Wednesday, August 5, 2015

An Attack Against the Consciousness of Humanity (or The Angst of Reviewing) (an IWSG post)

Having been the recipient of multiple author tantrums as a result of reviews they didn't like, you'd think I wouldn't be surprised anymore by this kind of behavior. Amazingly, sometimes the meltdowns are so extraordinary that even I'm surprised. Not long after the whole Dilloway Incident was "resolved," a friend emailed me to point me at another author, another indie author, having an even more explosive tantrum about a negative review.

It seems that a reviewer had called his book "pretentious," and he didn't take very kindly to that. Well, he didn't take kindly to the whole thing, especially the 1-star rating, but that particular word, pretentious, seemed to draw particular ire. He called her an idiot who just didn't understand his book. In fact, he called her a lot of things. And, then, he called a lot of people a lot of things as people came to her defense and her right to have not liked his book. He called so many people so many things that goodreads eventually pulled his profile and his books from the site. [They are back, now, which makes me curious as to whether they put them back or if he just made a new profile.]

As the comment thread got longer, he lashed out at pretty much everyone, even people who tried to defend his right to be upset about receiving the negative review. In all of the flailing and raging, two things stood out to me:
1. He said (and I wish I could just go pull the quote but it appears his comments have been removed from the comment thread) that anyone who would give his book a 1-star rating was not anyone whom he would want reading his book to begin with.
2. Giving his book a 1-star rating was an "attack against the consciousness of humanity." [That quote I saved at the time, because it was so outrageous that I didn't want to forget it.] You know, because his book is all deep and meaningful and shhhtuff.

He went on from there to talk about how people who give his books bad ratings, or any indie book, are killing the soul of the world. Personally, I'd say that is a little more than pretentious. All of his comments were like that, lofty and pretentious, so, if his novel was anything similar to his comments, she was probably accurate in calling the book pretentious. [Incidentally, the "misunderstood artist" is one off the asshole archetypes that Aaron James identifies in his book Assholes. This guy who was just "defending" his book fit the definition like a glove. "You just don't understand me!"]

The thing that gets me in all of this is the whole "target audience" idea. The "you didn't like my book, so you're not my target audience and shouldn't have been reading it in the first place" idea.
Unless you, as an author (or any kind of artist), are personally going to hand out copies of your work only to people of your own choosing, people you somehow just know will like it, you don't get to pull that whole "you're not my target audience" crap.

You put your work out for the public, and you live with the results. Period.
Or you don't put it out there.

You want to know what I think is an attack against the consciousness of humanity (and is killing the soul of the world)? All the crap being shoveled out into the marketplace, mostly by, yes, indie authors. Crap that we are then expected to admire and praise.
"Oh, look at the little poopy!"
"It's such a cute little poopy!"
"Just look at the texture and that smell! So exquisite!"
I'm sorry (no, I'm not), but that stuff just hurts my brain. Just, please, call it what it is:
"Dude, that's a pile of shit."

Okay, so, maybe, don't be so crude, but the weight of pretense surrounding indie authors and how good their books are is... well,  it's overwhelming.

And, you know, unlike most of you (almost all, in fact), I've tried. Because I'm an indie author and I want people to take a chance with my books, I've tried to do what I think is the right thing and support other indie authors by buying and reading their books. But I think I've hit my limit.

So far, with only a few exceptions, I have powered through even the worst books because I haven't felt like I should review a book I couldn't finish; however, I've come to believe there is some validity (more than just "some") in saying, "This book was so bad that I couldn't finish it." And, so, this latest indie book that I'm reading is so bad that I can't finish it. But that's not what did it. No, it was not just that it was a "bad book" that was the proverbial straw that killed the camel.

What was it then? Well, when I got to the part where my eyes fell out because I couldn't believe what I was reading (and having your eyes fall out just hurts, okay), I went over to Amazon (after laboriously cleaning the carpet fuzz off of my orbs and working them back into my head) to check the reviews of the book. There were a lot of reviews, close to 100, and more than 90% of them are 4- and 5-star ratings, with only one of them being under a 3. My first thought was, "Maybe, it's just me." But, then, I started reading the reviews and all of the reviews (all the ones I read, and I read seven or eight of the 5-star rated reviews) were... The reviews were not "good" reviews. They were not 5-star rating reviews. They were reviews that said things like:
"The beginning of this book was really hard to get through but it got better."
"I had a hard time accepting the insta-love."
"The characters seemed flat."
And, see, the reviews were all from names I recognize as author bloggers. Clearly, it was a case of not wanting to give someone they knew a bad rating.

That's just wrong. There's no other way around it: It's wrong. It's lying to readers who come in and see something like 70 4- and 5-star ratings and think they are buying something that's quality work when it's obviously not. Just because it is the author's "best effort" doesn't mean it's good or quality material or worth having on the market.

So, yeah, I'm pretty much done with indie authors except for those (very) few that I have found I already like. I'll be putting up a tab (hey, it might be there already as you read this, but it's not there while I'm writing it) pointing out the indie books that I think are worth your time; beyond that, I won't be sifting through other indie books trying to support other indie authors who
1. aren't doing anything themselves to support other indie authors (and)
2. aren't putting out anything worth reading, anyway.

However, if you want to run the risk of having me review your book, I will take requests. (I'll put up a tab for that, too (which may also already be there.)

Look, what I'm saying here is this:
It is not an "attack against the consciousness of humanity" to give a book a bad review (unless you're just doing it to be mean or spiteful). What is an attack against the consciousness of humanity is to lie in a review just to make someone feel good or to keep from hurting someone's feelings. Reviews are not for authors; they're for readers. You are doing an injustice to those readers when you don't tell the truth because you're worried about how the author is going to take it. You're also doing an injustice to the author, but that's a whole other topic (and one I've already talked about (not that I haven't talked about all of this before, anyway)).

This has been brought to you in part by the IWSG.


  1. This is the strongest language I can remember coming from you.

    I'm with you. It's not an attack on indie writers to say that much of it is bad; as I've said on my own blog, a lot of EVERYTHING is bad. There are a lot of terrible do-it-yourself videos on Youtube. Awful garage bands. Photos on Flickr can be bad.

    But we seem to have set out a special place for the 'indie' author,' and as one myself I don't think that's good.

    A while back I mentioned that "The Financial Lives Of Poets" was SO bad that not only could I not finish it, it made me retroactively dislike an earlier book of his, one I had been waiting for from the library; after giving up on "Poets" I went and canceled my request for the earlier one.

    The usual excuse for giving indie writers slack is "they're just trying to make some money" or "they're trying to break into the business" or some such nonsense. (It's what I used to believe, too, until our earlier exchange on this caused me to rethink my position.) But Jess Walters is just trying to make a living, too. If I wouldn't hesitate to post on the internet that his book is terrible, why would I hesitate over someone who doesn't have a publishing deal?

    Like you, it's turned me off of indie books almost entirely. I'll only read one now if it comes highly recommended by someone I trust, which really means I won't read very many of them, given that it's hard to trust the indie author 'community.'

    And THAT, in the end, is way more hurtful to indie authors than a few (or a lot of) negative reviews: by covering up terrible writing under the guise of friendship and support and kindness, they've damaged the entire industry.

    So to those who still will post a good review of a bad book? Thanks, for wrecking anyone else's chance to have their work taken seriously.

    1. Briane: I don't actually understand how all of this has happened. I mean, it's one thing to tell a group of kindergarteners that all of their finger paintings are good, but, hey, they're five. Adults shouldn't need to be treated that way.

      And I do agree that the attitude that you can't give indie writers, whether they are your friends or not, a bad review is damaging to the industry. I've actually been saying that for a while, now. If we want readers, the broad audience of readers, to read indie books, they have to be able to trust what they're reading about those books when making their decisions to buy.

  2. I read the comment thread from the author before his comments were removed. It just blew my mind. He's the one who just didn't get it.
    After struggling to finish a Dan Simmons book a few years ago, I finally decided I wasn't going to do that anymore. I don't have time for bad books.

    1. Alex: No, he really didn't get it. It was rather amazing. Amazingly amazing.

      Part of my problem is that it seems that I am steadily getting deeper and deeper into bad books as I pick up indie books. I can deal with it when it's every once in a while, but it's been switching so that it's the good books that happen more sporadically instead.

  3. I'll give any book a chance, by anyone. That's my policy. All it has to do is intrigue me enough to start reading. That's reading the first few pages, mind you. Not buying the book. Buying the book only happens if you can grip me sufficiently in the first few pages.

    As time has gone on and I've gotten older, I find I am far happier to stop reading works that don't hold my interest. The "free preview" function for Kindle books is excellent, because I've quickly decided not to purchase probably hundreds of novels now based on how I react to the sample. But even on books I do buy, I find I'll still toss them aside if I get bored or annoyed. Time was I would always "power through" as a point of pride, but these days there are so many novels out there I want to read, that I'm much less concerned with finishing books I'm not enjoying. My reading time is precious, and life is too short.

    Having said that, time and distance and experience are amazing things, and I will occasionally return to a previously abandoned book months or sometimes years later, mainly to see if my opinion has changed. Most often it hasn't, but every once in a while I realise that I simply wasn't in the mood for something way back when, and that it demands another look.

    All of this is a long way of saying that I will give any author a chance, regardless of their credentials. However, what's probably more telling is that, over the past 2 years, I've probably only read 3 works by indie authors, and the many, many others have all been mainstream published. I do get that if you're plugged into a network of indie authors everything can start to feel false and gamey, and I also get that there are many people out there who simply can’t understand that their work is not for everybody, and some people will flat out hate what they’ve written. That’s just the reality of producing creative work, and it can be a tough, bitter pill to swallow for some people. But those of us that want to move forward as creators all have to swallow it sooner or later.

    Personally, I won’t rate or review a book that I didn’t finish, because I feel like I’m not qualified to offer an opinion if I haven’t taken onboard the entire thing. I do understand the value of the “could not finish” position, but it’s not a comment I’m comfortable leaving anywhere. I want to reserve my judgment, anyway, because in a few months or years, I may just be back for a second go at the text. I’m cautious like that.

    The last point I wanted to make was this. Indie authors, authors of all kinds, all stripes, all backgrounds: there is always hope. Forget the games, the nonsense, the bullshit, the schemes. Do the best work you can, make it as good as you possibly can, keep going, keep creating, keep learning, keep reaching out to like minds, be courteous to others, be friendly and professional, and eventually positive things will happen. If it’s good and it’s available. people will find your work (though probably not according to any kind of schedule you’d wish for yourself). It’s easy to be bitter, and cynical, and to feel misunderstood and unjustly maligned and wrongfully ignored. It’s much harder to remember that we now live in a time where, once your work is released, it has the chance to be seen and enjoyed by almost anyone, anywhere in the world. There has never before been a time like this for writers, a time where we can publish our work with ease and potentially find an audience whatever kind of fiction we write. This is an amazing time to be alive and creating, and I feel like we often lose sight of that. Now more than ever it doesn’t matter how you came to be published; it only matters what you’re publishing.

    Anyway, now I’ll climb down off my soapbox. This is why I don’t leave many comments, Andrew – they end up more like essays…

    1. Neil: Never worry about writing an essay. It's a great thing.

      Not rating/reviewing books I didn't finish has been my policy up to now. Because of that, I have struggled through some fairly awful books, especially in the last two years. Some of those were even traditionally published. I figure, if at this point I can't get through something considering some of the things I have finished, that's it's worth noting. Not that I plan on picking up lots of books that I think will be bad or anything but, when I do find them, I'm just going to say it from now on. I don't have time to deal, going in, with anymore books I think I'm not going to like.

  4. I also think we have more to offer one another than simple yea/nay, loved it/hated it reactions. No work of art is perfect. Even Beethoven and Shakespeare aren't perfect. Everyone has room to grow. We should all be mindful of that.

    Constructive criticism is an art form in itself and one well worth learning. Taking criticism, too, is a skill worth learning. Most people have neither but they can learn.

    My own ratings are entirely self serving. I want sites like Netflix and Goodreads to direct me towards material I like. The latter has done a better job of it than the former.

    1. TAS: Yeah, I hate blanket "This was awesome!" and "This sucked goat balls!" reviews. I want to know why. I actually think most people know why they did or did not like something, though.

    2. We work on this a lot with our students, actually. Middle schoolers can usually come up with a thumbs up/down reaction pretty darn quick. But articulating why is more of a challenge, not to mention doing it respectfully.

    3. TAS: My middle schoolers would never come up with a thumbs down; they would all just say, "I liked it." However, when I started making them tell me why they liked it, they could often, then, talk about some things they didn't like, too, and that's when it started getting helpful.

  5. An attack on the consciousness of humanity. No, that's not over dramatizing it a bit. And it does sound like he's saying that his target audience is only people who like his book, which I'm pretty sure isn't how the whole marketing thing works.

    It really seems like the 4 and 5 stars on reviews that don't seem to like the book are just to avoid a potential tantrum from the author. It's bad for the readers and for the writers who actually work hard at putting out readable books. If every book has five stars, then what's the point of the system at all?

    1. I feel like that could end up being its own quote.

      "When we all have five stars, no one has five stars."

    2. LOL
      That's awesome. I agree.

      "Where's my super suit?"

  6. You already know how I feel about this. All I want to say (which is opening its own can of worms) is that I think an overwhelming number of self-published authors truly believe that they're self-published because they're sticking it to the man and doing things "their way", not because their writing is terrible. Even though 99% of the time it's because of the latter; a worthwhile agent or editor wouldn't pick them up in a million years, and after receiving a ton of rejections, they stubbornly self-published, believing their own opinion above industry critics.

    Which, I'm sorry, is not sticking it to the man. Especially once legitimate, non-friend given reviews trickle in, and people say the exact same thing that agents and editors were trying to say nicely when they said this wasn't for them: "This is godawful." And then the author's only response is "This wasn't for you anyway!" or "You have no right to judge me!"

    If an agent tells you it's bad, and an editor tells you it's bad, and the general, unbiased public tells you it's bad, then chances are really good that it's BAD.

    1. ABftS: Yeah, I've lost track of how often I've seen, "Well, I tried to get this published for 10 years, so I just decided to throw it out there to see what would happen." 10 years of rejections and you're surprised you're getting bad reviews? Really?

  7. Not everyone is going to like everything! Fact! Live with it. Throwing a tantrum in a public forum is professional suicide. And you never argue with anyone on Goodreads - take that to the bank. It always bites you in the butt - even if you're right. A gracious "I'm sorry it wasn't for you," goes a long way.

  8. It's so unprofessional to respond that way to a negative review, no matter if the writer is indie or traditionally-published. I've seen some non-fiction authors responding to comments on Amazon in a polite way, like if a lot of reviewers took issue with a certain part of the book or felt the title were misleading. The author of a fairly recent bio on Larry Fine was also nice enough to respond to my complaint about how the cover image featured Joe freaking DeRita instead of Curly or Shemp. But responding to reviews of a novel is a whole other ballpark, since taste is so personal and not as simple as explaining something which wasn't widely understood.

    A friend of an author once responded to my 3-star review on Amazon, trying to tell me all my valid, intelligently-argued issues with the book were wrong because I didn't live through the Sixties to have that personal experience, and that the author apparently strongly based the story on what she and her friends went through in 1965. That actually made me dislike the book even more, knowing it was a barely-fictionalised memoir and an excuse for the author to waltz down memory lane without crafting an original story with original characters.

    1. Carrie-Anne: I understand the urge. For instance, my book Shadow Spinner has a 1-star review in which the author says he really liked the book but that it has too much sex in it so he can't let his kid read it.
      There is no sex in the book.
      But I didn't respond to that. And that's a verifiable, objective fact.
      The reviewer, though, is speaking from an emotional reaction to the material, and you can't talk someone out of their emotional reaction.
      You just let the review sit there.

  9. I've been very disappointed by indie authors, too. But as Briane points out in the first comment, a lot of everything is bad. There are plenty of trad-pubbed books - even ones by huge stars, like King - that I just couldn't get through. I haven't been able to get through a King or Koontz novel for a couple of years now.

    The hysterical "pretentious" author sounds like someone who never bothered to join a crit group, or read books on craft, or hire a professional editor. These people read bestselling books and are either misguided enough to believe they're writing in just the style that author is -- or they really are writing in the style, and the style's bad because the publisher didn't bother to edit well since the name alone will sell a gazillion copies. Regardless, there are people who come and then leave my writing group after they get the first few critiques. They just can't stomach criticism and don't want to learn. Sadly, these people usually end up becoming indies and .... just ugh.

    1. Lexa: It's true; a lot of everything is bad. But you don't generally find traditionally published authors with dozens of writer buddies padding their books with positive reviews. That's the real issue here. I can't look up most indie books on Amazon and find out what people actually thought of the book, because the reviewers are all pals with the author.

  10. Great post, Andrew. I remember the thread in question. And you're absolutely right about the author friends palling around.

    Recently, I read a book by an author friend who sent me an ARC. I read the whole thing, all the way to the end, and had serious problems with it. As a courtesy, since it was an ARC, I said he could decide if he wanted me to post the review, or wait. I wouldn't post it first, because a lukewarm or bad review as the first lonely review can sway other reviewers to agree.... but I only did that as a friend.

    He hasn't told me yet whether he wants the review or not.... haha. I hope I haven't lost him as a friend. :P

    1. Alex H: I've lost several who insisted I post the review even though I was warning them from the beginning that I wasn't enjoying the work. They all had attitudes of, "Oh, by the end, you'll love it!" But I didn't, and they flipped out to get the negative review I said was coming.