing might be.
I take reviewing seriously. Were it not for Steve Diamond of Elitist Book Reviews and John DeNardo of SF Signal, I would still be paying for all my books—and that’s a hobby I can ill afford. I read 70 books in 2012 after all.
But for the first time since I took up reviewing I found myself questioning my own integrity. I hadn’t even read NO RETURN and I was considering what to do if it sucked like a Dyson. It caused no small amount of anxiety.
I didn’t want to betray my readers and I didn’t want to betray the sites I contribute to. I didn’t want to betray my own ethics. Despite all this I was concerned about losing a friend if I had to really tear into the book. Luckily the ARC came around and all my fears turned out to be unfounded. NO RETURN didn’t suck. In fact, it very much didn’t suck. And that’s when I faced a new problem. What if people found my review to be too positive? What if I was accused of pandering because of our connection? It was a whole new level of angst. Eventually I got over it. I realized that so long as I relayed exactly what I felt then no one could fault me. I don’t believe there’s any such thing as 100% objectivity but I gave it my best shot. And fortunately you left a couple minor details for me to pick at. That’s why they’re there isn’t it?
ZJ: No. They’re not actually there. My book is perfect. Your brain just fucked up somewhere in the process of reading it and arrived at the erroneous conclusion that there was something lacking in my writing.
Just joking. Maybe. I worried about the same thing, though. As much as I wanted to believe that we could still be good friends if you really didn’t like my book, I knew that I’d be resentful. And that’d be a stupid reaction, but still, I’m human (mostly).
I think it’s admirable that you told your worries to go fuck off. Do you think most reviewers are capable of separating friendship and the act of reviewing? The entire world operates on the assumption that knowing the right people, having good relationships with them, gets you somewhere. Do you think that an author being personable with reviewers influences their reviews—maybe not to the extent of their just deciding it’s good, but in how open they are to liking it?
NS: I’d hate to speak for most reviewers. I’m probably on better terms with authors than I am with fellow critics. I will say that there are a lot of great critics and I would imagine that the key to greatness lies with detachment. On the other hand, as an Advertising/Public Relations major I am a firm believer in networking. Knowing the right people can open a lot of doors and that goes for reviewing as well, at least in my experience.
You treat people with respect and they tend to respond in kind. I would say that personable authors do have an influence, though not necessarily a +2 rating boost. If an established author messages me and requests politely that I read their work they are off to a good start. Critics want to feel wanted, it doesn’t hurt to stoke the ego a little. It’s the same as using a server’s name at a restaurant. It doesn’t cost you anything and it establishes an amiable atmosphere.
ZJ: That makes perfect sense. I know that I want to establish a good relationship with people because, well, I want people to like me—especially when we have a similar interest. I honestly want to make friends, caution be damned. I know at some point that I’ll have my feelings hurt when someone I like and respect doesn’t like something I do, but having friends is more important than that.
What, good sir, do you see your future relationship to sff literature being? I’ve read some of your fiction, and it’s abundantly clear you have a talent for it—yes, far beyond that of most people your age. I’m not licking your polyps here, either; I’m not shy about telling people I like something (or vice versa).
And on a personal note, have our interactions had any impact on the way you view reviewing, and writing in general?
NS: Polyps? Sounds like something that need be excised rather than licked… As for my future relationship with sff literature? I love reading and I love writing. Obviously I’m going to keep reading, unless the Literary Gods strike my vision for some hubris. I do need to start reading more non-fiction as much as it kills me. I have a copy of Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy that is collecting dust.
But I have higher aspirations. I want to write. I’m working on an urban fantasy short story that I intend to submit to an upcoming anthology. One day I’d like to publish a novel. Of course, I’ll have to actually write it first but… small steps. I think a lot of critics are also aspiring authors. It’s another thing to take into consideration when talking about objectivity/subjectivity. The publishing industry is tightly knit. Courtesy is required if you want to get anywhere. I still hope that I can maintain my independence without burning any bridges but it is something to always keep in mind. Respect is a must.
I asked you a couple weeks ago for some advice on how to improve my reviews. It wasn’t advice that a professional critic would give but I found it useful. I was burning myself out and it gave me a boost and a new perspective. I’m grateful for that. Your support has also motivated me to sit down on my lazy ass and actually write. I’ve written more fiction in the last month than I did all last year. So that’s another reason to be grateful.
ZJ: I’m flattered. That makes me really happy to hear. I’d like to motivate people after years of dumping on everything. I used to be a really negative guy. Hard to believe, I know.
Something you said here resounds with me: “… I have higher aspirations. I want to write.” What is it about your current contribution—reviewing—that feels somehow insufficient? I ask this because, honestly, it’d help me have some perspective from somebody who wants to be on both sides of the equation.
You see, I often wonder why I feel the need to write. Sometimes I feel like chastising myself for needing that validation. I mean, not everybody needs to BE READ.
What do you think it is that produces that need in a person? And… Do you think you could be happy as “just” a reviewer?
NS: You used to be a negative guy? You and me both brother, you and me both.
I love reviewing. I’m so opinionated and narcissistic that it provides just the outlet I need. What I enjoy most about reading is sharing. I want to talk about these books, I want to discuss the things that happen and what they might mean. I also appreciate getting a $700 HDTV for free from the Amazon Vine Program. And yet…
That’s it isn’t it? Always the persistent, “And yet…” I have my own stories to tell. My head is filled with so many ideas on a daily basis it feels like I could system crash from data overload. If I sit in judgement over all these stories, doesn’t it stand to reason that I should step into the ring and test my own mettle?
There’s something beautiful about storytelling. A great review is an in-depth analysis that provides consumers with adequate details to make an informed decision. A great story though… that can change lives.
I do want that validation and I don’t feel too shameful over it. We all need validation in some form. The best I can hope to achieve with a well-written review is to save someone money or clue them into a worthy series. The best I can hope to achieve with a well-written story is limitless.
Storytelling is a natural aspect of the human condition. Ants can build gargantuan structures with climate control. Monkeys can use tools but can they tell stories? No really—I’m asking. Can monkeys tell stories? Because that would be soooo cool!
It’s almost like storytelling is a primal instinct. Isn’t that why we have social networking? We’re all sitting around a digital campfire telling stories. I won’t pretend that all stories are Tolkien quality. There are plenty of examples of 50 Shades caliber writing: lol bryan drunk all tha beer. Still, they’re stories.
I don’t think I could ever be happy as “just” a reviewer. I want to be able to see my book on a shelf in a store and pick it up and shout, “Hey everyone! I wrote this!” And when no one pays me any attention I want to be able to throw it at their heads. And that’s something you just can’t do with an eBook.
ZJ: A lot of writers in the past couple years have gotten into flame wars with reviewers. (I’ll leave out the names, because these guys are big sellers. I’d rather not attract their negative gaze to either of us.) What do you think about the phenomenon of authors defending themselves against the criticisms—some of which are called personal attacks by the offended party—of bloggers and the resulting free-for-all?
NS: I’d say authors retain the right to defend their work, though I don’t find it the most prudent course of action. I can empathize with the need to react and I can’t imagine what it’s like to have the product of countless hours of blood, sweat, and ink criticized. But that’s the risk you take when you put yourself in the public arena, is it not? There is a difference between a critic and an asshole with an opinion. As a critic I feel that I have certain duties—to my site, to the reader, to myself, and to the author.
My duty to the author is to explain what I liked and didn’t like and why. This gives the author the opportunity to make adjustments, not based solely on my review of course but based on many reviews. I’d like to think that this is an essential tool to helping authors improve their craft.
I don’t write reviews to offend anyone. You’ll find that very few of my reviews could be considered “negative” because much of the time I can see the merit of a book even if I don’t like it. I write reviews to help people. Assholes with opinions are out there for attention. Responding to them fuels the fire. With the Internet it’s safe to say, “Don’t feed the trolls.”
That doesn’t mean that authors shouldn’t defend themselves, they should just exercise caution when they do.
Especially because I have seen instances where authors have confused helpful criticism with personal attacks. It can devolve into a real mess, and it is an easy way to lose respect for someone.
ZJ: Do you think it’s possible that the author might not be aware of the things she or he put in the book, though?
Like, say you published a novel and someone accused you of being sexist: it’s all fine and good for you to defend yourself by saying, “Just because I wrote a sexist world doesn’t mean I’m sexist,” but what if you aren’t aware of what a sexist douche you are?
NS: Oh that’s a murky line. As a middle class rich white male with a limited experience of the world outside my own comfort zone I’m not entirely sure I have any right to speak on the matter. My natural reaction is, “More of that over-sensitive nonsense.” I know that’s not right though. I know that there is sexism in fiction and I know it causes a rift. In my opinion it’s possible to write about a sexist setting and not be a sexist yourself—but if you have a pattern of writing sexist settings you might want to consider striking out into new territory.
ZJ: Well, shit, that’s reasonable. Damn you.
Anyway, sorry this wasn’t as freewheeling as our first interview. I think I’m having an allergic reaction to something I ate, and that’s not putting me in the best mood. (I wish I were kidding, but I ain’t.)
Do you have any last words, you goat?
NS: Last words? I would just like to thank The Night Bazaar for allowing me and Zack to goof around. I would like to thank Zack for giving me an excuse to talk about myself and drink beer. I would like to thank the reader for reading (duh). Cheers and I hope to defile this fantastic blog again in the future!
ZJ: God, you’re adorable. I’m glad we’re friends.