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Thursday, 19 September 2013

Reviewing the Reviewers?

What are reviews to you, as a writer, as a reader? Do they influence what you write, what you read?
As a writer, in particular, do some remarks from reviews of your work stay with you? Do they haunt or taunt, or do they inspire and motivate you?

I recently came across a feature on a site I use daily, but visit only rarely. (A contradiction? Not really, the site, Booktrakr, provides me with daily stats on book sales, but I visit it occasionally to update my info.) I hadn’t been aware that they not only collect sales data but also reproduce all the reviews that appear on the sites where they gather their information. As a result, I was able to see reviews of my work that had previously passed me by. By the way, if you’re a published author, you might like to try the site. It’s still in beta, and there are still a few odd glitches, but they’re improving their data all the time. It was through this website that I discovered one of my books had suddenly jumped up the lists to appear in a couple of top 100 lists.

Back to the matter in hand. I read these reviews and realised that readers approach books from very personal angles. One, in particular, stuck out. The book had received a large number of 5 star reviews, with most of the readers completely ‘getting’ the story, the themes and the approach. One, however, awarded a 2 star review but added the codicil that she’d enjoyed all aspects of the story but one. There’s a graphic scene in the novel, describing a savage rape. It’s there for a very specific purpose and is deliberately as far away from erotic as it can be. All other reviewers understood the purpose of the scene and that it wasn’t intended to be erotic. But this reviewer criticised the inclusion, saying that rape is not erotic. Well, yes. Obviously. So, this one reader had missed that point entirely.

As a writer, it would be very easy to get hung up on such a point: had I written it in a way that was ambiguous? Well, no. The other reviews showed it had been understood for what it was. But it is too easy for us to take such things personally. All readers come to books with their own set of experiences, their past, their nurturing and their natures. We all know that it’s impossible, and indeed undesirable, to please all of the people all of the time, of course. But I’ve talked with writers who would take such criticism to heart. In fact, some very promising writers, sensitive and gentle souls with something important to say and the talent to say it well, have actually given up writing as a result of some critical point that they’ve taken personally.

What I’m trying to stress here is that a review is a comment on the work, not on the author. Reviewers doesn’t know the author, they only know the work, and they see that through their own particular filters. It’s inevitable that a writer will attract adverse comment. There is no way to avoid it. Some would say that a piece of work that fails to attract dissent is not doing its job properly. And, of course, we all understand that there are trolls out there whose only purpose in life is to vent their frustration and their inability to communicate effectively by making personal insults. Such irrational and cheap remarks can only be ignored. But the comments from a thoughtful reviewer have the potential to alter a writer’s view of his work.

I’d never expect a reviewer to alter their opinion and I certainly wouldn’t get involved in a slanging match with anyone who had something adverse to say about my work. It’s utterly non-productive and makes the writer look both foolish and desperate. So, I’d advise writers simply to accept that there will be some negative opinions of your work. Some will be due to mistaken impressions, some will be formed from points of view that oppose your own, some will reflect the experiences of the reviewer and some will be true, of course. Provided the balance is in favour, and positive, there’s little point in allowing it to influence you. Obviously, if the majority opinion is negative in a specific way, it might be worth examining the piece anew. But, in general, take what you can from every point of view and then get on with your writing, in your voice. That’s why you write, isn’t it? To express your opinion, to show the world as it is through your eyes?

So, don’t blame the reviewers. Accept what they say, or make sure you never read your reviews if you’re unable to take them for what they are: the view of that piece of work by that reviewer; no more, no less.

And, whilst I’m on this topic, let me use the opportunity to thank all those who have reviewed my books. I truly appreciate your comments and the time and effort you make to let others know your thoughts.

Oh, and if you're interested, many of the reviews of my work are listed with the books under the tab above, labelled 'Published Work'.
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