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Sunday Times Books LIVE

Cat Hellisen

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

US vs THEM

Writers vs Reviewers. If you spend any time on social media following authors and book bloggers, you see this cropping up. The most recent in a long string of us vs them is here at Booksmugglers but it’s certainly not the first and will more than likely not be the last.

I have problems with all of it, but most specifically the divide. We’ve set up an online narrative where book bloggers and reviewers are in one corner, and the authors are in the other, both of them ready to duke it out at the slightest hint of provocation.

See. I don’t think the divide is that simple. We are all of us at the end readers (and if you’re a writer who doesn’t read than please consider a new career). More importantly, we are all of us at the beginning, readers. This is why we are here – we love words and stories and characters and language. We immerse ourselves in fictional worlds and lives. We have a common ground.

And I think this is where it becomes hard as a writer to separate that love of reading from ourselves as producers of art. We are no longer just consumers. The review becomes personal to us, even though it shouldn’t be. It’s hard not to see a negative review of your work as not being about *you* personally. I have often sat and torn books to pieces with my friends, both before and after taking up writing. I meant no malice to the authors themselves – in a sense, they didn’t exist. The author was an abstract. The book was the thing. If a plot was dumb, a character too stupid to live, the language dreadful, my friends and I would discuss these without thought to the person behind them.

Suddenly, I’m that abstract, that author, and you know what? It’s hard to pretend that the author doesn’t exist as a human when you know they do. I still love and hate books, but I’m a lot more comfortable discussing online the books I love, than harping on about the ones that annoyed me.

So what does this have to do with book blogging – am I saying that all reviews should be nice? That criticism must be couched in hearts and flowers? Not at all, but that we all need to remember that there are humans on the other side of the divide we’ve drawn. And sometimes you just hate a book because it pings every button on the OMG HATE THIS list, but there’s a way to say that which isn’t mean girl posturing.

The same goes for writers – this isn’t about YOU any more. If a book blogger lists every flaw they found in your book, they’re not making a comment on you as a person (although sometimes they might be – but then you have to ask why you’re being called a misogynist or a racist.)  They are critiquing your art. They are saying, I HATE THIS. And you know what, they’re totally entitled to it. It’s not as though because you’re a writer everyone has to love what you make.

As a writer, you get to deal with this in different ways – you can have a conversation, but going to a negative review and telling the reviewer they’re wrong wrong wrong and here’s why is probably not a good way to start a dialogue. You can pretend all reviews don’t exist and not read them at all (often the best and safest choice), or you can engage in a non-confrontational way, you can talk outside of the context of reviews, you can learn from what reviewers post and ignore them if they are nonsensical (and some really are :) )

However you choose to deal with the weirdness that is reading reviews of your own work, and even if you feel slighted and hurt by what is said, you still need to remember that reviewers are also humans. They have tastes, loves and hates, personal experiences that inform their reading – all of which are different to yours. Think of those times you’ve eviscerated a book you can’t believe actually got published, think about how many people love that book and what aspect of it is connecting with readers. And then think of the human faces behind this reviewer/writer divide.

We can still have critique, analysis, discussion, reviews. We just need to learn to navigate this online, where the temptation to lash out at a perceived insult is so easily enabled by the wonder of social media.

Anyway, I’m interested to see how you cope with the open conversation that’s come up with book blogging, tweeting and goodreads. As reviewers, as writers, and sometimes as both. Is there a way we should be behaving, or is all this prescriptive social guidelines thing just nonsense?

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://tomrymour.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Tom</a>
    Tom
    September 17th, 2013 @19:18 #
     
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    Nasty, sneering dismissive reviews which reveal the reviewer's ego or ignorance can be safely ignored. And if they're counterbalanced by strongly positive write ups, its a good sign. Critical polarisation is said to indicate that a work is on the cutting edge. If you follow critiques of other books by a reviewer who panned you, and find out that (s)he is consistently raving about books which you personally consider unworthy of even faint praise -- well, that is enormously uplifting!

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    September 18th, 2013 @11:07 #
     
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    Well, the hardcore BooksLIVE regulars of old regularly sought solace among each other when they had received a bad review. It can be fun to vent and fume and tear such reviews to shreds with kindred spirits, but experience has taught me that it's best to do so behind closed doors. This can be best achieved by setting up a closed group for authors on Facebook, where you can engage in open discussion, have a laugh at the reviewer's expense and get that much needed pat on the back. I'm part of a group of Dutch authors who do this and our discussions often lead to constructive support and sometimes subtle counter-publicity. Perhaps it's time we set up something similar for South African authors.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    September 18th, 2013 @11:59 #
     
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    Richard, I like your idea in theory. But have watched other people's comments made on closed forums pop up in the big bad world.

    I am taking notes of these things and trying to figure out what sort of online presence works and what does not. I know I've made many mistakes along the way. Nor is everyone gifted with the 'Teju Cole flair'. Some people just have a knack.

    The one thing I have done right, however, is get a writing bff (and a few other souls). We can vent via email without worrying that our 'low moment' isn't suddenly on record for the world to see.

    Joining a writers group is also very useful for having people 'on your side'. Yes, I am aware they are biased. A writer also needs to keep in mind that the 'cheerleaders' are biased. But again, when life has bruised you, they help get you going again. (Also make sure I get a monthly dose of poetry. They're all poets to some degree.)

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    September 18th, 2013 @16:55 #
     
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    It's difficult for writers who are also critics/reviewers. We're both Us and Them at the same time. You have been warned.
    (Seriously, though, it's possible to write reviews which are not hello kitty, which engage seriously with the work: criticism is by no means always a bad thing, and is not always (although writers, sweet dear souls, don't want to believe this) done out of personal interest. I think reviewers should try to understand the author's intentions as much as possible - make a serious attempt - and then make the necessary critiques....never one without the other. Otherwise we get no further than factions, and discussions about literature will never get anywhere at all) .

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    September 19th, 2013 @11:16 #
     
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    I wrote a long comment a few days ago, but my internet died before I could post.

    Some bad reviews can be helpful (once you've wiped away the tears), but some can be ignored: reviews that are about the reviewer, not the book; reviews that are about the author, or the reviewer-author relationship, esp if this is an unhappy one, and this info is not disclosed; malice-fests (which often fall into the former two categories, and involve an agenda -- nasty AND dishonest); reviews where the reviewer clearly hasn't read the book, or has read it too hastily, or hasn't done their homework (I remember a reviewer consistently referring to Ivan V's Double Negative as Double Exposure; the same person described a second novel as the author's "debut" -- credibility fail); reviewer not qualified to read book (subcategory: reviewer misunderstands genre -- still remember an art critic earnestly reviewing a humorous krimi as if it was litfic, with inadvertently hilarious results).

    How to respond: in public, take it on the chin. Write better next time (this is after assessing, with help from others, whether the review makes valid critiques). Get a decent editor (I see quite a few sticks that on closer inspection, are critiques of the editing, not the original writing talent, but reviewers rarely distinguish between the two.) Dignified silence goes for social media as well. Authors who rant and weep, even on "private" platforms, do themselves no good. Rather hope that others will wade into the fray for you, and that they will do so intelligently.

    Above all, never ever attack your reviewer publicly on the internet. We've all read those knee-jerk reactions and winced. Only exception to this rule is if you're libelled, and then get good advice before engaging.

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