Thursday, 6 May 2010

The 'Bear Pit'

From an article on Mark Charan Newton's blog:
With great power comes great responsibility – little do online commentators realise how fragile creative egos can be. You might chuckle, but to some, a damaging comment can prevent a writer from doing his or her job properly. Some might crumble for a week, who’s to say? I’ve been pretty lucky, but I cringe at reading scathing reviews of other authors’ work. So whilst I was full of snark at the start of this post, I do actually understand how such things can harm writers. And yes, some writers really do care about what people think of their work. Yes, they receive Google Alerts about the fruit of their labours. Surely that’s a good thing, that they give a shit? I suppose if you’re the kind of person who enjoys attacking creative works for kicks, then you need a little more help than this blog post can offer.
There's no doubt that the arena for book criticism and reader feedback has grown hugely since the advent of the online forum, Amazon reviews, blogs, etc. And how a writer copes with this bombardment of criticism, and how it affects them, is an interesting topic.

Author Mark Chadbourn delves deeper into the issue; here's a few snippets from his article:
The net now is like a city centre pub. You’ve got the group getting drunk and having a laugh. The intense couples ruminating over a glass of claret. And you’ve got the swivel-eyed, shaven-headed men in brown leather jackets at the end of the bar who bellow at anyone who will listen. And they’ve all got an opinion, and they all want to tell you.
This analogy isn’t just about bloggers. It’s about anyone who chimes in with their take on a book – on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, Good Reads, wherever. If you’re a writer, it’s nigh on impossible not to hear what people think about your book.
It didn’t use to be like that. You’d get a flurry of print reviews when the book came out, and then silence for months while you worked on the next one. Now they come in a torrent, every week, every day.
Back then, reviews were carefully considered. Today some are still carefully considered. But as in that city centre pub, some are rants, abusive, vitriolic, opinions filtered through prejudices. And that’s how it should be – the net has given people a voice, and it’s up to them what they want to say...
So, yes, I pity the new writer. If your first book is coming out, you’ve got it harder than I ever had. You’re going to be judged. You might be torn apart. You might be built up so fast your head is spinning, and then torn apart. It might just be the death of a million tiny pinpricks. Or you might ride that upward trajectory for the rest of your life. But it’s going to be out of your hands, and it’s going to be very hard to ignore it.
I like Chadbourn's use of the term 'Bear Pit', which he uses to describe Amazon reviews but which could easily be applied to online genre fandom as a whole. The truth is, the blogosphere has grown to such an extent now that a lot of it is just white noise. While I believe the majority of serious fans are capable of discerning between good and bad reviewers, there's so many opinions from so many different commentators flying around that it's often difficult to know who is worth listening to. I suppose for authors it's twice as bad - because the opinions are about their books, which adds a personal element to it. I don't doubt that it must be tough for new writers to see their book hurled out there and set upon by hordes of ravenous reviewers, many of whom fail to give considered, constructive opinions.

Yet it's important not to view the online genre scene too negatively. Yes, it has its flaws. Yes, it probably puts new writers through a whole gauntlet of emotions (many of them undesirable). But we need perspective here: the online scene is just a small representation of the book-buying public, and the vast majority of reviews and reviewers have barely any influence on sales. Most of the opinions flying around carry very little weight or authority (and I include my own, here), so a writer that sees their book attract a flurry of negative reviews should try not to get too downbeat about it (though admittedly this is far easier said than done, I'm sure, especially when some of those reviews are badly-written).

We should also consider the fact that the online scene allows for a great deal of interaction between authors and readers, and this sort of thing - when handled properly - can help launch careers. Joe Abercrombie is a good example of an author who successfuly used the myriad of online possibilities to his advantage. While we're a small crowd, it certainly doesn't hurt if you can win us online fans over.

So while I fully understand how it must feel to be a new writer being dragged into the Bear Pit, we mustn't lose sight of the positive aspects that online critiquing offers both writers and readers.

Ultimately it's a double-edged sword.


Anonymous said...

I'm new to the whole online book blogging world (only started reading them a few months ago) - but I've learnt more about the genre as a whole in the last few months than I have in ... gee ... fifteen years or so of just reading the books. So yeah, I can definitely see the positives for a reader. It's an amazing resource.

And as someone who dallies with writing, being able to read blogs by authors whose work I love is an amazing privilege and quite inspiring (and reading well-written, insightful reviews is also a good way of learning something about the craft of novel writing).

(If I was an actual author though ... I think I'd be quite terrified. I know I'd never be able to resist reading reviews, and as I don't have a particularly robust sense of self-worth I'd probably end up burning anything I'd ever written and never touch pen to paper again! I don't know how authors do it, but maybe years of rejection letters builds up a certain level of immunity!)

David Wagner said...

It's taken a while for me to learn the lessons presented in this article. I have a little blog that a handful of people read regularly. I've taken my share of blasts at books that didn't do anything for me, thinking it would be more entertaining to my couple of readers if I go over-the-top in my response, instead of being level-headed and objective and relatively polite.

Of course, I never knew Google Alerts existed, so imagine my dismay when a big-name author, who's debut book I blasted, not only left a response in a comment, but quoted my blast in her own blog, on her website, in a "get a load of this a-hole" type post.

Here I thought I was just popping off to a few friends.

Anyway, I'm much more careful now about what I say in reviews, even negative ones. I guess the assumption for me was that writers would never read my blog, and if they did, they wouldn't care. I guess they do, eh!

Nathaniel Katz said...

I've mentioned this before somewhere or other, but I used to find negative reviews to be incredibly fun to write (when I was doing music reviews in another place). Then a band member emailed me, and they were crushed. I still do negative reviews, but it really feels painful almost every time, now.

All that being said, I think that reviewers can't certainly shouldn't think primarily about their reviews effect on authors while writing (or ever). It's hard not to do, especially when there's a decent chance that your cruel or kind words will be read, but the author put their work out there, after all. If they had the inner strength to write, edit, revise, and publish their work (likely dealing with countless rejections along the way) I think they should be able to handle a few reviews.

Then again, I still vividly remember the time when someone said my juvenile-as-hell short story was childish and immature, and it was not exactly a recent experience.

Jebus said...

I often find it quite amusing how people on message boards, some blogs and blog comments think their opinion actually matters. The online community is only loud to the online community which is, as you say, a small drop in the readership ocean.

Anyway, I think it'd be healthy for an author to see reviews of their work both good and bad - and I mean that in the two senses of reviews that praise or damn the book or reviews that a written well or poorly with either view expressed. If they let bad reviews get to them I'd suggest they just need to HTFU and realise that online reviews especially, are usually not the best source for a common view.

That being said, there are some great review blogs like this one and Wertzone that I have based many of my reading choices on and have not been led astray yet. For the blog reader it's all a matter of maturity vs immaturity on both sides of the screen regarding what you're willing to base your book buying decisions on.

gav ( said...

I often find it quite amusing how people on message boards, some blogs and blog comments think their opinion actually matters. The online community is only loud to the online community which is, as you say, a small drop in the readership ocean.

Actually that's quite right and absolutely wrong at the same time.

If you are talking the reader who picks up their books in Asda and never looked a blog then totally.

But if you're a marketing/publicity dept at a publisher and a bunch of bloggers start saying what you've produced is shit and they are bloggers who consistently support the books you put out. You are going to question why this book is getting that reaction.

The same can be said of a book that is getting great online support but poor sales and poor support in traditional channels - you are going to question that as well.

And then you have bloggers who are in constant dialogue with publishers - what you say is going to be listened to.

So the circle of influence from blogging is small but it's who it's influencing that matters.

Which is why bloggers should be doing their best to give readers the right experiences - championing the writers they love.

Negative reviews don't stop people buying bad books - so there is no need to an a-hole about it. Just hope that they steer people away from them if they actually do read your review and choose something better.

Mark Chadbourn said...

I agree very much with what Gav says about the (rapidly increasing) influence of bloggers. You might think that because you blog gets only, say, 100 hits a week it is unimportant. But in every industry there are opinion formers whose voice carries 10,000X louder than others. Bloggers produce memes which ripple out and can change the trajectory of a book's sales.

And if a blog only has 100 hits but an editor takes a print-out of that blog into an acquisitions meeting to buy a new series then it may as well be written in gold on platinum and have a billion readers.

And if a marketing manager takes a print-out of a negative review from the same 100-hit blog into the same acquisitions meeting it can blow an author's career out of the water.

With great power comes great responsibility/