(How to Avoid Making an Arse Out of Yourself.)
“This review makes me wish I’d never been born.”
This was author Elin Hilderbrand’s reaction to a negative review posted on Instagram. It’s strangely over the top for someone with a two-decade long writing career. Not to mention, a little lacking in perspective.
Unfortunately, this sort of thing is nothing new. Every few months I hear tell of a similar author meltdown. This occurs primarily on Twitter. But as someone who only uses that platform for writing advice and as a means of belonging to a writerly community (few other options where I live), I often miss a lot of the drama.
For a while now, I’ve been keeping up to date on author meltdowns by watching a feature on BookTube called Bookcommunitea (Jess Owen), a weekly update on book-related drama. To be sure, it’s never ending. Sometimes what’s presented is eye opening; but most of the time, I can’t be bothered to care. I mean, there’re bigger problems in the world. Still, the videos are a great window to the fraught world of fiction.
Around the same time as the Elin Hilderbrand meltdown, there was a collective author meltdown over negative reviews in general. Authors piled on a Booktuber who tweeted a link to a video of his worst reads of 2020, a kind of video that is de rigueur on the platform. Authors who were not even mentioned in the video flocked together to state how hurtful negative reviews are.
And if you think these kinds of author meltdowns are reactions to what appears on informal review sites like YouTube and Instagram, you’d be wrong. Back in the day, I remember Jennifer Weiner complaining about receiving a negative review from Jane Smiley in The Philadelphia Inquirer, a newspaper Weiner used to work for. I can’t find Weiner’s blog post about it, but I remember her mentioning how she’d read the review on some special personal occasion and how the review had ruined her day. Here’s even a link in which Weiner goes as far as to imply there was something anti-Semitic in Smiley’s review.
But how bad was the review, you might ask? The title was, “Weiner is Talented Enough to Aim Higher”. In other words, not terrible.
So why all the meltdowns then? Surely, all authors know that books aren’t universally admired. I doubt that they themselves universally admire all books.
But if behavior is indicative of anything- and it’s certainly more indicative than the things we say (words are wind, after all)- it’s clear authors don’t know this.
While I am a writer, I am first and foremost a reader. And as a reader, let me tell you something you, the writer, might not know: reviews don’t mean anything.
A simple understanding of this fact will prevent you from having any such meltdown in the future.
All reviews are meaningless
Years ago, when BookTube was in its infancy, I used to watch channels indiscriminately. I’d click play and then go about my house work while I listened to the book chatter. One thing that came up a lot was objectivity in book reviews. I remember one BookTuber stating that reviews can be objective- that aspects of the novel, whether they be plot, character, or world building can be objectively good. This attitude may even be widespread on the platform. In fact, many reviewers on BookTube dissect books and organize their reviews in this way. Part 1: Did they like the story? Part 2: Was the hero or heroine believable? Part 3: Was the world really cool?
This is an anatomical approach. It’s kind of like Olympics figure skating or gymnastics scoring. There are points for technical performance (important) and points for artistry (less important).
The problem here is that in writing, technically good is anchored in the artist’s thematic intention, which in turn informs the choices he or she makes in what to include in their composition. This means that unless you first define what a book’s themes are, you cannot say whether the artist’s narrative choices, characters, or even their world building are effective. In fact, without themes, all your likes and dislikes are arbitrary/ idiosyncratic to the reviewer. And while most reviewers are quick to comment on the story or characters, they almost never touch on a book’s themes.
This lack of interest in themes isn’t really the book reviewer’s fault either. Sometimes a novel has no theme. Other times, the writer deploys thematic double speak by which they simultaneously explore and undermine their novel’s themes. In fact, I’d argue that themelessness is more the norm for most fictions published today (and probably yesteryear too). There’s a reason why a showrunner of the super successful Game of Thrones television series said, “Themes are for eighth-grade book reports.” Literary products manufactured in this way are generally conservative with a progressive veneer, a combination that creates a semi-neutral work of art- one that is beyond criticism.
Essentially, the book/ author leaves it to the reader to decide what to take away from the novel- if anything.
Indeed, a look at informal reader reviews will corroborate this. When I scan GoodReads reviews, all I really get is a list of what people liked and didn’t like in a given book. The plot was good, or such-and-such a character was unlikable. We hear about how the reader “hates hates hates” love triangles- “ALL” love triangles. There’s very little effort put into thinking about why the writer selected any of the elements of the book. It’s also equally likely that the author him or herself put little thought into it as well.
In short, reviews are about what do I, as the customer, want in the fiction that I enjoy.
Looked at another way, reading reviews on GoodReads or Instagram or Twitter essentially amounts to listening to a focus group. Such groups exist not for the artist to make better art, but for marketing purposes and maximizing profits. A negative review is merely saying I, the consumer, haven’t gotten what I wanted.
It’s nothing personal.
And certainly nothing to have a meltdown over.
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