Tuesday, January 13, 2015

What Would JKR Do? Or, Why There Should Not Be Special Rules for Lesfic Book Reviews

It's an elegant litmus test:  When Bad Reviews Hurt Good Authors and What Can Be Done to Change That by Marguerite Quantaine. If you do these things you're part of the problem of misleading, unethical book reviewing.

So go read that. I'll wait.

Back? That was quick. But then it was straightforward and simply expressed, wasn't it?

As an aside, the issues that Marguerite Quantaine addresses in her blog are not unique to our literary community or limited to books. Wherever critics and artists and the people who pay for it all mingle this kind of behavior happens. I have a few links to other articles about what has been evolving in the book world (No Rage Stalking Here - Why I Welcome Critical Reviews Nov 2014) for those who are interested. It explains why I find the rage spiral perplexing and how I process reviews.

As I said in a discussion of Marguerite's blog on writer Georgia Beer's Facebook wall, what's elegant about it is that it doesn't tell anyone how to review, it simply points out the behaviors that are complicit in furthering unethical book reviewing. Don't do these things. Just because the Internet will let you do them doesn't make it ethical or even good for sales. Don't do them unless you want to be part of the problem. Pretty simple.

[My remarks in this blog are about book reviewers who are NOT guilty of the behavior that Marguerite describes in her blog. I'm going to refer to them as "ethical reviewers" for the sake of brevity, plus it's accurate.]

However, discussion of Marguerite's blog and others has inevitably segued, as it always does, into divergent ideas of what's the right way to review books in our community, echoing discussions I've seen many other places over many years about this issue. 

Because ethical reviewers are doing so in different places, have varying goals, experience levels, diverse styles and different audiences, it's important to say that there are many right ways to review a book.

What's right for a casual reader may not be proper for an author-reviewer with a conflict-of-interest to disclose, and may not be right for an experienced reviewer whose followers have set content expectations. 

But there is one topic that gets everyone's hackles up: critical (often called negative) reviews. Let's remember we're not talking about unethical reviews, so take the trolls, mean girls and homophobes out of the equation. Nikki Smalls addresses review Grade Inflation head on. Still, there is so much dread about critical reviews that in these discussions about the right way to review, people float various ways to discount, discourage, or hide them, even when they are honest and deserved.

There are already plenty of nose-in-the-air types who don't want to take women writers, let alone lesbian writing, seriously. I believe that we are playing right into their hands when we suggest that negative reviews of lesfic:
  • Continue the historic persecution of lesbians, i.e. are bullying or hate speech; 
  • Should be expressed only in private because authors (new ones especially) are too delicate to handle the truth; 
  • Are unsisterly, and a lesbian who writes a critical review is breaking "the rules";
  • Damage the entire lesbian fiction community by letting outsiders see we might have a bad book in our midst. 
I've seen nuances of all of these ideas floated in various discussions for years. Don't get me wrong, I believe most people are coming at it from a place of good intentions, but I believe they're misguided.   

These ideas all undermine the existing quality and strength of our lesbian writing community. They feed the presumption that books written about and for lesbian readers are lesser than those written in other literary communities that don't formulate "special rules" to mitigate critical feedback. The persistent statement that honest, ethical criticism should be out of public view makes it appear that our work - the entire community's - isn't capable of withstanding thoughtful, literary scrutiny.

The rules should be the same here as elsewhere: BRING IT. We are not afraid of words.

I'm not saying that sometimes reviews aren't posted by actual, real haters; these are not ethical reviewers. I'm talking about the disgruntled authors who say they are being bullied when a reviewer says, "The author did a poor job of crafting characters." Or the false equivalence of the reality of lesbian life and receiving a critical review. Being fired from your job for being gay and getting a review that says your book has a plot hole are not the same thing.

As for delicate author sensibilities? I still remember some of my early negative reviews and I've worked with many debut authors. I know the first negative reviews hurt like the devil, but none of the authors I know folded up forever solely over a negative review. They can make you want to eat your eyeballs but put down your pen forever? No. No reviewer has that kind of power over a writer and we should stop implying that they do.

Those who wish to work privately should do so - what a generous offer that is to an author, after all. In fact, because author-reviewers could easily be accused of being motivated by a conflict-of-interest, they often work privately with other authors to express critical feedback. It should not be seen as a rule to protect the author of the book, or the book's public rating, but as an unfortunately necessary option to protect the giver of the feedback.

Ethical reviewers who post critical reviews shouldn't be told there are rules against that sort of thing (where? who made them? how do I get my copy?) and that they had better change or remove their review lest there be repercussions against their favorite authors. You're now in anti-Meryl Streep land and part of the problem. 

Last, the idea that our community can produce only excellent books defies all logic, all statistics and simple reality. It's not credible. Any practice that seeks to hide bad books because we think that it makes the entire community look bad has missed an obvious point: the outsiders you are so concerned about could conclude that not a single reader or reviewer in our community knows a bad book when they see one.

Let's get out of the way of ethical reviewers who can and want to give honest feedback on every type of book of every kind of quality. Let criticism work across the board, just as it does in other literary communities.

Authors, Ask Yourself: What Would JKR Do?

At the risk of offending some, and recognizing that I speak from a position of privilege (okay, and age), I want to echo the style of metaphor that Marguerite used in comparing our journey to that of a lofty star. When we suggest that we or other authors in lesbian fiction are not able to withstand the customary, ongoing criticism such as occurs in every other artistic field, I wonder if someone like JK Rowling ever made that suggestion. Did Toni Morrison? Stephen King? Yet all of them have been viciously and unfairly reviewed by both critics and readers at some point, and all of them lived to write another day.

If we want to be taken seriously as writers we need to be ready to let the chips fall where they fall and move past the fact that sometimes we do not get our fair due and sometimes other people are behaving badly and there is nothing we can reasonably do about it that doesn't elevate them and demean us - and distract us from doing what we love doing. Write. Paint the skies and seas of another new world.

Every hour of your life you spend doing what you love doing is an hour of your life you are living just like JK Rowling. It's a choice.

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.