Monday, December 7, 2009

And, in Review...

I had an exchange of opinions on Goodreads recently, over a review of my friend Karen Brooks' new book Tallow - and it's got me thinking.

Firstly, I'm not at all proud of my initial response to the review. Partly because I've always tried to maintain a strict policy on not commenting on books I've been involved in, and also because the reply I posted was snarky, pompous and more than a little unjustified. And the reviewer in question was nothing but gracious in reply, which she certainly didn't have to be.

It bought to mind this discussion over Adele's review of Wings some months ago. I also weighed briefly into that one, but not so stridently, this time in defense of the reviewer (and looking at it now, the antagonist of that particular discussion has deleted all his posts, which isn't overly helpful...)

All this has got me re-considering the whole notion of authors and reviewers, and the relationship between the two.

It's a vexed issue, obviously. For me at least, when I finally complete a book, I always try and have a moment where I very consciously 'let go' of the work; Usually when the first completed books arrive on the doorstep. I'll open the box, take out a book, leaf through it quickly, turn it over a couple of times, and then very carefully put it on the shelf with the first copies of all my others. At that point I'll think something along the lines of: "Okay. It's out there now, and there's nothing I can do about it, so there's no point caring." And from that moment on, I do my best to adopt an attitude that nothing which happens to that particular book - either good or bad - matters.

If it doesn't get shortlisted for an award? Doesn't matter. If it gets hammered by the reviewers, or not reviewed at all? Doesn't matter. If someone on Goodreads or Amazon etc... gives it a 1 star review and doesn't bother to explain why? Doesn't matter. For that matter, the corrolory also applies: if it does get shortlisted, or even wins an award - doesn't matter. (It's nice, of course, and always an honour, but in terms of my own opinion on the value of the book, and on the quality of the writing it just. Doesn't. Matter.)

In part, this is a defensive position to take - if it doesn't matter, it doesn't hurt. Given the enormous amount of both physical and emotional energy that goes into the writing of a 100,000 word novel, it's good to cautarise any potential scars before they occur.

In part, though, it's also pragmatic. Or logical, if you prefer. By the time I put a book out there, I know I've toiled over every single word in it. I know I've lain awake at nights unknotting problems in the plot and characters. I know that I've done everything within my power to make the book work for me. If it doesn't work for someone else, then at least I know that this wasn't for want of effort on my part. Therefore to a large extent, other people's opinions of the book just don't matter. Makes sense, really. If a book I've written gets pasted by a reviewer, it's not going to make me like that book any less, or regret the time and energy I put into it. Similarly, if it wins an award, it's not going to make me think that work is 'more worthy' than anything else I've written. (or, for that matter, anything else written by other people.)

When I do my little 'letting go' I remind myself of the fact that there are books I haven't liked. There are books I've hated with the passion of a thousand burning suns. Books I've failed to complete, despite the recommendations of people I respect.

I remind myself that this is what reading is all about. It's part of the deal you make with the reading public - and that as a writer you have to respect the right of readers to dislike your words, and to express that dislike, in whatever medium they so choose.

At the same time, it's also important for reviewers to separate the work from the creator in their reviews and most reviewers are very careful to do just this. It's also just as important for reviewers not to hold back, to be honest about the work, and to be specific in their objections or praise.

I remind myself that, just as writers owe it to their readers to 'let go' of the work, reviewers owe it to their readers to be honest. And again, most reviewers I know and respect are very careful to do this.

I remind myself that we live in the age of web 2.0, where opinion is everywhere, and where everyone has the opportunity to put their feelings on just about everything out there. Hell, here I sit, blogging away my opinions in what is, I realise, a horribly self-indulgent manner and medium. In a few moments, I'll hit the button at the bottom of the screen marked 'Publish Post' and in doing so, I'll accept all the responsibility that term implies

So I remind myself that I shouldn't be surprised when, every now and then, though, the guards slip down - often with no malice intended, and I remind myself that the battle lines between writers and reviewers can be quickly drawn. A wry observation here, an unprocessed sentence there, all sent out into the emotionless, text driven world of the internet and then - pow - the rules go out the window.

I remind myself about a couple of well known examples:

Earlier this year, writer Alice Hoffman had her say about a review of her most recent work.

And then there's the now infamous Anne Rice Meltdown on (You may need to scroll down to find the bump of this post. My understanding is that Anne Rice's identity as the author of the post was confirmed as authentic)

While my post over at Goodreads wasn't me springing to the defence of one of my own books (I haven't gotten to that point yet, touch wood) it has nevertheless made me reflect upon the position that authors are expected to take in regard to open forums like Goodreads and Amazon. Certainly, the best and safest response is to say nothing at all, and to respect the rights of people to express thier opinions. After all - when you put something out in the public eye, you have to accept that it's now open to criticism.

That's why I adopt my 'letting go' policy and remind myself that 'it doesn't matter.'

Except, of course, it does. Always. Deep down inside, there's always a tiny little bit of you that wants everyone to love your story just as much as you do. That wants people to know how much of your mental energy this thing absorbed. That wants people to acknowledge that just the simple act of writing down a story of any type is an achievement in and of itself. Even if it's badly done. Even if it has sparkly vampires in it.

For most writers, for most of the time, it's easy to keep this little bit of you down there. Pushed aside and disregarded, or perhaps occasionally bought out to play in the company of other writers after a glass or two of something red. Every now and then, though, it gets off its leash, and the results are never good.

Never good, but understandable, I think.

So thanks, Paulette, for your very measured and gracious response to my unnecessarily snippy comments. And for your very thoughtful revision of your review.

Because it does matter. Really.

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