Friday, November 7, 2014

No Rage Stalking Here - Why I Welcome Critical Reviews

The stories are epic out there. Authors stalking reviewers in person to berate them about a review. Readers forming gangs to one-star a book to "send the author a message" of some kind. Then there's authors demanding that readers review their books and that the review be positive - because they're owed it somehow. And the readers who retaliate by putting the digital file up for file sharing to ruin the author's market. Too many people publishing where others live, and don't get me started on GamerGate, either, which is an escalation beyond all decency into rape and death threats in the video gaming critique world.

In the realm of books, talking honestly and critically has turned into a ride in a big city subway through a rough part of town, when most people just love books and want to do their own thing - read them, write them. It's become a "Shut up and don't make eye contact" situation, even if someone might actually be trying to say something constructive that could make a difference to an author's writing and production standards. Because there is some major bat-crap crazy out there.

Here's some great articles to catch you up.  If you read only one, make it this one by Emily Gould which is about how strangely even the high end literary types are behaving, and ends with the Best.Advice.Ever. Check out some crazy trollery and stalking in this Salon summary by Laura Miller. The rules of the jungle and some apt comparisons to road rage and hacker mentality are in this great blog by Anne Allen. Sadly, it's also observable that a lot of the name calling and creepy behavior is done by women to other women in the book world.

Even when the behavior isn't outright crazy a lot wouldn't be tolerated in person, but occurs online so commonly that conversation grinds to a halt. Case in point, this week a prominent entertainment blog for lesbians listed favorite books and specifically engaged readers to explore the genre and asked them to use the comments to add their favorites. Within hours a couple of readers who weren't fans of the genre arrived to point and laugh, while an author used the comments to list her own books, then inserted herself into a thread to discuss her books. I am picturing a live event for readers where either of these behaviors would be considered acceptable... Nope, not if I were the host. Though I sound as if I'm getting to the "Get off my lawn!" stage of life, the former is rude and the latter is both rude and  just isn't smart marketing. Either way, it's a symptom in what drives people away from talking about books.

Where we're left is with authors and readers who won't read reviews because they're useless for a myriad of reasons, requiring too much filtering and interpretation. Is this one a shill? Is that one a troll? Two things are lost: The simple word-of-mouth where one engaged reader tells open forums what she really thinks about books; and useful constructive feedback that helps writers focus and grow. 

I don't get any of the excessive life-and-death behavior. As Laura Miller's article points out, too many authors believe that a single review kills their book's sales when there's no data to back that up, only anecdotes and outliers, while there seem to be reviewers who want to convince authors that they have this kind of power over their careers. So read the Emily Gould article again if you have to. That's where I'm living. I survived some brutal early reviews and they were in print in a time when that's the only word-of-mouth there was. I wrote another book. Then another.  No book reached a reader that I didn't think was as finished and as good as I could make it at that time. 

Critical -  constructive - reviews have never been plentiful in lesbian popular fiction, and over the last decade or so they have dwindled further. There are lots of reasons why, but lately it seems that it's simply not safe, and not because the women who read the books don't have useful, constructive things to say. The whole reason I'm writing this is because of just such a rare review (here)

At the link you'll find a constructive, critical review at "The Rainbow Hub" for Marie Castle's Hell's Belle. There are other reviews like it that have crossed my desk in recent years, but I decided to use this one as an example because a) it's not about one of my books; b) to my knowledge, I don't know this reviewer; and c) it's about a book many readers of my blog may have also read. My reaction is about as impartial as it can be, given that it's about a book I helped select for publication and personally really liked.

My reaction to a review that includes elements like what made me cringe, what I tolerated, and suggested there was too much telling at times? That the Southern rambling style was perhaps a bit much?  If I were Marie Castle (which is kind of funny to think about; hi, Marie!), I'd be thrilled with this review. 
  • It's overall very positive, ending with a big endorsement to read the book.
  • The negatives are voiced in constructive, contextual ways - the true meaning of being "critical." This reader was intellectually engaged and the critique offered is thoughtful even though worded in an engaging, casual manner. The reader thought the book deserved the scrutiny and attention.
  • It's not personal about the author in any way, positive or negative. No author likes being name-called, yet lots of personal flattery in a review means all the other nice things must be taken with a grain of salt as well. It also means other readers won't think this was the work of a friend or shill.
  • It doesn't disparage the book's reason to exist, its genre or intended audience. One of my first ever print reviews began something like, "I hate romance novels and this book is no exception." 
  • It's clear about what the reader didn't like and whether the reader felt that might be personal taste versus a flaw in the writing, editing or production. This allows other readers the room to decide for themselves if that negative would be, for them, also a negative.
  • It places the book in the context of its genre and concludes by evaluating satisfaction (an emotional reaction) based on its fit within expectations of the genre (an intellectual judgment).
  • It's not plot summary and doesn't give away key plot points. 
  • It doesn't talk over the head of other readers - it's for other readers. Yet there is much the author can ponder.

All summed up, this is The Gift of Feedback. Yet, it would seem that some authors these days would go into a positive rage spiral at the mere suggestion that their book wasn't 5-stars picture perfect, even though the review heartily, thoroughly says READ THIS BOOK. In my opinion, if you're a writer and you can't even handle this type of feedback, then you should not be on the Internet at all. Do as Emily Gould says, write your book and then write another.

A gift of feedback at this quality is so rare, that I believe it deserves to be processed and considered. I am always looking for this kind of feedback. I set aside time every couple of months, writer brain engaged, to hunt down and read reviews and comments from readers wherever they may be. Yes, there's some ugly things out there, and it can be time and energy draining. That's why I have a mental checklist I follow, and it actually weeds out the trolls and helps manage the process.

Every review goes into the Sorting Hat with one question: Can I use what the reader is praising or critiquing in my FUTURE writing? The book in question is finished. Only the future is in my control. Most of the time the answer is a clear No. That doesn't mean it's a pointless review, it just means my writer brain can let it go.

  1. Nothing to see here part one - I have no control over mean or incomprehensible. For example, I still get variations of "I hate romance and so I hate this book" like that print review I got long ago. I can't do a thing about people who read books they are guaranteed not to like. An insight I could have used those many years ago, because at the time it was devastating. Barbara Grier assured me it would not hurt my sales one bit - the opposite, quite likely - and I have long since had the last laugh. I let it go.
  2. Nothing to see here part two - I have no control over a lone reader's comprehension of the book, or other elements in the review that indicate she's reviewing a book I didn't write, like the reviewer who railed about a plot event but missed a key point. Other readers got it right, and some were prompted to post a review to say so. Hey, they're discussing my book, that's good. There's nothing my writer brain can use, though. Let it go.
  3. Nothing to see here part three - I have no control over a reader's personal taste, and I accept that for some readers, I simply will not click. There will always be readers who say "This just didn't work for me" or "I tried another book by her and I still don't like her" or "There's no f*ckable blonde so that's 2 stars!" There's nothing my writer's brain can do with that information because peaches can't turn into nutmeg. Let it go, let it go... Sing with me!
  4. DING DING DING! Attagirl Payoff Review that's Wonderful for the Muse  - Those reviews from a reader's heart, praising how the book made them feel - they're not critical and usually have no real useful content for the writer's craft. But, oh, they are a reason to get out of bed! I hope nothing in this blog comes off as ungrateful for them. They matter deeply. That connection with a reader is the one I hope to make with every book. But I have no control over the reader's emotional reaction to a book. After thanking the reader (if it's appropriate, it isn't always), the writer part of my brain has to let it go even if the slutty muse is using it for lube. Sorry, that's a bit graphic. Well, that's how she is.

Sometimes, however, what the reader is praising or critiquing is something that I MIGHT be able to use in my future writing. What's not useful has been sorted out. Now it's time to open the writer brain, listen objectively and evaluate the feedback. I consider this step important and necessary to my craft. This is why I welcome critical reviews.

  1. There's a difference between the reader who just doesn't warm to my style at all and the reader who finds one book's style off-putting. That's worth asking myself if I did something different with that book. Perhaps I conclude that the answer is no, so then I can conclude that I'm grateful for the feedback, but there's nothing I can change in the future. That book just didn't click for that reader.
    But I might conclude that this book had a different narrative structure or I did something unusual with point-of-view or character revelations, and that this reader noticed and didn't care for it. Over time, if more than one reader noticed this aspect then I should definitely give it some thought. A lot of a writer's tools shouldn't be noticed by the general reader when they're well deployed. Was I clumsy? Do I want to give it another try? Talk to my editor about the technique before I get further down the next work in progress?
  2. Reader criticism can affirm my choices just as much as reader praise, too. After taking in the feedback, I can decide that I wouldn't have done - and won't be doing - anything differently. The reason I did X, Y and Z that this particular reader is critiquing were good choices and I would make them again.  It's important to remind myself that most of the time I do know what I'm doing and it's not the end of the world if a reader doesn't always agree. As Emily Gould points out, the book's job is to speak for itself. Sometimes the message isn't received, and if I say it another way for one person, all the rest of my readers will get lost.
  3. Then again, a critique can sometimes lead to a true slap to the forehead and an eye-opening moment of revelation. A choice I made might have been done differently and all my readers would have gotten a better book for it. Not just a plot point, but a way to look outside the box of my established genre can be fodder to taking a fresh look at a future book. One of my great fears is writing the same book twice. A reader who says "Why didn't she do X?" might just spark a new twist for a book I haven't written yet.
  4. Then there is the reader who pointed out that my characters usually have their first sexual encounter with at least one of them half-clothed, and she seemed to be sort of complaining. I hadn't noticed this habit. Not changing it, I think it's hot. Um, I mean, writer brain thinks it's a useful and constructive choice in erotic situations.
  5. "Where are the women of color?" Pointedly in a very early review on a book, this question is the perfect example of something I have control over and no excuse not to change. Something as a white woman with a lot of privilege I always fear not to get right, and haven't gotten right and have gotten right and am still working on. I'm not alone. Anything worth doing is worth doing less than perfectly, at first. #weneeddiversebooks folks. 
  6. Sometimes, the mirror doesn't reflect nice things, and there's no escaping it. The truth hurts. When a book has flaws I could have fixed, that hurts. But bigger truths hurt even more - yet we all know that the worst lesson is the one we don't learn from. A women's bookstore review praised - yes, praised - my first book for what amounted to forgettability. The reader enjoyed my book and hoped I could be counted on to produce books that could be read quickly and not linger in the mind afterward. I know these words were meant kindly and I know exactly what the reader meant. I hope that I have disappointed her, and repeatedly. I cannot imagine if I had not read those words twenty-mumble years ago and decided then what kind of writer I wanted NOT to be. 
I'm sure that some of this comes off as my sounding like a totally mature, evolved and centered human being who never once thought of bouncing a coffee cup off the head of some Neanderthal who doesn't understand a metaphor or praises typo-riddled glurge and will always think my other book was so much better than the one she's trashing at the moment. I do have those urges. They take place in the privacy of my office, where they belong. On occasion I simply must dust my bookshelf, including an array of glass and Lucite objects, and I quote Edith Head, "In my experience..."

It all ends in the same place: If it's not useful to the future, I let it go. The other choice is to cut myself off from all feedback, which means cutting myself off from readers for the most part. I might as well cut out my heart. As I said above, many words ago, the emotional connection of book to reader is a huge part of why I write. I intend every book to be better than the last for their sake as well as my own.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

See You in PTown at Womencrafts and GCLS!

Vegas - Lesbian style, that's Provincetown for Women! A woman-centric entertainer in every venue, women holding hands on every corner, bars and restaurants overflowing with smiling ladies and bois - there's nothing quite like Provincetown for Women's Week. It's fall, so there's lots of flannel and sensible shoes, but fine styles come out for the night time events.

One important way it's different from Vegas - there's BOOKS, lots of readings and events about BOOKS. 

I like it.

You can catch up to me in two places this Women's Week, both high in laughter and low in pressure. Just drop in and feel free to say hello and collect your hug (if you're in to that). There will be other great authors to meet as well!
  • Womencrafts Books on Saturday, October 18 at 11:30 with other Bella Books writers Marianne Banks, Pol Robinson and Jody Valley.*
  • Golden Crown Literary Society Festival! Full schedule here. Their event at the Sage Inn spans Wednesday, October 15 to Friday, October 17. I'll be at the Meet and Greet on Wednesday 5 p.m. On Friday at 11:30 a.m. I'll be participating in a free-for-all author chat, plus signing books at the 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. time slots. 
Womencrafts will have a selection of my books available and I encourage you to acquire copies from them. I will bring copies of a few books with me, but if you want to be sure of having a particular book signed, order it ahead of time from my web store and I'll bring it with me. More info here. At checkout select "Bring to Provincetown" as the shipping method, and in the notes, indicate which event I will meet you at.

*Diana Simmonds was scheduled to join us, but had to return to Australia ahead of schedule.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Keeping it "Real" and Buying into the Big Lie

When we're alone, afraid and cold, we look for shelter. Sometimes we find a tent and make our way inside. Sometimes we have what it takes to pitch our own tent. Either way, we are joined by others seeking shelter from the same storms of life. In the queer community, the LGBTQI letters hold up a lot of canvas of a very Big Queer Tent. Nobody is in charge of the big queer tent (BQT). The BQT a collective construct made up of what everybody brings inside it.

Anybody who wants to be in the BQT is inside the tent; all that's left is the arguing by those who want to exclude others based on their definitions of who is more or less queer. Good luck to anyone who thinks they can stop someone who claims a queer identity from doing so. But the futility of the task doesn't stop some people from trying. In particular, of late, there has been an attempt by a few to separate queer women writers from each other along the lines of their sexual identity or their sexual history. I believe that this stems from buying into the Big Lie. I'll return to that.

I don't claim to know all the corners of the BQT. I only know the path I took to find it, the door I came in through, and the people I've met inside. I have learned who I am, and named my identity.

No one will tell me my place. No one will define me. No one will tell me I do not belong there. And that dignity is the right of every person in the Big Queer Tent.

My queer identity is strongly Lesbian and Feminist, and within the Lesbian part of the BQT I have found a beauty and diversity like fractals: a wealth of depth that is infinitely large. I can find support for my identity as a lesbian, a femme who looks like a soccer mom, a woman with hot flashes, a mom raising a boy and a girl, a queer writer who's tired of taking crap for writing romance, a lesbian reader who's so over the white male canon, a survivor of sexual abuse. Because we're all also women, I find affinity, humor, support, understanding, and sometimes just a simple "attagirl" for all the ways that women are oppressed every day of our lives. I don't live my entire life inside the BQT, either. There's laundry, kids, flat tires and Pink Floyd, just for starters. But for the most part, my various identities are all within the BQT, somewhere, if I want to look.

 May I Come In?

It is equally true that there are communities inside the BQT that I cannot belong to, even if they are made up of other lesbians. With few exceptions, I am at once living my truth and a guest in someone else's truth, their history and culture. For example, lesbians who have served in combat will share a history that I can only guess at. Their need to bond and support each other is understandable. If I wanted to learn about their experiences in order to create a realistic character, I might ask if I can come inside their tent, just one of many tents within the BQT. Mutual trust forms, and friendship, and years pass, and I know their lives. I am still not one of them. I can never be one of them. I am, at best, a treasured guest. Every time I put pen to paper I am appropriating their culture. I should never forget that. If I in some way did not behave the way a guest should - if I wrote in a way that demeans their truth, if I spoke as if I were one of them - I would hope to be taken aside by one of my hosts, not pilloried in public.

There is one important fact at the outset: when I asked to come inside their tent they would have had every right to say no. This is a tightrope of life when we must respect the right of any oppressed group to close their ranks to heal and support each other, and any group inside the BQT automatically fits the definition. After all, not every instance of exclusion is about hate or ignorance.

There is also the reality that while we have reason to fear our queer and lesbian culture being appropriated, the truth is an artist is often a guest in someone else's culture even inside the BQT. I pause here to simply say, tangentially, be a good guest, be a good host, and much of life in the BQT will more thoughtful and less incendiary.

 What We Have in Common

It is equally true that there are communities inside the queer tent that reflect only one piece of my identity. One of my favorite events of the year celebrates lesbian fiction, hosted by a group devoted to the visibility of lesbian fiction, run primarily by women who identify as lesbians. Every year for a blissful week I share that common ground, and everyone at that event is showing the love for reading and writing lesbian fiction. The event is overwhelmingly attended by women who identify as lesbian, but it is open to all who love the books.

But just as before, I am a guest in other cultures in the event's wide-ranging tent. Over the years, I could have been a guest with lesbian first responders, bisexual women, gay men, lesbians who were once married to men and now have the grandbaby pictures to prove it, women of color, European lesbians, disabled women, lesbians who lived through Stonewall, millennial dykes and lots of other identities within identities. These are all people who have identities that overlap with mine and who differ from mine. I am on a journey with them and their guest all at once.

We are there to celebrate what we have in common - our love of the books that are about lesbians - not to pick over our differences as people. 

This is the beauty of our connection at this conference - the open sharing of experiences, the casual mentoring and advice. It's also true that the event has one kind of diversity and lacks in many others. I would welcome a tent that stretched even farther, as long as everyone is there for the good books about lesbians.

Keeping it "Real"

If we know who we are and respect that other people have a right to define themselves too, then why would anyone be spending energy dividing one kind of queer woman from another by using words like "real"? However, if a definition of "lesbian" matters to you, then state your definition and pitch your tent inside the BQT. No one is stopping you. No one is in charge of the BQT. You might find some who agree with you. Don't expect help, however, if your plan is to build up your tent by tearing down those built by others who define it differently, and who make their tent more welcoming. The BQT is a construct of what people bring to it. So far, love and inclusion are winning.

That said, no one can deny that the journey of a woman who knew very early in life that she was a lesbian was different from that of a woman who came to that realization later in life. It is both understandable and supportable that both types of lesbians could at times want to gather only with those who had had the same journey. Doing so should not automatically be seen as hateful toward the other - unless their actions declare it so, by using words like "real lesbian" and implying one kind of queer woman is more queer than another, as has apparently been done yet again. Nothing new under the sun.  

The Big Lie

I will insist to my last breath that no journey to being a lesbian is more valid, more "real" than another. To believe there is a "real lesbian" and that other queer women are taking something from you by falsely claiming to be lesbians is buying into the Big Lie. It's the same lie that makes some lesbians also derisive of bisexual and transgender women. We know this lie, and yet it comes around in new garb and some of us fall for it all over again.

If we lift up another oppressed person, we are pulled down. 

If we give dignity to another person, we are reduced.

If another group is given visibility, our light is dimmed. 

If They have more, We have less.

This is the lie that the patriarchy, the majority, those who control the status quo want us to believe. It sets women against women, the have-nots against the have-nots. It makes women push each other down - saving bigots the effort. This is the lie that feeds racism, sexism, religious bigotry, even the ridiculous fear that if gays marry, straight marriages are damaged. "Not real" lesbians writing books about lesbians means "real" lesbians are somehow defrauded is a kind of poison that weakens only ourselves. The only winner is the prevailing majority, which goes on unchanged, continues to oppress, withhold rights, and regard the work of all queer women as lesser.

If we believe that the pie is finite and our only choice is dividing it up among ourselves over and over, then we will always fall for the trap of thinking that if They have more We will get less. But the pie is not finite. If the visibility of transwomen and bisexual women truly comes at the loss of visibility for lesbian women in the world, then it is because men and straight society are not giving up the overwhelming space they take up. What. A. Shock.

 Keep it Real

If there is one thing that equality has meant to me all along, it's that we don't accept from each other what we would never tolerate from men. I wouldn't let a man define what it means to be a lesbian for me, so I will not let another woman define it either. I get to define myself. And if I claim that right for myself, I can't deny it to anyone else. At the same time, how I got myself into the Big Queer Tent can't be the only way either. Other people's journeys are their own.

We name our identity and act as guests in other people's realities and cultures at the same time. This is a dance, this is respect, this is empathy, this is what living in a big queer tent that is inclusive looks like to me.