reviewing the reviewers

I don’t like reading reviews of my work—not even positive ones. And I can recall reading about other artists, even prominent and great ones, who feel the same way, and who never read reviews of their own work. I can well understand it.

But reviews are important in order to become known and accepted by an audience, and writers who are seeking to establish a beachhead with the reading public are advised that even bad reviews are preferable to none, to mere oblivion. With the torrent of books, especially e-books, being published, reviews of any kind help to make a work “real,” to make it visible in the sandstorm.

Toward this end, the securing of reviews, I’ve tried a couple of review services for the 2 short stories I published in 2017: A Tourist Visa and The Thought Dial. These are fee services, but the reviewers themselves do not receive any fee; they are volunteers who agree to write a review in exchange for a free copy of the book. Since providing free copies to reviewers is a time-honored practice in publishing, I did not and do not see anything unethical in it. On the contrary, I’m grateful to these good-hearted people who are willing to take a chance on my work. My thanks to you all.

So far, I have to admit that my stories are faring less well than I’d hoped. On Goodreads, A Tourist Visa has garnered an average rating of 3.67 stars out of a possible 5, based on 6 ratings; The Thought Dial has clocked 3.17 stars, also based on 6 ratings. Not terrible, but not setting the world on fire. The reviews themselves are pretty thoughtful, I have to admit, and often positive. These people have completely fulfilled their part of the bargain.

One thought I have is that maybe I have review karma coming my way. With fiction I tend to be a hard marker, and have handed out my share of 3-star ratings, sometimes flying in the face of well-established critical opinion, as in the case of, say, The Brothers Karamazov. As a reader I am fussy and critical, and therefore have no right to expect to be exempted from comparable scrutiny.

But my very fussiness and criticalness should benefit my own writing; I should be holding my own work to at least the standard that I apply to others’. And this I do to the best of my ability. I read my own stories with the same critical eye that I apply to the work of other writers. I have to enjoy reading my own work, and I keep working on a piece of writing until I do enjoy it. I let each work rest between drafts, and then read it with fresh eyes. When I enjoy reading it all the way through, I know it’s ready to go: it’s as good as I can make it.

We come to the matter of taste: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. If 2 readers don’t enjoy the same things, their reviews are going to be quite different from each other. The Harry Potter books are one of the biggest phenomena in literary history, but I never could climb on the Potter bandwagon. I never finished the first book of the series; it just wasn’t speaking to me. I thought it was a brilliant idea, but it seemed that the narrator was just too into kicking the crap out of the Dursleys—something like that. So I let that phenomenon pass me by.

I do believe that there is such a thing as objective standards of literary quality, and I do believe that, ideally, a book reviewer should try to be aware of these and apply them. But at the same time, we all take enjoyment in different things due to our different natures and circumstances, and there is literature out there to appeal to every taste. When we read something, we know whether we’re enjoying it or not, and how much, and it’s only natural for our review of that work to reflect our experience.

Bottom line: yes, I need to bring up my game and write as well as I can. I continue to study and learn my craft, and I work to apply its principles to the best of my ability. I will read my reviews and try to learn from them. There’s not much I can do with a note like, “I don’t really like short stories,” but if there are specific notes or comments that I can use to try to strengthen my technique, then I will do my best to incorporate them. However, I also need to find my audience. These are the people who get what I’m trying to do. They enjoy spending time with my mind, who appreciate my way of looking at the world. They may only ever be a small minority of the reading world, but small minorities have their place, and indeed it can be a wonderful place. And, possibly, by means of this blog and other avenues, I can persuade others to see positive features in what I do; I can educate a wider readership to enjoy my particular blend of outlook, creativity, and precision.

If you’d like to join in the reviewing fun, my favorite service so far is BookTasters. If you’ve got a Twitter account, follow @BookTasters and jump up for any of the books they tweet about. You can read as many free e-books as you want, and also have some personal interaction with their authors. If you’re thoughtful and honest with your reviews, you’ve done all that anyone could ask.

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