Last month I did something I usually try to avoid – look for reviews online. It’s one of those “be careful what you wish for” exercises I regret more often than I find satisfying. I did find a nice quote from a review of a story published in a U.K anthology, Blind Swimmer:
There are writers who write stories for the sake of entertainment, and then there are storytellers who understand what stories and myths are meant for. Gerard Houarner is both a writer and a storyteller.
Thanks, tangetonline. I’ll be using that one. But, of course, I found some less than enthusiastic comments about other things, and, more disturbing, silence. Chunks of work, ignored. It’s like sending a piece out and not only don’t you get an answer, there’s not even a response to a query.
But that’s just business. You bust your butt, but there are no guarantees. Maybe your work gets published. Maybe it sells to an editor who maybe asks for a few changes, says some nice things, puts together a great project, and you get to see your name in print and cash a check.
Maybe a reader says something nice, sometime, in a convention hallway or on Amazon. Movies, awards, yeah, they’re all right around the corner.
The best warning I’ve heard about reviews is that if you believe the good ones, you’ll have to believe the bad ones.
Good ones don’t help sell the next book. Bad ones won’t kill your career.
Reviews won’t help you write the next one, either.
But. In our new online universe, reviews are a form of currency. They appear everywhere, from retailers to reader sites to blogs to social networks. Good ones encourage attention, which may lead to sales. Bad ones, especially a lot of them, pretty much kill the deal.
Used to be, dedicated specialists, hardcore readers, folks with an understanding of some kind of literary history, whether world, western, genre, or maybe just what they read when they were growing up, used to write them. They were a kind of mint, producing a steady stream of dependable currency. And because these reviews were printed in little magazines, or specialty magazines, or the NYT and Atlantic Monthly and such, there were standards maintained for reviews, and a community of a certain kind of audience found them and made their buying decisions accordingly.
Not anymore. The community has gotten better. Anybody can write them. Everybody’s got an opinion. Standards, well, they’re all over the place, and often no place at all.
(An interesting discussion of reviewing occurred recently on Jeff VanderMeer’s Facebook page, bringing up the point that reviews, in general, are still an individual reader’s experience of a story and tastes and subjectivity play a role, no matter how intricate the intellectual dressing. And then there are the pressures of pumping them out on deadline. Oh, yeah, and opinions change over time, anyway. And not just about Melville.)
It’s hard to earn good (and by good, I mean genuine and positive) ones, just like real money. People who like your writing need to care enough to post something. That’s hard, because it’s often easier to complain about something that you think sucked than to be write something positive about something you liked. Being pissed off gets you energetic. Being happy makes you do other things that make you happy, which often isn’t sitting online writing reviews. Human nature. Sometimes, you have to go after them by encouraging readers to post.
Or you can make them up in your own little counterfeiting operation.
That’s part of the problem, of course. Little conspiracies, friends popping up with the same wording on the reviews like perps telling the same story the same way to understanding detectives – very embarrassing. But, human nature.
Unfortunately, hundreds of short, even monosyllabic five star reviews tend to cheapen the occasional good, genuine ones, and overwhelm the dozens of genuine bad ones. Alas, this creates confusion and cheapens the currency, makes it suspect.
But the currency doesn’t seem to be going away. At every turn, we’re asked to evaluate, to review, to give feedback. It’s the age of accountability, after all. Or, maybe it’s the age of spin control. Is it the age of bullshit, yet? I get confused, sometimes.
Despite the problems, I do believe a healthy account of positive reviews behind a book listing does garner attention. Builds that all-important readership, the kind of people who like what you do, not how – as in what specific genre or style you might decide to work in – you do it. The kind of people who want to read anything by X because they like what X does.
(Yes, I know, some folks stray way off the reservation and go all “abduction” or “Jesus” on people, driving away even the core readership. Human nature is a bastard.)
In my own shopping experience for anything, I’ll research, read the reviews, read them critically for factors like taste (current Amazon.com reviews for Ghost Story have 12 one-stars, 15 two-stars, out of 139, seriously). One guy says a jacket’s sleeves are too long, okay, got it, but if two or three people have the same reaction and not enough evidence to the contrary services, pattern recognition kicks in). In hotel reviews, there’s always somebody who was stuck with a bad room, a noisy neighbor.
So, what to do about earning some more of those genuine good reviews?
Hmmm, still thinking about that one. Does asking nicely really help? I’ve seen writers gently ask folks who may have written a nice formal review if they’d post it on Amazon, and I’ve seen some reviewers do that unasked.
Run contests for posted reviews? I’m uncomfortable with that.
There’s the old editor’s response to “what will it take for me to sell you a story” – write better stories, of course.
If you read it and you like it don’t clap your hands, post a review.
Look, I started this off with the old advice of not taking this stuff too seriously. But, with reviews becoming so much more important as a marketing tool, and with money at stake, that’s not so easy to do, anymore.
Once again: But.
Lots of people have opinions. Some of these opinions are pretty well informed, or at least founded on a set of literary standards, a well-defined sense of taste and some skill and experience in presenting an argument. Doesn’t make them right for you, of course. Other opnions, not so much.
Take it easy out there. I’ll take my little tangetonline quote, use it on the site. Maybe it’ll wind up on a book or an ad. I got a moment’s validation out of it, which very quickly evaporated. A few of them put together may sustain the illusion of a career, if you’re lucky. Not as much as contracts, checks, and work coming out on a regular basis. Just don’t let them lull you (or depress you) into lowering your guard, ambition, work ethic, creativity, standards, discipline, and all the other things that keep a writer looking more at the space where the next word goes instead of the space occupied by other people’s opinion of what you’re doing.
Otherwise, well, if you haven’t caught up to it yet, you can check Christopher Priest perhaps taking the “awards” thing (not unlike the “review” thing) a bit too seriously.
He’s not the first person I’ve heard who wanted to fire judges. Some folks wanted to fire the professionals who supposedly selected this or that as the best, or the readers, who picked a over b,c and d.
If you listen more than you talk at certain kinds of gatherings, you hear old stories and questions about this or that award ceremony, the legendary meltdowns, the gossip, frustration and resentment. The CP tempest in a teapot inspired a range of reactions, some pretty funny. I liked Nick Mamatas’ response:
The Literature will survive. If it’s worth it, so will (some small portion) your work. If you’re very, very, very good. No matter what the reviews said.
This is Lawrence Block on blurbs, which are kind of related to reviews:
And finally, word from a publisher:
Civil reviews and critiques. Yes. Never mind that you can get away with saying anything from behind an electronic mask. Say it like you’d like your boss or a customer, your spouse, your kid, to pull your coat on something you did that was less than stellar.
Say it like you’re saying it to somebody’s face. Take the same risk the writer did to put the work out there.