Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Arguing Against Book Reviews & Defending Yourself

The review is leading somewhere, so just wait for it…

Evil Kev and I had an argument this weekend, about whether or not Edison Force deserved a B or B minus rating. I was leaning for the B minus. For the most part I really enjoyed the movie. However, the problem was the same problem I have with most movies and television I watch these days: Holes.

Now, the movie stars quite the cast. Kevin Spacey. Morgan Freeman. Cary Elwes, of The Princess Bride and Kiss the Girls and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, if I’m not mistaken. (The guy has some range.) Dylan McDermott. LL Cool J. John Heard. And…

Justin Timberlake, who made his acting debut. Evil Kev almost didn’t rent the movie because of JT, but we were both pleasantly surprised. He did decently.

My main issue with the movie was the premise. (If you don’t like spoilers skip this paragraph.) After an elaborate, Hollywood shoot ‘em up to get us started we see Dylan McDermott and LL Cool J out to do a pick up. Rob some drug dealers. When they’re leaving one of the druggies says he’s going to find out who the cop is and complain to justice. So, Dylan McDermott’s character kills him and then pegs it on the other dealer. The real crux of it was, as the story unfolded you realized the corruption in the system went all the way to the top, including local businesses and the DA’s office. That money being taken from drug dealers was being used to fund political campaigns. It was being laundered through the police department. Would the word of one drug dealer have made an ounce of difference? No. And can you see it? “Yes, um, officer, I want to make a complaint. I’m a criminal and the money I make from my criminal dealings was stolen from me.” Ha ha ha, too bad, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Anyway, that was indicative of a few of the holes in the storyline. There were a couple other points where I said, “Okay, there’s no way they could reason out of this. It doesn’t make any sense.”

And all in all, I’d say it was too bad. The basic story (while not highly original) had potential. Of course, it also had some clichés. The journalist burned out, wanting to play it safe, being brought around by the young zealot (Timberlake) on the scent of a story. The bad-ass cop (McDermott) with his partner (LL Cool J) who still has a conscience. There were a few other things that just never would have happened in reality.

That said, McDermott did a good job in the role. He makes a good scumbag. And was handy with a stapler. I just hope he found Vancouver preferable to Calgary, which he thought was a hick town.

I bet most of you are wondering what I’m talking about. And if you click on the link, you’ll see some of us have long memories. After all this time I still remember. In fact, when we ID'd Vancouver as the place where they'd filmed the movie (so obvious from landmarks included) we actually had a chat about how Dylan had managed in this 'backwards' country of ours.

This brings me around to the topic of defending yourself. Now, it seems ironic that, after just so recently mentioning the frustrations over the review section with Spinetingler that this topic has exploded elsewhere.

The reason? Someone posted on DorothyL a rebuttal to a review. Except the review wasn’t posted on DorothyL – it was posted on Reviewing The Evidence. The rebuttal was written by the spouse of the author, and included calling the reviewer anal.

I think each and every one of us appreciates the desire to vindicate ourselves. Just this morning, when I dropped by the Bearded Wonderboy’s blog he, too, was expressing some frustration. In his case, with a reporter who misquoted him in print.

Now, why is it that I have no issue at all with what Stuart did but was bothered by the other incident?

There is a proper time and place. I’m of the opinion people can post pretty much whatever they want on their blog. Nobody is forced to read it. It doesn’t end up in people’s inboxes the way listserv posts do. It’s considerably less intrusive. Would it have been better if he’d complained to the publication? Maybe. But we all know retractions get squeezed into something similar to 6pt print size at the bottom of a page of solid grey so that nobody reads them anyway. The way I saw it, Stuart was getting it off his chest… and who can blame him?

When it comes to arguing with reviews, they are a question of taste, for one thing. Unless the reviewer makes a factual error with the book, arguing over points in a review is the equivalent of boxing in quicksand.

It’s pointless. Beyond that, most reviewers and review sources have policies about arguing with reviewers. Most will ban authors from being reviewed if they (or their spouse) argue over a review. We didn’t start off with that policy. We implemented it after I discussed issues with other reviewers and heard how they dealt with it.

Another thing: Most of these reviewers are volunteers. Abuse can lead to fewer people willing to do reviews.

I have no problem with people disagreeing with reviews they’ve received. I don’t even have a problem with someone discussing a review on their blog and saying why they disagreed with a remark, in general. I wouldn’t identify the reviewer, but if I was discussing something that had been commented on about my book I might say, “One reviewer felt that there wasn’t enough in the book that developed the setting” and then go on to discuss setting, blah blah blah.

To be honest with you, I learn from the reviews. I’ve learned from all the feedback. Yes, sometimes it hurts. Yes, sometimes it’s unfair. Can’t say I’m crazy about getting a review that reads like a personal attack, but when it happens do I really need to say anything? Readers can see it for what it is: A slam. For all I know there could be ten zillion bad reviews or scathing personal attacks out there I haven’t seen. I’m only aware of one, and I got emails from people who expressed venom for the reviewer. I didn’t need to say anything. If reviewers get personal they undermine their own credibility.

Flipping things around, as a reviewer there is one review I regret, and that’s my review of The Last Assassin by Barry Eisler. The reason I regret it is that there was an error in the book that I pointed out in my review. I didn’t cite it as an error, I stated I was confused. This was a case where I was very happy that Barry did explain what had happened – after he’d signed off on the book a typesetter changed a name in one scene. As a result, I thought the person being referred to was someone else… hence my confusion. It was corrected for subsequent issues (I had a first edition hardcover, not an ARC). It was 100% not Barry’s fault, and I felt horrid for him. Things like that, near the beginning of a book, can often do enough to keep you from full submersion, and while it was fair to be confused it was unfortunate I was assessing Barry’s work for an error he didn’t make. It was, otherwise, a great action book and those who like conflicted characters who don’t uphold the law should love the Rain series.

Anyway, this is just my opinion. I think there’s a time, and place. However, it’s also necessary to develop a thick skin. No matter how well you write there will always be people who don’t like your work. They may not be interested in the subject matter. They may prefer something darker or lighter. We all have our own preferences and shouldn’t feel the need to make apologies for them… and we shouldn’t expect others to apologize for theirs.

I’m far more casual about my comments on my blog, because the audience is narrow. I agonize over decisions about what to write in reviews in Spinetingler because those will reach a wider audience. I find no joy in making criticisms when a book falls short.

But this does reaffirm my personal policy – if someone doesn’t ask for feedback, don’t give it. Not unless you know them well enough to survive it. Criticizing how someone writes a book is bit like criticizing how they’re raising their children. The difference with reviews is that we seek them out, we need them to spread the word about our work. And we should just be damn thankful for the ones we get.


Patricia said...

Sandra...I agree with you..this post makes perfect sense...oh and happy belated birthday!

Brian said...

When an author publicly addresses a review its a case of "the house always wins" with the reviewer being the house. No good can come of it for the author, none at all.

I personally have had authors contact me both publicly and privately about reviews that I have written about their books. It can only go one of two ways.

1) The author starts debating or defending and ALWAYS comes off looking like shitbird. Always. One author posted a response to my review publicly in the comments section. He came off looking so bad that I immediately started getting e-mails from people saying "Wow! Who knew ------ was such a dick?"

In this case I opted not to respond but some other members defended the review. The author in question never posted again but his publisher created an account and posted positive blurbs from other reviewers in the comments trail.

2) Then there is the other end of the spectrum. One of the nicest people in the world is Donna Moore. After my review of her book she posted a thank you in the comments trail. She came off as a class act (which she is) and other readers appreciated that she had done that. Her response to my review and more importantly the nature of that response actually won her new readers.

So its up to you how you want to come off? Imagine a situation where a reviewer just wiped his ass with your book. Now imagine the reaction if you simply said "Thank you for taking the time to read my book. I'm sorry it wasnt to your liking. I hope that you'll try another one." Wow! what a great fictious response that takes the high road and leave you looking like a million bucks.

I once posted something about Tim Powers and he contacted me to tell me that my facts were slightly off. Did I mind? Hell no I didn't because I was wrong.

I LOVE hearing from authors, I really do. The people at my site love hearing from authors too, hell some of them are active contributors. We will always welcome them with open arms.

The final thought should go to SF/F author John C. Wright who said the following:

"Having a writer step up and defend his own work is like having your mother come out of the stands and argue with the umpire after you are called out at home during Little League. Even if Mom is as right as Archangel Gabriel, it still looks bad."

Sandra Ruttan said...

Patricia, thanks!

Brian, those are wonderful examples. Truly. And it's good to hear from reviewers how they like things handled as well. I felt very shy coming on the forum over there... because I didn't want it to be seen as drumming up more publicity for me. Sometimes my desire to avoid appearing like a walking advertisement skews judgment.

But better to lay low than do what author #1 did! And geez, the publisher too? That's just not good. I suspect they did far more damage than anything that wasn't favourable in the review.

Hell, I learned things from your review of my book.

Randy Johnson said...

I agree that reviews are subjective, based a lot of the time on the reviewer's tastes. I have a friend that I have a few overlapping authors we read. But she also has favorites I wouldn't touch and vice versa. Also, a person's mood at the time can infect their thoughts on a particular book. It's all subjective. In following your blog, I've picked up a few new favorites. But I know sooner or later I may try one and think, "What's the matter with her?" No, not really. I just may not like that one. It happens.

Kris said...

I've worked as a film (and sometimes book) critic for about five years now, and I'm appalled at the number of my 'peers' who have no idea how to write an objective review. A good reviewer can get inside the heads of the movie's intended audience and judge it from their perspective. I'm not much of a one for romantic comedies, but in recent times I've had to review Just My Luck and Music and Lyrics. In my personal opinion they were both forms of torture, but a personal opinion is not a review. What is a review is pointing out Just My Luck's weak script, its derivative storyline (with examples) and its leads' complete lack of charisma. Music & Lyrics, on the other hand, had Hugh Grant's remarkable ability to generate laughs from nothing, a halfway original concept (even if it ran on the usual rom-com formula) and some decent chemistry.

So to wend around to my point, while I detest authors who can't take criticism ("Why publish at all, then?" as Stephen King says in On Writing), it must be frustrating to read a critique where the reviewer prattles on with their personal opinions rather than, you know, evaluating the book.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Randy, even my husband and I don't agree on everything! And I have these weird throwbacks - things that are well outside the norm for me that I love. Like The Narnia Chronicles. And The Blue Castle.

Kris, I usually try to identify the target audience for the book, or indicate who it would have appeal to. That said, it's difficult. I find that people have a tendency to be more nitpicky with books when they aren't working for them or holding their interest. I'm aware of some reviewers who read books in 2-3 hours (how?) but for me the average book is more like 10-15 hours of reading time. And that's a long time to be miserable if you aren't enjoying it. I note that if I don't like the book as much I notice more typos, convoluted sentences, and I'm looking for holes to poke, etc. It becomes the chicken and the egg - am I noticing this stuff because I'm not fully engaged or am I not fully engaged because I'm noticing this stuff?

This is why I can understand some volunteer reviewers who won't write negative reviews. I'm a volunteer, it's my free time. Yes, I write less than glowing reviews, but you're unlikely to find a total trash job in the ezine, because anything that bad I just won't spend my personal time finishing? Fair? Who knows. But until I get paid to do it, I feel I have the right to make that call.

Kris said...

You'll get no argument from me on that, Sandra! You can let a bad movie just wash over you, but reading a bad book takes effort, a lot of effort, and the older I get the less patience I seem to have for the poorly-written ones.

My girlfriend's mother recommended a book recently and I did not get past the first page. Why? Because the phrase 'the long white beach' appeared twice in one paragraph. A reviewer can't just put the book down, though, and it would be very hard not to let such a monumental piece of incompetence taint their opinion of the rest of the novel.

In short, volunteer book reviewers have my utmost respect. They tend to be more proficient than their film-reviewing cousins, too, because it takes real dedication to review a book.

angie said...

Y'know, I had a big laugh with the hubster over this brouhaha. He said he liked the fact that he would never find himself doing the man-dance in a parking lot to defend my honor - literary or otherwise. That image had me in giggles for a long, long time.

A spouse going on the attack over a less than glowing review is ridiculous. It's not sweet. It sure as hell isn't smart. Good grief. Have a little respect. Not just for the reviewer (who at least took the time to read the damn book!), but for your spouse and his/her ability to handle the not so glowy part of the writing biz.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Kris, repetition is one of the things I cringe at the most in my own older work, and when I see it make it through editing I always think what the hell? I try hard to pay attention to that.

Angie, time and place. If someone is legitimately in error in a review with some technical, provable thing, address them privately. It's okay to be upset occasionally. But taking it somewhere else publicly and calling names isn't the way to go.