Writing a book doesn’t take hard work. That’s too mild a phrase. It takes blood, sweat, and tears, heart and soul, sleepless nights and days of flailing around in a panic. It takes rejection and perseverance and no less than three cases of literally banging your head against a wall.
And when that much of your soul is in part of your work, hearing that your novel, your baby, is nothing more than a product can come as a harsh blow. “No! No, not this! This isn’t your measly old average business arrangement! This is literature. This is magic. Haven’t you seen the tumblr quotes?”
But the sad truth is, once you start charging money for it, even magic becomes a commodity. I think this is a fact that too-often left off those advice lists for new authors1 2 3. It’s a hard truth to accept, but it’s still true; you’re asking me for money. I am giving you money in exchange for a product or service. That’s capitalism in a nutshell, and no amount of heart and soul changes that fact.
When I review, I fervently believe that reviews have nothing to do with authors. I am reviewing a product, not a person. I will even sometimes address comments to the product itself (“Book, why did you do that? Bad book, no cookie.”) because I know that I’m dealing with a thing, not talking directly to a person. (Although that does beg the question of why I’m talking to it…) Regardless of an author’s intentions, I am not talking to them.
There are two main parts of the no-negative-reviews argument that send me into a tailspin of anger: that the author’s hard work is somehow sacred because of their hard work, and that no one can criticize novel-writing unless they’ve done it themselves.
To the first, I understand that writing a novel takes heart and soul, but everything worth doing takes your whole heart and soul. Writers do not have the ‘blood, sweat, and tears’ market cornered. There is something profoundly arrogant about saying that one person’s effort is inherently above reproach, but everyone who’s working hard…well, they aren’t authors. At this age, one does not get gold stars for trying. At best, you might get some sort of plaque that says “welcome to adulthood.”
Putting forth effort, no matter how great the expense, does not grant one immunity from criticism. I am not judging your effort, after all, I am judging the product. It works the same way for everyone. I’ve been enlisted in the United States Army for ten years. I’m well aware of “blood, sweat, and tears.” I’ve pulled 18 hour days and 15 month deployments, and every six months, I get a performance review. My reviews never say “well…she tried.” Instead they say things like “the training program she wrote failed to take inclement weather into account” or “she crashed three trucks this year. Three!” Or, if I’ve done my job well, “she set up new communication protocols that increased reporting speeds.” I am always judged on what I’ve done, on my results, on whether or not my actions were successful. And the same goes for every other job out there. Yes, that includes writing. If you worked hard on your book, if you poured all of your effort and all of you talent into it, then you are in good company. You are among the adults of the world who work hard at stuff. But we all still have performance reviews.
The second argument can be summed up in this quote by Dave Eggers:
Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.
If you critique because you are envious, then sure. Stop that. But don’t paint everyone with the brush of your own shortcomings.
I do not need to write a book in order to know what I’m feeling when I read. I do not need to write a book in order to be bored by flat writing or engrossed by complex characters. I do not need to write a book in order to recognize that this plot is full of lapses in logic, or that romance makes me swoon with feelz. I am a reader, and reading is an experience, and I do not need to write in order to read. In the same manner, I do not need to film my own movie before I can cry at The Secret Garden, or roll my eyes at the product placements in Man of Steel. I don’t need learn the mechanic’s trade before I can tell if my car runs smoothly or not. I don’t need to get a job at Apple before I can get motion sickness from their phones.
The reason writers learn the tricks of their trade is to evoke a response in the readers, and as I am reading, I will respond. I will respond well or poorly, depending on how skillfully those tricks have been applied, but I will not sit with a novel in my lap and stare morosely at it, wishing I could feel something without first writing.
And when I am done with my reading experience, I will report on it. Because, as I mentioned earlier, I am not talking to the author. I am not offering constructive criticism in the hopes they’ll get better, nor am I yelling at them in the hopes they’ll feel bad about it. I’m not even praising them for a job well done. I’m not talking to them at all. I am a reader, talking to other readers about the experience of reading.
With social media, authors are closer to their audience than ever, and I think it’s time we put a bigger emphasis on the difference between ‘reviews’ and ‘fan mail.’ Because I think that it’s wonderful that we have so much access to our favorite authors; I’m not suggesting that we demolish that! But we need to emphasis more clearly that talking to writers is talking to writers, and reviews are not the correct format for that. Social media, author blogs, and direct email (if the author allows it) are all great ways to show appreciation, ask questions, attempt to open a dialogue (and never-ever-ever deliver personal insults).
Whitley is a Jill-of-all-trades who likes to read a theme parks. She has been known to hide books inside military equipment just in case she needs something to read later. When she’s not busy scheming on how to get back to Disneyland, she can be found blogging at Reading With A Vengeance or on GoodReads.