Oh, man. I hardly know where to start.
I’ve been thinking about this post for about a week now, and still don’t know what exactly I’m going to say. I’m just trying to make sense of some things, basically. So forgive me if this is a tad rambly.
The thing is, I’ve been involved in the online writing/reading community since 2005 now. And in that time things have gotten–in my view, at least–more and more antagonistic and upsetting. I wonder why. This post–this series of posts planned for this week–is my attempt to figure it out, I guess. To express my thoughts and see what yours are, and perhaps to offer a potential solution. And in order to do that I’m going to be very honest, and perhaps harsh in some places, but I’m trying to express my full thought process here. So we’ll see how it goes.
In the past nine days or so the internet–at least the writer/reader part of it–seems to have gone kablooey. Specifically, the writer part of it, in that we’ve had a rash of writers deciding it’s their place to tell readers A) How to review books; B) What is and is not okay to say or think; C) Why their opinion is totally wrong; and D) whatever other ridiculous shit they come up with.
I’m aware of five separate incidents, the latest being a self-published author who, in response to a reasoned but negative review, took it upon himself to leave 40 comments–yes, forty–on the blog quoting the fawning letters he’d received about the book from family and friends. And then many more comments insisting that what he did was totally professional and reasonable and why is the reviewer in question so full of hate, yo? And that’s nothing compared to the others, the writers ranting on their blogs and leaving nasty or argumentative comments on Goodreads and blah blah blah.
Guys…cut it out. Just, seriously, cut it out.
Readers have the right to say whatever the fuck they want about a book. Period. They have that right. If they hate the book because the MC says the word “delicious” and the reader believes it’s the Devil’s word and only evil people use it, they can shout from the rooftops “This book is shit and don’t read it” if they want. If they want to write a review entirely about how much they hate the cover, they can if they want. If they want to make their review all about how their dog Foot Foot especially loved to pee on that particular book, they can.
Because, and I’ve said this before, reviews are for readers. Because they purchased the book (or it was sent to them specifically hoping they would express an opinion) and so can say whatever they want about it. If you buy a shirt that falls apart in the wash, do you keep your mouth shut about it because you don’t want to hurt the manufacturer’s feelings?
Authors, reviews are not for you. They are not for you. Authors, reviews are not for you.
This is why I get so annoyed when I see authors banging on about “constructive” reviews. Constructive how? What are you going to do, ask your publisher to pull the book so you can go back and rewrite it to suit Doris in New York who thought the MC was an idiot? Or because Amy in California didn’t understand the solution to the mystery? (Note: I pulled those names out of my ass; they do not refer to or allude to any actual readers or reviews.) Really? A review is one person’s opinion. One person. One. What exactly do you hope to learn from that one opinion that will make such a huge difference? What do you think you’ll learn from any review, except what that particular person thinks about the book? Reviews are not critiques and they are not written for you, and reviews are completely subjective.
And dude, if you think it’s possible to write a book everyone will love, I question your understanding of human nature and thus your ability to write a decent character. I have to be honest, when I see a writer talking about “constructive” reviews I generally assume that writer is a beginner and either hasn’t been published for long or has been published with micropresses.
That’s the same way I feel about authors who attempt to game Amazon reviews. Well, no, actually it isn’t. I think authors who read their reviews looking for writing tips are amateurish. I think writers who attempt to game Amazon reviews, by begging family and/or friends to leave them (positive; they claim they want honest reviews but they’re asking family and friends so really, what they want and expect are positive reviews; one of the recent very minor not-really-public kerfuffles I’m aware of was over this very situation) or by asking family/friends to place “Most/Least Helpful” votes in an attempt to move the positive reviews up–which, BTW, is in fact trying to dick around with the system no matter what some people might think…those writers?
Those writers are cheats, plain and simple. They’re sleazeballs. They’re liars. They’re attempting to deceive readers, to trick them into thinking their book has an enthusiastic audience it has not actually earned and a proven level of quality it may not actually have. They’re attempting to trick readers into buying the book based on falsehoods; this is perhaps not quite the same as the PA author who stuck the Grand Central logo onto her book in an attempt to make people think she was legitimately published, but it’s in the same ballpark. I’m sorry, but lying to readers and trying to trick them into buying your book is wrong. It’s sleazy and it’s wrong, and you are unethical and unprofessional for doing it, and you make me angry.
Why do you make me angry? Because when you lie and cheat and deceive, you cast doubt on all of us who do not lie, cheat, and deceive. I’ve heard more than one reader now claim that if a book’s reviews are too positive overall–too high a proportion of 5-star reviews–that reader automatically assumes the reviews are false. In other words, your deception and dishonesty casts me in that same light and makes me look like a big faker. Yes, it’s upsetting that it may cost me book sales, but what’s more upsetting is that I’m guilty by association; I’m an author, so I must be cheating scum who thinks readers are pawns in my Success Game too. I don’t appreciate being guilty by association and I don’t appreciate being penalized because you think lying to people is a great way to promote yourself.
Full disclosure: Yes, not long after I gave BE A SEX-WRITING STRUMPET a new cover for Kindle, I mentioned here on the blog that if anyone who’d read the series or the book wanted to leave a review, positive, negative, or neutral, I’d be grateful. To me that’s a different thing, and here’s why: A) You guys are my readers. And as much as I feel very friendly and warm toward you and would love to help you out in some way if I can, you’re not really my personal friends, at least the majority of you aren’t, and you’re not my family. You have no personal stake in my happiness nor, I’d imagine, do you have any special desire to, and you certainly have zero obligation to. We have a sort of business-esque relationship. I know many of you care about me–I’m still overwhelmed by all the emails etc. I got after Stephen informed you all that I was in the hospital–and I care about you all as well, but it’s not like we know the details of each others’ lives or talk on the phone or whatever else. B) Because we’re not generally personal friends, I don’t know who you are. I don’t know your names or the names on your Amazon accounts; I have no way of checking to see if you personally reviewed me, so I don’t think the pressure is there. In addition, there’s C) which is that even those of you who comment regularly, so I know your names, are only a small percentage of the number of people who actually visit this blog on a daily basis. Less than 10% (ETA: actually, that was a misstatement: it’s less than 1% on average). So how in the world would I follow up with any of you, even if I were the sort of person to do so? Not to mention D) I said specifically it didn’t matter if the review was positive or not and I meant it. And E), which is that I didn’t offer any sort of prizes or incentives or anything else in an attempt to bribe anyone into leaving reviews.
To be honest, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with asking even given all of that, and I’m still not. But I’d been given so many positive comments from you all, and from people who don’t read regularly, that I figured it wouldn’t hurt to just mention it. And given that the book only has a dozen reviews at this point, I don’t think many if any of you felt pressured to leave a review. That’s wonderful, because I absolutely didn’t want to make you feel that way. I’m genuinely pleased that you didn’t feel pressured; I would have felt awful if you had.
The reason why I would have felt awful is because, again, you have no obligation to me at all. None. Zero. Zip. NO reader has ANY obligation to an author, whether it be to leave a review or to write a “constructive” one. I put out a product. You are consumers of that product. Since when does that mean you have to kiss my ass? Hey, I like Pop-Tarts and eat them a few times a year; since when does that mean I’m obligated to support Kellogg’s in any way except legally purchasing the Pop-Tarts before I eat them? I wasn’t aware that purchasing and consuming a product meant I was under some sort of fucking thrall in which I’m only allowed to either praise the Pop-Tart (which to be honest isn’t hard, especially the S’mores flavor) or, if I am going to criticize a flavor, offer a specific and detailed analysis as to why, phrased in as inoffensive and gentle a manner as possible so as not to upset the gentle people at Kellogg’s.
And you know what? If I hated Pop-Tarts and decided to go online and tell everyone how they smell like vomit and make me feel sick, that’s fine. Because I’m not under any obligation at all to like Pop-Tarts, or to keep silent about my dislike. Because I bought the product (and I don’t mean to imply here that only those who purchase an item can express an opinion about them, it’s just the easiest and shortest phrase; I could be just as negative about Pop-Tarts had I been given one to try at a friend’s house, although I do admit that I get a tad irked when I see people writing negative reviews for books they stole, but whatever; that’s just my personal feeling and not me claiming people who steal books aren’t allowed to leave reviews) I have completed the business transaction, and I am entitled to whatever reaction I choose.
I wonder often how many of the authors who whine about negative reviews and/or yammer on about how reviews should be “constructive” never have a bad word to say about, frex, a movie they watched and disliked? Do they make sure their review is “constructive” so the director and stars can learn something from it–do they actually assume the director and stars are reading their review? When they’re given bad food in a restaurant, are they careful to offer three positive comments for every negative one they make? (“The presentation is lovely and it smells wonderful, but I’m afraid the chicken is raw. Perhaps the chef could leave it on the grill for another five minutes in future. The sauce is great, though, and I’m sure it won’t give me salmonella even though it was in contact with the raw meat. Thanks for giving me the chance to try it!”) You know? If they believe readers are somehow obligated to remember the author’s feelings when leaving a review, how much do they do that when they consume products or entertainment they do not enjoy?
And don’t even get me started on the idea that readers should somehow be frightened or intimidated because authors are reading their reviews. Or actually, do, because I’ll move into that with the next post, because this one is getting a bit long.
But we’re not done with this topic. We’re not done talking about reviews, or expressing opinions, or the writer/reader relationship, or whatever else falls under those umbrellas.