Rejection and Writer’s Support

This threatened to become the world’s longest comment so I decided to post it here as opposed to sapping someone else’s bandwidth.

Cindy over at A Writer’s Diary posted an entry that discusses her anguish over giving a book a negative review. Her contention is that since she’s down there in the trenches, too, she empathizes with the authors over their struggle to get words on page.

This presents a number of interesting initial questions that I will not deal with in this entry. However, before moving on to my main point, here they are – just for the sake of floating a possible meme:

1) “Those who can’t do – review.” True or false?

2) Should novel writers review novels? They are qualified in the sense that they are experts in the field. Yet, they are going to pick up on things that nobody else would in the process of reading a book, perhaps criticizing for things an ordinary reader would miss (witness my own criticism of Stephen King’s Bloat, for example). That in turn poses this question:

3) Should the duty of reviews be left to readers who don’t novelize? I have trouble reading novels for enjoyment because I either pick them apart or turn green with envy. Perhaps reviews of books should be left to people who are the purest audience, those who read for enjoyment and aren’t involved in the writing process.

However, the issue at hand is whether Cindy should remove the negative reviews of books she has posted on her web site. Their removal is probably a done deal at this point since she made this entry yesterday, but here are my arguments against her doing such a thing.

First, I subscribe to the PR/Advertising theory that there’s no such thing as a negative review. If someone took the time to write it up, it meant something to him or her – even if it was simply a paycheck from a magazine. As my daughter now says every five minutes, “It’s all good.” That negative review is still a mention of book and author, or another hit for a search engine to find (the only exception to this rule might be a review that contains the phrase “I wish I could get the six hours I spent reading this book refunded to me”).

Second, a negative review isn’t negative when one explains why they felt the book was flawed or “didn’t do it for me” (as Cindy says she did, given her word count limitation). I once learned something from the most savage review I’ve ever received in my writing career. I had to look beyond the witch hunt tone of the critic, but once I did, I saw some valid points; I did have some trouble imagining how computers would be used in the future (I corrected this in the PH novels), and my characterization was thin (this led me to discover that in my quest to edit the book down by 20% per Del Rey’s request, I chopped out everything that didn’t advance the plot – namely, characterization).

Third, I am convinced that reviews do not make sales. Word of mouth does. How else would you explain the fact that the PH novels got the best reviews of my career, and yet were my worst selling books ever? The two of them combined did not sell as much as my previous worst-seller.

Fourth, negativity aside, there’s a chance that the author won’t see the review. Some agents or publishers insulate their author’s fragile ego from such things (I speak from experience – I always got clippings of good reviews, but I was always the one who found the bad ones – Editor: “Hmmm, why don’t you send me a copy of that?”). Further, the World Wide Web is a big place. Unless they’re doing really deep egosurfing, they may not find it.

Finally, even if you don’t believe that there is no such thing as a bad review, you have to accept that bad reviews are a part of the writing game – just like rejection slips.

I think that is one of the dirty little secrets of writing that nobody talks about. We all bolster each other up when a rejection slip comes. But what about rejection after the fact, in the form of a negative review? Perhaps it’s because, in the eyes of a writer’s peers, the act of Getting Published is the Be All End All – your name in print, game over. But it’s actually the beginning of a new game. It’s an interesting double standard and a fascinating anomaly, that.

Those are the general reasons for leaving the reviews up. Now here are some that are a little more personal, from me to Cindy:

1) Your reviews are as much of you as your WIP is.

2) If you can’t be honest with yourself enough to write a negative review of someone else’s book, how can you be honest enough to write your own book?

3) In spite of all the effort, there really are some truly dreadful books out there. I’m sure they got into print because a desperate editor on deadline said, “I need one more title for May of 2005, and I’m going to take the next manuscript that’s coherent and in proper form.” There’s no other way to explain some of the howlers I’ve read – or started and never finished. And you, Cindy, in taking on the mantle of reviewer, have taken a tacit vow to protect us from them. Or in the words of someone’s uncle, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

So my advice is not to censor yourself. I know your heart bleeds for these authors. There IS a lot of work that goes into the process of being published, and anyone that survives the lonely hours of writing, the rejections, the endless rounds of revisions and everything else it takes to get words published deserves a gold star on their paper.

Unfortunately, life isn’t always fair.

NP – iTSP (Marillion, “Warm Wet Circles”)

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