Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The meaning of the mean words

For something close to 30 years, I've been an admittedly harsh critic when it comes to writing.  I don't deny this, and I've never attempted to moderate my comments when asked for them.  And yes, I've received criticism for my harshness.  From my earliest experiences as a judge in RWA contests, reaction to my analyses has ranged from gratitude for an honest if painful review to outrage and accusations of bias and crimes against humanity.  It's all okay; I live with it.

Several months ago, an author whose work had elicited a one-star rating from me on Goodreads contacted me and asked for an explanation.  I had "shelved" the book in a variety of descriptive groups that indicated I thought it was poorly written.  Because I had not posted a review, she wanted to know why I had only given the book one star -- "I didn't like it" -- and whether or not my "poorly written" designation came from actually reading the book.

There is, of course, no requirement on the Goodreads site that readers post reviews along with their ratings.  Readers don't even have to rate the books, and they can "shelve" books however they wish.  Nor is it required that readers have read the book prior to rating, shelving, or reviewing it.  (How would they prove that they had?  Take a test?)

Now, I have frequently stated here and elsewhere that I don't believe authors should ever, ever, ever contact anyone who has reviewed, rated, shelved, or commented on their book unless they are specifically and explicitly invited to do so.  Therefore I politely but firmly told this author that I was not going to provide her with an explanation then, but that if I ever did so, it would be in a publicly available review. 

Her action was understandable.  The book was her first, and she had self-published it via Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing and via Smashwords.  This information was readily available from the book's front matter.  She was not rude in her request to me, nor did she post anything public about the exchange.  (If she posted one-star ratings to my books, I honestly don't know.  I pretty much pay no attention to those.)

The Amazon listing for her book had received half a dozen or so five-star reviews, several of which read like they'd been written by friends or family members.  The couple of one- and two-star reviews cited poor grammar and clichéd characters; one of those reviews was a variation on the "don't waste your time; even free this book isn't worth it."  That's not an uncommon remark made on self-published novels. 

I generally glance at the reviews, especially the negative ones, when I'm contemplating a digital purchase, but since the book had been offered for free, I wasn't too concerned.  I downloaded it, then glanced at the contents.

I was not favorably impressed with the writing, but at the time of posting the book to my Goodreads collection, I didn't have time to do a complete analysis, so I shelved it as poorly written, gave it one star, and moved on.  I heard no more from the author and I thought that was the end of it.

A few weeks ago, I learned that she had posted a comment on another books-and-readers-and-authors site in which she lambasted the refusal of a reviewer to justify their negative opinion of her book.  She described this person as what amounted to a serial review bully; I won't post the exact phrase because I don't want to give anyone the ability to locate the author via a search on the phrase.  Was she referring to me?  I don't know for sure.  I had never reviewed her book, only shelved and rated it. 

I've written a lot of words on this subject, and I really get upset that I find myself doing it again.  More than likely, the message is completely lost on those who need it most:  the authors who have somehow come into the belief that their work can never ever receive a negative review and that anyone who dares criticize it must be a mean bully, a sociopath, a jealous competitor, or something.

More and more and more of these authors are taking to the blogosphere, to Goodreads and Amazon's forums, to their own websites, and slamming any and all reviewers who are cruel and mean and malicious enough to leave hurtful comments.

There are still comments being posted to Dear Author's thread from July 2012 regarding the efforts of some authors and fans and readers to silence negative reviews. 

I can understand authors having hurt feelings.  I can understand the disappointment of a bad review.  I've been there.  I've suffered through the rejection letters.  I've had publishers hold a manuscript for a year, sending me occasional encouraging updates, only to receive the material back with no explanation beyond a form letter rejection.  I've had bad reviews.  I've had malicious reviews and retaliatory shelving and one-star ratings from trolls.  I've been there, kids.  And I survived.

So what's different now from 20 or 30 years ago?  Is it, as I've blogged before, that some of these authors have never experienced any kind of criticism of their writing and just don't know how to handle it?  Personally, I think that's far more likely than another explanation, which is that they are the sociopaths and just have it in for anyone who dares criticize anything.

Reviews are for readers.  Not just for the people who have already read the book -- actually, that's a pretty stupid definition of "reader" -- but for readers who might buy the book, potential readers.  Any reader who has any experience with the book in question or with its author has the right to leave a comment.  On Amazon, on Smashwords, on Barnes & Noble, on Goodreads, on any other site where books are discussed.

Reviews are not for the authors.  I'm not sure how many times or how many ways I can write that.  Reviews are of material that's already been published.  The author has said she's done with it, it's ready to be read, and now she's moving on.

If she's not finished with it, if she's still looking for feedback, she shouldn't publish it. 

How difficult is this to understand?  Amazon and B&N and Kobo and Smashwords are all retail stores just like Target or Kroger's or FootLocker or Lowe's.  Customers go to them to buy products ready to be used.  And if the products don't perform as the customer expected them to, the customer has a right to complain, to demand a refund, to tell her friends and family about it.

Authors, your books are no different from tires or flashlights, sneakers or toasters, pillows or two-by-fours, ground beef or asparagus.  No one cares how much time you put into writing your stories.  If people cared about the labor involved in producing consumer goods, they wouldn't buy sneakers made in Chinese sweatshops.

And here's the thing:  I do care about the labor that's involved, in both the sneakers and the books.  I do my best to avoid buying goods made by companies that I know employ what amounts to slave labor.

But I also make an effort to instruct readers -- some of whom might also be writers -- what makes a good book.

When I read a book, regardless of genre, regardless whether it's fiction or non-fiction, I expect it to meet certain minimum standards.  I don't expect every book I read to be a five-star, and I have enjoyed many books that weren't, in the Goodreads rating system, "amazing!".   I also recognize that not all readers will like the same things I do, nor will they have the same standards.  I don't have any problem with that, either as a reader or as a writer.

I also know that the skills necessary to achieve those minimum standards are not beyond the capability of most people of average intelligence.  Basic English grammar and spelling and usage, basic story construction, basic factual research, and basic digital publication formatting are not difficult skills to learn.  They take some time and some effort to learn, and more time to master, but all of them are essential to the creation of an end product that will appeal to and satisfy the reading preferences of most reasonably educated potential readers.

When a writer chooses not to learn these skills, when a writer chooses to publish a product that fails to meet the reader's minimum standards, then that writer must accept the criticism the product receives.

I have tried, because I honestly do care about writers and helping them to write well-crafted, interesting, entertaining books, to put at least some information into many of my blogposts directly addressing issues such as punctuating dialogue or preparing an MS Word .doc file for Kindle Direct Publishing.  I've written some very very detailed critiques of samples of writing chosen specifically to illustrate concepts of what I consider good writing.

I have never, at least not intentionally, criticized any individual author as a person.  And I have advised and encouraged authors to separate themselves from their books.  Books are not children, not "babies."  Books cannot be killed or raped -- except by their own authors, of course.  A review is, for better or worse, the reader's opinion, and the author is always free to take any advice or ignore it.

Writers do not even have to read reviews, because reviews aren't written for them.  But if writers do read reviews, and especially if they read reviews of their own work, then they need to be prepared for the negative.

When I rip a novel to shreds -- and yes, I admit that I have done that -- it's because I believe the book deserves it.  Does the author deserve it?  Um, I don't really care.  She put the book out there as a finished product, and now it has to stand or fall on its own.  Can the author learn from it?  Yes, of course she can.  Will she be hurt by it?  Oh, probably, but she should have thought about that possibility before she published it.

There are ways to avoid bad reviews.  The two most obvious ones are:  Learn to write well, and don't publish until you learn to write well.

I am not going to stop writing "bad" reviews.  If your book is poorly written and it comes to my attention, there's a chance I will shred it.  It may be an object lesson for other writers as well as a warning to readers.  I don't care.  It may be the only negative review in a stack of five-star raves.  I don't care.  It may hurt your feelings and drive you to call me names.  I don't care.  It may enrage you and you'll rally your fans and friends and family to give my books one-star reviews.  I don't care.

What I do care about is my integrity.  I believe that anything I publish will be well-written, and if there are mistakes, I will own up to them.  I will never bash a reviewer, never threaten, never whine.  But by the same token, when I come across writing that I consider fails to meet my standards, I will reserve the right to shred it, to point out its flaws and weaknesses. 

Maybe other writers will learn from that.  Maybe other readers will see my reviews as helpful and honest and will "follow" my reviews on Goodreads.  Or maybe not.

But I will not lower my standards to spare the feelings of authors who cannot or will not take the time and expend the effort to at least learn how to construct a coherent sentence, compose a fluid paragraph, create an internally consistent plot.

If the author sees that as mean, then she is failing to put herself in the perspective of all the other potential readers she's trying to reach.  If the author sees that as potentially diminishing her sales, then she should have written a book that couldn't be shredded.  No one, absolutely no one, owes an author a living.  No one, absolutely no one, owes an author an apology for an honest review.

So to the little snowflakes whose feelings I have hurt and who are following me around the Internet, I don't know what you hope to accomplish.  Do you think I'm going to be nicer to you because you've done me some big honor?  Do you think I'm going to refrain from talking about your books because it might get back to you?  It's not going to happen.

Yes, I'm mean. Yes, I'm harsh.  But yes, I'm honest.  Deal with it.

1 comment:

  1. Well said!

    I'd also like to point out that there is a difference between a bad review and a critical review.

    As a potential reader, a five-star "I loved this book!!!" is a bad review. So is a one-star "It was meant to be a Christmas present but didn't arrive unti 29 December".

    Good reviews are the ones that tell me why I would - or wouldn't - want to read this book. Very often this is the three-star review that says "This is a typical romance novel - good writing but a predictable ending". That's fine - I want my romance to have a predictable ending. But that same comment on a mystery novel would be a turn-off.

    What stops me wanting to buy a book? Comments about bad writing and editing, especially when the author has responded with a comment like, "i don't know why your complaining about the editing i payed allot of money for it". 'Nuf said.

    There are also a number of plot points that I don't enjoy, so I appreciate any review, regardless of rating, that tells me these things.