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Being A Writer And A Reader On the Internet

So, I love reading books. This is probably not going to come as a huge shock to anyone. I also love writing books. Again... not breaking news...

Recently on the internet, I saw someone being skeptical about my online book reviews (I also write non-online book reviews, but that is neither here nor there, as this post is about the internet!), because they were always positive. Said person, obviously not a fan of mine, so probably does not read this journal! However, if there are fans of mine who have occasionally thought along the same lines, here is this post which - among many other things - explains my reviewing ways.

Like any other person who reads a ton of books, I hate many, many books. Oh, how I hate them. I have performed dramatic readings of the books I hate. I have little hate summaries. I have hate impressions. I can act out, scene by hateful scene, some of these books. I can perform silent hate charades.

And in the past, I have reviewed a couple of books I hate. And then I would always feel crappy afterwards.

And I would wonder why. After all, I hated them! It was a public service to warn people off them!

This is why. One is that I am sort of terrible at reviewing things I hate. I am not reasonable about it. I do not add 'Oh, but despite my loathing for the subject matter, the prose was excellent' or 'Still, the idea of a dragon in love with a tree is an intriguing one.' And I feel that, especially since hate reviews are the most popular ones, because people love to see people hating on stuff, nobody is sure why but it is fascinating! - I feel it's important to be able to write a hate review as close to objectively as you can, explaining why and wherefore, and not only getting your cruel mock on.

I get my cruel mock on. I'm not fair. And generally, I wish to be fair.

There is a second why, and it is as follows. There are many sayings about this. 'If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.' 'Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.'

I'm a writer. And, uh, I read my reviews.

I have a dark addiction to reviews. I will earnestly and systematically google my own name. I will icerocket it. I will comb through the internet searching to find what people have to say about my books. I will go on amazon. I will go on goodreads, which is a place where evil never sleeps and people can give you one-star reviews without explaining themselves (!!! If I only knew why!!!)

My friends have tried to stop me. My friends have sent emails that simply say 'Get off icerocket and write your book.' At which point I cradle my laptop to my chest and look around warily. How do they know, I wonder to myself? Are there spy cameras about? Are they watching me?

They know because I am always at it.

Now, this has its pluses. I have found people doing live readings of my book online, and found gorgeous art, and thoughtful essays on characters and relationships. All that has been awesome!

But as every writer knows, somewhere in the world there are people who think your writing really sucks. So there is that to cope with.

Books are deeply subjective things: maybe the most subjective form of entertainment, since you have to get your readers to be complicit with you: you have to get them to visualise their versions of your characters and your setting. Kate Elliott has written here about Authorial Intent - writers know some of what they're trying to do... sometimes, but they don't know what the reader will see. Every reader will see something different. Nobody reads the same book.

I was discussing on twitter the interpretations people have had of my books, and it holds good with most books. 'The Eternal Love Tale of Any Character With Any Other Character' is a popular interpretation for many! But there are a zillion.

I like to think of a book as one of those Russian nesting dolls, with an infinite number of dolls/books inside. Sometimes people will discuss a doll and you'll be like 'Wow, I had no idea that doll was in there, but I guess you're right!' (A lovely lady in Portland who talked to me about the religious stuff in my book would be a good example of same.) Sometimes people will discuss a doll and you'll be like 'No! The doll's not there! I don't see any doll and I hate your imaginary doll!'

Sometimes you'll be right: sometimes they will be. Sometimes you'll never know.

And the bad reviews, well, you carry them around with you, like a devil on your shoulder occasionally jabbing you under the ear with a tiny pitchfork.

'Isn't it helpful to read criticism?' one might say.

To which the answer is: occasionally!

But you know, not that often. Because the thing is, reviews contradict each other. I've read one review that says 'far too fast paced, never gives you time to enjoy world and characters' and then directly after another that says 'drags on and on for EVER.' I've read reviews that say 'Would be PERFECT, if she'd just cut This One Character' - and This One Character has been, by turns, almost every character in my books.

Also by the time people read it, the book is done, and you can't fix it now.

Sometimes, a review will point out a flaw in your writing that you can fix for the future! And sometimes, after several months of fuming about it, you will realise the reviewer had a point and you will fix it in the future.

But usually not. Usually, reviews are for readers, and not writers. They're (mostly) to let someone know if they might want to read something, rather than to let writers know what they're doing wrong.

So what to do if you're a writer who is addicted to reviews, both writing your own and reading other people's reviews of both your own books and others?

Well, I start with only reviewing books I really, really like, or books I love. The books I hate? No. The books I'm 'meh' about? Also no. And sometimes I don't review books that I do love, because I forget or I don't have time. (Another good reason not to review books I hate: no time, and I already wasted all that time reading them!)

But does this mean that nobody in the world should write negative reviews? No - I think people should. And this is lucky, because people will whether I think they should or not.

The first book review site I ever followed regularly, and still one of my favourites today, is Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Often they write scathing reviews! But a) they are not wimpy writers such as myself who waste many hours fuming and fretting about their own reviews and b) they write them well - there's always substance there, as well as getting one's mock on. And they raise serious issues about books. I for one am very grateful to be warned off any book containing sexism, racism or homophobia! And I appreciate being given examples from the book containing such things, so I can make up my own mind.

So, reviews of books on the internet are awesome things. Negative reviews of books on the internet are also awesome things, though they should not be written by me!

But I believe I have made clear that the negative reviews, they do not leave me precisely stoic and unmoved. I do not sit beholding negative reviews of my books like Patience on a Monument, Smiling At Grief.

So if I don't want to stop reading all my reviews (and maybe someday I will. Someday. Someday. I can give it up any time I like. Just one last trip to goodreads...) what do I do?

I remember reading some advice about responding to reviews that struck me as so excellent I still recall it vividly, four years later. And since I did recall it so vividly, I went and googled for it, so you could all enjoy John Scalzi's Deliver Me From Temptation, Temptation Being Amazon.

His advice is basically to coat your hands with honey and feed them to bears before responding to a review.

On the whole, I agree with him.

'But this is different!' I hear my own past self cry. 'I wouldn't respond to an amazon review! Or a goodreads review! But on someone's blog...'

No, alas no, no, and also no.

But what if you are a reasonable, completely objective human being who can read a review, absorb the valid and relevant criticism, thank someone for it with all your heart, and move on? Well, you know, in that case go right ahead.

The thing is, very few of us are objective all the time. Even fewer of us are objective about the imaginary people we have spent months or years of our lives working on, which is on the face of it a pretty subjective thing to do. Even fewer of us are able to be objective after you, your editor and your critique partners have spent months or years tearing said imaginary stuff to shreds and reassembling it trying to make it the best it can be, thus leaving you sort of limp and murmuring 'no more... please no more...'

And yet it is so easy to believe you are objective when you are in fact gripped by rage at the unfairness of it all and thus anxious to correct this person's mistakes! In a fair and unbiased way!

Responding to reviews is a natural, human urge. And it isn't going to wreck your career or anything.

But I do believe it is usually a bad idea.

And I believe this because, O reader, I have done it. I do not speak to you from a place of lofty, theoretical reasoning. I speak to you from a place where I have seen reviews, and had red lights flash on and off before my eyes.

Sometimes I had kind friends to stop me. Sometimes I had the presence of mind to slam shut my laptop, narrowly avoiding trapping my fingers, and go for a walk or a snack.

Sometimes, I have responded. In every single case, I have regretted it later. (Yes there has been more than one don't look at me like that.)

As I believe I've mentioned already, objectivity is hard. And nobody knows that you've resisted replying to a hundred reviews, but at the hundred and first you snapped. (But you have all my sympathy - one day someone's going to make the millionth and first comparison of my books to the TV show Supernatural, and I don't know what I will do next but there is a possibility I will go to prison for it.) People just know what you said that one time.

There are always going to be ways you mess up, even if you do manage not to respond to reviews. Several months ago a person wrote a review of my second book that said if I'd been a better writer, I would have stopped with my first. (On the whole, I know my second book is liked more than my first, so no need to comment in defence of either!) She emailed me a day or so after I'd read the review. I do not clearly remember my emails back, and I am not looking back at them either, because shame. I didn't say 'OMG my book is awesome!!! you're so wrong,' obviously, but I did have the words of her review dancing before my eyes as I typed, and I am sure the emails were blundering and dumb. Eventually I had sense enough to be like 'This is hurting my delicate feelings, I must be out' and hopefully she doesn't think I am dreadful. Maybe she does, of course!

Something anyone who's spent any length of time on the internet knows: somewhere on the internet, there are people who think you suck, and they have a reason for it.

I have seen writers be mocked for responding to reviews, many times, and I understand why! (I have also seen people say 'Why don't writers engage with reviews!' and been like 'Because 186 million cases of writers doing so and it not ending well, is why.') I have also seen people mocking writers for responding to reviews of books they didn't write, as if when you become a writer you lose the right to have an opinion and also they take away your internet. (Anyone who has known me for five minutes knows both these things are emphatically not the case...) Sometimes it's okay for a writer to have an opinion on books, but only if they don't know the other author. (Which on one hand - fair enough, because it is a complicating factor! But on the other hand, if I ever meet Megan Whalen Turner, Diana Wynne Jones or Robin McKinley, I am not going to flee from them screaming over my shoulder 'Sorry we can't talk I love your books tooooooo much goodbyeeeeee foreeeeeeeveeeeer!')

Sometimes, people will hurt your delicate feelings. Sometimes, you'll hurt theirs. And it's important to find the way to deal with things that will suit you and your delicate feelings the best, and accept that still mistakes will be made.

In my case and for the reasons I've outlined, the way to deal is only reviewing books I have loved or really liked, and not responding to reviews if I can possibly stop myself/there is a bear handy.

Some writers respond to reviews, and do it well. Some writers write reviews of books they hate, and do it well: many more don't write reviews at all, though they have zillions of opinions about the books they read! Some writers never ever read their own reviews, but spend time checking amazon numbers and doing success equations based on them, or checking the sales numbers of their own and other books. This I could never do. I am too bad at maths.

You find your own balance, as a writer, reader, reviewer or all three. But I thought I might share some thoughts on the subject with you guys, and hear your thoughts on my thoughts! (Which is another thing I couldn't do without the internet.)

Being a writer on the internet is a tricky thing. Being a writer and a reader on the internet is a trickier one. But there are people who have told me they read the books I blogged about loving, because I loved them, and they loved them too. And I have had emails and livejournal comments and facebook comments from people who read my books, and loved them, and I was able to talk to those people about my books in a way that before the internet nobody could've dreamed of doing.

It's possible Jane Austen would have really liked to have a blog. (I feel she could've got her mock on about books she disliked excellently.) And I get to have one. That is, no other word for it, cool. Even if it is complicated.

Comments

( 139 comments — Leave a comment )
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dubonnetcherry
Aug. 30th, 2010 12:00 pm (UTC)
[23:57] alice: i want to hug her. no one deserves to have their books compared to spn.
[23:58] delemelia: i am going to comment to her post and tell her you said so.



(additionally, this was a good post that was good to read.)
sarahtales
Aug. 30th, 2010 12:06 pm (UTC)
*amused* I have several smart friends who love SPN, I do not mean to bag on it! But I'm not a fan myself, and have heard about it in relation to my poor books times infinity enough. ;)
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azurelunatic
Aug. 30th, 2010 12:05 pm (UTC)
Some writers read reviews everywhere else, but banish people from their sight with flame and bees if that person dares to say "Someone said something on Amazon..."
sarahtales
Aug. 30th, 2010 12:08 pm (UTC)
It's a balance! I go for months at a time sworn off goodreads.

But then I weaken. Oh, I'm so weak. 'SRB Is So Weak' might as well be the title of this post...
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wavesofwood
Aug. 30th, 2010 12:16 pm (UTC)
You are wonderful for the Twelfth Night reference alone, as well as your general loveliness and Clever Things That You Said.
mizkit
Aug. 30th, 2010 12:18 pm (UTC)
I do not read my reviews. I also do not hang obsessively at Amazon watching the numbers twitch up or down. I do not understand either behavior, really, because honestly, aren't writers neurotic enough *without* doing that sort of thing?

And are we going to have coffee, or are you AVOIDING ME ENTIRELY now that I live in Dublin? :)
sarahtales
Aug. 30th, 2010 12:25 pm (UTC)
We are GOING FOR COFFEE. Name a time! But I may also throw sugar packets at you for being so sane. *mumblemumble* showing the rest of us up *mumblemumble*
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thegreatmissjj
Aug. 30th, 2010 12:19 pm (UTC)
Great post, Sarah. Maintaining objectivity is indeed hard! I also only review books I like/love, although I will occasionally break that rule and review books that make me react strongly. (But I try not to name names. Most of those "strong reaction" posts are a bit more general "I dislike this in my books!" rather than specific reviews)

It's hard when you wear two hats. In your case, you cannot be a writer AND a reviewer without losing some integrity. (Not because you are not an upstanding person of honor! It's just...people perceive things differently about writers being in a writers club, I think.) I cannot work in publishing AND be a reviewer without losing some credibility. In one instance, I reviewed a book of ours on Goodreads that was less than gushing and then had to rethink it. (It wasn't a bad review! But it wasn't a glowing one either.)

I like to give objective criticism to even my most beloved books (my initial emotional reaction to MOCKINGJAY was !!..........) because I tend to distrust glowing reviews. Everyone has a little bone to pick. But maybe that's cynical of me.

Also, this applies to editing as well as reviewing--it's hard to write about something you're only indifferent to. :)
sarahtales
Aug. 30th, 2010 12:27 pm (UTC)
Oh, editing I imagine so - I can squiggle about with the work of my critique partners, because I love their writing, and I want to get into it and help, but trying to fix a book I was indifferent to would be like ploughing swampland.
sirael
Aug. 30th, 2010 12:25 pm (UTC)
Hrm. I am a little surprised by this upset person. Upon seeing a beautiful treasure trove of book recommendations that are well-thought-out, very genre-applicable, and entertaining, they say "No, no. Please. I need more hate on my internets."

I definitely would understand were they afraid of racism, sexism, or homophobia (like you mentioned getting warnings for) but these obviously are not those... While I too enjoy trashing books that are bad, because, uhm, human, it's nice to have a little safe haven of happy book-lovin' on the internet. If they really need to know about how awful and poorly written someone thinks book ABC is, they can find it online somewhere.

I know that personally, I've adored your book reviews. When I was stocking up my nook for a long European trip (alas! No physical books, or I would probably make the plane fall out of the air), the first place I looked for good things to gnaw on was your book recommendation tag. And I thoroughly enjoyed them all, and flat out loved quite a few.
sarahtales
Aug. 30th, 2010 12:34 pm (UTC)
I think they thought I was pretending to like said books. Which I would never do, but if I did, very understandable to be upset about it.

Oh, I'm pleased you liked them! Though speaking of genre-applicable, you remind me I have been meaning to write a mysteries-recommendations post for, uh. *coughs* Two years.
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coffeecocktails
Aug. 30th, 2010 12:28 pm (UTC)

This post is awesome and true. As, for what it's worth, are your books.

<3
(Deleted comment)
sarahtales
Aug. 30th, 2010 12:31 pm (UTC)
Re: I slightly disagree
Even that, I know some people have reacted with 'Whoa, writer! What is it doing here running loose!' It is again tricky. I have decided not to comment on many reviews of my book by people who know perfectly well I read their blogs. Everyone has to go with what's best for them.
kilerkki
Aug. 30th, 2010 12:33 pm (UTC)
As a reader of your blog (and your books) I am totally, totally ok with you only reviewing books you like. Because when I read your book reviews, I am reading them as recommendations. That is, You (a smart, funny person whom I think I would rather like in real life, and would definitely trust as a friend to borrow books from and lend them to) are telling Me (a reader who's not very in tune with what's going on in YA fantasy, but really likes to read it when she gets a chance) what's new and what's good. Therefore I don't have to even bother with the books that make you rant, because I'm picking up and wildly enjoying the good ones instead.

(Of course it's another matter entirely when I pass on the recommendation to my roommate, who has very different tastes, but I reckon that's her loss.)
sarahtales
Aug. 30th, 2010 12:36 pm (UTC)
The sad thing about the internet is that I cannot calibrate my views to a certain person's taste, which is what I do with my friends on my endless quest to bookpush at the world...
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blamebrampton
Aug. 30th, 2010 12:41 pm (UTC)
My first in-house job on a magazine was as literary editor of a monthly with a readership of about one million people. I had to scare up two features, two pages of long reviews and a page of short each month, and was in heaven.

My first month, I delivered my copy to the editor in chief, who bounced one of my reviews. I was, obviously, completely mature about the whole thing. She smiled at my attempts to not be cranky, and then told me A Great Truth.

Most people read reviews to find things to read. Bad reviews just waste column inches for the most part, because they are very rarely more funny than they are unhelpful.

That said, reviews that contain some critical points are, to my mind, perfectly reasonable. There are thousands of reasons I believe this, not least of which is that the art of criticism is a discrete literary practice that I enjoy both as a producer and a consumer. But the main one is that sometimes you can talk another reader through the less perfect aspects of a book and let them see that something they thought was huge was in fact minor. Good criticism can be like relationship counselling in that way.

As to people on the internet whose mission in life is to point out your suckitude, in the broad church of literary interactions, they are the Westboro Baptists and should be treated accordingly.
karenhealey
Aug. 30th, 2010 12:48 pm (UTC)
CAN YOU IMAGINE if Sei Shonagon had a blog? Like, I think she was the world's first blogger anyway.

But she and Jane Austen would either be lolarious buddies or FLAMEWAR NEMESES.

Either way, awesome.
vito_excalibur
Aug. 30th, 2010 03:03 pm (UTC)
Well, thank you for making my entire day. >:D
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+1000 points for obscure reference - zumie_ashlen - Aug. 30th, 2010 05:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: +1000 points for obscure reference - karenhealey - Aug. 30th, 2010 07:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
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ficliously
Aug. 30th, 2010 01:04 pm (UTC)
The internet, it is so complicated. Wonderful and wretched.
rockinlibrarian
Aug. 30th, 2010 01:08 pm (UTC)
I can see having to balance good and bad reviews if you are a professional reviewer. I can see doing it if you are being sent a huge pile of ARCs that people EXPECT you to review. I DEFINITELY see the point of being TRUTHFUL about reviews, and not writing all glowing positive things for a book you weren't really into. But what you do? You give recommendations. That's what I do too, when I ever get around to writing up books online. As a librarian I feel it's my duty NOT to trash books. My duty is just to get the GOOD books into the hands of those who will enjoy it. The books I don't like can just sit there on the off-chance someone who DOES like it will stumble upon it.

And I am ETERNALLY ETERNALLY grateful to you for introducing me to Diana Wynne Jones. Um, her books. If either of us ever meets her personally, then we can talk about actually meeting her.

I have seen authors respond to reviews when the reviewer asks a question about the book, even phrased something like "One thing I don't get about this book is...." Even then I admit I feel slightly embarrassed for all involved, even if it was nothing scathing. I have-- I'm at a totally not-going-anywhere place in my own writing, but SHOULD I ever get something published, I'm almost afraid of suddenly seeing my book reviewed on one of the blogs I frequent. I might not be able to live with myself if I were to discover that, say, Betsy Bird hates my book. But other random reviewers who hate my book I think I can handle better. Should, you know, the need ever come up.
madhatterpan
Aug. 30th, 2010 01:30 pm (UTC)
...I wonder how bizarre it is that I have Googled up book reviews about your books. But I like doing that with books I have already read! To see what others have said and potentially engage them in discussion (because, zomg, book needs conversing about, it is all I can think of! I CAN GO ONLINE AND FIND PEOPLE. Score one for the internet). But I'm in a safe happy place where I can do this. I also rarely read book reviews before reading a book. I like starting out totally blank! No back blurbs for me. But if I see a book being reviewed often, then I take the hint and check it out.

I've actually been getting the feel of the publisher's side when it comes to reviews due a publicity internship I had. We tossed free books around like candy and worked quite hard to earn reviews. (Except, as one publicist put it, even a bad review is publicity! So, uh. Yep.) And they even had me do a guest blog post! Where I giddily wrote about all of the Irish writers I adore...because we have a book about Ireland coming out.
richyisrichy
Aug. 30th, 2010 02:19 pm (UTC)
You should most defiantly reead Jean Kerrs's "The Secret to Coping With Bad Notice: or What to Do Until the Psychiatrist Comes"

She's a playwright (mostly) and she once wrote a comedic article(? I'm no sure how to classify it) about what it's like to get bad a mixed notices for plays, books, etc. She's a very good author. Check out "Penny Candy" and "The Snake Has All the Lines". I enjoy them very much, and it's quite an accomplishment for a 16 year old girl to enjoy the laments of being a writer, a stay at home mom, and a mother of 6 children (5 of which are boys!)
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