The Farmer and the Cowman — by Josh Lanyon

But the farmer and the cowman should be friends.
Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.
The cowman ropes a cow with ease, the farmer steals her butter and cheese, but that’s no reason why they can’t be friends.

Oklahoma, Rodgers and Hammerstein

We’ve all seen the movie — no, not Oklahoma. The movie where the artist — sometimes an actor, sometimes a playwright, sometimes a painter, sometimes a novelist — is lying in bed with breakfast tray and newspapers…plumped by pillows like an invalid waiting to hear the doctor’s prognosis. Except in this case it’s the first night reviews the artist is awaiting. Depending on the film, the reviews are either the validation the artist has been slaving for — or soul crushing defeat (hide the sleeping pills). This iconic Hollywood image fosters the long cherished belief that reviews make or break a writer/painter/actor/concert pianist’s career, and it’s one reason artists occasionally (okay, often) grow unhinged on the topic.

Reviews are important, no argument there, but their role isn’t quite that cut and dried.

There has always been the peculiar dichotomy of the commercial success and critical failure. The film or book or, er, Thomas Kinkade — the work or artist that “people” can’t get enough of, and critics deplore. We’ve seen plenty of that in movies too. The tormented genius killing himself because the critics Just Don’t Get It. In Hollywood, it turns out the critics were always wrong and the deceased ultimately gets the accolades he deserves. Deserved.

In real life? Comme ci, comme ca. Reviews are subjective. Oh, sure, we all secretly believe that our subjective view is the correct and knowledgeable one, but we usually know enough to at least pretend we accept that our opinion is simply that. Equally subjective — as in sign me up for the Braille Institute — are the views of authors for their own work.

Two weeks ago the web was abuzz with yet another writer having a public meltdown over a review. This one got particularly ugly, affording much malicious merriment up and down the intertubes. It’s yet another volley in what increasingly looks like an ongoing battle in the war between reviewers and authors. Even I, who don’t get out much, can hardly fail to notice the increase in posts from both writers and reviewers whining that the other side doesn’t appreciate them enough, which made me think this might be a good, timely topic for a column.

* * * *

Early last year I decided to stop reading reviews of my work. That’s like trying to find the strength to walk away when you accidentally eavesdrop on someone talking about you. It’s not easy. The temptation is to listen in — especially when people are saying nice things.

But 2010 was already a stressful year and what I’d discovered was that even a stray negative comment in an otherwise positive review could be unexpectedly demoralizing — and positive reviews were starting to make me self-conscious about my craft. Either way, good or bad, I was finding the constant buzz of opinion, the white noise of the Internet, increasingly distracting — and influential.

That’s a bad thing for a writer. A very bad thing. Writers should not be writing in the hope of pleasing some imaginary audience. First and foremost, you write to please yourself, then you try to find the right publisher for the kind of thing you write, and then you promote in the hope of finding enough readers who share your same love of stories. (You’ll notice reviews come at the end of the process, not the beginning.)

I was also finding the role of this new brand of blogger-reviewer confusing. These days any goof with a computer and a credit card can call herself an Author, but so too can any goof with a computer and Internet access call herself a Reviewer. It’s all about the DIY. Way back when I first started publishing, reviews were formal affairs. Reviewers were paid professionals. Reviews appeared in newspapers and periodicals. They were flattering or unflattering, fair or unfair, but either way, they were most assuredly impersonal. Most of us (who weren’t part of the New York literary scene) never knew the reviewers. They were not “friends.” They were not even acquaintances. Okay, occasionally we bumped into each other at conferences and drinks and viewpoints were exchanged. The Internet changed all that. Everyone who has a blog or an Amazon or Goodreads account is now a potential literary critic. So it’s quite easy to find that an Internet “friend” has said something (maybe inadvertently) hurtful or (we fear) damaging in a “review.”

In fact, reviewers who are also internet friends are often the most hurtful and oblivious in their effort to avoid the dreaded “gushing,” to distance their reviewing from the friendship. Just as fiction writers desperately want to be taken seriously, so do writers of reviews. Plus we live in a society that places ridiculous amount of importance on opinions. My opinion right or wrong! is the battle cry of an uninformed generation be the topic health care or literary criticism.

And, strictly speaking, it’s true that we are all entitled to our opinion — and to share that opinion. We have a right to speak our mind without fear of being intimidated or bullied. Unfortunately, that’s sometimes interpreted to mean we have a right to offer our opinions and never have them challenged at all. That’s not correct. That’s an attitude that breeds ignorance and arrogance. If your formal education taught you anything, it should be that we must always be able to defend and support our opinions with reason and logic.

Without reason and logic to base our opinions on, we prove the truth of the adage opinions are like assholes: everyone has one. Without reason and logic, assholes and opinions produce the same result.

Wave can feel free to post one of her attractive, anatomically correct photos right about here. [I tried to post a lovely picture but the censors wouldn’t let me 🙂 ]

To further complicate the modern relationship between reviewers and writers — especially in this genre — many of our blogger-reviewers are themselves aspiring writers. It makes sense because one of the best tools for honing your craft is to learn to read analytically. But as we can all testify, there is no one more critical than the ambitious neophyte or the envious peer.

(I’m not saying don’t review. I’m saying, be smart. Be wise. Don’t take your frustrations out in your reviews. If you think networking doesn’t matter and that talent alone will carry the day, you really do have a lot to learn. And a lonely row to hoe.)

Likewise, the reviewer who turns writer and is now being reviewed by her cronies, is liable to experience that same painstaking care in distancing the friendship from the reviewing. And that’s awkward because the role of a friend is that of supporter and comforter, not critic. Getting a three star review from a best friend hurts. Period. It is not the cement of deeper, truer friendships.

Of course we all remind ourselves — repeatedly — that reviews are not personal. But writing a book or a play or a poem isn’t like building a dog house or generating a sales report. If you want to tell me my math is wrong or my floor isn’t level, I’m not going to take it personally. I can see the truth for myself. If you tell me my characters are all the same, I’m going to be offended and I’m going to think that perhaps — unlike my faulty math — that’s a matter of opinion.

And so it is. Much of reviewing is subjective. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that you have a right to your opinion, whatever it is and regardless of your qualifications, and then insist that your opinion is not subjective. Most aspects of literature — up to and including various grammatical fine points — are a matter of taste and style. Beyond type face, there is little black and white in literature.

A long while back I read a post by someone who took umbrage to writers rejecting criticism because they felt the reviewer didn’t “get it.” But of course this is the truth. We all bring our personal experiences, emotional baggage, and our widely ranging literary backgrounds (i.e. education) to everything we read. Just as we don’t all have the same sense of humor or share the same sensibility about what is “romantic” or “sexy,” we don’t all share the same taste/appreciation/understanding of everything we read. We don’t all “get” every book we read.

You would have to be an ego-maniac to believe your reading and your reading alone is the only correct reading of any text. This is why two equally respected reviewers can somehow give opposite grades to the same book.

Let’s talk about respect for reviewers. Like writers, some reviewers are regarded more highly than others. Their opinion carries more weight; more people listen to them and are presumably influenced by them. Setting aside the fact that we tend to think the people who agree with us are smarter than those who don’t, we consider reviewers to be good at their job based on two things: when they plainly know one heck of a lot about the subject matter under review and when they can elegantly and articulately spell out how most people will feel about a given work. In other words, there’s a certain amount of pressure on critics to define what makes something good (or bad), and to successfully predict both what will be popular and what other (knowledgeable) critics will think.

For a reviewer to have credibility he or she has to get it right most of the time. This requires knowing a lot about whatever the art form is, and also possessing an internal gauge for intuiting how others are going to feel about the work. Sometimes the reviewer will knowingly and deliberately buck the tide of what is popular, foreseeing genius before anyone else, but generally the “best” reviewers are in sync with their peers and their public.

Book reviewers are the advocates of readers. In essence, theirs is the business of matching the right book to the right reader. Although this purpose sometimes aligns with that of writers, it doesn’t always. This is why it’s vital that writers not look to reviewers for validation.

But that’s easier said than done.

The problem with storytelling is it’s a two-way street. The decision to share a story seems to require a response, a reassurance that someone is out there reading, reacting. That’s where writers get into trouble.

Validation should come from the fact that someone is willing to publish you — and many people are willing to buy your work. That’s your validation right there. But of course we want more. We want to hear what readers thought of our work. We want, in short, to hear good things. We want to know that it matters to someone whether we keep sharing our stories.

This is it in a nutshell. We write for ourselves. We publish for others.

Reviewers will justify snarky, even cruel, comments by pointing out that reviews are for readers and not writers.

This is the truth. This is God’s own truth. Writers need to accept it.

And so do reviewers.

It’s interesting how flustered and even irritable some reviewers get when writers state that they don’t read reviews — let alone when they urge other writers not to read their own reviews. It can be a real conflict for reviewers, because while reviewers want to be free to write anything they like and not have to deal with hurt or offended writers, at the same time some do seem to resent the idea that writers might feel it’s not important or useful to read reviews of their work.

Here we have a dichotomy — and here we have, I think, the source of conflict between writers and reviewers in our cozy little corner of the literary universe.

Just as writers mistakenly look to reviewers for validation, so do reviewers mistakenly regard their own role.

A reviewer is not a writing teacher or an editor. It is not the reviewer’s job to teach a writer his craft. The reviewer may or may not be qualified to teach writing, but the role of a review is not that of manuscript evaluation.

The writer should not be looking to a reviewer for editorial advice anymore than she should be seeking validation. So while a reviewer might believe a writer could learn something from her reviews, she should not be miffed because the writer declines to read that which should be directed toward readers.

A reviewer is not a marketing manager or PR person. Writers use reviews as promotional tools, which is one reason they get so frazzled over “bad” reviews. We forget that the review does not exist to sell more books for us. But reviewers also forget this.

In recent months I’ve heard reviewers saying bitter things about writers who don’t seem to appreciate “all that we’ve done for them.”

Reviewers should recommend the books they like and explain why they don’t like the books they don’t like. They should not expect anything for this — including special attention from writers.

I’ve heard many online reviewers saying they like it when writers acknowledge their reviews. That it makes them feel like their work — and reviewing is work — is being appreciated. But there’s a problem with this. The problem is an expectation of gratitude on the part of the writer means the reviewer is becoming part of a process she or he has no business being part of. The reviewer is now starting to view herself as part of a writer’s success. This not only leads to delusions of grandeur on the part of the reviewer, it means the writer begins to be beholden to the reviewer. I don’t need to tell you how undesirable this dynamic is.

Also how warped. Reviews are one piece of the promotional puzzle. There are many pieces in that puzzle.

While on the surface this chatty new casual interactive writer/reviewer relationship looks fun and gratifying for all concerned, we’re forgetting how humans work. Think about it. We create an environment where writers and reviewers openly, honestly chat about all kinds of things related to the writing process. At some point we mention in passing to our reviewer friends that we struggled with this particular book. And then in a review, the reviewer quotes the author and the reviewer goes on to say…and that struggle shows. Does the struggle show or is the reviewer merely reaching for something original to say about a book? Did the author’s online revelations color the reviewer’s perception? Would an author feel betrayed by having something mentioned in friendly open discourse used against her in a review?

Here’s another problem with that scenario. Writers and reviewers openly chat about everything under the sun — including their good reviews — but along comes a not-so-flattering review and writers are suddenly supposed to zip it. We are to be visibly grateful in public for good reviews and nobly suck it up if the review is bad? And the reviewer is supposed to somehow be totally impartial while fully aware the writer is watching?

Do I honestly need to point out that this is utterly unrealistic? Humans don’t operate like this.

Very simply, writers and reviewers need to preserve a friendly, professional distance. Good friends should recuse themselves from reviewing, and cyber friends should not be wounded when writers don’t drop by to make nice-nice over reviews. Especially lukewarm reviews. We can still play together with interviews and contests and all that good stuff, but for the sake of everyone’s sanity we need to remember our separate roles in the writing and reviewing process.

The Internet is changing publishing — it’s also changing the role of the reviewer. Literary criticism is in as big a flux as every other aspect of publishing. It’s suffering growing pains too. For an excellent overview of the topic, I recommend a series of essays in The New York Times titled Why Criticism Matters. https://myaccount.nytimes.com/auth/login?URI=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2F2011%2F01%2F02%2Fbooks%2Freview%2FRoiphe-t-web.html%3Fscp%3D4%26sq%3Drole%2520of%2520reviewer%26st%3Dcse%26_r%3D5&REFUSE_COOKIE_ERROR=SHOW_ERROR

Reviewing serves a vital function for readers and writers both — inarguably — but the aims and goals of writers and reviewers do not always coincide, except in that both are committed to the ideal of quality work within a genre.

Bad reviews. We all know how writers are supposed to behave regarding bad reviews. Chin up, stiff upper lip, a gritted thank you for the review (no matter how unflattering) in public. Very old school, that idea. One of the problems with the greater accessibility between writers and readers is that writers no longer regard reviewers as minor but untouchable deities. Bob the Blogger is not Marilyn Stasio, and only Bob imagines that he deserves the same respect. With a click of the button we can email Bob and tell him exactly what we think of him and his misspelled thoughts on our magnum dopus.

Even so, a wise writer will ignore a bad review. It’s really simple. DON’T RESPOND. Ignore it and it will go away. Guaranteed.

But even if it lingers forever like smoke damage on a particular title, it doesn’t matter. One review is not going to make or break you. I know how hard it is to believe this, but even if it’s your very first review ever, one review will not make or break you. I know the panic that you feel, the growing tightness in your chest, the black dots dancing before your eyes as reader after reader chirps, “Great review, SuzieQ, I think I’ll give this one a miss!” Odds are, they weren’t going to buy your book anyway. And, as I know to my cost, if the book is the kind of thing that tickles the reader fancy, all the dire warning reviews in the world won’t save her. Sometimes the poor fool is actually intrigued by them.

Don’t whine in public about bad reviews. I’m not saying don’t bitch and complain, but do it in private to your trusted circle. Don’t use it as a transparent promotional op as I’ve seen done so many times. Oh yeah, you’ll garner some knee jerk sympathy, but you still look like a big fat baby to the silent majority of observers. And it inevitably gets back to the reviewer who inevitably thinks you’re being ungrateful and inevitably blah-blah-blogs about the ingratitude of arrogant writers who shouldn’t publish if they can’t take criticism.

(And yes, we all see the irony.)

Having said that, remember my mention earlier of the latest writer to have a public meltdown over a review? This was followed by dire predictions that her career was over. Not likely. If anything, her sales jumped big time. Furthermore, do you remember the author’s name? I don’t. I’m guessing that by now the vast majority of us have forgotten her name. Oh, a handful of reviewers have her on their Eternal Blacklist, but so what? If the books are good enough, word of mouth will see her through. And if she’s not, all the glowing reviews in the world (made up and otherwise) won’t save her.

* * * *

One of the best things about the way the Internet is changing how we all do business, is that, though print review venues are continuing to fold, cyber review venues are springing up like mushrooms. So although it feels like it takes forever to start getting reviews, once you score a couple, more will follow. Many, many more. And pretty soon the ping pong of opinion will begin.

It’s brilliant!
It sucks!
I couldn’t finish it.
I couldn’t put it down.

Relax. The consensus opinion of your work will level out. Don’t quit your day job when you get a rave review, and don’t reach for the razor blades when you get a bad one. Everyone gets their share of both. Every single one of us. The only writer who hasn’t received a bad review is the writer who hasn’t been around very long.

I think it helps if you can look at all this blogging and book-talking less as “reviewing” and more like cyber bookclubs. The tone of most of these blogs and reviews is breezy and informal, and it seems to be a lot of the same people talking to each other in something that’s surely as much social event as literary criticism. If you look at it this way, as casual online book discussion, and less as some cowled, faceless entity laughing hollowly as she rips your dreams of a writing career to bloody shreds, I think the occasional and inevitable negative postings will be a lot easier to take.

And if you can’t take it, do yourself a favor and don’t look.

Whatever you decide, never forget that the Internet is forever. So think twice before you post the death threats. Save those sweet thoughts for the Black Mass.

But this column isn’t just about writers. Ultra-touchy writers aren’t the only problem in this brave new world of ours. We have equally touchy reviewers. In fact, part of the new paradigm is we have instances of reviewers attempting to punish and even ruin writers who don’t behave as the reviewers believe they ought. I hate to break it to those who believe that reviewers have always perched on a marble pedestal protected by an impenetrable force field, but writers have been taking public whacks at reviewers since the invention of the printing press, and it isn’t their ferocious feuds with reviewers for which we remember Byron, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Capote, Irving, etc.

No, I’m not Hemingway. But let’s face it. You’re not whoever Hemingway was tearing a new A-hole.

What was that guy’s name again?

Deliberately trying to destroy someone professionally because they annoy you (coz, that’s what it ultimately gets down to) ranks high on the stuff-you-don’t-want-on-your-soul-if-you-get-hit-by-a-bus-this-week meter.

My advice to reviewers is the same as my advice to authors: Get over yourself. In the big picture of things we’re none of us even a blip on the radar.

One of the things that will go a long way toward healing the current breach between reviewers and writers is a responsible and professional attitude on the part of reviewers.

Instead of that defensive, it’s my opinion! the best reviewers hold themselves to the same standards they do writers of fiction. That’s admirable. Perhaps we could all do the same and hold reviewers to the same standards we do all writers of non-fiction. After all, if you publish something, if you put your work out in public, you must expect to have it critiqued, correct? This is what we fiction writers are told. If you put you work out there, you must be prepared to have it criticized. And yet in some circles, to criticize a critic — to even correct a critic on an inaccuracy — is considered a crime nearly as heinous as eating baby flesh.

Here’s what I, as an author, would ask of reviewers of my work. I would ask that you actually read the book and judge the book on its own individual merits. I would ask that you support your opinions — particularly negative opinions — with examples. There’s a great deal of laziness in reviewing. Reviewers avoid supporting opinions by claiming they don’t want to give “spoilers.” In order to discuss a book in any depth, you’re going to have to give a few things away. Readers who don’t want spoilers need to avoid those reviews until after they’ve read the book.

That’s potentially hard on those reviewers who want to see themselves as powerhouses within the star-making process, but that’s what needs to happen.

Secondly, reviewers need to do their own research. How often have I read a review where a reviewer challenges the writer’s research with some fool comment like…although I know nothing of mountain climbing, I’m sure this description of scaling Everest can’t be correct. We all need to do our research. And if you’re not willing to do the research, then don’t speculate on something which you acknowledge you know nothing of.

Thirdly, unless you’re Dear Author with the rhetorical letter to the writer bit, don’t address the author in your review. It’s weird to me, as an author, to read someone pleading Dear Josh Lanyon, please don’t ever write in first person POV again. A review is not a conversational gambit. If you’ve got something you want to say to me, write me. I’m not hard to find. But I’m not going to engage in a public debate with you about my work. If you’re writing a review in the hope of convincing an author to do X, Y, or Z, you’d have a better shot contacting her directly because, if she’s like me, she’s not reading her reviews, and if she is unwise enough to read, she’s hopefully smart enough not to respond.

I happened to mention this column to a reviewer friend of mine. Her view is that writers have created a monster by breaking the long established taboo of interacting with reviewers. She’s right. A blogger writes a nice review and we’re hopeful that here’s someone with a shared understanding, someone who gets it, who gets us. We want to encourage that. We want to reward her. We want to recommend her blog and send her more books. The problem is, if you acknowledge some reviewers but not all reviewers it looks like favoritism. If you only drop by for your own reviews, you’re accused of “using” the reviewer. If you acknowledge good reviews but ignore bad reviews, you’re pressuring reviewers (i.e., we’ll only come to the sandbox if you play nice). We need to stay the hell out of the sandbox and get back to the merry-go-round where we belong.

Writers do appreciate reviews and all the hard work that goes into them. There’s no greater pleasure than a well-written, glowing review — or just honest, heartfelt enthusiasm. It’s one of the perks of the job. And I mean that sincerely. I’ve read comments in reviews of my own work so insightful they’ve made me see my work anew. Or so complimentary they’ve choked me up. I’ve had reviews inspire me to keep writing when I truly thought it was time to throw in the towel. Positive reviews act as the instant antidote for poisonous reviews.

Also, just because I recommend writers don’t read their own reviews, doesn’t mean I don’t love and read reviews. I love reviews. I read reviews all the time. I’m delighted when a friend gets a great review. I’m guiltily amused by smart, wickedly funny negative reviews.

Of course writers understand the importance of reviews. Of course we value the reviewer’s contribution to publishing and our own careers. That doesn’t mean that we agree with everything you write, or that we’re automatically and always wrong when we disagree — anymore than you are wrong every time you criticize a work of fiction.

Can the farmer and the cowman be friends? Some of my closest friendships — both on and off the net — are with people who started out reviewing my work. Sure we can be friends, but we need to take the pressure off that friendship. It’ll be easier if we keep in mind that while we do not exist independently of each other, what we need from the relationship are different things. What is best for the writer may not be what’s best for the reviewer — and vice versa. Let’s remember and be tolerant of the fact that both sides have a tendency to take themselves too seriously, that we can all be replaced, and that we’ve all got feelings and egos — and that caring about other people’s feelings is the sign of an evolved personality.

In the greater scheme of things, people matter more than books, let alone reviews of books.

Having said all this, I hear plenty of writers saying that they learn a lot from reviews, and I guess if the message of the reviews is consistent, that’s quite possible. Certainly, if you read reviews, you should be looking for the consensus of opinion. I also think that how we view things like reviews changes depending on where we are in our writing career — and our own personalities. Some of us can hear that we are the God of M/M writing and it wouldn’t go to our head. Some of us can hear we should give up writing before we do any more harm to Literature, and not be a whit discouraged. There is no wrong or right answer; there is only what works for you.

The relationship between writers and literary critics is as old as the Epic of Gilgamesh. Yep, somewhere in ancient Mesopotamia, some critic was complaining that Gilgamesh’s motivations were weak and that killing off Enkidu guaranteed the reviewer would NOT be reading the sequel. Even if we don’t always like each other, it helps to keep in mind that we do need each other. We may not manage to be friends, but we don’t have to be adversaries if both sides maintain critical standards, hold themselves accountable for their actions, and behave with professionalism.

169 comments

  • Wow. Some thread.
    I’m a published author. I’m a reader, and I review.
    I take the reviewing seriously, and I try not to let it impinge on my other life. I don’t review books that are released by publishers that I’m with, for example.
    Most of all, I’m a person, and I count it as a privilege that I can give my considered opinion on books that I’ve read. When I do a review, I have the reader in mind, the person expected to shell out their hard-earned on a book. When I revise my reviews, I remember the author. Not if I hurt her feelings, but if I’m being fair to her.

    Reply
  • Hey, I know I’m, like, 9 days late to this party, but just wanted to say that one practical piece of insight pulled out of these comments might be the whole idea of getting other people to read/gather your review quotes for you. Because you’re right. These days your editors probably won’t be reading your reviews for you and cherry-picking the good ones for promotion. But the fact is that somebody’s got to do it, right? Otherwise there won’t BE any quotes. Because publishers do require authors to provide these (for those of you who haven’t had to fill out a marketing/promotional sheet before) and they must be relatively current to be valuable. If you’re an author who is just starting out, acquiring these quotes is crucial, but it means reading a lot of reviews of your own work–usually between the first and second release, which is an emotionally fragile time for an author anyway.

    So maybe a practical answer for authors is to pair up into review-reading swaps–try to work cooperatively so that review quotes can be acquired without the demoralizing effect of having to read one’s own reviews? How about that? If you see a fantastic quote about a friend, just send the quote, attribution and a link. It would be up to the receiver to resist the urge to read the whole review, of course, but it would prevent a lot of anguish, conflict and hurt feelings if review quotes could be acquired without having to read every single thing everybody ever wrote about you.

    I’m going to add a smiley here just because I want to have my own bunny on this comment. (Everybody else’s looked so cute!) 🙂

    Reply
    • Better late than never!

      I think yours is a practical solution.

      Another relatively prosiac way of handling it is just hang onto all the links and then read and collect them all in one go.
      Nothing could provide a more clear illustration of how subjective it all is than reading all your reviews in one gulp.

      Some friends and I used to turn that into a drinking game, as a matter of fact. Pretty funny, as I recall.

      Reply
  • Yeehaw, Holly. 😀

    Thanks for your thoughts. The overwhelming majority of writers and reviewers seem to get it. There is no longterm advantage for any of us in carrying on like it’s a gunfight at the I’M-OK-YOU’RE-NOT Corral.

    Reply

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