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Friday, August 15, 2008

When Authors Obsess Over Reviews by Amateurs

The Washington Post (online version) has a feature from this Sunday's edition up already and it should prove to be a thought provoking piece for those who write book reviews for various websites. I do sincerely try to be fair in every review that I write and I don't make a habit of taking cheap shots, although I imagine it's happened more times than I realize or intended. In fact, I've had some nice comments from some of the authors I've most criticized saying that they appreciate honest reviews and can see the point I was making - and then they usually tell me why they think I am wrong. Fair enough, that, and I very much appreciate their willingness to discuss their work with someone as anonymous as me.

Author Chris Bohjalian admits to being a little obsessed by the reviews of his books over at Amazon.com but, thankfully, he still has enough of a sense of humor to laugh at the absurdity of some of those "reviews."
...there are few worlds as barbed as the digital one, and people say savage things about my work online that they wouldn't dare say in person. Such are the privileges of anonymity and distance.

To wit, a recent post at Amazon for one of my novels is headlined, "Not getting better." The reader concludes "In a word: vacuous."

It gets worse: "The writing is crude, the yarn slack. He's not been 'Oprah'ed' for nothing."

Or this from another customer review titled "Ugggghhhhhh":

"I was asked to read this book for my job," the reader volunteers, and then explains why he gave the book just one star out of five (I have not added the following typos to impugn the critic's qualifications; they were already there): "I proceded to read it untill i got to chapter 7, and when i found that no plot has even erupted yet. The entire chapter was about a deer. How can a book be seven chapters in, and about 100 pages in, and still have expostition material. this book was terrible and would never suggest to anyone."
...
It only takes one thorn like that in a rosebush of 30 or 40 flowers to leave me bleeding and wounded and thinking to myself, "Wow. You really aren't very good, are you? You're certainly not good . . . enough." Am I thin-skinned?

Perhaps. Vulnerability and creativity don't always go hand-in-hand, but often they do.
...
It affects both book sales and, yes, my self-esteem. Certainly, there are lots of enthusiastic reviews for my work by readers online, and there are plenty of critics -- and I am not using that term facetiously, I promise -- who understand a book in precisely the fashion I intended. That, too, is what draws novelists to pore over the Web reviews. In that mosh pit of online commentary, that galaxy of single-star and five-star reviews, a lot of people who are far smarter than I have said things about my books -- both good and bad -- that left me humbled.

Nonetheless, it is hard to resist a review that uses the word "Stoopid" or to argue with someone who calls himself "Bic Parker."
Please read the whole article over at the Post website because my clips don't really do it justice. Mr. Bohjalian makes some great points and, although he does it largely with humor, there is a serious message here.
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