Tuesday, January 13, 2009

On Being Reviewed

Oh, man. Why do I do it? I made the mistake this afternoon of looking at the Amazon page for my forthcoming novel, and to my astonishment found that it had already been reviewed, by fourteen people, two and a half months before it comes out. (There is apparently a new program at Amazon, to which it appears my publisher has subscribed, that provides advance copies of books to prominent reviewers.) And of course the reviews are terrible, and I am quaking with rage.

Well--I was for a minute. Now I'm just angry at myself for looking. Of course the reviews are bad, and of course they make me feel bad, which is why I don't tend to ever read them. Indeed, I haven't read the Amazon reviews of any of my books since my very first, back in 1997. But it's been a while since I've had a book out and I just couldn't resist.

Writers should never read reviews of their work. There is nothing--I'll repeat that, nothing--in it for you. Even if the review is spectacular, you read it at the expense of a little tiny piece of your soul.

Writing is paradoxical. The impulse to do it (if it's done right) comes not from a need for recognition or appreciation, but a need to express something, some obsession or impression or emotion, which is essentially inexpressible. The pleasure in it comes from seeing how close you can get to that elusive something, or seeing what other things you uncover on the way. Every book is a failure, in that you never get it right. But insofar as the journey is as important as the destination, every book is a success, as well. Like I was saying the last post, only the writer can define success for herself; during its creation, the writing should only serve, and can only serve, the writer.

But of course that's not the whole story. Even though you aren't doing it to impress anyone, you retain the expectation that it will be seen, and the hope that it will be understood. If you're lucky, you'll get the former. But you will never get the latter. Nobody will ever see it the way you want it seen. Even if people like it, they'll never like it the right way.

This can be socially awkward. When people praise your work, you're supposed to be happy. And you are--you hope a good review will make people buy the book, and you enjoy the pleasure of someone else's admiration (or at least appreciation). But there's a part of you--a part of me anyway--that is horrified by praise. You know that your reader doesn't really understand, because only you can understand: and because this reader actually likes the work, there will be no way to convince them that they didn't get it. At least, with a bad review, you can tell yourself the review was bad because the reviewer didn't get it. (That's what I've spent my afternoon doing, in fact.) But there is no deflecting praise.

OK, I'm exaggerating here. Everyone likes praise, myself included, and I'd definitely rather have it than not. But this is the calculus that goes on in every writer's mind when a review comes out. They're poison--they're nightmares. And when you read them anyway, young writers, don't say I never told you so.

22 comments:

rmellis said...

Time for all my Amazon sock puppets to get busy!

jrlennon said...

Ha!

Something tells me I've posted this exact thing before. Maybe because I think it about once a week...

Pale Ramón said...

Shake it off, man! You've got work to do!

Reread your post on "Incipience." The only thing that matters now is the next book you have to write.

jrlennon said...

I started it yesterday!

Dana said...

Those were... those were brutal. I read one with my hands over my mouth in horror.

Do you want me to take him out? I mean, I know a guy. For reals.

I think after reading your reviews, by the way, that I'll take your advice when or if I'm lucky enough to have a book out that gets reviewed. No peeking.

zoe said...

Now I feel complelled to look but I don't want to give those swines the satisfaction. I'm with Dana, if you need some muscle, just shout.

You said something a while ago along the lines of if-you-don't-like-me-you're-an-idiot-if-you-do-like-me-you're-an-idiot or something. I liked that then ans I like it now.

jrlennon said...

Yes! Zoe, that's the post that I'm ripping off here. Sorry for the rerun.

To be honest, I read exactly one whole review and one headline, then I cut and run. I didn't even read whatever it is Dana is calling "brutal."

But no whacking please! Every internet brouhaha is its own reward. And because I am monumentally arrogant, I'm already over the whole thing. Carry on!

rmellis said...

As I've said before, I think: Amazon reviews are usually a measure of how a book meets a reader's expectations. Certain books do really poorly on Amazon because they attract readers with preconceived ideas about what the book should be. An example: Brian Hall's brilliant "Fall of Frost" has a terrible rating, and I think it's because a lot of Frost fans were pissed off.

If 14 "Vine" readers got your book, they probably expected it to be a thriller or something.

The only review I read of my book that annoyed me was one that said my book wasn't scary enough for a horror novel. I wish someone had told it was supposed to be a horror novel; I would have put in some exploding heads.

jrlennon said...

Brian's book has the highest actual-quality-to-Amazon-Review ratio I've ever seen. It is tragic and unfair.

That bit in it where Frost's head explodes is fucking AWESOME!

Andrew said...

You write: "The impulse to [write] (if it's done right) comes not from a need for recognition or appreciation, but a need to express something, some obsession or impression or emotion, which is essentially inexpressible."

I agree about the recognition and appreciation thing, but one reason to write is to communicate. So if people don't get your point, I think it is perfectly reasonable to be disappointed. If 13 out of 14 readers don't like the book, then at the very least you gotta hope that these particular readers are not representative of the people you're trying to reach.

Beyond this, sure, I do think people read books differently when they are reading as "critics" rather than as "readers."

Erin said...

If you look through the first negative reviewer's reviews? You pretty much have to be a Neutrogena product or a Blackberry to come close to five stars.

The second one likes her thrillers to be thrillers, and her horror to be horror. Anytime there's ambiguity, stars get pulled.

And so on, and so on. That's why the only time I ever scroll down on Amazon is for Family Circus reviews, like these. I'd rather get recommendations from people whose tastes I already appreciate, and especially with books? I'm sure I'm not alone.

Anonymous said...

I read the 14 Amazon reviews. The majority found fault with the same things.
I've heard this advice, from editors and writing instructors: aspiring writers should heed what editors and writing instructors say, when they give constructive criticism. Maybe you should not ignore the recurring complaint about your novel.
As for Fall of Frost, here are the introductory words to your review: "The time has come at last to plump for our friend and neighbor, Brian Hall."

jrlennon said...

That's correct, Brian's our friend, and a superb novelist as well. You should read him, Max. He didn't attend an MFA program, thus passing your primary litmus test for excellence.

jrlennon said...

Oh, and Andrew...I'm not sure I'm totally with you about writing as communication. Obviously, the writer does want to communicate something, but at least for me, I'm communicating more to an ideal reader than to anyone who's actually out there. I don't mean to sound like a cynic about all this--I love writing and especially love being read (yes, even by people who prefer Neutrogena to me). But I feel as though there's an essential futility to writing as a means of communication...I mean, there are simpler, more effective ways of getting a point across than writing a novel. So writing a novel must really be about something else.

jrlennon said...

One more thing about Amazon reviews, by the way. I actually usually find them pretty useful. You can tell when a person has reasonable expectations for a book--when this kind of person is disappointed, you will probably be, too; and when this kind of person is pleased, in contradiction of the other reviews, you can probably trust them. I'm not terribly worried about those bad reviews, because it seems clear that the kind of reader who's going to be reading the kind of thing I write will quickly see that the reviewers were never going to be pleased by my book, anyway. I'm just grateful for the extra traffic, I suppose.

rmellis said...

Yes, Brian is a friend, and I used him as an example because I was just talking with him about this very subject. On this blog we try to be very open about who our friends are. We never praise a friend's book and pretend it's some stranger.

And I can see how a person might not like Brian's book -- it has no conventional plot arc and is dense and erudite. But I will stand very firmly behind my claim of "brilliant." It is.

zoe said...

There isn't anything unethical or disengenuous about reviewing the work of friends, as long as you're clear about your connection. Presumably if the work was rubbish you would just not review it. Or, if your realtionship could manage it, you could stick to intelligent constructive comments.

I would imagine that, as artists, you tend to gravitate towards people with similar standards, or notions, about writing - even if your writing is vastly different. Naturally we seek to engage people that engage us. It follows that a friend writer would be (in your opinion) pretty capable. The "in your opinion" part is important - as that is, after all, what a review is.

Or perhaps it's actually all just a cynical attempt by evil, embittered cronies to keep amazing, yet unbelievably undiscovered, writers out of the lime light...

jrlennon said...

Well, this is a blog, not a book reviewing organ...we do it for fun, and make no money at it. If someone asked me to review a friend's book for a newspaper or magazine, as a paid assignment, I would decline.

This blog exists so that we can spread the word about things we like, and engage in conversations about things that interest us. It's not an arm of the publishing industry!

AC said...

I'm just curious...do you think all writers feel the same way you do about praise/good reviews? That the reader will always like the book for the wrong reasons, and their understanding of it will always be somewhat off.

Does this have any affect on you when you review other people's work or interview other writers? It seems like you would have to see the book as it exists for the reader and the book as it exists for the writer as two completely separate things, and acknowledge the "outer" book as being as valid as the "inner" book. Or else how could you review books at all? Am I making any sense here, or just confusing you as well as myself?

jrlennon said...

No, AC, I get your drift. I think most writers kinda sorta feel this way--that even praise is discomfiting--but I am probably more preoccupied with it than most. Obsessed, even.

When I interview writers, I try really, really hard to figure out what questions they would want to be asked, so that it feels less like a method of publicizing their book than it does an intimate discussion about craft.

This brings up the central paradox of book reviewing: the only people whom writers feel are qualified to review their books are other writers. But there are so few of them that it's almost impossible to avoid the kind of conflicts of interest mentioned earlier--you are either biased towards your friends or against your rivals (see Kirn, Walter reviewing Wood, James, http://wardsix.blogspot.com/2008/08/wood-on-lit-kirn-on-wood.html).

Ray said...

Hell, it's all opinion anyway, and who's to say one is any better than another. Heidi Pitlor and (maybe) Salman Rushdie included a story by a writer who attended the Cornell program in The Best American Short Stories of 2008. They must have liked it. I didn't. My margins are full of negative comments. I'll bet she feels better about Rushdie's approval than she does about my disapproval, but I'll stand by my opinion anyway.

Jon said...

Next time you're going to surf on over to amazon, call someone instead! Have a list of numbers handy if you can't reach the wife.

But there's another side to this: do you read amazon review and what do you think of them? I'm suspicious of books with too many five star reviews. I like to see a good spread. Some people should hate it. A few should love it. Many should be confused. That's the sign of something going on and something that I'm going to be interested in.