The ego has landed: Musing on reviews

This week I learned that The Magpie Lord would be coming out in print. I am not a print snob – it’s a real book if people read it – but there is still something entirely delicious about the idea of putting a copy of my book on my shelves, and knowing that in years to come, the kids will pick it up and scream, “Ew! Mum, you wrote sex! That’s disgusting!”

Anyway, along with checking my print galleys, I’m required to put together a selection of review quotes. I’ll be honest, putting a bunch of nice reviews together into a single document is a whacking great ego boost, of the kind that causes you to wonder if it would really be that bad to get them printed up on, like, a mug, or maybe a T-shirt. But as I went on, it began to feel rather odd.

People have read this book and thought about it and applied serious consideration. People have embraced the characters, burrowed into their backstories, got in touch with me to ask about them. People have recommended it to their friends, sometimes with amazing enthusiasm, or even bought it for them. (! !!! Just … !)

Not to say that everyone loved it. Some people wanted to convey that there were very few spelling mistakes and the file was well formatted. Some people wrote really thoughtful reviews that analysed exactly why it didn’t work for them. Some people put a surprising amount of energy into explaining why they hated it.

I sat there, bewildered that so many people I’ve never met have found the time in their life to discuss my book. To tell the world, “here is a good book, read it”. Or “a bad book, avoid it”. Or “a book with no spelling errors, react accordingly”. I thought: That is one hell of a lot of work that people have put in on my book.

And then I realised that I was completely wrong to think that.

People have written about The Magpie Lord. Not “my book”. It stopped being “my book” when it was published, ie made available to the public. Once the book is out there, the interaction is reader/book, not reader/author. Robert Jackson Bennett wrote interestingly on this.

I did this for you, for you to read. I didn’t do this for me. And when you discuss something I made, what you are discussing is what you read, but not – and I really cannot stress this enough – it is not what I wrote.

… I cannot tell you if your opinion of me or what I wrote was wrong, even if I feel it obviously, obviously is: what you read is what you read, and I shouldn’t have any say in that.

There has been a lot of discussion, since the recent Goodreads kerfuffles, of negative reviews. What’s appropriate for reviewers to say, and how should writers respond? How much should you engage with reviews? Is that good social media behaviour, or unpleasant heavy breathing down the reader’s neck?

Well, it seems to me, if a review is part of an interaction between the book and the reader, then for the author to force her way in to that is like joining in someone else’s conversation on the tube. (I’m a Londoner. Having strangers speak to me on public transport is the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.) Anyone who’s read a published book, is entitled to comment on it as they choose (within the confines of the law) – positive, negative, overwhelming joy, seething hatred, total indifference. And unless they actively invite me in to their conversation with the book by bringing it to my attention/talking directly to me, I think I should keep out of it. Much as I want to leave grateful comments on every positive review or send round black-clad chocolate delivery ninjas to everyone who said something nice; tempting as it might be to respond to someone who said something that wasn’t. I think I just have to put it out there, let people get on with it, and concentrate on writing the next one.

What do you think? Should authors interact with reviews or keep a distance?

12 replies
  1. Nora BBreen
    Nora BBreen says:

    I love to hear from authors when I write a review. Of course, I’ve been lucky to interact with authors who are courteous, funny and on-point.

    The story is yours, the characters are people you found and shared with me, their lives and adventures consist of times, places and forces I would never consider. This is all from you, and it was the greatest pleasure to read it.

    The reading and the emotional response are mine. I can’t thank you enough for introducing me to Lucien and Stephen and their world.

    However, I would never have met or thought of these people and events if you hadn’t put them on paper for me. Your skills are awesome and I was able to take what you wrote and live with people I never knew and think about them and wonder how they’re doing; that’s my pleasure.

    We’re a team. That’s what I think. A winning team!

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      /high five/ Go team!

      I *love* talking to readers. I really love the interactions, and seeing what people thought about the book, and how, and why. It’s utterly fascinating from the book-person perspective, as well as lovely to connect. But I know that I’m tempted to compromise on the honesty of my reviews if I feel like the author’s watching, so as a reader I’m definitely in the don’t-call-me-I’ll-call-you camp.

      Maybe there should just be a Goodreads button to indicate if you like hearing from the author. Back off / Come and play!

  2. Alis
    Alis says:

    Reblogged this on The Wyrd and commented:
    First of all The Magpie Lord is great and if y’all haven’t read it you totally should! Very happy to see it coming out in print format.

    Secondly, I know I’ve posted about this issue before, and it’s because I find it fascinating. From both sides of the fence. Nothing feels better than a good review–and few things feel as bad a a bad one–but I tend to be of the opinion that consuming media is an active event, not a passive one, and readers (viewers, listeners, players, etc.) do need a space away from the watchful gaze of the author (whatever) in order to engage in that activity. That includes the ability to writing critical things without feeling “policed”. Potentially quite viciously critical things, because if you’re creating emotions–which is what writing is–then of course people are going to have emotional reactions to it. Some of them won’t be what you wanted, but such is the nature of the game.

    Which isn’t to say I don’t think creators should never ever comment on reviews ever and ever amen; fan interaction is important, and thanking people for taking the time to laud your work is a nice “easy win” in that space, with very few downsides. But I think authors very rarely have anything to gain by responding to negative reviews. Sure, it might be a temporary ego boost, but, at best, it makes the author look petty and thin-skinned. At worst, it causes huge interpersonal acrimony and can tear fandoms completely apart by pitting members against each other in attempts to “police” the community to the creator’s liking (I’ve seen that happen more than once).

    I don’t know that there’s a “perfect” balance here, exactly. It’s a fraught area, and unfortunately handling it well tends to be invisible, while handling it poorly tends to get reblogged on social media over and over and over and over again…

  3. Jenn T
    Jenn T says:

    I heart you so hard. I have many author friends, and some reached out to me first based on my reivews or interactions with others, and some I’ve reached out to, but I don’t think in any case I’ve directly interacted with them on my reviews of their books. At least no one that I actually became friendly with and kept in contact.

    I’m never a fan of passive agressive reactions from authors about a reader review by posting on FB, Twitter, Tumblr etc. I think if you need to vent, probably doing that with your trusted friends is the most professional way to handle that. Everyone gets frustrated in their profession at times, especially when there is a ‘client’ aspect, but I think there are better ways to handle things than others. I’ve never seen you do anything like this by the way!! LOL. Just thinking of things I’ve seen randomly over the years.

    But I think interaction is great. Authors SHOULD rejoice and be excited by reader reactions. They should be in awe. Readers should fangirl and discussion and spread the word.

    I think honest discussions are key, though, in a reader-space discussing with my friends. Balance and each person knowing what they want to read and seek out and whether than can handle it might be something for people to remember.

    But this is all subjective, of course. 😀

    I LOVE YOUR POSTS. ((((Hugs))))

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I think ‘knowing what you can handle’ is probably the key to it. I think people expect themselves to be tougher than they are – ‘oh yeah, sure, I can take negative reviews on the chin, I react with a sense of humour, I shrug them off.’ And then they explode in public because actually it really hurts, and that does nobody any good.

      You just have to separate out ‘this review of that book’ from ‘this person’s judgement of me as a worthwhile human being’…

      • Jenn T
        Jenn T says:

        Exactly. I know of an author who is pretty active on social media, but avoids any site that might have reviews because she said she knows she couldn’t handle it. And she’s totally OK with that. I certainly couldn’t because I’d be crushed. Some can handle it and good for them. I don’t expect everyone to be able to respond the same or feel the same, but if you can’t, best to just vent to friends and keep writing for those that did love it. 🙂

  4. Maeve
    Maeve says:

    As an editor and a reviewer but not a writer, I often wonder (fear?) how much I should share of my personal response. (Especially since I myself have such a thin skin!)

    I’ve done a lot of research on the science, specifically, the psychology, of reading, and you’re absolutely right: each time a book is read, it becomes a unique art, created half by the author, half by the reader. Each party has their precious, individual POV on the world. I think both author and reader should treasure their separate experiences. That takes a thick “it’s not personal” skin sometimes. But it is all about the story; or rather, the stories that each singular book becomes. Five hundred readers of a single story? Five hundred and one stories.

    We’re all just following our own bliss, right? Of course, when someone’s idiosyncratic response aligns with our own in excited enthusiasm, we can’t help but feel good, feel valuable, feel as if we’ve found a kindred soul, a friend. And if we don’t align? We certainly fight that “negatively judged” (and untrue) self-esteem hit.

    Collingwood wrote in Principles of Art that the journey is the art, not the end product. So, your writing journey was your art, and the reader’s reading journey was his or her art.

    Your post is fabulous. I think you have a sold, balanced perspective. And it reassures me as a reviewer to be honest (but considerate/sensitive, of course!)

    I had a blast reading Magpie, by the by! I’m looking forward to book two like wooooah!

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I suspect you should have written this post instead of me! Very well put, and yes, it is all about the self-esteem hit, the conflation of self and book for the author, which is so hard to separate out. Bad for the author’s mental state, and potentially very chilling for reviewers.

  5. Sirius
    Sirius says:

    Hi, I loved “Magpie Lord” – yes, shared the love, bought the book for several friends – I wanted them to read this book that badly. I can tell you more – if I were to write the list of my favorite new books for this year right now, your book will be number one on this list. I suspect it will still be number one when the year ends, but anything can happens (like the second book can be even better 😉

    To answer your question, of course every reader/reviewer’s opinion is different – and this is just mine. I personally do not want the authors to comment on my reviews unless I invite them to. Of course you wrote the book, but I am so happy that you seem to think that reader’s interpretation becomes their own even if the author meant something completely different when they wrote it. I am uncomfortable even the author thanks me for the review on list (I had nice conversations with authors off list and couple of the authors even became email friends over the years), because I do not write my reviews with authors in mind. That is NOT to say that I am not interested in interactions with the authors whose books I loved. But I feel that if I want to interact with you, I will seek you out, as you can see I found your blog, came to your space and very interested in reading what you have to say on different topics.

    Anyway, my two cents.


    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Thank you! And yes, I suspect everyone’s more able to get on with the business of reading, writing and reviewing if we can leave space between the words and the people behind them. It’s very hard to review with a sense of the author leaning over your shoulder and looking at what you’re typing.

  6. Becky Black
    Becky Black says:

    I think it’s just too risky for authors. Especially right now when there seems to be skirmishes between writers and reviewers breaking out all over the place. Writers don’t want to be the latest “writer behaving badly” whose silliness goes viral on the Internet.

    Coming from the fanfic background it’s really hard for me to sit on my hand and not give so much as a thank you for a review. I don’t even “like” them on Goodreads. Interaction with reviewers was common in fanfic writing, and I met some great people that way, who are still friends now, and who have followed me from reading my fics to reading my novels. That’s not to say fic writers didn’t get themselves into trouble with reviewers too, but that tended to remain no more than a tempest in a teacup. Nobody outside that fandom cared. Most people IN the fandom didn’t care. If it’s an obscure enough fandom they’re just grateful there’s fic at all. They aren’t going to boycott it because the writer gets in a strop over a less than glowing review.

    Maybe other writers who used to be in fanfiction go pro and expect to be able to get away with the same stuff, but have a rude awakening. I know I see behaviour from some writers that I spot instantly as common fandom behaviour.


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