PT: Yeah, sure. It goes with the territory. If you put work out there, no matter how good it is there are going to be people who don’t like it, and similarly there are people who will sing your praises no matter how bad you are. I can remember being particularly put out by one review, not because the guy didn’t like the story, but because it was a story in which children were murdered and he came across in the review as thinking I was some sort of insensitive git who thought child abuse was a fun subject to write about. (The story in question won the Enigmatic Story of the Year Award, and I still have a nice shiny plaque in pride of place on my living room wall.) Equally I’ve received good reviews that in my heart I didn’t feel I deserved, as with one reviewer who said a story of mine was of the same standard as those in Asimov’s and Analog, though personally I thought it was lucky to get published in the 4theLuv market that it did appear in.
My experience is that writers as a breed are all too willing to distrust praise and believe criticism, and I’m no different from anyone else as far as that goes. And with my reviewing hat on, I’m sure that on occasion I’ve given both criticism and praise that was felt to be unfair/undeserved, though never intentionally. Reviewers are no more perfect readers than anybody else – we make mistakes, we screw up, we miss things, we carry our own baggage, we fall in love for all the wrong reasons. But I believe that in the end it all balances out. Swings and roundabouts, baby.
The truth of the matter is that reviewers don’t write for the benefit of writers, though writers can benefit because of what we do. We’re not there to give them constructive criticism or help boost their careers. Our work is aimed at potential readers, its raison d’être is to help them determine if a particular book is something they wish to spend time and/or money on, and as far as that goes we have to treat the writer as an irrelevance. And yes, sometimes writers’ feelings are going to get hurt, that’s inevitable unless as a reviewer you’re prepared to be a rubber stamp to the genius of everyone and bear witness to the mediocrity of none. How they/you deal with negative reviews is the important thing.
The only times I believe it’s necessary to respond to criticism in a review is (a) if the reviewer gets their facts wrong (and that’s happened to me a couple of times, and each time I’ve apologised in public as soon as it’s been pointed out), (b) if some moral shortcoming of the writer is implied in the review and (c) if something patently silly, unfair or absurd is stated in the review, though even for all of those occasions I’d think hard about whether it was worth responding – there’s the reviewer’s opinion, the writer’s opinion, and how their exchange is construed by everyone else, which can all too easily blow up in your face. Other than those occasions, I think writers should simply accept that not everyone will enjoy their work and keep a dignified silence about negative reviews, relying on the astuteness of readers to see through any nonsense.
But of course, I would think that.
PT: In Anna Karenina Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I think something similar to that applies in the case of literature. Truly bad books are all very much alike, share the same sort of failings, while the truly great books each attain that quality in their own unique way.
But the great majority of books fall between those two stools.
Sturgeon’s Law posits that 90% of everything is crap, but I’m afraid that I don’t agree with that, at least as far as books go (but don’t ask me what I think of politicians). I think 90% of books are acceptable. They’re not going to change your life, but they mostly achieve what they set out to do: they entertain, they take us out of ourselves for a few hours, sometimes they make us think about things that little bit harder, and afterwards we remember them without ill will, if we remember them at all. And sometimes they do this simply by virtue of avoiding the mistakes that the bad books make. The other 10% of books are split between those that are truly awful and the handful that genuinely move us, that demonstrate what writing at its best is capable of. With the proliferation of self-publishing I suspect the percentage of bad books is going to increase exponentially, and we may very well reach a point where 90% of everything is crap, but we’re not there yet.
To answer your question, albeit by taking an opposite stance, the things that put me off a book are bad writing, which embraces poor spelling and syntax, use of clichés and ignorance of grammar (a different thing from ignoring grammar); two dimensional characters, unlikely plot developments, times when everything hinges on coincidence or simply ignoring how reality works to forward the plot.
And, on the positive side, some books work by virtue of having a gripping plot, one where you race through the pages simply to see what happens next, and others through the clarity of the characterisation, where you become immersed in the life of somebody else. I like books that play with form and structure, but not as an end in itself. I enjoy books that have ideas and use them to enrich rather than instead of the story, that add a human dimension. I adore books that make me think and feel. And best of all, are those times when I read a book and afterwards think to myself that “I can’t believe anyone wrote this” rather than “I can’t believe anyone published this”.
There aren’t any rules, any set of instructions that can be followed, no one size that fits all. There is only what works for the writer and what works for the reader, and those happy moments when the two coincide.
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