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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.


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.


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.