Friday, October 14, 2005

Love 'em or Hate 'em - One Author's Take on Reviewers

Don't get me wrong. I absolutely think that book reviewers (especially those who think my books are works of genius) serve a vital role in the community of readers. Let's face it, there are a *lot* of books published each year, far more than even the most voracious reader can hope to tackle. It's great to have a trusted person's opinion to help sort the wheat from the "chaff".

When it comes to sorting books and movies, I have a couple of close friends who know my taste well enough they can predict what I will like. If they recommend something, I listen. If they send me a book, it goes to the top of my TBR stack because past history has proven that nine out of ten times, I'm going to love it. My sister, on the other hand, has recommended to me the dog of all dogs among comedy movies with enough consistency that I avoid comedy movies she loves like the plague. Likewise with my parents and a couple of friends who are into types of books that I don't like. (One thing about writing; it makes you pickier over time and less likely to enjoy pretty much any entertainment thrown your way, perhaps in the same way food critics lose their appreciation for hot dog stands and potluck dinners. The poor things.) But the thing is, these folks aren't wrong -- they simply have very different tastes -- as does the editor who, after awarding my work first place in a contest, sent me her favorite books she'd edited in the hope that I'd write something more in keeping with that style so she could buy it.

I disliked the books so intensely and found them so at odds with my strengths as a writer, I quickly understood that such a sale was never happening. Or at I wasn't willing/able to contort myself in that particular direction.

But I digress. My point is, each of these trusted or distrusted sources evolved over time. My question is, when it comes to online book reviews, anyone can post an opinion on Amazon or a number of review sites. They folks have a perfect right to their opinions, but that shouldn't make them trusted sources. That designation should only go to a reviewer who's recommendation you have tried -- and agreed with -- over a period of time. And as for the author, all of us (and I'm preaching to myself, too, on this issue) need to remember we're not writing to every potential reader out there. We're writing to please our audience -- and to entertain ourselves and grow as humans and as writers.

When we allow negative comments to rob us of our will to produce, we rob both our readers and ourselves of future books. And I also contend that when we pay to much heed to glowing remarks, we give away some of our power -- making the work better only by virtue of who else likes it. Who else other than ourselves.

In her brilliant Bird by Bird, author Anne Lamott writes about the addictive, negative impact of positive reviews, prestigious awards, etc. With her trademark self-effacing wit, she talks about the growing need for more and more honors to feed her ravening ego -- and the negative impact it has on her ability to work.

Insteading of placing our self-esteem in the hands of others, whether reviewers, editors, agents, or random idiots posting in their blogs, we need to remember the quiet thrills that resonate through our centers when we craft a perfect line or the thrill of having our characters "take over" and come up with that witty comeback we'd never have thought of in our real lives or the muse hand us a descriptive shard that pierces to the heart.

JoAnn Ross, an author I very much admire, recently told me she never looks at Amazon and pays no attention to reviews. Instead, she focuses on the next project -- and on life.

This is how I want to be when I "grow up." With eight published novels (compared to Ross's eighty-something), I'm nowhere close yet. But I'm working on what I see as a very worthy goal.

How about the rest of you? Do you read reviews? Do you lose working time after the good as well as the bad? Have you noticed that even your very favorite books aren't universally adored? And have you figured out why you should think you're an exception? Oh, wait -- that last question was for me. But if you know the answer, please feel free...


Allison Brennan said...

I don't have any reviews yet, but I know me and I know I won't be able to resist reading them, and if they're bad I'll probably cry and get over it, and if they're good I'll probably jump up and down, then fear I'll never write another book that can compare.

Such is the life of a neurotic writer.

JoAnn Ross said...

Colleen --Thank you for that lovely comment! I'm hugely flattered.

Good reviews are written by intelligent individuals with excellent taste who can recognize and appreciate brilliance. I never have to go looking for those because my editors, agents, friends, and sometimes even the reviewers themselves send them to me.

Negative reviews -- especially those snarky, almost personal ones -- are written by chimpanzees. With crayons. Why should I waste my time, and emotional/creative energy on them?

Certainly reviews can give a sense of the story, so readers know what type of book they're getting. (Unfortunately, covers and cover copy aren't always that helpful.) But the act of writing is difficult enough without trying to weave a story with reviewers, agents, editors, or even readers perched on our shoulders.

Which is why we must write only to please ourselves. To tell the stories we want to read. And to always be true to our characters.

That's just my opinion, of course. Everyone's welcome to ignore it. Fortunately, I have bunches more. LOL

Colleen Thompson said...

It's a good opinion, JoAnn. And the right one, as far as I'm concerned. :)

And LOL on the chimpanzees with crayons!

Deborah Matthews said...

I want to be JoAnn when I grow up. (g)

Madeline Hunter said...

I'm in Jo Ann's camp. I do not read my Amazon comments or online reviews. I stopped after about book four. I went to a workshop given by Merline Lovelace and she said she did not read reviews, etc. The good ones, she said, a friend will tell her about (although I have discovered that is not always true---there can be good ones I don't learn about for ages.)

I can't avoid PW, since it gets shot around a lot. Although I had a lukewarm review there for one book and my editor did not send it to me. I thought that was sweet. As if I wasn't going to eventually read it!

My decision had nothing to do with any opinion about reviews or reviewers. It came after a personal assessment of the energy that got spent on hunting down reviews and seeking praise and validation. I just decided not to do it anymore. It was only hard on the next book. After that it all fell off the radar.

Nancy Herkness said...

I do read reviews of my books. I can't stop myself; it's some kind of weird compulsion. However, I have developed "selective memory" when it comes to the bad ones. Here's how it works:
1) There's almost always something positive in a review. Even Mrs. Giggles (famous for shredding books) said my first book had "charm." Just don't read the rest of the review!
2) I remember the positive statement (or word, if that's the best there is) and completely erase the rest from my memory.
Since my memory is erratic at best, this works like a charm for me (she says, grinning).