Saturday, November 17, 2007

Guest Post! Reading Reviews by Laura Benedict

I've always felt badly that I cannot give all debuts equal exposure, and I don't tend to read darker fantasies or horror. At the time Laura's novel, ISABELLA MOON, came out I was rather swamped in books, and was unable to read it. Maria and I did a Spotlight Review of her book, but when she thanked me so kindly, I knew I wanted to do something else for her. Then it occurred to me -- why not ask her to do a guest post? Why on earth would I want to limit guest posts and interviews to authors that I've featured? She was happy to do a guest post and asked me for a subject. Since I knew that her reviews were rather mixed -- indeed, our Spotlight was mixed as well -- I asked her what it was like to be on the other side of a review. Here is her response.

Reading Reviews
by Laura Benedict

I swore to myself that I wouldn’t read a single review of my debut novel ISABELLA MOON when they came out. I’ve reviewed books myself on a freelance basis for a Michigan newspaper for over ten years, I’m married to a writer, and I have many writer friends, so I’m deeply aware of how affecting reviews—both positive and negative—can be. But any writer who says he or she doesn’t read reviews of their books is probably fibbing. It’s a sore, sore temptation to listen in on what folks are saying about your baby, even when you suspect that someone out there is going to claim it’s ugly as sin.

The early word was not great. Two out of the Big Four—Kirkus, PW, Library Journal, and Booklist—were stinkers. They weren’t just bad. They were cruel. And I mean cruel, as in, “who did I piss off to get this kind of treatment?” cruel. As a writer, that was my first, defensive reaction. They couldn’t have possibly read the same book I wrote! The other two were better, but equivocal. I knew I should’ve been grateful: not everyone gets her first book reviewed by the Big Four. I found myself saying stiff-upper-lip things like: “Well, I wanted to run with the big dogs. Guess I’m off the porch, now!”

Fortunately, newspapers and the Blogosphere had nicer things to say, and ISABELLA MOON did not, in fact, sink beneath the weight of that pair of initial smack-downs.

ISABELLA MOON is a complicated book, I confess. Not everyone is interested in a crime/gothic/supernatural thriller/frankly sexual/romance of a book. (Actually, I say “romance” with tongue firmly in cheek. One of my favorite review quotes reports that ISABELLA MOON includes “…various neurotic young women with some pretty twisted views on romance.” I love that, because it’s true!) But my opinion of ISABELLA MOON isn’t relevant. Once it left my desk, copy-edited and complete, it was out of my control.

A reviewer is like any other reader. He (for the sake of simplicity—I get all bollixed up in the he/she thing) takes a look at the book’s jacket and develops an initial impression. Occasionally, that impression may change in the first forty pages and must be revised, but, often as not, the reviewer/reader has a vague expectation of how the book will unfold. Is it a literary book? Well, the language better be good—poetry, almost. Is it a thriller? So, thrill me, and be relatively predictable, but not too predictable! Is it—and this part annoys the heck out of me—destined for women? Then it can be violent, but it better not be too violent, and it damn well better have a resolute, if not happy, ending! And so on….My point is simply that reviewers, like readers, have expectations and will evaluate a book on how well, or poorly, the writer meets those expectations. Woe betide the writer whose book doesn’t resemble the straw man the reviewer/reader has already planted in his mind.

Expectations are not necessarily a bad thing. Categories make it easier for us to find things, to make sense of our world. Predictability is comforting. I like my Crest toothpaste to taste somewhat like Crest toothpaste even if I buy the Crest that Whitens, Brightens, and sings the Star Spangled Banner when I brush!

As writers, we must write what The Muse (or God, or The Universe, what-have-you) sends us to write. If we try to force our own paltry wills on it, the work will not ring true for any reader. But when a book reaches the hands of a reader, that reader’s expectations and experiences are suddenly all brought to bear on the book itself. When that happens, the book becomes a Whole Other Thing. It becomes the reader’s property, a part of the reader’s world, a projection of the reader’s imagination. The writer has zero control here.

Some writers will complain that a reviewer didn’t “get” their book. This only means that the reviewer didn’t “get” the same thing that the writer “got” from his own book. Writers are not particularly reliable about their own work. J.K. Rowling didn’t “get” that Dumbledore was gay until she saw a script for the sixth film. And I believe her.

For the writer, reading reviews is a futile exercise. For me, it has been downright destructive. A few negative reviews temporarily wrecked my confidence in my work—mostly because I’m a hypersensitive wimp. Conversely, I have been unreasonably cheered by good reviews. But they all have nothing to do with me as a writer, as a person. Reviews are simply opinions. If I try to fool myself into believing that reading reviews will make me a better writer (and, early on in my reviewing career, I imagined that’s what I was doing for the writer—silly me!) I’ll drive myself nuts. Seriously, if I want professional criticism, I know some damned good teachers who can help me improve—people I can trust whose job it is to make me a better writer because I’m paying them to do it.

A very smart editor told me that his house’s research has shown that, when a reader goes to to read reviews, he reads many of them, both positive and negative and makes what he thinks is a balanced decision. It’s information-gathering. This sounds right to me. I know that’s how I approach new things I might want to try. I sample others’ opinions, then make my decision.

When I review, I try to find something nice to say about a book, even if I didn’t much care for it. I was also writing fiction all those years that I was reviewing, and so frequently imagined myself on the other side of the newspaper. Even if I feel very let down by the writer—I’m not surprised enough, the language isn’t beautiful enough, the characters aren’t alive enough—I try to find something that the writer did do well. Writers are human beings, after all. And a writer has a heck of a lot of himself wound into a book. Even if he’s a jerk. There is such a thing as being damned by faint praise, and I think reviewers need to exercise that option more often. It’s more civilized than outright excoriation and does no disservice to the consumer of the review.

But that’s just my opinion, which, like a belly-button, everyone has.

It's me again! Laura now has a blog at Thanks so much, Laura! I'll leave this as the top post until Sunday night, when I'll have some more debuts to announce.


Unknown said...

ISABELLA MOON sounds veryyyyyyyy interesting! :)

Anonymous said...

The "destined for women" thing annoys the heck out of me, too. I don't know who decided that women are only supposed to read one kind of story.

Tia Nevitt said...

Blackroze, here is a link to my original shout-out, where you can find lots more information:

Isabella Moon Announcement

I think I have read lots of novels that are "destined" for men as well. And I read very little "women's fiction".

I read somewhere once that little boys are willing to read stories about little boys, but not about little girls. According to the article, little girls will read about both boys and girls. That's why megasellers like Harry Potter have a boy protag, according to this theory. Do you suppose this carries forward into adulthood?

However, from what I've seen at my fellow reviewer sites -- about half of them being male -- is that some of them have read books that I never would have expected a guy to read.

When my husband heard me laughing so much over Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books, he read the first two or three in the series. And he HARDLY EVER reads fiction.

Carole McDonnell said...

Laura, I'm so sorry the book got a smackdown. I'm sure there'll be better reviews in the future. And yay to Isabella for rising above those reviewers. -C

CJ Lyons said...

Wow!!! Great post, Laura! And it puts a new spin on reading reviews for me--especially negative ones.

I love cross-genre books (like IM!) that refuse to stay put in one pigeon hole, to me that makes them compelling and those are also the books I enjoy writing.

But after reading your post, I realize that I'm probably not the typical reader and that buyers and reviewers do judge a book by its cover. Oh boy, I might be in for a rocky, rocky time when the reviews come out on LIFELINES!!!

At least I'll know I can turn to you for support! Thanks for opening my eyes!

Maria said...

Great Post Laura!

Laura Benedict said...

Thanks so much, Tia, for having me here, and to everyone for the warm welcome.

Now I'm thinking that I need to change the opening chapter of my new novel from a scene with three girls to one with three boys!

Tia Nevitt said...

Gosh, please don't let my blathering influence you!!

Joel said...

Great post!

I'm getting more into this blog the more I read it. As a budding sci-fi/fantasy writer who hopes to one day make my debut, reading about other newly-published authors is a nice change from what I usually read. It's a fresh perspective to me.

Also, I have to say that this is a valuable post for those who review. My own blog follows a similar philosophy, but it differs in that we just don't post about books we do not like (i.e. we only do "recommendations," not reviews).

Anyway, now that I know you exist, and that I like your writing, I'll have to check out Isabella Moon. :)