Reviews: a few general comments (Spiritwalker Monday 27)

I always feel a little embarrassed or even a trifle ashamed that I read reviews of my work. Some manner of antiquated Lecturing Voice in my head keeps telling me that after I write the book, I ought not to seek opportunities for unseemly self aggrandizement even if it is only in private in the comfort of my own office. That Voice walks hand in hand (to mix metaphors) with those ideas that anything that might make you feel good about yourself for something you did should be viewed with suspicion and probably avoided, and the related idea that I think really hit a lot of women who came to adulthood in certain cultures in the 20th century that girls and women ought not to seek praise or notice because it displays an unacceptable self-interest and self-absorption or self-praise.

Yet artists of all stripes need an ego in order to create. As artists, most of us (I think) create as a form of interaction. We offer an experience that others can partake of, if they want.

I know for a fact that different writers have different tolerances for reading reviews of their work. Some read everything; some read nothing; others fall in between or along some other vector, and many change their minds depending on what compulsive combination of masochism, narcissism, insecurity, ego, and curiosity drives them in any given month or year.

I do read reviews of my work. Sometimes reviews boost me or enlighten me; other times they make me feel like I’m never going to get this novel writing thing right, ever. Sometimes I’m just looking for a pat on the head, while other times I’m hoping for a more critical engagement with the text; which of those usually depends on my psychological and emotional state at any given time. Some reviews I read strike me as a little mean or even dishonest, while others–not necessarily positive ones–really hit me as heartfelt and sincere and, at times, useful to me in terms of what they’re saying.Then there are the ones that just hit the sweet spot. That’s always gratifying.

Reviews, discussion, and word of mouth all amount to visibility for an author, and visibility matters a great deal to writers who are trying to build and sustain careers. If people haven’t heard of your book, they can’t read it. The book scene reminds me a bit of that line about tourism in London: 90% of the tourists go to 10% of the sites, the most famous ones. That’s visibility. The more people “talk” about a book, the more likely that talk translates to sales, and good sales allow a writer to sell more books in their existing series and to sell new projects.

However, worrying about reviews or about whether the work is getting notice can also get in the way of writing if it takes energy away from writing.

The most important thing is to be writing the next book.

When I write a book, I absolutely write and revise and rewrite to create the best book I can at the time. Often, although not always, by the time I finish reading through the page proofs, I’m satisfied that it came out well. Then I have to wait for reviews to see how it is actually received, and as we know, these two things may not be in line. One really never knows. The weirdest things can pop up in reviews–sometimes in a positive light, sometimes in a negative one–things that never occurred to you would strike a nerve or that you yourself may not have noticed at all in the text. Complaints or praise that you expected may sadden or please you. Things you wished people would talk about may never get mentioned at all.

But in my opinion reviews aren’t for the author, not really. They’re part of a different conversation to which the author is related but not necessarily directly involved beyond having written the book under discussion. My feeling is that once the book is out of my hands, it’s out of my hands. It’s still mine, but it’s also not mine. I don’t get to mediate or demand a certain reader response. I did my thing by writing it; readers do their thing by reading it. Or by not reading it, for that matter: No one is required to read a book (except in school). Furthermore, if you’re not a bestseller, the vast majority of people have never read you, much less heard of you. Even if you are a bestseller and your novel gets made into a movie, more people will see the film than read the book.

Additionally (and I think importantly) while the old reviewing venues, the gatekeepers of yesteryear, are still around, they are no longer the only game in town (many of these critical venues served, I think, a different purpose, but I’m not going to analyze that here). The old top-down authority has shifted as more voices get heard.

The explosion of social media has really altered the landscape in this regard, although I feel obliged to note that I don’t think creators/artists/writers have to be on social media. I suspect they should not be unless they are getting something positive out of it.

Readers can connect with many more like-minded readers than ever before. Readers can talk directly to others readers about books; of course they could before, but the nature of the internet makes the reach much more extensive.

Book discussions have exploded all over everywhere, raising acrimony at times but also in my opinion creating a vast and enthusiastic network for readers and reading. Frankly, I really like the respectful way so many readers talk to each other (even while disagreeing!) on many of the reader-driven review sites.

I do sometimes thank a reviewer for their review, and I do try to highlight ones that I think were particularly interesting (to me, at any rate), but otherwise I try to stay out of the discussion because nothing kills a discussion between readers more than a writer showing up even if only to politely say “thank you.”

(Needless to say, writers really ought never to argue with a review. Short factual corrections are okay but I mean that in the most concrete and specific way: “The story does not take place in England,” for instance, would be a factual correction if a review stated that the story took place in England and it actually took place in Hawaii.)

As for me, these days I am much more in touch with readers and with other writers as well. It’s hard to predict how this interaction will continue to develop over time.

I can safely say, though, that when I was growing up and a young adult, I read far more in isolation than I do today. It is so much easier for me to talk about books and reading (and media in general) now than it was then.

What do you guys think? Did you come of age in the age of social media? If you’ve been around since before Twitter, Facebook, tumblr, and Goodreads, what sort of changes do you perceive in reviewing, in reader interaction, and in the reader/writer interface? Do you find this to be a good thing, a bad thing, or simply a thing?