Reviewing Consumer Art

As a writer, one of the things I really appreciate is when someone takes a few minutes to place a thoughtful review of one of my books online, either on their blog, Amazon, or Goodreads. Whether they like the book or not, the fact that they took the time means the book meant something to them. That said, not everyone feels comfortable writing a review.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Earlier this week, I was going through some reviews of the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild on the website Rotten Tomatoes. Most of the reviewers loved it but a few didn’t. That’s not surprising. One movie can’t please everyone. That said, one of the reviewers compared the movie to Disney’s infamous Song of the South. I happened to notice the reviewer was a white male and I was curious if any black reviewers shared his opinion. Browsing through Rotten Tomatoes, it struck me how many professional reviewers are white men. In fact, I couldn’t find a black reviewer whose opinion was cited. It struck me that this is a serious problem and I couldn’t help but wonder if by giving such weighted value to the opinions of white men, it keeps others from sharing their opinions as freely as they might. It also made me wonder whether or not white men dominate other review venues so thoroughly. I haven’t had a chance to pursue that question.

At the same time as I’d noticed this, I took part in a discussion of book reviews at The Steampunk Empire. It occurred to me that one of the difficulties of reviewing books and movies is that they walk in two worlds. They can be both art and consumer products. What’s more not everything that’s good consumer product is good art and vice versa. In an ideal world, the two come together and a good thought provoking book will also sell well, but that doesn’t happen very often.

It occurred to me that when I review books, I tend to look for the best in them. Were they fun? Did they make me think? Were they good art? Did I have a good time reading them? I realize that’s not true of everyone. Some people have very specific things they look for in a title. For others a good review will simply reflect how well the book met that person’s expectations.

Do you review the books you read? What kinds of factors do you look for in your reviews?

Las Cruces Comic Con

Before I leave just a couple of news items. This weekend, I’m at Las Cruces Comic Con in Las Cruces, New Mexico. My table is the first one against the left-hand wall as you walk in. If you’re in town, be sure to drop by! Also, I’ve heard my editor is hard at work on The Brazen Shark and I should see her notes in the next couple of weeks. I’m wondering if I’m going to get notes for both my steampunk novel and my horror novel The Astronomer’s Crypt at the same time. Yikes!

Goodreads

Goodreads embodies one of my favorite ideas for a social network—a place to hang out on line and share books with friends and potential readers. They have a lot of nice tools to allow readers to interact with each other and for authors to interact with readers and share information about their projects.

That said, the part I find the most challenging is site’s reliance on the five-star rating system. In particular, there are many books where I’m hard pressed to apply one “grade” to the entire book. Perhaps the book embodies beautiful prose, but has flat characters. Perhaps it’s a diamond in the rough that I thoroughly enjoyed despite some grammar and spelling problems. As with any social situation, I face awkward questions of going against the norm. What if I hated a book everyone loved or even loved a book everyone hated?

I’ve finally decided the standard I’m going to use to give books ratings on Goodreads is simply my enjoyment of the book. If I had a good time or felt enriched from reading it, I’ll likely give it five stars. If the book tempted me to throw it across the room in frustration, I’ll likely give it one or two. This may seem an extremely simple approach and you may wonder why it too me so long to come to this conclusion, but it goes back to that whole awkward social interaction thing. It’s easy to get caught up in questions of what people think of your opinions. In this case, I’ve simply found a standard that allows me to explain why I’ve given a book a particular rating—and it’s a standard that’s fun for me.

SummersLightningWolves

Of course another daunting element of all this is that I get to see what ratings people give my books. I do my best to adopt an attitude I first heard articulated by my friend Janni Lee Simner. I avoid trolling Goodreads for reviews and hope readers see it as a place where they can freely rate and discuss my books as they choose. I do look at the reviews from time to time and consider the comments good and bad, but I’ve also learned not to obsess over them. In fact, I’ve learned that most of my favorite authors have an average rating of about 3.5 give or take. Some readers love them, some hate them, a few are kind of neutral.

SummersDragon'sFall

This month, I’m giving away two of my books on Goodreads. I’m giving away five copies of my wild west steampunk adventure novel Lightning Wolves at https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/118409-lightning-wolves and I’m giving away five copies of my novel of vampire mercenaries, Dragon’s Fall at https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/118410-dragon-s-fall-rise-of-the-scarlet-order. If you’re a Goodreads member, I hope you’ll enter to win! If you do win, I hope you’ll take time to review the book. Whether you liked it or hated it, a review shows you cared about the book and in the end, that’s what really matters.

The Little Death

The Bene Gesserit sisterhood of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune recite a litany against fear that goes in part:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer
Fear is the Little Death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.

These words can apply to pretty much anyone, but I think there’s an especially strong relevance to writers. We have to confront the fear of rejection if we try to sell the book to a publisher. We have to face the fear that no one will buy the book. We have to face the fear that even if they do buy the book, they might not like it and leave one-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I have known people who have let fear dominate them at any given step in this process. They quit after receiving a rejection. They quit after book sales didn’t do as well as they wanted. They quit after a bad review. For them, fear was indeed the Little Death that brought total obliteration.

The Pirates of Sufiro

Sometimes I look back at my first novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, and think how hard it was to get up the courage to send it to a publisher. That first publisher went out of business and I had to do it all over again when I got the rights back. To this day, this is a book that gets divided reviews. I’ve seen it get a one-star review one day and a five-star review within the week. There have been plenty of opportunities to let fear influence my decisions about this novel in particular and my writing career in general.

I recently had occasion to read the novel again. From the perspective of twenty years after I wrote it, I understand and even agree with much of the thoughtful criticism about the book. That said, I really appreciate those people who love the novel and I’m delighted that they had fun with it and decided to follow the characters into the sequels. Alas, some of the criticism I’ve seen hasn’t been so thoughtful—that I just do my best to shrug off.

On reflection, rereading my first novel left me with a good feeling. Overall, I think it still works as the fun pulp-inspired novel I’d intended, but I also see why it’s not for everyone. What’s more, I’m glad I’ve persevered and continued to write, explore other genres, and improve my craft. As the Bene Gesserit litany says at its conclusion:

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

If you’d like to give The Pirates of Sufiro a try, the ebook is free at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.