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Why some authors react badly to reviews

amber_fool said, in the previous comment thread: I'm not an author, so maybe it's just that I've not experienced this, but I don't get why EVERYONE is expected to like an author's work? It's just not going to be some people's cup of tea. I'd think reviews that say "I liked book x, but not this one, and I didn't like it for reasons a, b, and c" would be useful to other readers, and could be useful to the writer if they were trying to attract fans of book x, but it's not even a reflection on the book itself. But I've seen reviews like that where the author responded and it turned into a flame war, basically.


I think if you approach all of reading as a reader, everyone isn't expected to like an author's work. Putting on my reader hat, as I frequently do at the store, I'm aware that there's even more at play: there are books I don't like that I do think will work for some of my customers, and I will without hesitation recommend those if any books that I do like don't seem appropriate.

But yes, I'm aware (clearly) that there are books I simply don't care for. Sometimes it's a quiet "not for me", and sometimes it's a raging "omg I hate this book!", but in either case, that reaction is about me. I try to put that reaction aside in the store, because I'm not trying to find or recommend books for me in the store; I'm trying to recommend books for a broad range of customers.


This attitude would probably not upset the authors who respond and start a flamewar, but it's not an attitude that's necessarily required for a review blog or column, because in either case, you're stating your own preferences, responses, and opinions, and that's why people are reading you.

I write a review column for F&SF, and Gordon Van Gelder once linked a review of an issue of the magazine in which the reviewer mentioned my column (usually, reviewers only mention the fiction). The reviewer said two things, which I thought were hilariously funny: that he hated 90% of the books I liked, and that he still appreciated the column because I gave him enough in the column that he could make an educated guess at whether or not the book was in the 10% of books he wouldn't hate.

This is one way of using a review column or a blog. I'm not going to waste my column words explaining that this is just a subjective opinion, and that my tastes may not be your tastes, and that my opinions may not be your opinions. I assume this, and further assume that it's my opinions that are the basis for the column.

But.

I think a lot of readers, especially when we're younger, assume that we dislike books that are bad. We like books that are good. We not only don't come with the disclaimer I don't put in my column, we're also not aware that it's necessary (I speak, sadly, from experience here, and possibly I was a tad less reasonable than many other readers when I was young. My long-time friends will now refrain from mockery and laughter at the understatement).

I frequently read about authors who started writing because they disliked what was on offer; they wanted to write books that addressed their own needs or desires as readers. They wanted to write good books, and clearly, publication implies success.

What it doesn't imply to some is subjectivity. I've had arguments with authors who somehow believe that if SF were approved of in the mainstream, they'd be bestselling mainstream authors. They've written what they consider to be a good book.

Because they've done this, and because there's a strong sense that like=good and dislike=bad, they're a tad sensitive about the reviews. If you dislike their book, what you're saying is that their book is a bad book. Not that it's a book that isn't to your taste, or any of the other possible truths.

They also believe that bad reviews materially harm their ability to sell books, which of course impacts their ability to make a living and build an audience--so they react with the force of someone whose very livelihood is threatened by a negative opinion; they're fighting for their job.

Since I've seen books I couldn't get past page five of sell their way to the NYT main list, I'm aware that opinion doesn't really stop an author from selling; it doesn't, sadly, catapult a writer to the heights of that list, either. I've never seen a book get one hundred per cent positive reviews unless that book is just not widely reviewed.

But in the case mentioned above, it's a bit harder: obviously, if the reviewer liked book x by the author, but disliked book x+1 or x+2, then the reviewer is in the core audience the author is writing for. And in that case, it's hitting a different nerve.

Tomorrow, I want to talk a little bit about reader-entitlement. I think. My husband feels that this is not a safe topic for public discussion, and he's my external 'don't hit that post button' editor.

Comments

( 32 comments — Leave a comment )
camille_is_here
Oct. 11th, 2010 03:22 am (UTC)
I sometimes find that even a bad review can draw me into a book, because the reasons the reviewer gives for hating the book are exactly the reasons why I would love it.
hhertzof
Oct. 11th, 2010 01:23 pm (UTC)
And this is exactly why I found Into the Dark Lands in the first place.
dglenn.dreamwidth.org
Oct. 11th, 2010 05:03 pm (UTC)
This.

I've had this happen more with movie reviews than book reviews (which is funny, considering how few movies I watch), but yeah, what makes a review and a reviewer valuable to me is less whether they like the same things I do, and more whether they can communicate why they liked/disliked the subject of the review, well enough that I can tell whether I would like it. I've read negative reviews that boiled down to, "I hate this movie for exactly the reasons that would make d'Glenn like it if d'Glenn is in the mood for something light," for example, and I've filed those away to look up when I'm in that mood. And I've read really positive reviews that boiled down to, "This is a brilliant, absolutely brilliant, example of a type of story d'Glenn doesn't care for." Those are every bit as valuable as the ones that agree with me.

What isn't valuable is a review that just says whether something is "good" or "bad" without saying why, or one that picks apart why a work isn't (or occasionally is) High Art and a Future Classic, without telling me whether it's the kind of art I might enjoy.
lithera
Oct. 11th, 2010 03:28 am (UTC)
Reader entitlement is a topic that starts all sorts of nasty drama. It frustates me when people display it. I too wish that my favorite authoers would be able to magically produce all of the books I could read but I also know that I read much, MUCH, MUCH faster than any author I know writes.

Thank you, by the way, for the most recent posts. They've been very interesting.

Edited at 2010-10-11 03:31 am (UTC)
amber_fool
Oct. 11th, 2010 05:57 am (UTC)
I'm interested, too, in this topic. Because I understand authors are people. And I can understand that I'll have to wait for the next book, because a book can't be written instantly. And even that sometimes, real life will get in the way. But on the other hand, it's been incredibly frustrating as a reader when a series I've really liked has stopped on a cliff-hanger and the author has wandered off to do other projects. I mean, I guess I'm not really /entitled/ to the end of the story. But the author isn't /entitled/ to me buying any of the rest of their work, either, because I don't want the same thing to happen again.
msagara
Oct. 11th, 2010 08:11 am (UTC)
Thank you, by the way, for the most recent posts. They've been very interesting.

You're very welcome :)
shanrina
Oct. 11th, 2010 03:28 am (UTC)
Oh, yes. I couldn't agree more. There are books out there that are legitimately bad (horrible grammar, TSTL characters, gaping plot holes, etc.). They might sell and there might be people out there who like them, but that doesn't change the fact that they're bad books.

Then there are the books where I find a character unsympathetic for personal reasons, where the author includes elements I can't stand, or where I find the morals that the characters and author espouse personally repulsive. I may not like those books, but that doesn't automatically make them low-quality books. The same goes for movies, music, painting, and other art forms.
dglenn.dreamwidth.org
Oct. 11th, 2010 05:14 pm (UTC)
The book I most recently declared to be a "bad book" had all the grammar right, but it was a non-fiction work intended to convince readers of a particular political position, that argued so poorly that it actually pushed me in the other direction. It was a bad book because it failed at its objective.
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mtlawson
Oct. 11th, 2010 03:53 am (UTC)
The reviewer said two things, which I thought were hilariously funny: that he hated 90% of the books I liked, and that he still appreciated the column because I gave him enough in the column that he could make an educated guess at whether or not the book was in the 10% of books he wouldn't hate.

You know, that's the same way I used to use an ex-movie critic for our local paper. He was here only three years, but I found myself agreeing with him on only one movie. Remaining consistent in your likes and dislikes is important.

Tomorrow, I want to talk a little bit about reader-entitlement. I think. My husband feels that this is not a safe topic for public discussion, and he's my external 'don't hit that post button' editor.

What sort of reader entitlement? That we expect a novel to end a certain way, or we expect a novel to be produced within an acceptable period of time (aka the George R.R. Martin debate)? Both? Something else entirely?

I'm glad you're posting so frequently again; this series of posts has given me quite a bit to think about.
msagara
Oct. 11th, 2010 08:13 am (UTC)
What sort of reader entitlement? That we expect a novel to end a certain way, or we expect a novel to be produced within an acceptable period of time (aka the George R.R. Martin debate)? Both? Something else entirely?

Both, although it looks like it'll be two separate posts.

I'm glad you're posting so frequently again

This is what happens when I am actually Not Behind in my Deadlines :). I have the time to put stray and random thoughts into words. I tend to disappear when I'm falling behind on the writing, because when I am, the lure of discussion and company is far more of a danger.
mtlawson
Oct. 11th, 2010 10:24 am (UTC)
Not being behind on deadlines is the gift that keeps on giving, because it means more novels as well as more posts. :-)

That second half of reader entitlement could get pretty darned broad, touching on not only George Martin but Melanie Rawn and even Robert Jordan. Okay, Robert Jordan could fit in both halves, but for the sake of argument we could put him in the "finish the thing within an acceptable period of time" part.
shadowkindrd
Oct. 11th, 2010 03:54 am (UTC)
As an avid reader, I almost never put down a book. Even if it's bad, I'll slog anyway. I can always learn what not to do, after all. But there have been a few books I wall-thumped. One of them, I don't even remember the title, and I'm pretty sure I threw it away (which I like, NEVER do to a book unless it's been ruined beyond repair). The author kept switching between past and present tenses in different chapters, and I couldn't even keep track of who was doing what, and why I should care about them. The prose was atrocious, too. Bad, bad stuff.

However, I had a more recent experience with _Unholy Ghosts_ by Stacia Kane. I read the back cover, and looked at it a bit, then settled in to read. By chapter 5, I was having a serious case of wanting to slap the heroine up side the head and then dump her on her ass. So I stopped reading. When I take that rare step, I always do a post-mortum. In the case of this book, I realized it wasn't the book; I just wasn't the audience for that book. The whole _Leaving Las Vegas_ druggie down-n-out scraping the dregs of humanity stories are definitely not my cuppa anything. When I realized my place in the audience sphere, I was able to appreciate the book as other reviewers do, at least in terms of technique. As I said over on jimhines's blog, I'd try out other books by Kane because it's this story, not her ability that turned me off of the book.

Then there's literary science fiction that really makes me stretch to read it. The latest book that twisted my brain into a loop is _How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe_ by Charles Yu. It was off-kilter humor, interesting strange weird almost British but didn't quite make it literary experience about experiencing time travel and imaginary universe from an interesting pov. I didn't walk away loving the book, but I did make it through the whole this and came away scratching my head and convinced that no, I didn't belong in that audience either.

So I'm getting my nose rubbed in the whole audience thing from the audience's side of the issue, and it's something my writer side is going "hmmmm" and "Huummummm" a lot over. It's interesting, that's for sure.
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manga_crow
Oct. 11th, 2010 04:14 am (UTC)
Heh, I have several reviewers that I use in that way - it doesn't really matter what their personal opinion of a work is, they give enough information that I can still make an informed judgment, often explicitly because we disagree so often.

On reader entitlement, I would be very interested in hearing what you have to say; I really enjoyed your musings on the complicated balance between "The author is not the reader's bitch" and "The author of a series has an implied agreement to finish said series in a somewhat timely manner" last time your wrote about it. I can see how it might be a delicate subject though^^
anghara
Oct. 11th, 2010 04:32 am (UTC)
The comment that I liked re. reviews is that if nobody hates your stuff not enough people are reading you...

I write occasional reviews for SFSite - and quite honestly, I don't pull punches. I WILL review a book, whether I liked it or not, and if I liked or didn't like it I will say WHY that is so. And I've had more emails thanking me for the pure sheer honesty of the "bad" reviews than I've ever had thanking me for the praises.

I think writing and publishing only "good" reviews - only the paeans - does a disservice to everyone all around - to the author, because (s)he begins to think that (s)he can do no wrong; to the reviewer, because it muzzles any dissenting opinion; and above all else to the readership, which actually does deserve to know that there are people out there whose opinions of a particular piece of work may be very different from everybody else's.

Honesty and clarity, though, are paramount. Poison-pen reviews with just "I HATED THIS!" are useful to absolutely nobody at all.
amber_fool
Oct. 11th, 2010 06:02 am (UTC)
Thanks for expanding on that for me - that makes the flamewar I saw make more sense. It was in the Amazon reviews for a SF book, and one of the points the author was (badly) making was that the bad review was costing him or her money.

Also? I'm going to have a brief fangirl moment now, since my favorite author thought I said something interesting enough to make a full post about! You've made my day. :)
msagara
Oct. 11th, 2010 08:14 am (UTC)
Also? I'm going to have a brief fangirl moment now, since my favorite author thought I said something interesting enough to make a full post about! You've made my day. :)

Actually, probably more than one post :).
mmegaera
Oct. 11th, 2010 06:02 am (UTC)
There are a couple of movie reviewers (including my sister, not that she writes hers up or anything) whose taste is diametrically opposed to mine. If they like something, I am almost always guaranteed not to like it, and vice versa. I don't even really have to read or hear the review in question. This is not a bad thing. It's a guidepost.

Then again, movies are much more collaborative projects than books are (no book IME, has the equivalent of a ten-minute long list of credits at the end), so it's easier for no one person to get his nose out of joint.
gothicsparrow
Oct. 11th, 2010 08:31 am (UTC)
I actually haven't seen any defense of authors who flame reviews- not that it's a good thing- so I haven't heard anyone say that they get that upset because they feel they're fighting for their job.

I would like to hear you talk about reader entitlement.
la_marquise_de_
Oct. 11th, 2010 08:56 am (UTC)
Your husband may be right, but that's a topic that needs thought, I think.
The only thing that really gets to me in reviews in people you state categorically that I've said something in the book that I did not, in fact say. (This mainly applies to my non-fiction, but there was one review of the novel that announced an agenda therein that I did not have.) As far as the non-fiction goes, the protocol is on my side -- reviewer X says that I hold opinion Y, which I don't. In my next article, I find a way to refute X (with illustrations) and, if X was being particularly dim (imho), be mildly sarcastic. Then they get to respond in their next piece, and so on. It works, though there are people who find this all too much and get personal and stressed. Those one ignores.
I fumed to the beloved about the fiction reviewer (I also fumed at the one which assumed I couldn't spell because I am British) but I wouldn't reply. They have the right to their opinions. They're wrong, but they have that right.
Another great piece: thank you.
mizkit
Oct. 11th, 2010 08:42 pm (UTC)
They have the right to their opinions. They're wrong, but they have that right.

♥ :)
hhertzof
Oct. 11th, 2010 01:28 pm (UTC)
Working as a librarian you learn to deal with this. Not "will I personally want to read this book" but "is this book something well written that the kids will enjoy". And I have personally said many times that "I haven't read this book, but other librarian X has and she really liked it." or "I haven't had a chance to read this yet, but it sounds like the sort of thing you'd like."
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teenagewitch
Oct. 11th, 2010 03:02 pm (UTC)
I don't generally read reviews simply because I don't find them accurate from my point of view. I read just about anything thrown my way and finding out 7/10 people hated it on amazon won't change whether or not I read it. I also very rarely recommend books simply because I know that my reading habits are extremely eclectic and most people don't read as many genres as I do.
jonquil
Oct. 11th, 2010 04:04 pm (UTC)
I think you've done a great job of summarizing the issues. And I think the comment by the one man on how your reviews worked for him was about as high praise as you could get.
burger_eater
Oct. 11th, 2010 05:42 pm (UTC)
Two modest proposals
First, I suggest that you allow an "anonymous" "guest-blogger" come in to speak on reader entitlement. There's no reason for you to open yourself to trouble when "Sichelle Magara" could do it for you.

Second, my concern for online bullying and harassment leads me to believe that any upcoming legislation in this area should extend protection to books. As a people we simply can not stand for the awful things reviewers have been saying in their blogs and whatnot. Those monsters giving my book 3-star reviews on Goodreads need to have a conversation with the police, not to mention a mental health professional of some kind.
kernezelda
Oct. 11th, 2010 07:54 pm (UTC)
Hi. I surfed over from jonquil's LJ, and will just re-post what I said there.


I finished reading last night a book which is well-written, fast-paced and lively in style, entertaining and even amusing in places. I can't recommend it, though, because it is also incredibly offensive. George MacDonald Fraser's early novel Flashman - the first in an extensive series - details the rise of a rather awful young man - a coward, a bully, a racist, a rapist - and someone who takes credit for the actions of those braver than himself. To paraphrase, he frequently falls into excrement and emerges rose-scented. Though I disliked him from almost the beginning, the writing is really good. I don't see a need to read any further in the series, but your post seems particularly apt.

Edited at 2010-10-11 07:55 pm (UTC)
green_knight
Oct. 12th, 2010 09:36 am (UTC)
To paraphrase, he frequently falls into excrement and emerges rose-scented.

Now this is an incredibly helpful review to me. I picked those books up a number of times because people reccommended them, and because they sound like something I should love, and every time I bounced so badly that I put them down within a page. I never managed to see past the entitlement (and thank goodness, didn't get to the 'rapist' part).

I disliked Flashman enough not to be able to see the good points you mention; for me, the bad overwhelms the good.
kernezelda
Oct. 12th, 2010 12:11 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I picked it up as part of an omnibus at the library after reading the cover blurb, but almost put it down sometime during the first twenty pages (can't recall exactly, but after the first viciousness toward a woman). The writing pulled me onward. But it's going back today, with the other two novels unread. No matter how good the writing is, the protagonist a horrible example of humanity, and I don't want to waste my time on him.
karenmiller
Oct. 12th, 2010 02:01 am (UTC)
Best lesson I received on handling feedback came from 2 reader emails received the same day, both about Empress (Godspeaker bk 1). First letter said, This is the biggest pile of crap I've ever read. Second letter said, Wow, this was fantastic, it's the best thing, and my boyfriend loved it too.

The moral of the story? Every single opinion of the work is correct. There is no such thing as a definitively correct opinion, because what works for reader A won't work for reader B. And frankly, I run away from anyone who declares that their opinion is definitively correct.

As a writer, I'm of the firm belief that you suck up all feedback and move on. Smile at the good reviews, shrug at the poor ones. Be mindful enough of the negative reviews that you might learn something useful, but don't take either flavour too much to heart. Either way you may well distort yourself to the point where you paralyse your ability to write anything at all.
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