This is not the first time somebody here at Indies Unlimited has opined about the writer-reviewer relationship. Our illustrious Evil Mastermind, Stephen Tiberius Hise, did a not one, not two, but three part investigation only last year. My weekly habit of ending columns with a real One-Star Review on a “classic” book is always intended as a friendly reminder that somebody out there hates every book ever written. But like the noted philosopher David Coverdale from the University of Whitesnake boldly proclaimed, here I go again.
I’m wading into these treacherous waters one more time for the simple reason that the topic of reviews constantly comes up among any group of writers, whether we are on facebook, kindle boards, or whinging over the third pitcher of boysenberry kamikazes at the local watering hole. And though I’m much more a part of the writer tribe than the reviewer tribe (of course there is a ton of overlap to that Venn diagram), it doesn’t take much poking around at the accustomed places to find threads of reviewers exchanging horror stories about some writer losing their shitake mushrooms and going thermonuclear about a less-than-stellar star rating. Just so you writers know, some of those threads have names like “Why I will never review another Indie book ever again.”
In the interest of establishing accord and respect among our two peoples, keeping six-shooters in their holsters, and stopping anyone from getting defenestrated out of the saloon, I would like to humbly submit a few things for both sides of the lines to keep in mind. Things to think about as we glare at each other across a sun-bitten, dirt street; hands hovering over our peacemakers.
WRITERS: Reviewers do not work for you. Yes, reviewers write reviews for as many reasons as writers write books, and for some “helping” an author actually is their primary motivation. But not for all that many. Far more just want to speak their own opinion about something they read, particularly in a Social Media environment where 90% of the food chain that keeps the ecosystem going is dependent on everybody sharing their opinion on everything.
If you want to go even further back into an era when book reviews were the purview of literary journals, newspapers and the like, the reviewer’s only responsibility was to READERS, never to WRITERS. Respected reviewers had a following because people trusted their opinions were honest, found their personal taste similar to the reviewer’s, or even, yes, liked the way the reviewers wrote reviews, and so they were “fans.” A lot of book bloggers today still cling nobly to that vestige of times-gone-by, and they only offer their reviews just to share with followers what they thought about any given title. The review-ee, the Writer, is no part of that equation, and nor should they be.
REVIEWERS: Writers do not work for you. By which I mean you, personally, VampirFan2784 or whatever your name is (I just made that name up, apologies if anybody is actually using it). There is a great, yawning chasm of difference between saying “I thought this book moved too slow,” and saying “This book moved too slow.” The first is inarguable: The action of the book moved slower than you would like, and so of course you didn’t like that, and no doubt “took off points” accordingly. The second means there is something wrong with books that move at a pace different than that which you personally happen to like, and presumably there is also something wrong with any other reviewer who liked the pacing of the book, as well as the writer who wrote it the way they did because they also like a particular pacing in a novel. It’s a fine distinction, perhaps, but that “I thought,” or “I feel,” or “for me as a reader,” makes all the difference in the world.
Of course, all that applies only to things that are really a matter of taste. If there are 2 or 3 typos on every page, there is no point in saying “I feel there are 2 or 3 typos on every page.”
WRITERS: Reviewers do their homework. If you say something wildly incorrect, someone is going to call you on it. So before referring to either Constantinople or Istanbul in 1700, take two seconds on the Google machine to see if the city was called Constantinople or Istanbul in 1700.
REVIEWERS: Writers do their homework. Before pointing out what you think was a mistake a writer made because you are pretty sure they were wrong, take two seconds on the Google machine to see if the city was called Constantinople or Istanbul in 1700.
WRITERS: Some people are jerks. Yes, you are going to get malicious reviews just because somebody doesn’t like the subject of your book, hates stories in which animals talk, or got dumped on prom night by a girl with the same name as your main character. Before you give in to the desire to call them a nerf herder in a comment on the review, consider how that is going to look to other readers (who may not be jerks) reading the review as is, or else reading the review with your petulant comment attached.
REVIEWERS: Some people are jerks. Yes, some authors are going to come unhinged when you tell them their perfect, literary magnum opus is, in your opinion, too derivative of Knight Rider. Right down to the wise-cracking Trans Am. They are going to scream and moan, and tell you that two-star rating on Smashwords is taking food out of their children’s mouths. They may call you a nerf herder.
Of course, if somebody shows you baby pictures and you say “Wow, in my humble opinion, that’s a really ugly kid. Seriously, did you think about putting tinted windows on the incubator?” you’re probably going to get much the same reaction. You may even catch a knee in your swimsuit area. It doesn’t mean all writers, or all Indie writers, or all parents are jerks. But a lot of all of the above are really biased and hypersensitive about their own offspring. Be aware of that going in, and please don’t let the jerks define your image of any group as a whole.
WRITERS & READERS: Think about a book you feel is absolutely perfect. Maybe something you first read a long time ago, and when you read it again every few years, it’s like putting on an old pair of slippers and curling up on a couch with rain pattering the windows. It is like sitting down with old friends. Know with absolute confidence that somebody hates that windy, pretentious, steaming pile of a friggin’ book.
Now look at whatever belletristic fiasco presently has a stranglehold on the top of the bestseller charts, and know with certainty that a lot of people read and enjoyed it, and are happy they did. It was, for them, a perfectly good escape for a few hours from the humdrum, workaday world. And there is nothing wrong with that.
I believe that writers who are serious about writing, and reviewers who are serious about reviewing, share one major thing in common. We all love books. Sure, there are some people on either side of the equation who are under the mistaken impression that writing a book is some sort of get-rich-quick-scheme, or who just like to review other people’s work for the same reason some monkeys like to throw their own feces at other monkeys. And to both those sets of people, I say: “You are a bunch of nerf herders.”
To the rest of us, I would hazard to guess that we are a lot more alike than we are different. If we can’t agree on what the best or worst book ever written was, so the hell what? We all know that looking for that best book ever is more than worth the effort, right? Whether we are looking on the shelves, or looking in that empty notebook we keep by the bed.
Peace, brothers and sisters of the Written Word.
You know, instead of ending with a depressing one-star review of a literary classic, today I’d like to run an actual, real live five-star review of a new modern classic by a real reader.
“I have to say I really loved this book! Fist pumps for Snooki! She is really a good author I hope she makes some more fiction books.”
A Shore Thing by Snooki
M. Edward McNally is the author of the Norothian Cycle books: The Sable City, Death of a Kingdom, and The Wind from Miilark, and multiple free short story volumes titled Eddie’s Shorts. He has been writing for twenty of the last thirty years and does not recommend the ten year spell of writer’s block in the middle. Ed is a contributor at Indies Unlimited (IU Bio Page) and tilts at his own windmills over at http://sablecity.wordpress.com/