Sunday, January 19, 2014

With Impunity

In his book "Up Til Now," William Shatner discusses a review he once received, calling his performance (I've forgotten which one) "wooden."

About the review, he says - "Wooden? I barely even remember sitting at the kitchen table on a rainy morning, eating three slightly undercooked eggs over easy, reading the review while Gloria, who was dressed in a pale green cotton top, got the girls ready for school. As a professional actor, those things don't bother me. And that particular review has continued to not bother me for more than four decades."

I have that page marked in the book, and I read that passage often.

Never let it be said that I don't love William Shatner.

Here's the deal - negative reviews bother all of us. All. Of. Us. Any writer who tells you negative reviews don't bother them is either lying or on crack. Myself included, and I've never done a drug in my life.

We - authors as a whole, in general - like to claim that negative reviews don't bother us. That we're far too professional to let them. After all, a review is just an opinion - one person's opinion. For every one or two bad reviews, there are twice again as many - or more - positive ones.

Authors rarely like to admit it, but we're a teensy bit masochistic (well, some of us more than others) - we read those bad reviews not because we want to, but because we're driven to. Because, quite frankly, one never knows what the review will say before its read, and we're not immune to enjoying a little stroking of our... ahem... egos... now and again. Once we see it's not going to turn out well - usually decipherable by the tell-tale lack of stars - we don't stop reading.

The fact is, I remember every negative review I've ever gotten. I remember who wrote them, where I was when I read them. I ranted and raved in the privacy - or publicity - of wherever I was. How dare they say what they'd said? Didn't they know who I was? I'm one of the best in the industry - who the hell were they to sit in judgement of me?

While those words left my lips, the never - ever - left my fingertips.

Authors, you see, can't respond to negative reviews. At the most, we can say "thanks for the input." "Thanks for the input?" Really? Isn't that a bit like someone calling you an asshole and you thanking them? Seriously? Do people do that? "Thanks for the input." And you'd be amazed at the number of reviewers who get offended at those four words. Sometimes, you can't even say "thanks for the input."

A few days ago, a fellow author shared a review with me. Now, when I say "a review," what I really mean is a nasty, horrendously insulting personal attack thinly veiled as an opinion on a book. The "reviewer," and I use that term lightly, used their platform to air views which had nothing to do with the actual book.

Now, I'm fine with "this book sucked and here's why." I'm fine with "I hate this trope and that's what this book is about and I want to throw it against the wall."

God knows I've got a laundry list of pet peeves and I've discussed them all. Loudly. Often.

What I'm not okay with are blatant attacks on authors as people - on *anyone* in the public spotlight as people.

We're all human. With the exception of a small percentage of the population, we all deserve kindness, compassion, understanding, and to be treated as if we matter.

But I digress.

Writers aren't supposed to respond to any negative reviews. We're not supposed to defend ourselves, our choices, our characters, our characters' choices, our editors, our publishers - nothing. Believe me, I've seen the shit storm that is invoked when an author dares to speak out against a negative review.

All of this recent review sharing got me thinking - why not?

Who decided it was acceptable for a reviewer to tear an author a new asshole, but not acceptable for said author to thrash about and make noise when torn?

Reviews are sort of a Baptism by fire in any case. When you're brand-spanking new to the industry, you're told that reviews are important. Essential. Vital. You want reviews. Some publishers ask you to send in a list of places you think might want to review your work. Some publishers have people hired especially to facilitate reviews. Hell, most contracts even have a clause about reviews.

But you don't want just any reviews, you want *good* reviews. Good reviews, you see, are the path to success! Get good reviews, and you'll be writing checks for your mortgage from your royalties! Just you wait!

Ahem. No. As someone with quite a few good reviews for each of my works - my back list of over 20 works - I can tell you with certainty that I pay my mortgage from my Evil Day Job. I do, however, support my Star Trek memorabilia habit through my royalties, and that's pretty cool. But financial stability on my royalties? Hardly.

While you might absolutely support yourself on your writing alone - many authors I know do - good reviews are absolutely not a guarantee of that.

Then again, who really cares about reviews, anyhow?

When you get further into your writing career, you discover that the nebulous advantages of reviews are just that - nebulous. Maybe readers read them, maybe they don't. Maybe readers listen to them, maybe they don't. Some readers admit reviews impact their purchases, some say they don't care. Some review sites are reputable, large, and in charge. Some are just small and humble and "Who?" Some reviewers don't even both to check their facts - and really, how credible are they?

Case in point - I once received a rather scathing review for my very first solo release "On God's Honor." This was several years ago, when the book had first come out. I'd tell you I've forgotten the who, what, when, where of that review, but that would be a lie. It was my very first ever negative review. Not my last, by any means.

But in that review, the reviewer not only got my name wrong, but the title of my book, and one of the main characters' names, and mentioned a "plot flaw" that wasn't actually in my book.

I remember sitting there at my computer at The Evil Day Job, reading that review. It was a Tuesday morning, the sun was shining outside...

Not that I let these things stay with me, mind you. I'm far too professional for that.

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