Sarah Rees Brennan (sarahtales) wrote,
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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.
Tags: book reviews, bookthoughts, essays, writing
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