Jay Lake: Writer

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[publishing] Reviews

Yesterday I tweeted a link to a very negative review of Green. (That link is in this morning’s Link Salad as well.) The review closes with my favorite book diss I’ve ever seen applied to anyone’s work. I mean, it’s a freaking brilliant combination of disgusted ennui and visceral dislike for a book, distilled into an amazingly simple phrase.

Louise Marley responded via Facebook with You’re braver than I, Jay. I shove negative reviews under the rug, where no one can ever find them. And I know a number of very smart writers, thinking specifically of Dean Wesley Smith at the moment, who strongly advise that one never reads reviews.

Louise and Dean are right. But I’m weird. Because bad reviews don’t bother me at all. In some ways, I enjoy them more than good reviews.

In part, this is because any review, especially from a reader (as opposed to a formal review outlet like Publishers Weekly or Locus) means that someone cared enough personally about the book to talk about it public. Even if they come to bury the book, not to praise it.

More to the point, reviewers that are unhappy with a book often tell me more about what I did in the book than happy reviewers. Not that I haven’t received some brilliant, incisive praise in my day, and been deeply grateful for it. But when someone complains about specifics (such as this reviewer complaining with useful detail about the fight scenes in Green) that tells me that I had a failure of research, imagination or narrative control. Or possibly all three. At least with respect to that reader. The next time I write a fight scene, I will have more to consider.

But even when a reviewer just says, “Nope, not for me, didn’t like it at all”, that’s ok with me. Because I believe right down to the bedrock of my writer’s soul that the story belongs to the reader. It doesn’t matter what I intended, or thought I executed on the page, or what any other readers thought. If a reviewer (or any reader) doesn’t like the book (or story), that’s their experience of it, and they cannot be wrong. It’s their experience.

The only partial exception to any of this rubric is reviews where the reviewer missed text on the page somehow, and drew conclusions from that. Which I can’t do anything about either, and don’t get bent out of shape about, but is frustrating, because I’d much rather be dissed for something I wrote than something a reader thought I wrote but didn’t. (That’s a general life rule for me.) It doesn’t come up often, and certainly isn’t the case with the review linked above.

I suppose I’m missing a piece in my head that almost all writers seem to have, the piece that cringes at criticism in reviews. Maybe that’s because I began my professional career in advertising, where your ego is ground down with a sandblaster very early on. Or maybe all those years of writing, critiquing and rejection before I ever got published wore it away. Or maybe I’m just an attention whore who likes to see my name mentioned under any circumstances so long as they spell it right. I don’t know. I do know that I find reviews entertaining, and bad reviews especially entertaining.

And no, that’s not a challenge to you wits out there.

How do you look at reviews? Do they inspire or discourage you? Do you even read them?

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