I was recently made aware of the controversy that followed Carol Buchanan’s review of my novel Winter Games. I have been following the string of comments below Ms. Buchanan’s review with mixed emotions.
On one hand, it stirs an amount of pride in me to see so many readers coming to the defense of Winter Games. On the other hand, the dialogue has, at times, reached a cringe-worthy level of vitriol. I belong to several list-serves that, like this site, are populated by intelligent, reasonable people, and I’m saddened to report that this level of animosity pops up in those places as well. People often check their normal social reserve at the door before they sit down at the keyboard. Sad, but true.
I think it’s important, though, to introduce a new perspective by trying to respond to the issues at hand specifically as an author. Authors have a different mindset relative to these issues, and I believe this fine website to be as valuable a resource for aspiring novelists as it is for readers.
Simply put, authors do not and can not look at reviews the same way that readers do. To a reader(and by extension, a reviewer), the most important aspect of a review is quality. To an author, the most important aspect is tone.
To a reader, a review is a tool with which to gauge the quality of a book. A fiction enthusiast curious about a novel can read the available reviews he/she can find, then make a value judgment on whether or not to purchase that novel. To an author, however, a review is a vastly different kind of tool.
Authors use reviews in two ways. First, positive reviews can provide motivation which drive a writer onward in his/her next project. Second, positive reviews can become marketing tools that an author can use to promote his/her book. Negative reviews, even excellently-crafted ones, have limited value to an author for reasons that I will elaborate on shortly. Many authors simply choose not to read any reviews at all: They have publicists to do their promoting, and success has given them all of the motivation they need. (I, myself, have neither a publicist nor an endless reservoir of pep, so I continue to read away.)
Reviewers, in turn, neither do nor should expect that authors will alter their approach to writing based on reviews; constructive criticism is the job of an editor. Reviewers’ responsibility, rightfully, is to the consumer. Carol Buchanan and Steven Reynolds have both earned their stripes as reviewers with keen insight that has been proven to steer readers in the right direction. And the string of comments that followed Ms. Buchanan’s review of Winter Games showed, ultimately, that a large readership has come to value and respect both her and Mr. Reynold’s opinions.
To me, the author, however, the two reviews are not of equal value. I read Mr. Reynolds’ review, smiled, and tucked it away in my memory banks for future reference. I read Ms. Buchanan’s review, took note of her sound criticism, and moved on; I simply don’t have the luxury of dwelling on negative reactions to my past work. As a novelist, I depend on the ability to carry with me only that which benefits me emotionally and professionally.
This ability to detach holds the utmost value to authors, particularly self-published ones. We punch no time clock, we have no boss, and we are solely responsible for the dissemination of our work; we must think, therefore, only in terms of what will spur us onward and what will help our work succeed. This mindset extends well beyond reviews of our books.
Take, for example, the process of finding a literary agent. Authors who choose not to self-publish tend, unfortunately, to try to “humanize” this process as much as possible. I attended the Midwest Writer’s Workshop this past summer, and the two agents who sat on the faculty of this event were quickly set upon by aspiring novelists looking to form working relationships with them. Similarly, many writers will only submit query letters to a handful of agents and will quickly form emotional attachments to these chosen few. Then, when this small group of agents rejects their work, these writers are devastated and submit no more, believing their books to be inferior. The reality, of course, is that detached, thorough research could have yielded 200 agents who might have been interested in the writers’ query letters. And if only one of those 200 liked their product, the writers would have been on their way to lasting and productive author/agent relationships.
Writing contests are another example. The Hollywood Book Festival wasn’t the only contest I submitted Winter Games to; there were many, many others. And amidst the piles and piles of submissions all of these contests received, my humble book did not light a spark in the eyes of reviewers…until one day, when the judges at the Hollywood Festival gave it a thorough read and decided that they loved it. If I’d “tested the waters” by only submitting to the contests I knew best, and then taken it to heart when the response to these initial submissions was negative, I might never have landed that plane ticket to LA.
Reviewers and readers depend on a symbiotic relationship that itself relies both on the quality of the reviews that reviewers provide and the trust returned to these reviewers by the readers. Authors, if I may cornily borrow from Winter Games, must play the role of Sarah: Detached, and yes, “robotic” outsiders, coolly determining what is and is not useful.
Keep reading, and keep writing!