Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Writers, Readers and Reviews

Regarding authors responding negatively (or positively) to the reviews posted by readers on GoodReads or other sites: I wouldn't do it.

Not saying other authors shouldn't but I won't and here's why:

  1. I am a reader. I'm a kinder, gentler reader now that I've written a couple of books of my own and know what's involved. Nevertheless, I am still a reader, and if a book compels to praise or criticize in print or online, I'm going to do it. I expect to voice my opinion in peace without feeling the author is waiting to pounce. It follows that my readers might feel the same way about my work. Yes, it's unnerving but if we can't take the heat, we'd better get out of the kitchen.
  2. Responding to either kudos or criticism feels to me like a form of censorship. If I'm satisfied I've done the best I possibly can with my novel and a reader is less than impressed ... well ... arguing about it is a tad controlling. My ownership of the book ended as soon as it hit the shelves. The reader takes over.
  3. To preserve my sanity. Distance between the art and the audience is necessary to function creatively. A good friend of mine is a talented actress. She told me once that she never reads any of her reviews. She said if she believes the good ones, she has to believe the bad ones. And that can be destructive to an artist. The more I engage in reviews—reading them, responding to them, obsessing over them—the more I jeopardize my creative process. It's tilting at windmills and I won't do it.
  4. Reviews are not written for authors—they are written for readers. We have agents and editors to critique our work. Reviewers are looking out for the readers. Budging into their clubhouse is rude. Praise is fabulous. I won't lie. I'd have given up if it weren't for my early readers who were enthusiastic about my book and let me know it. Their comments are posted on this blog. And conversely, the criticism I received made me feel I was being taken seriously as a writer. But the criticism and the praise were to help readers—not me. I wasn't a factor in the equation. What I got out of their efforts to read my book and comment on it was a gift, not my right as the author.
  5. My opinion just isn't relevant. It's a weird exchange, this art to audience thing. It does not take a deep attachment to the author to be deeply attached to their work. I feel as though I would walk over hot coals for Alice Munro, but I've never met the woman. And if I did I might be disillusioned. She only wrote the stories. I made them what they are by reading them. The artist in any medium is not the point. The art is the point. The audience is the point.


But a note to readers who comment on the reviews that writers have posted:

  1. I've noticed that writers are often accused of envy if they post a negative review of a book. Envy doesn't drive us to criticize a book any more than bootlicking drives us to praise a book. Writers are a passionate opinionated breed and we're really passionate about books. We're not driven by much more than that when we post.
  2. Writers have been publically criticizing the work of their peers for hundreds of years. This isn't new. Books and writers manage to survive regardless.
  3. Writers like one another and support one another, critical reviews aside. A writer criticizes an author's work and defends the author's right to expression with equal gusto.
  4. Unlike many other art forms, writing is done in isolation. Accessing the critical opinions of other writers on all stripes of literature is crucial.
  5. Writers do not subscribe to the "It's-Entertainment-Whaddya-Expect?" school of thinking. Poor writing is not entertaining. Poorly written books are a tough slog to get through. Writers who write reviews expect more of their peers. For example: Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol. There is no excuse for the lazy writing in that book. Dan has plenty of money, no pressure there, and he had six years between books so he had the luxury of time. No excuse. And for that reason alone, I was more critical of that book than his others. (See? I'm not a literary snob! I read Dan Brown!)

The main thing is we all keep reading, we all keep reviewing and when we disagree, we all agree to disagree. We're all in this together.

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