Posts Tagged ‘Bad Reviews’

So, there’s been some talk on the internets today about the YA Mafia: specifically, about whether or not it exists, and what people think it could be (or is) regardless. Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier have both weighed in, and there’s also a hashtag discussion happening on Twitter. The term has been coined by book bloggers – a significant number of whom are aspirant writers – who fear that writing negative reviews will see them put on a publishing blacklist at the recommendation of disgruntled authors. Regardless of anything else, it does appear that some bloggers genuinely have had their careers threatened in this way, and while this is truly awful, both Black and Larbalestier are right when they point out how little influence authors really wield. No matter how successful we are, or how much smack an indignant few might talk, none of us hold so much sway with our publishers or agencies that we could get them to ignore a great submission on the basis of not liking the person who wrote it. Really!

That being said, the fact that such fear is groundless doesn’t mean it’s irrational. It makes sense to want to try and stay onside with the people whose community you want to join, and given how labyrinthine and impenetrable the publishing industry looks from the outside, the fear of being judged on the basis of anything other than your writing skills is an understandable one. Superstition has always thrived among sailors because the ocean is large, mercurial and remains, even for the most seasoned captain, beyond individual control: and this is just as true of writers and the publishing industry. Sending a book out into the world is one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done, and even now that my first novel is on shelves, I still maintain the ritual of kissing each manuscript three times before posting it to the publisher. As for the social aspect of mafias everywhere, I’ve said before that, when you’re on the outside looking in, it really does feel like all the most awesome people know each other already, like they’re constantly having rad sleepovers and drinking schnapps and telling wicked jokes, and all you can do is sit there and feel paralysed by the injustice of not being allowed to join in just because your book hasn’t been published yet, but how can it ever get published when the awesome people don’t even know your name, and so on until you’re reduced to assuming the foetal position around a cask of Fruity Lexia while whimpering the lyrics to Beautiful.

Or maybe that’s just me.

The point being, writing bad reviews will not get you blacklisted. But the question of when and how to write bad – or rather, critical – reviews is something I think about constantly, because while I’ve never been an official book blogger, I’ve always enjoyed reviewing books and films. Certainly, I’ve never shied away from making my views public, but ever since becoming a published author, I no longer write book reviews on my personal blog unless they’re amazingly positive – though as a glance at the archives will prove, I’m still more than happy to go to town on obnoxious Hollywood cinema. The thing is, while 99% of all authors understand that disliking a book is not the same thing as disliking them, these are still people I’d like to meet at some point, and should that day come, I don’t want them to think of me as That Chick Who Hated My Book. This wouldn’t be an issue if I refrained from writing book reviews altogether, or if I confined myself to writing only positive ones, or if I kept the negative ones off the internet. Lots of authors go down all these roads, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.

But I don’t like the feeling of self-censorship which, for me, accompanies those options. My opinions haven’t changed. I’ve always posted reviews online. It’s not as if I criticise for the sake of it, or write snark for laughs. I review as a response to stories, as a way of helping put my thoughts in order to better understand them, and I like having those discussions where other people can join in, because that way, I learn even more. As a published author, I’m very aware of the fact that whatever I write is fair game for critics, and as a member of a writing group, I also know that I can be friends with other writers regardless of how harshly we might critique each other’s work. So why, then, do I hesitate to put negative reviews on my blog?

In the end, I suppose it comes down to professional courtesy: if another writer Googles me, this blog is the first thing they’ll find, and I’d rather it made a good impression. And so, by way of compromise, I now put all my reviews – both positive and negative – on Goodreads, which feels like a much more appropriate place for them. In fact, it’s given me the confidence to start reviewing more frequently than I did before, because I don’t have to worry about a piece being too short or poorly summarised before I get to the meat of things. That’s obviously not an option for someone working as a dedicated book blogger, but as an example, it hopefully highlights the legitimate balancing act of reviewing the output of a community to which you either aspire or belong.

And as for those authors whose threatening actions have sparked this conversation in the first place: grow up and get over it. Not everyone has to like your work, and it’s far more constructive to try and learn from criticism than flail about at the fact that it exists. No author in the history of ever has managed to avoid receiving negative reviews – so why should you be any different?

Internets, I have a confession to make: I have become deeply addicted to Goodreads.

At first, it was just little things, like compulsively updating my reading progress, checking to see how Solace & Grief was doing and compiling a vast, improbable list of novels I haven’t yet read, but want to. Then I started adding people as friends – complete strangers, most of them, and yet there was a vicarious thrill every time I perused their reading choices, reviews and ratings. Still, I had managed to keep on the safe side of the boundary between interested and obsessed, until I started checking the site for updates with roughly the same frequency as I check my email, lingering on the homepage even when there was nothing new to see and trying to think of which books, which authors I might look up and read about. Now in the final, debilitating stages of true addiction, my main use of the site has expanded into what can only be described as a combination of schadenfreude and masochism: an active search for negative reviews of books I actually like.

Over and over, I ask myself why I’m doing this. What can I possibly gain? What is the attraction in hearing about the bad things complete strangers have to say about some of my favourite stories? Many times, I’ve told myself to stop. As an author myself, I should find no joy in seeing a good book ripped to pieces; certainly, seeing my own work criticised is far from fun. As will always be the case when enough pepople weigh in, some of the reviews I find are pure pejorative, absolutely devoid of critical merit and so deeply subjective as to be useless. Others are written sarcastically with entertainment value as their main purpose, in keeping with the principle that mockery is both easier and more enjoyable than explaining why something is good. I might laugh at some of these, especially if they’re well written, but I don’t particularly like myself for it. I do look for positive reviews, too, particularly of books on my TBR list, but overall, my fixation is on the negative.

But gradually, I’m starting to understand why.

For a while now, I’ve been a member of the (very excellent) SuperNOVA writers’ group in Melbourne. With the exception of a handful of creative writing workshops when I was still in school, it’s been my first real experience with constructive literary criticism, both as a recipient and a critic. The learning process has fascinated me, not only in terms of upping my own game, but with regard to how different people percieve different stories. Reading first in a critical vacuum as a child and then, as a teenager, in a context where recommendations were generally restricted to “read this because it’s awesome” – all within the one genre – it became easy to assume that I was, somehow, reading the right books, with the implication that there were also wrong books out there, and I was avoiding them. This didn’t mean I always loved the books my friends suggested, but as I’ve acknowledged elsewhere, it did encourage a weird conservatism in my outlook: that somehow, I had been lucky enough to stumble on the works of a finite number of authors whose books were worth reading, and that beyond their pages lay chaos.

Obviously, this was a stupid attitude and one which I’ve subsequently abandoned. But one of the consequences of all that endless, prejudicial rereading was a type of critical stagnation. By drawing everything I read from such a small pool and sharply restricting the influx of new blood, I was inbreeding my intellect. I knew what I liked – I had, after all, taken great pains to surround myself with it – but I didn’t really know why, because my basis for comparison was so small.

As a fledgeling writer, the one thing I’d always prided myself on was an ability to edit my own work. The hardest lesson I ever learned about writing, but one which I learned early, was that just because I’d written something – that it had taken time and effort – didn’t mean it was good, or unable to be improved upon. I abandoned hundreds of thousands of words in the name of self-improvement, whole drafts set aside because I knew I could do better. So when I realised how narrow my understanding of literary criticism really was, it completely upended everything I thought I’d known about my own style.

Which brings us back to my current obsession with Goodreads, and its oh-so-many negative reviews.

Because when a stranger lays out their problems with a favourite book,  I have to ask myself: can I understand their criticism? If so, does that negate my enjoyment of the book, or can I acknowledge that I liked the story despite its flaws? There is a sensation I often have when reading, like rowing across a rippling lake: the thought that, if I were seeking to be a more critical reader – if I wished to peer beneath the surface, rather than simply be carried – certain lines or plot points would bother me more. They’re the kind of thing I think about after the fact, because I don’t enjoy adversarial reading. The idea of pitting myself against a book, daring it to offend me, constantly on the lookout for problems, doesn’t appeal. Which isn’t to say that I’m never jerked out of a story, or that I’ve never persevered with a book through spite. We all have our own bugbears, particular things which, no matter our desire to cross the lake smoothly, will rear up and rock the boat. But I still like to think about the why of stories, and in this regard, the criticism of strangers can be invaluable, particularly when they involve a more detailed, thoughtful catalogue of things I chose to ignore, but nonetheless notice.

The other side of the coin is when I simply don’t agree; when the criticism offered fails to make sense. But even then, I still have to think about why I choose to disregard that opinion. Possibly there’s still a bit of schadenfreude in the equation, or masochism, or whatever. I’m only human. But with all the reading, reviewing and review-reading I’ve done this year, I feel as though I’ve come a long way towards a better understanding and apprecation of writing – not just with regard to the works of other people, but also of my own.