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Wednesday, April 08, 2009


Reading my reviews

Amaryllis asks whether I read my reviews. Short answer: this time round, as little as I can.

When Bareback first came out, I waited for my reviews like exam results; I particularly recall an awful night where I couldn't sleep because I knew a review was coming out in the next day's paper, and wound up sitting in front of the paper's website at four in the morning obsessively refreshing until the review was finally posted. (It wasn't even one of the better reviews, as it turned out.) It was such a wretched night that I've never been able to look at that desktop picture again without feeling the horrible, drowsy-eyed tension again.

Mug's game. So this time, I'm going a different way. If my publicist sends a review my way I can't stop myself from reading it, but I'm keeping myself as much out of the way of reviews as possible.

Like a lot of writers, I'm subject to what Cognitive Behavioural Therapy calls 'disqualifying the positive': I can read a glowing review and come away totally depressed because there's one negative comment in it. (And, in fact, I actually did just that recently with a review my publicist sent me: the review said some extremely nice things with a few quibbles, and I spend a couple of days feeling so discouraged that I found myself wondering if there was any point in writing books if this was what happened to them.) This is entirely my own irrational thinking, but I've got more writing to do, and it's bad for it: it's very hard to solve writing problems if your main attitude is despair, because you're liable to reject every solution you can think of.

In saying this, I anticipate a certain argument: I've read a lot of readers talking about how writers should listen to their reviews because they need to hear feedback. Now, feedback is important, but the thing is, reviews are not the only source of it. And in fact, there's a technical reason why looking too heavily to reviews for feedback can be problematic. This is to say nothing against reviewing: it's a fine profession, and its members are smart people who work hard and often have intelligent things to say. The drawback, though, is this: they work under difficult conditions. They have to read several books a week. This means they have to read all of them fast. I've seen reviews of earlier work where the reviewer made some very basic factual mistakes about the book - not mistakes as in 'they didn't appreciate it enough', but as in 'they got things wrong about the plot'; I think one even got the protagonist's name wrong. I don't blame them for that; I assume they were working to a tight deadline, had to review the book from memory and didn't have time to fact-check. (Well, it wouldn't have taken more than a glance at the jacket blurb to check the protagonist's name, so that was a bit sloppy, but the other stuff is understandable.) But it does mean that if you want serious feedback on your stuff, you need to ask people who can take the time to read it slowly and think about it in detail, such as agents, editors and friends. A reviewer can convey an overall impression, but the really constructive feedback is detailed, and it's asking a reviewer to go above and beyond their job description to give you that.

Even more than this, though, it's not a reviewer's job to give feedback. It's to tell potential readers whether they think the book is enjoyable. Which is to say, the reviewer isn't actually talking to me. They're talking about me. In a sense, reading my own reviews is eavesdropping. What they say is assessing rather than constructive: a reviewer is totally free to say 'This sucks' and leave it at that, but what a writer learns most from hearing is 'Your pacing would suck less if you speeded up events in the middle section, and while you're at it there's something sucky about the antagonist's motivations you might want to look at.' That's not a reviewer's job. Their job is to recommend or to dismiss. They're not talking to me.

A review almost always means more to you than the person reviewing your work. They write hundreds of reviews to your one novel. As a result, a writer can get terribly hung up on an off-hand remark, or inflate one person's opinion to the voice of society. And that can be bad for your writing. The heroine of Bareback was written to be a flawed person, and I find that flawed characters tend to draw my best writing out of me, but something that interfered with the first draft of the book I'm currently trying to rewrite - and damaged its quality - is that I worried about whether people would dislike the heroine. The main reason was that a couple of reviewers had said their difficulty liking Lola had interfered with their enjoyment of Bareback. Now, rationally this wasn't the voice of the majority: the majority of reviews were positive, and many people found Lola's prickly personality enhanced the book rather than spoiling it. But those one or two reviews were echoing in my head, and those echoes were bad for the writing, because I was doing what I've often counselled against: thinking about the audience rather than the work.

So this time, I'm staying away as much as possible. I don't lack for people who'll give me feedback in my life; I have a terrific agent and good friends, and I'm usually able to admit to myself when I'm not satisfied with my own work. Reviews haven't been my best source of advice, but they have been a source of avoidable angst, and as it's hard to write when you're stressed, it makes better sense to stay away from stressful sources of feedback when less stressful ones are available.

Having said that, the few reviews I haven't managed to dodge have been very positive. This review was one I felt I had to see: it was the Times, among other things, and my publicist had told me it was coming. So here's what the splendid Lisa Tuttle says about my second novel:

...rich, strange, utterly absorbing and weirdly convincing.

Not bad, eh? SFX also gave me a five-star review, though I can't seem to find it online to link, and a brief search gave me the horrors as I realised I might stumble upon other reviews and thus get sucked into the vortex. I felt like a dieter being invited to a cake-tasting party, an alcoholic passing a bar; like anyone who's tried to swear off something bad for them who finds themselves at risk of being unable to stay away. Those are the reviews I've had shown to me, but I don't think I want to see any others. I don't handle reviews very well, so I'm laying off them.

LATER: the lovely SFX reviewer turned up in the comments section and very kindly pointed me towards the review, now posted here on her blog, for which many thanks. I'd recommend you to check out the blog anyway, as it's interesting.

Hello! I'm the SFX reviewer, and I'll be putting the piece up on my blog (probably with some extra commentary) once the issue is off the stands. I'll comment here when it's available. AFAIK SFX don't routinely put reviews up on their site.
Oh, hi! Well, thanks for the great review! :-) Were you reading this blog anyway, or cruising for references to SFX? Your blog looks very interesting, I must have a look.

Anyway, hope you're well and thanks again.
Thanks for the answer, Kit. It makes sense: writers are people too, tending to overvalue criticism and undervalue praise. So if you read a review with five paragraphs of glowing praise to one paragraph of minor quibbles, the quibbles are what you'll remember.

If the reviewer doesn't like a book, fair enough, it's his or her job to say so. But, speaking as a reader, the kind of review I hate is the kind which disparages a book for not being the book the reviewer thought it was going to be, or not being the book the reviewer wanted to read. I always want to say, "But what about this book, the one right here, what about it? You're not helping me decide if I want to read it!" And sometimes, if I come across the review after I've read the book, I've come away wondering, "Did we read the same book? Is it me, or is it him, who's lacking in reading comprehension?"

Still, I'm grateful to reviewers, as a class, and I mourn the death of the nice fat Sunday Book Review section in the American newspaper--but that's another rant.

You say you get feedback from friends; can I ask another inquisitive question? I often see Acknowledgments sections where the writer thanks the members of her writing group, and sometimes I even recognize their names as other published authors: are you a member of such a thing? Or have you ever been (as they used to say)? Would you recommend a formal writer's group to an aspiring writer?

I saw the Times review myself, and I thought that line from Lisa Tuttle was excellent. I believe it's the "weirdly" that does it! I've been quoting Roy Blount all over Slacktivist, and now I shall quote him to you:

'Weird has been pretty much watered down into a vaguely sonicky (we hear a bit of weee-oooo) substitute for strange, but the "weird sisters" of MacBeth were way beyond unconventional, and in Middle English weird meant "having power to control fate."'

After all, the novelist is Fate for her characters, and she had better be convincing about it if the book's going to work.
Mikalogue could expand to include book reviews... Just a thought.
Loved it Kit by the way. Absolutely loved it.
Okay, I need to put in an explanation here, as I've deleted one of my comments and one of Niall's - sorry about that.

In answer to Amaryllis, I referred to a particular review I'd had as an example of a reviewer objecting to a book basically not being the kind of book they wanted. It being a review from several years ago, I didn't realise anyone would identify it; in this, it would seem, I underestimated my readers, in particular Niall, who did, and made some informative comments about the reviewer.

While I appreciate the information, interest and support, I feel it's unprofessional of me to single out particular reviews or reviewers for criticism. Since it turns out that I did accidentally do just that, I feel the only thing I can do is take down the offending remarks. Sorry to delete somebody else's comment as well, but I hope you'll understand. This is entirely my wrongdoing and not anybody else's.

In the name of preserving as much of the conversation as possible, here's the non-identifying part of my deleted post:

From a writing point of view, those [reviews that complain it's the wrong kind of book] are actually less bad; if the reviewer was simply annoyed that I'd chosen a subject he wouldn't have chosen, then it's really not the fault of my writing if they don't like the book. They were probably the wrong person to be reviewing it. I don't think it's very professional to complain that the author wrote the wrong book unless it's an actual artistic flaw - if you get the sense that the author really wanted to be writing something slightly different from what they wrote, or if they wrote a book that chose to ignore some important parts of reality, perhaps. If it's just not your kind of book, that's a different matter. But those reviews are easier to shrug off, because it's basically a personality clash rather than criticism you suspect might be right.
Hi! I've been reading your blog off-and-on since I read IGW, but in this case the post was pointed out to me by someone who *does* read you regularly (the aforementioned Niall, in fact). :-)

Anyway, the review is now up here:

Thank you very much, that's most kind of you.

Incidentally, Niall, I should have mentioned that I did save your comment in a Word document, as it can be tiresome to have some Internet miscreant decide to delete a comment you put thought and effort into. I'd like to keep it off my blog, but if you'd like to have a copy of it for your own reference, let me know where you'd like it e-mailed.
Not to worry, I don't think I said anything particularly insightful!
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