Monday, June 8, 2015

Book Reviewing Thoughts

On the heels of the latest example of an author behaving badly, I wanted to share a few thoughts about book reviewing.  (Note that this Dylan Saccoccio character has since deleted his ludicrous complaints about the negative reviews he's received, which shows a certain amount of shame, if not integrity.  Screenshots of them are available here.)

I'm really quite lucky to review books for Ginger Nuts of Horror.  It's a terrific horror site, and it's a privilege to work alongside really smart people dedicated to celebrating the best of my favorite literary genre: horror.  I write reviews for three reasons:
  1. To participate in conversations about the stuff that interests me.
  2. To help indie authors succeed, especially the good ones.
  3. To get my own name as an author out there, develop relationships, and provide good content.
So far, it's been all upside.  I've met great people, I've read some great books, and I've had a great time.  It's great to contribute and become part of the community.  Great x 4.

I'd love to give every book I read 5 stars.  But I won't, because most books aren't 5-star books.  I know how it sucks to not get that A+ rating, that 5-star review, but goddammit, if you want 5 stars, write a 5-star book.  Fix the grammar.  Make sure your formatting's perfect.  Write well.  Entertain me.  There's no way to distill the subjectivity of a book review into a scientific formula, but you've got to make it hard for me to knock off a star for sloppiness.  I want you to succeed, I really do.  Believe it or not, I'm on your side.

It's a can of worms to be an author and a reviewer.  If I review your book and you review mine, there's that quid pro quo ghost that always haunts the proceedings.  On the other hand, Stephen King gets to read and review Clive Barker's stuff if he wants to, right?  Where else would we get the "What Clive Barker does makes us look like we've been asleep for ten years" quote from?  Not that I'm comparing myself to either of these men, of course.  So there's that mess.  And the mess of not liking something that plenty of other people like.  Writers hone in on criticism, even mild criticism, and many of us tend not to forget slights, perceived or otherwise.  You didn't think my use of the decrepit plumbing supply store as a metaphor for Francine's miscarriage of the twins was effective enough to carry the narrative through the third act?  Fuck you!  Who wants to make enemies in such a small world?

I just might not like your book because I don't like it, and that's all.  Sometimes it is just me, and I don't like it, and you're just going to have to deal with it, and it sucks to be you.  Some of the reviews I didn't get for The Blessed Man and the Witch were when the reviewers emailed me to say that they didn't like it partway through and didn't want to give it a negative review.  In those cases, I thanked them very kindly for their consideration and moved on.  What I didn't do was go with my id and say,

"Oh, okay.  I mean, I know you're a fucking imbecile who's more comfortable at a Dick and Jane level of reading, judging from the dozens of trashy bullshit novels you've given 5-star ratings to, but it's okay.  You idiot.  
Sincerely, Dave.  
P.S. You're a fucking moron.  Sorry I left that out."  

As much as I would have liked to.  Even to the nice lady who told me that my book would be better suited for teenage boys to read.  When I thought about it, I actually appreciated that these reviewers didn't want to post a bad review of my work.  That's really nice.

But not everybody has to do that.  And not everybody will.  And as an author, you're going to have to figure out how to deal with it in a way that doesn't involve a tantrum.

I bow to no one in my dislike for Goodreads; I've said many times that it's full of animated gif-loving sociopaths who relish writing negative reviews and encourage others to pile on.  Not everyone on Goodreads does this, but there are book reviewing rock stars out there who are popular for destroying books, and Goodreads is a platform that encourages this.  Plenty of Goodreaders will low-rate a book not because they've read it, but because they don't like the blurb, their friends didn't like it, or they're just having aches and pains "down there" and need to lash out.  It's been said many times that it's for readers, not writers, and I agree.  Writers should avoid Goodreads at all costs.  You'll note that the vast majority of public accounts of writers behaving badly occur on Goodreads.  So just don't participate.  Have a passive presence on Goodreads at most.

There are certain elements of book reviewing that involve turning subjective art into objective qualifications: proper grammar, formatting, consistency (if he stubbed out his cigarette a sentence ago and takes a drag from it in the next sentence, that's a consistency problem).  After that, it gets fuzzy.  That's where the difficulty of book reviewing lives: in the fuzzy areas.

Ultimately, I love reading and I'm glad to help other writers by reviewing their work.  Especially if it's good.  Does it feel like a punch to the gut to get a bad review?  Of course.  It's terribly demoralizing, especially when you're starting out.  The key is to keep at it and reach that point where you don't care about reviews of any kind.  


Ken Preston said...

Having been the victim, sorry I mean recipient of one of your reviews I would like to say how fair and balanced I thought it was. Your comment about my lavish use of commas made me laugh. But more importantly from your thorough and fair review I got a real sense of how much you enjoyed my book.
And that felt great.

Unknown said...

Hey, Ken:

You put a lot of work into Joe Coffin, and it showed in the final product. A good book deserves a thorough review.

What it boils down to is that you did the work. Writers, especially good ones, aren't born. They're self-made. They read and think and rewrite and do all sorts of other things that can't be codified, but count on the page.

I'd ask you to say hi to Stump and Corpse for me, but I'd really prefer it if they didn't know I existed.

Ken Preston said...

That made me laugh!!