Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire

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Thoughts on Writing #49: Leave Reviewers Alone.

Welcome to the forty-ninth essay in my fifty-essay series on the art, craft, business, and occasional weirdness that is writing. All fifty of the essays in this series are based around my original fifty thoughts on writing, which means I only have two more essays to go. Almost there! Our thought for today:

Thoughts on Writing #49: Leave Reviewers Alone.

And now, because context is king, our expanded thought:

Try not to argue with reviewers in public places. It makes you look petty and it makes them feel attacked, and that's going to start a vicious spiral leading all the way down into the deepest, darkest depths of Hell. Feel free to whine at your friends if that makes you feel better, but don't make public scenes, and don't make huffy comments where other people are going to find them. Also, if everyone who's known to be a friend of yours starts attacking the reviewer? People are maybe gonna catch on. Play nice.

This one isn't very complicated on the surface: reviews are for readers. Now, most of us are readers. Sometimes, reviews are for us. When are the reviews not for us? When they're reviews of our books, or of books written by our friends. When those reviews come to the party, we're not invited. And sure, it can seem like we're invited, especially when those reviews are posted publicly on the internet; after all, it wouldn't be public if everyone wasn't allowed to comment, right?

Wrong. Today we're going to be talking about reviews, why they're not for us, and why you don't want to know what happens when you engage.

Ready? Good. Let's begin.

Bad Reviews Happen.

There is literally no book in the world that has been a) published for people to read who are neither the writer's parent nor married to the writer, b) actually been read by people who fall into neither of the above categories, and c) had honest, not-paid-for, not-swapped-with-other-writers reviews posted that has not received a bad review. True fact! The best book you've ever read has been one-starred somewhere in the world. The worst book you've ever read has been five-starred. This is because of a lot of different factors, but the biggest one to keep in mind is that everyone is different, everyone likes different things, and when you're on the internet, everyone gets to have an opinion.

One of my favorite books is an absolutely bizarre, incredibly sexual New Weird novel called Santa Steps Out. Based on the number of times I've read and recommended it, this book should be considered an easy five-star in the shelving system of me. But I guarantee you it's a book that has more one-star reviews than five-star reviews, because it's three hundred plus pages of Santa Claus having sex with things. It's not everybody's ball of wax, and that's okay. No large group of humans was ever going to absolutely agree on absolutely everything.

Bad reviews happen to the best of us. Take a deep breath, and let it go.

And believe me, I know full well that this is easier said than done. Sometimes I want to argue with people who give me bad reviews that I feel are unfair. I do not do this. If someone gives me a bad review that is based on a factual inaccuracy (like the time someone said that the fact that I was clearly male meant that my female characters were unbelievable), I may send a private correction. I also may not. A lot of it depends on whether I've ever met the reviewer...and, honestly, whether I'm afraid of over-zealous friends riding in to defend my honor. I don't sic my friends on reviewers, but I am also not the queen wasp of a telepathic hive-mind, and if someone makes a personal attack toward me (rather than attacking the text, which is something altogether different), there's a chance other people will get involved. So in the case of the reviewer who firmly asserted that I was a man, I sent a private correction before they got the internet dropped on their head.

(They may have felt attacked anyway, because as the author, I have a lot more "weight" behind my words than a random blogger does. I hope not. I really was trying to spare them being actually attacked. It's still possible, which is why I thought long and hard before sending that email.)

But Writing A Book Is Hard and They're Being Mean.

Okay. Look:

Not every bad review is mean. Sometimes bad reviews happen because the book is bad, or because the book wasn't what the reader wanted, or because of a million other factors that you can't really control once the book is written. Reasons I have received bad reviews:

* This book has faeries in it.
* I don't know what the word "necrosis" means.
* Mira Grant books are better why is she wasting her time with this shit.
* I love Mira Grant and I hate urban fantasy why is this book urban fantasy.
* Not enough sex.
* Too much sex.
* I went to high school with the author and she's stupid and fat and ugly and she smells.

...I mean, I've also received bad reviews that are a lot less comic and more difficult to laugh off. I've received bad reviews that made me cry (although, to be fair, sometimes I cry over insurance commercials). That doesn't mean they were intentionally cruel.

Yes, you will encounter bad reviews that are also mean reviews. Reviews that mention your physical appearance? Are probably mean. Reviews that attack you instead of attacking the writing? Might be mean. Reviews that say you should die? Mean. Does that mean you should respond to them?


We hear a lot about authors behaving badly, because at the end of the day, on the internet, where we have the weight of our words behind us, there is a huge power imbalance between even the most novice author and the majority* of reviewers. That reviewer you just decided to take a self-important swipe at? Is sixteen, and you are now an adult attacking a child. You do not come out of this smelling like a rose.

And yes, there will be reviewers and bloggers who try to bait you. This is something that gets left out of the conversation sometimes. I've had people link me to the same bad review on Twitter a dozen times, and then start going "ooOOoOoOO is the big bad author AFRAID?!" when I don't say anything. This is what the "mute" button is for. If I replied, if I tried to defend myself, if I engaged, I would be giving them the ammo they needed to turn around and go "see? See? AUTHOR BEHAVING BADLY." Because of the power imbalance, whether real or assumed, I cannot let them goad me into responding.

People are going to dislike your book. People are going to be mean. I won't tell you to get over it or grow a thicker skin, because that's advice I have yet to take for myself. I will, however, tell you not to read those reviews.

Let it go.

(*I say "majority" because yes, there are famous reviewers. There are huge, influential, important reviewers. They are relatively rare, and usually focused on movies/music, not the sort of books I write, or that most of my friends write. If a reviewer for People magazine felt the need to say something personal about me, I might respond, because in that case, the power imbalance would decidedly not be in my favor. The odds of this ever happening, to me or to anyone reading this, are slim. Do not go looking for excuses to attack.)

People Say Reviews Are For Readers. I'm A Reader.

Every writer I know is a reader. But unlike every other reader in the world, we never get to interface with our own books from any sort of a distance. They are always, always personal. Look. A lot of people think that A Local Habitation is my weakest book, and they're probably right. It was the second book I ever wrote; it lacks the burning "start of a series" inspiration of Rosemary and Rue, and the technical proficiency of either An Artificial Night or Feed. It was always going to be in a bad spot as far as being treated fairly goes. Reviewers read it, and they see that it's not amazing, and they say so.

But for me, that book will always be the one I broke in the hallway at OVFF with Merav, wearing my pumpkin pants and talking until 3am. It will be the book I sent, chapter by chapter, to a good friend, as a sort of mystic token against miscarriage. It will be the book that proved I could do this "writing a novel" thing more than once, and I will never be rational about it, and reviewers who dislike it are not wrong, and their reviews are not for me. They are for them, and they are for you.

When those reviews are of your book, whether it's your personal best or your personal worst, they won't be for you either.

That's how it's got to be.
Tags: contemplation, reviews

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