Gloom and Doom, review-style

May 11th, 2007

Why do authors torment themselves by obsessing over negative reviews and ignoring the good ones? I do this, I know other authors who do it. We can get ten great reviews and one nasty comment by some wet git on its own, little-read web page — and be sure we’ve failed.

Yesterday I fell prey to this syndrome in a particularly stupid way. THE SPIRIT STONE was reviewed in PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, and yes, I know that many authors would kill for a PW review, just to begin with. The review of TSS was very positive, but — ah, it’s that “but” that’ll get you every time. It started with “After the disappointment of THE GOLD FALCON . . . ”

Now, have I been gloating over getting a good review of STONE in PW? Are you kidding? No, I’ve been obsessing over the fact that an unnamed reviewer made a gratuituous slap at its predecessor, which has been out and selling okay for a year. Apparently said reviewer thought FALCON was too simple and straightfoward, after my editors had bludgeoned me into making it that way, so perhaps that’s why I’m so brought down? No, I’d obsess on it even if the person had made some totally off-the-wall comment.

Anyone else here have this twist in their psychology?

And, as a side note, isn’t it cowardly of reviewers not to sign their reviews?

27 Responses to “Gloom and Doom, review-style”

  1. Marie Brennanon 11 May 2007 at 3:59 pm

    I seem to recall hearing once that someone conducted a psychological study showing that it takes about ten or fifteen positive things like reviews to balance out one negative one.

    Sounds about right to me.

  2. Ivyon 11 May 2007 at 4:04 pm

    From the perspective of a consumer, it’s positively useless for reviewers not to sign their reviews. How am I supposed to know if my tastes are similar to some unnamed X? I’ve seen raving reviews for books that were an insult to the paper used to print them and scathing criticisms of books I couldn’t put down, even on the re-read.

    If I someone who liked Transformation, liked Magic’s Pawn, and liked Ars Magica said that The Spirit Stone was good, I’d be swayed to go buy it. I’d know we had similar tastes. If someone who thought that A Wrinkle in Time was a peice of junk, The House of Mirth, was nonsense, and Dragonlance should have never seen print said The Spirit Stone was the worst book ever, I’d be very likely to pick up a copy. Without that kind of track record a review has close to no value to me.

    Incidentally, an extremely negative review sold a few of us on one non-fiction book. The reviewer called it “too detailed, too overloaded with excessive information, and only of value to geeks and techs”. We were techs looking for information to be as specific as possible.

    Congratulations on the positive review of The Spirit Stone.

  3. Leon Staufferon 11 May 2007 at 7:24 pm

    I would never, ever submit an anonymous review, nor would I pay any attention to one. Unless of course, they were slamming something I wrote. When I do reviews, I always attach my name to them, how else can anyone decide if they are of value? Anonymity is for cowardly character assassination and the like, which I refuse to engage in.

    Now some review sources I believe demand anonymity of their reviewers in the name of editorial objectivity. Which is a load of hogwash when it comes to reviews, just as it would be for any other opinion article, which makes them the sort of sources I pay little attention to, lengthly track record of influence on the industry or not.

  4. Madeleine Robinson 11 May 2007 at 8:30 pm

    I believe that PW has a no-signed-review policy, regardless of what the reviewers might wish. I’m not sure why; there may be some historical reason (crazed author storming the doors of the publisher screaming for the head of William Smith, who didn’t like the latest book…).

    That being said…I still remember offhand slights to books that are old enough to vote now.

  5. Brandonon 11 May 2007 at 9:04 pm

    I think artists put too much stock in reviews, signed or not. Consumers on the other hand seem to be rather skeptical. If I read a bad review, there will probably be info in that review that gives clues to the content of the book. Are there Elves running around? Is the main character an eight year old? Well, even if it’s a good review by a reviewer I like I’m really not going to give it much though because I dislike Elves(Overused) and young MC’s. “Bust a Move” any one? Ugly I know, sorry. A good review of a book that has info like this really works in reverse for me.

    I’ve played a show with my band where we had almost 1000 people show up. It was an amazing show. The next weekend the local music rag reviewed our show and said it was “a weak show by a mediocre band.” and “turn out was also low and what crowd there was seemed to be yearning for the opening act to come back on stage.” This person is a well respected and well read reviewer. The problem is this: Local bands don’t draw 1000 people if they are mediocre. Yes I’m patting myself on the back just a little. :) Also, 1000 people jumping around in front of the stage and singing along with us seems like an odd way to get the opening act to come back on stage. Well, 999 people anyways…

    Is this guys review going to stop others from showing up to the next show? Maybe. But the people that were there will show up for the next show and maybe even bring a friend. I think this makes up for the few this guys review may have kept from the next show. Hell, maybe the ones we did lose will hear about us from a friend and actually show up and give us a shot regardless of the review.

    While I understand that it’s not the exact same thing, it does have some very strong similarities. I haven’t had a novel of mine published so I used the only thing at hand in which I had experience.

    My two cents.

    Brandon

  6. Marie Brennanon 12 May 2007 at 12:31 am

    Brandon –

    Certainly the bad review doesn’t negate the actual event, but it’s still easy to get depressed by a harsh response. And I think it’s often tough for writers in particular to shake off those reviews: you got to see your audience there and having fun, before you read the review, but to us, the readers are often just a faceless number. And especially before we get our hands on those numbers (which takes a while), reviews are one of the only bits of outside feedback we get. So it’s very easy for them to get us down.

  7. Wenamunon 12 May 2007 at 7:26 am

    Could we be so so often like this because, to use an analogy, the pain of a bee sting tends to linger longer than the sensation of a pat on the back?

    I go through this too with reviews of short fiction. What does take the sting away (for me, anyway) is if the reviewer gives a specific reason for his dislike. This often brings the realization that the reviewer either misread the work or simply didn’t appreciate, for example, the writing style. I can usually find some balm for the wound. One story of mine, called “unreadable” by an Amazon reviewer, was picked by Gardner Dozois as an Honorable Mention in a Year’s Best volume. That got me over that sting. :)

    But there will always be those reviews and other public/published feedback that don’t heal so easily. I have one that I will refrain from mentioning that is still a fresh and even worrisome because of what it might presage for a much larger work.

  8. Ariaon 12 May 2007 at 10:11 am

    I hate it when reviewers don’t have the courage to leave a name. While all the reviewers I’m talking about for myself are on fictionpress and fanfiction and not large scale books and therefore not completely the same, I still understand the feeling, although it’s more anger for me then being upset.
    But yeah, I would feel the same exact way if I got a bad review on my story…even though it’s not published…or even edited yet. So I’d just like to take the opportunity to say that my friend and I, who are both devout readers of Deverry, thought that the Gold Falcon was purely amazing, defiantly one of our favorites. Dunno about my friend, but I’m almost counting the days down until the Spirit Stone comes out..hehe.
    So yeah, I’d say I have that twist in my psychology too. But I have to admit, my one friend who has read my story never says anything negative about it at all, and says its great all around, when I know it isn’t…and I can never help but wondering if he really likes it, or if he’s just saying it to make me happy? Has that happened to anyone else?

  9. R.on 12 May 2007 at 2:10 pm

    A bad review, a negative comment — they always feel like rejection, and rejection always stings regardless its source.

    But usually a less than kind review only triggers my curiosity, especially if the source is one I frequently disagree with. And sometimes the slam is nothing more than sour grapes.

    Buck up! You got a byline, and the reviewer didn’t. :)

  10. Constance Ashon 12 May 2007 at 2:15 pm

    Generally if reviewers don’t have by-lines it is not their choice but that of the publication.

    One reason PW has review without names is that some of the reviews — particularly genre reviews — are done by the magazine’s younger staff that have a demonstrated interest and background in the genre in question — read low-on-totem-pole-and-very-ambitious. Not all of them get the opportunity to do reviews, which can cause bad blood, so it is pretended that this fact is kept sub rosa, so to speak. But it always gets out.

    I learned this via an anonymous PW reviewer who wanted me to know he’d done a glowing job on one of mine.

    As for why does one fixate on the one negative in a field of positives? Are we not human? Do we not bleed?

    Love, C.

  11. kateelliotton 13 May 2007 at 1:08 am

    For me it also depends on the overall tone of the review. A critical comment within a review that takes the work seriously, or addresses issues within the narrative with respect, can – for me – be absorbed much more easily than a flippant, condescending, or belittling negative comment – one in which it seems pretty clear that the reviewer looks down on th novel.

  12. The Anonymous Revieweron 13 May 2007 at 11:26 am

    Lionel Shriver mentioned another of the reasons for anonymous reviews in some publications in this article. Basically, it allows a reviewer who is also a published author to give an honest assessment without worrying that another author-reviewer will hold a grudge when the tables are turned. I don’t think this is sufficient reason in 95% of cases — the author put their name on the book, a reviewer should do the same for their review — but I imagine it could be a factor in the capsule review publications more oriented towards booksellers and libraries.

  13. sfmartyon 13 May 2007 at 12:57 pm

    Never forget that often people think they are establishing themselves as an expert by putting someone else down. I have seen this over and over. Very difficult to not feel hurt, but I -think- I have gotten to the place where I can just feel sorry for them.

  14. KKon 13 May 2007 at 3:03 pm

    FALCON was too simple and straightfoward, after my editors had bludgeoned me into making it that way.

    Maybe you just need to write things more as you like not the way the editors want them to be :)
    Sure its not that easy though.

    Best Wishes,
    K.

  15. Constance Ashon 13 May 2007 at 5:50 pm

    It’s clear that publications like The New York Times deliberately choose reviewers who are going to be hostile to the book in question. I see this so often, especially with works I have read myself, and I can see the reviewer is being political, and not fair, and you wonder why in the world did the editor call this guy with that assignement — but then, the NY Times Sunday magazine and book review ARE very right and political — it’s a mandate from on high.

    You will see it in the Times Literary Supplement too, but to a lesser degree. But then, the Brits tend to take literature and books more seriously than this nation does, especially in its media, and so the feuds are also intense, long-lived and well-known.

    Love, C.

  16. Seaboe Emmon 14 May 2007 at 11:44 am

    Back when I worked in a special library, I did a statistical analysis of the SF reviews in Library Journal.

    They were so slanted to the favorable side (something like 98%) that I decided that I couldn’t trust the magazine to recommend SF.

    This was a publication not intended for the public. It was intended for professional librarians and the reviews were to help with collection development.

    But if they only ever reviewed books they liked, how could I trust them to help me determine which books were good and which were bad?

    Ever since, I’ve had a tendency to dismiss both ultra-negative and glowingly-positive reviews as useless.

    Seaboe

  17. lyssabitson 14 May 2007 at 4:13 pm

    I hardly ever read the critical reviews of a product, because they’re either way too positive/neutral to be of any use, or they tend to be unfairly mean. I do however like user reviews, but not necessarily for the content of the reviews. There are always a few thoughtful, well-written ones that you can sort of trust.. but largely I play the numbers game. ;) If the number of positive reviews outnumber the number of negative ones, I take that as a pretty good indicator. But Brandon is right, content is much more important than reviews in my choice of what book to pick up. I mean, RR Martin is almost universally beloved… except for by me. ;) So you can’t always use reviews as an indicator of whether you’re going to like something or not. And if you’re someone I’ve read before and liked, it’s pretty much guaranteed that I’ll continue buying each and every book you put out. ;)

    I loved the Gold Falcon though, so I give that reviewer a big thumbs down. I negatively review his review!

  18. sodditon 16 May 2007 at 8:03 am

    Not so much a comment on reviews themselves, but a comment on The Gold Falcon. Read it. Loved it. ’nuff said.

  19. Niallon 16 May 2007 at 11:05 am

    It’s clear that publications like The New York Times deliberately choose reviewers who are going to be hostile to the book in question. I see this so often, especially with works I have read myself, and I can see the reviewer is being political, and not fair, and you wonder why in the world did the editor call this guy with that assignement

    The New York Review of SF does this fairly often — for instance, they got Brian Stableford to review the recent Hartwell/Kramer space opera behemoth, knowing full well that he disagreed with their version of the subgenre’s history — and it usually works well, producing interesting reviews. I think there’s something to be said for giving a book like that to an avowed sceptic, rather than someone who already agrees with it.

  20. Connie H.on 17 May 2007 at 7:10 am

    Chip Delany told my Clarion West class that if he got a bad review, he stewed over it for an hour, but if he got a good review, he’d be floating on a cloud for the next day, unable to write. On the whole, he’d concluded that bad reviews were better for his writing. :-)

    I try to keep this in mind, but it still hurts like spit, at least at the time. It’s the long run that really counts.

  21. Narda, Avid Readeron 05 Jun 2007 at 10:52 pm

    I waited with baited breath for Gold Falcon, re-reading my excerpted pages between rereading the entire series. Then counted days until The Spirit Stone arrived in my mailbox. A delicious three-day journey (forced myself to pace it out–my husband gets testy when I read all night!) And now more waiting until the final installment of this marvelous story! The “critics” are just jealous that they can’t keep up this kind of long-term, consistent production. Yes, Gold Falcon was more straight-forward than the earlier books, so what? The headlong rush of characters’ lives was exhilarating! Now I will start all over with Daggerspell, and enjoy it as much as the first time through. Thanks for a great, entertaining series.

  22. Alisaron 19 Jun 2007 at 4:05 am

    I too waited with baited breath for the Gold Falcon and I loved every bit of it – my only disappointment was that once it was over I then had to start the wait again for the Spirit Stone! The Deverry books are without a doubt the best series I’ve ever read and I shall be re-reading the entire series while I wait for the final instalment – I wouldn’t worry too much about what the review said – the true test is what the fans think and we all loved the book.

  23. Sadhuon 03 Jul 2007 at 7:26 am

    Well, I simply think PW was right about Gold Falcon and also about Spirit Stone. Your editors just did not show you the right way.
    I think if you google a bit you’ll find more disappointed comments from readers about Gold Falcon on the web.
    So maybe that is why it got you so much… because there is a truth in it.
    I do love your books. The blue sprite, Evandar’s country, and Haen Marn were all amazing.
    Please do not make them all disappear…
    And I also hope that my favourite character Salamander (who seems to have lost his abundant creativity and lightheartedness now that he is ‘cured’ by Dallandra) will find some of his joy and sense of freedom again.
    But your stories are all just great.

  24. Katharine Kerron 03 Jul 2007 at 5:43 pm

    Well, the point of this discussion is why authors can be overly sensitive, not the merits of GOLD FALCON, though I do thank those who liked it — and those who didn’t, for thei opinions.

    No book of mine has ever gotten uniform reviewes, good back or in between. I suspect that the same is true of every book ever written, at least those written after the invention of reviews. :-)

    Sadhu, there is no way that Salamander will ever be the same person he was before abusing his dweomer powers and going completely mad, to say nothing of losing the women he loved in various ways. Even in genre novels, characters grow and change, often for the better.

  25. Sam Grahamon 19 Jul 2007 at 12:22 pm

    I think that part of the reason for obsessing over negative reviews stems from the fact that many authors need/want to understand why someone didn’t like their work.

    I tend to find that reviewers can often be quite poor at explaining just why they think something is bad, it’s all too easy for them to be dismissive and say that something is bad, but it’s more effort to produce a reasoned argument to support the conclusion.

    I imagine you probably have less of an issue with, and are less bothered by, reviews that are critical but leave you understanding that “well, that’s their taste, I happen to disagree.”

    Whereas a throwaway lead-in comment like “After the disappointment of THE GOLD FALCON” leaves no explanation of why they were disappointed and gives you no (though I hate the term) closure. It nags away at the back of your mind wondering “why were they disappointed?” It’s a badly written bit of reviewing in that it provides no context, only judgement, and even though it’s not the main point of the review (which is about a different book), it sticks in your mind.

    I actually agree with the reviewer: “The Gold Falcon” was “a disappointment”. Not because it was a bad book – it was an excellent book, I loved reading it – but because it wasn’t what I expected. The hallmark previous-lives of the series were missing and the whole was much more linear than the others. I bought the book expecting one thing and got something else, and in that sense there was a disappointment, despite the fact that I still thought the book was fantastic.

    In that respect, reading “The Spirit Stone” was a “return to form”. If I were a time and word-count pressed reviewer, I can imagine condensing that down to “After the disappointment of…”, but without the explanation it’s a much more hurtful and negative comment.

    Without explanation it leaves you unable to learn from the experience and improve your craft, or to decide that the negative comment is irrelevent to what you want to achieve.

    Of course the fact that you’re being criticised personally for something that you had forced on you only makes it seem even more injust and will get under the skin that much more.

    On a closing note, in case any of my negative comments rankle, I consider the Deverry books (all of them, no exceptions!) to be in my top-three must-read recommendations to anyone who is even thinking of picking up a fantasy novel. I’d give my reasons but it’s off-topic and I’ve gone on way too long already…

  26. Katharine Kerron 19 Jul 2007 at 4:00 pm

    Sam, those are all good points. A throwaway line definitely hurts authors the worst! The mind worries at that kind of remark like a terrier with a dead rat. When my husband had a comedy teams as a cabaret act, he ran afoul of a reviewer who could not get the group’s admittedly weird kind of humor. This fellow would be reviewing a movie, for example, and drag in “Unlike the Congress of Wonders, this film is fuunny.” It drove the group nuts, as you can imagine.

    Digression from main topic follows: I’ve come to think that the editors were probably right about making the book more linear. Why? Because it’s the beginning of the end of the series, that’s why! I got one email from a reader who thought “Gerran gave up too easily about getting Branna.” Well, the point was that Gerran had learned from past experience, though he couldn’t remember the details. That’s one point of the entire series, after all. Everyone knows that Neb and Branna will get together. Why build up false suspense?

    The last past life incident is the one in STONE, which closes the pattern set up in Books 1 and 2. There won’t be one in THE SHADOW ISLE. I tell you this now so you can brace yourself. :-) Things have to come to an end somewhere. Of course, now that I saw this so confidently, my unconscious mind will probably demand some kind of flashback . . .

  27. Sam Grahamon 20 Jul 2007 at 5:08 am

    Digression from main topic follows: I’ve come to think that the editors were probably right about making the book more linear. Why? Because it’s the beginning of the end of the series, that’s why!

    Actually that’s the explanation that I came to when I finished the book, so when there was another past life incident in “The Spirit Stone” I was surprised.

    I’m braced more for the end of the series than the way in which it is told.

    I’ve been following the series since the second book came out in the UK and the idea that the characters and setting will be “frozen in amber”, never to develop or change again beyond their final state, is a sad one – perhaps an interesting topic for another blog, it’d be enlightening to know how it feels from the author side of things.

    It is, however, also a sign of success in producing characters (and the kingdom of deverry is as much a character as the people IMO) that develop and have personality – wanting to know what they did next, even after “the plot” is finished, that’s the sign of a master storyteller.

    Anyway, I’ve headed way off the original topic now, I’d best stop.

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