Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Guest author Dayton Ward: Reviews: You Can't Win

Dayton Ward is a science fiction author primarily known for his Star Trek novels and short stories. He published stories in each of the first three Strange New Worlds anthologies, making him the first author to render himself ineligible under the rules of that series. As such, future authors who achieved the same feat were said to have earned a "Wardy." You can find him at home on his hilarious blog, A Pimple on the Ass of the Internet. Be warned, though: you'll be spending a lot of time there.

Of course I read reviews of my work. Every writer does.

Okay, ninety percent of writers read reviews of their stuff, and the other ten percent lie about it, all right? Anyway, with few exceptions, reviews of my writing have run the gamut from praising my stories as the greatest gift to the printed word all the way down to being so bad that it’s not fit to serve as birdcage liner.

That’s right: The hyperbole is free whenever I guest blog.

When it comes to reading reviews, I pride myself on not getting too excited one way or another. I’m not saying I don’t have reactions to them. Who doesn’t want that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you find out someone loved your book? Is there anything more satisfying than learning how you connected with a reader on some emotional level? Yes, it’s great to read glowing praise for something you’ve written. The trick is not to buy into the hype; to not let it distract you from continuing to work at improving your writing with the next project.

Besides, let’s not forget about those unfavorable reviews, right? Some of those make me laugh, while others cause me to grit my teeth so hard I get a headache. There are those “reviews” where I know…I just know…that the person didn’t actually read the book before rendering their verdict. On the other hand, there are those reviews which, while being very critical, do so in a manner that gives me food for thought. Such reviews make me realize that, yes, I could have done this or that better, and I set a goal to do just that with the next story.

Beyond that? I really don’t care about reviews. I tend to think that getting worked up about reviews—good or bad—is not at all a smart idea. For one thing, it can take time away from what you really should be doing, which is more writing. Also, becoming too invested in reviews can get you into trouble, particularly if you find yourself getting wrapped around the axle when someone decides they don’t like something you’ve written.

In recent months, there’s been more than one flap created by a writer taking none too kindly to negative reviews of their work, and doing so in a very public and—thanks to the internet—very long-lasting manner. In one infamous case which occurred just a couple of months ago, a writer took a reviewer to task on the reviewer’s own blog. The situation devolved from ill-advised to utter stupidity with but a modicum of keystrokes on the writer’s part. As I read the drama unfold, my mouth may have hung open in shock long enough that I’m reasonably certain fly eggs started hatching behind my molars.

As I commented after slogging through that particular slice of idiocy, “Reviews are the Kobayashi Maru for writers.”

I apologize to those of you who aren’t Trekkies and who likely don’t get the joke. In Star Trek, Kobayashi Maru refers to a training scenario inflicted upon cadets at Starfleet Academy. During this simulation, cadets acting as the captain of a starship are faced with trying to rescue the Kobayashi Maru, a crippled ship drifting in space behind enemy lines. The setup is a ruse, and as the cadet begins to make decisions and put his crew into action, the computer overseeing the simulation continuously modifies the scenario. Everything the cadet tries is countered, to the point where he and his hypothetical vessel face destruction at the hands of enemy ships. There is no way to win; there is no correct resolution. The simulation is a test of character, gauging the cadet’s reaction when faced with certain, unavoidable death.

For writers, I believe that reviews are a test of character, and responding to them is almost always a no-win scenario.

In the case of the writer who went ballistic on the reviewer’s blog, I Googled their name and the book being reviewed, and learned that people were talking about this incident everywhere, and not in a good way so far as the writer was concerned. In fact, the writer continued the fight for nearly two months after the original review was posted, with any semblance of professionalism and just plain good manners having been flushed weeks earlier. By the time a grudging, half-hearted apology full of excuses and justifications was finally issued, the writer and the incident had already become prime examples of what not to do when confronting a reviewer.

(Yes, I know I’m not providing the writer’s name or the book in question. To be honest, despite my initial reaction of “Serves you right, moron,” I actually feel sorry for the person…to a point.)

When it comes to fights like this, it’s like walking into an arena where you’re already outnumbered and hobbled, with the whole bloody universe watching you from the stands and cheering on the lions. Even if you “win” one of these shouting matches, what damage are you doing to your reputation and your career? In the current climate of social media, the immediacy of interaction between writer and readers can only magnify this problem. One ill-considered remark aimed at your readership can haunt you for months or years. An all-out jihad against a reviewer? Yeah, get ready for the backlash that’s coming your way, and be prepared to be the subject of many smarmy blog postings, most of them better-written than this one.

With respect to others reading what you write, the old adage about never being able to please everyone cannot be more truthful. Some reviewers will take absolute delight in pointing out the typos and grammar mistakes you missed even after proofing your manuscript six times. There are those who simply won’t like your writing style, or they’ll take issue with the subject matter. Others, doubtless believing they’re able to divine your political or ideological bent as they read your stories about zombies, vampires, Klingons or whatever, will believe you’re pushing some real-world agenda to which they take great exception. Heck, I’ve been called a wing nut coming at you from the left and the right, from different readers reviewing the same book.

Bottom line? Some way, somehow, you’re going to rub some reader the wrong way, and sometimes they’re going to make note of their displeasure in a public venue, be it their blog, some message board or the review space on So long as they’re not saying anything that actually falls under the heading of libel, there’s really little to nothing you’ll ever be able to do about it. Attempting to right such perceived wrongs is only asking for more trouble than any supposed victory will ever be worth. It’s far better to cultivate a reputation as a writer who can take the heat, who welcomes a diversity of constructive opinions regarding their work, and who can shrug off the other stuff, even if the occasional review does make you grit your teeth until your head explodes.

In fact, you should buy writers like that a drink when you run into them at their next convention appearance, because more than likely they’re fun people to hang out with.

I’ll be at the Shore Leave convention in Baltimore in July.

Just sayin’.


KeVin K. said...

I'm just never going to live that fight with the review blogger down, am I?

Or. Wait... Are you talking about somebody else?

Good to see you back, Dayton, and good topic. Personally, I've memorized both of my reviews; considered setting the one I like to music. More seriously, when I was first published I spent way more time than I'd like to admit scouring the internet for any mention of my name. Reviews can be a tar baby for any writer.
But worse than any time sink is the danger that you might start writing for the reviews, letting what some blogger with no known credentials said influence your choices. (Which is pretty much how my writing style developed.) We can't not look at -- and look for -- reviews. We just need to keep them in perspective.

Which, now that I think of it, is pretty much what you just said.

Lorraine said...

Oh, yes, I think I remember the writer you were talking about. If it's that one, the sad part was that the reviewer was right -- anybody could tell by reading the writer's comments -- and the writer was clueless.

I've gotten one of those critical reviews, and while part of the review made me go "huh?," the other part made me re-look at the story and fix a couple of things.

Charles Gramlich said...

Once in a while, when I am feeling down, I'll go back and read a good review. the bad ones I try to repress. Reading something good about yourself at times is helpful though. when you get to the point where you don't think you can put another word on the page.

Liane Spicer said...

Welcome back, Dayton!

I admit I read reviews, and nothing trumps stumbling across a good one on a day when everything looks gloomy. I would never dream of engaging a reviewer, though, especially not in public and not over a negative review. If it's a good one and I know the reviewer I send her/him a private note of thanks.

I read about the recent train wreck you mentioned. Horrific. That author certainly learned the hard way.

Farrah Rochon said...

:::raising hand:::

I read most reviews, too. Often times other people have to tell me about them, or that stupid Google Alerts does (yes, I know that I can turn off Google Alerts). For the most part, even the negative ones aren't all that bad, but I've had a few stingers. I grumble for a minute then move on.

Great post!

Dayton Ward said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone! I apologize for not commenting sooner, but for some reason every time I tried to post, it kept kicking me back even though I entered the info the way it asked me to. Maybe my browser was messed up. Anyway, thanks again to Liane and the Novel Spaces gang for inviting back to their sandbox to play for a bit. :)

Liane Spicer said...

You're welcome to come back any time you have the inclination, Dayton. We enjoy having you.

Yeah, Blogger does that. I've lost so many comments that way I've learned to copy them to clipboard before attempting to publish.