RSS

Category Archives: Reviews

Should Authors Respond to Reviews of Their Books

Quite randomly, I stumbled onto a web of posts and tweets detailing an incident of an author commenting on a review of one of their books, being taken to task for it, and then spending what I see as way too much time further entangling themselves in the resulting kerfluffle.  I won’t name this author, because I’m not posting clickbait.  I read both sides of the argument, and while I sided mostly with the reviewer whose space was invaded, I do think some of the nuance on both sides that was over-shadowed by this author’s bad behavior offers valuable insight into both review and more general netiquette.

First, I want to establish some premises:

  1. Posting to the internet is a public act.  That’s true if your post is public rather than on a private blog or Twitter account, say.  But it ignores the complexities of human social interaction.  If I’m having a chat with my friends at IHOP (Insert your franchise pseudo-diner of choice), we’re in public.  So it’s a public act.  But not quite!  If some random patron three tables down were to start commenting on our nastily engaging discussion of who should fuck who in the latest, greatest reverse harem anime, we would probably consider that quite rude.  In fact, we have lots of terms for that sort of thing: butting in, nosy, etc.  I think a valid analogy could be made for the internet.  Sure my Tweet stream is public, but as a nobody with no claim to fame or blue checkmark, it’d be quite a shock for the POTUS to retweet some comment of mine about the economy or the failings of the folks in Washington.  The line can be a bit blurrier if I run a popular but niche politics blog, or if I have a regional news show on the local Fox affiliate.  But just because you can read what I wrote doesn’t mean I expect, much less desire, a response from you.
  2. My blog/website is my (semi-)private space.  Yours is yours.  I own the platform, I decide the rules.  You can write whatever you want on your blog.  Your right to write whatever you want on mine is much less clear-cut.
  3. You have institutional authority over your own work.  While most authors may not feel like they have much power in the publishing world, as the “creator”, they have enormous implied power in the world of fandom and discussion of their own specific work, or maybe even someone else’s, if they’re well-known friends of Author X, say.  If I criticize the War in Vietnam or Iraq, and a four-star general comes knocking on my door the next day, you better fucking believe I’m gonna be uncomfortable.  An author may not have a battalion of tanks at their disposal, but they sure as hell have presence, possibly very intimidating presence if they are well-known in the industry or for throwing their weight around in fandom.

Given these basic premises which I hope I have elaborated on specifically enough, I have some conclusions about what I would consider good standard netiquette.  I won’t say “proper” because I have no authority in this area, nor does anyone, really, to back up such a wording.  But a “reasonable standard of” at least I can make logical arguments for.

  1. Say what you want on your own platform.  And you can even respond to what other people have said, especially if you are not an asshole and don’t name names of people who are not egregious offenders of social norms or who haven’t made ad hominem attacks.
  2. Respect people’s bubbles.  We have a concept of how close to stand to someone we’re in a discussion with in real life, for example, that can be a good metaphor for on what platforms we choose to respond.  Especially as regards critique, since responding to negative comments about oneself is something we know from past experience can be fraught with dangerous possibilities.  I would posit that a person’s private blog is reasonably considered part of their personal space.  A column on a widely-read news site might be considered more public,but then  you have to weigh the consideration of news of your bad behavior being far more public and spreading much faster.You should not enter it without a reasonable expectation of a good reception.  If there is a power imbalance between you and the individual whose space you wish to enter, we have rules for that.  real-world analogies.  For example, before you enter someone’s house you knock or ring the doorbell.  A nice email to the specified public contact email address asking if they would mind if you weighed in is a fairly innocuous way to open communications, and can save face on both sides by avoiding exposing one or the other to the possible embarrassment of being refused or the stress of refusing a local celebrity with no clear bad intentions.
  3. Assume permission is required unless otherwise explicitly  stated.  This one gets its own bullet point, because I think it’s the easiest way to avoid the most trouble.  A public pool you might enter without announcing your presence.  Would you walk into a stranger’s house without knocking? One would hope not.
  4. Question your reasons for engaging.  Nobody likes to be  called sexist.  Or racist.  Or shitty at doing their research.  Or bad at writing.  But reactionary  defenses against what could be construed as such an assertion do not in my mind justify an author wading into a fan discussion.  Or a reader discussion, if one considers “fan” as having too much baggage.  An incorrect narrative fact is likely  to be swiftly corrected by other readers or fans.  Libel or slander is probably best dealt with legally.  A reviewer is not your editor.  You should probably not be quizzing them for advice on how to improve your writing, or story-telling, or world-building.  Thanking a reviewer for a nice review might be best undertaken as a link on your own blog.  They’ll see the pingback, and can choose to engage or not.  At best, one might pop in to provide a link to their own blog where they provide answers  to questions raised in the post in question or a general discussion of the book they may wish to share with those who read the review.  But again, such a link would probably be best following a question on whether any engagement by the author might be appreciated.

Overall, I think I’ve suggested a good protocol for an author tojoin in fan or reader discussions without causing consternation or full on flame wars, and at a cost barely more than a couple minutes to shoot an email.

Advertisements
 
 

Tags: , , , , , ,

Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

You can read my review of Robin Hobb’s new Fitz/Farseer novel over on Notes from the Dark Net.

 

Spoliers:  It could have been better.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on August 7, 2014 in atsiko, Authors, Books, Fantasy, Reviews

 

Tags: ,

Now with Book Reviews! Sort of…

A friend of mine, Nick Morgan, has started a book review blog.  It’s mostly just for fun.  But he’s invited me to do the speculative fiction reviews, and I’m really looking forward to it.  I’ve always wanted to give book reviewing a try.  Also guest-blogging will be a mutual friend of ours Marisa Greene.

I may or may not be cross-posting the reviews to the Chimney.  I haven’t decided yet whether that would dilute the focus of this blog to much.  If I don’t cross-post, I probably will link to them on Twitter and at the bottom of whatever post I happen to be writing for the Chimney that week.

 

Keep an eye on Notes from The Dark Net for those reviews.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on July 18, 2014 in atsiko, Blogging, Books, Reviews

 

Tags: , , , ,

Reader Interpretation and Authorial Intent 2: The Difference Between Good Books and Books You Like

It’s becoming less of a strange concept these days: Just because you like a book, it doesn’t mean it’s good; just because you hate a book, it doesn’t mean it’s bad.  People often talk about this concept under the guise of “guilty pleasures”.

That’s the reader interpretation side of the issue.  On the authorial intent side, we have goals vs. execution.  An author might have sophisticated thematic goals, deep understanding of their characters, or brilliant and edge-of-your-seat plotting ability.  But that doesn’t mean they can put all of it on the page so the reader can see it.  I’ve heard many writers discuss the goals of their book, their plans for the characters, etc.  And quite often I’m dying to read that book.  But when I finally get my hands on a draft, or even a published book, it’s awful, or I hate where they went with it, or both.  Casual readers might be more familiar with this issue from reading back cover blurbs.  They’re written to sell the book, often by someone who is not the author, and they make it sound like the most fascinating book in the world.  But then you read it and it’s trite, or boring, or predictable.

In order to visualize this, think of a three-dimensional graph using Cartesian coordinates: x, y, z.  x is the goals of the author.  Are they unique?  Interesting?  Well-constructed?  Then they get a high x-value.  Look at the execution.  Is it elegant?  Is it good?  Does it get across what the author wanted to get across?  High y-value.  Finally, and this is arguable, but the most important issue to some people: Did you like the book?  Were the characters interesting?  Did the plot twist blow your mind?  Did everyone get what they deserved–or not?  High z-value.

To give you a better idea of how this graph works, high scores on all three axes mean the point on the graph representing a given book is in the back right corner.  The further away on the y-axis, which should pierce your belly-button, the better the craft behind the book.  The farther to the right on the x-axis, the loftier the goals of the story.  Finally, the higher up on the z-axis, which should be running parallel to your spine, the more you enjoyed the story.

As an example of a book to be plotted, let’s take The Scarlet Letter.  This was a brilliantly crafted book, with lofty thematic goals.  And I sort of liked it.  So it would sit somewhere to the bottom of my sternum, well past my right middle finger-tip, about five feet in front of me.

Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls, which was a fantastic example of magical realism, had lovely prose and interesting characters, and which I thoroughly enjoyed, would be fairly close to the upper right, back corner of my book box.

And then there are the tons of mediocre books that I might not read again, but don’t regret reading the first time.  And then we have Haruki Murakami, who is no doubt a great author, but whose penile adventures I have exactly zero interest in.  If we stuck the z-axis right down through the top of my head, he’d be about at knee-level and to the northeast of me.

 

I think “guilty pleasure” does a decent job of describing the phenomenon of knowing something is not particularly good and still liking it.  Kind of like McDonald’s.  I love McDonald’s even though I know it’s horribly unhealthy, and try not to think about the process of making it while I’m eating–or ever.

More bro-type folks then I might find Natty Light to be a better metaphor.  It’s an atrocious beer, tastes like watered-down camel-piss, but at least it gets you drunk.

And now I’m going to go feel ashamed of myself for suggesting that anyone compare natty light to literature.  Even Twilight-level literature.

ETA: If I were a good writer, I probably would have opened with that Twi-light/Natty-light line…

(This is not hating on Twilight.  I don’t like it, and it’s horribly written.  But plenty of people I know have said it’s their guilty pleasure.  Other readers may feel differently.)

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on June 15, 2014 in atsiko, Blogging, Books, Reviews

 

Tags: , , ,

Reader Interpretation and Authorial Intent: A Review of Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma

Before we get going, I should explain that if I’m trying to find a book to read by online reviews, I look almost entirely at the negative ones.  Most books have only a few 1- and 2-star reviews, so usually I read all of them, and some of the more popular 3-star reviews.  Maybe a couple 4-stars.  (I mean on Amazon and GoodReads.)  That’s because the majority of five-star reviews in my experience are mostly gushing, don’t discuss the reasons why the reviewer felt that way except in terms so abstract as to be useless, etc.  Sure, some low-star reviews are like that.  But a lot of them take the time to point out every little itch and then about half are in between.   And I find it more sueful to hear what people hated about a book when deciding if I want to buy it.  Although unless a book has almost nothing over 2 stars, I don’t actually pay much attention to reviews for decision-making anyway.  I just enjoy reading them for their own sake.

You might be wondering what all this has to do with Imaginary Girls.  I don’t usually post reviews on this blog, partially because my taste is so weird, and partially because I don’t want people to get the wrong idea of what this blog is about.  I primarily enjoy writing about the theoretical aspects for speculative fiction, and as with this reviews, occasionally about YA.  There are plenty of awesome review blogs out there, and I’m not interested in competing with them.  I’m not capable of competing with them; my goals in writing a review are different than theirs.  The reason I’m writing this review, besides that fact that Nova Ren Suma is an awesome writer and I loved this book, is because after I finished I was surfing reviews on Goodreads, and I saw a review, not surprising, but quite illustrating of a topic that’s been percolating and/or fermenting in my mind for awhile.

As the title says, it’s the tension between reader interpretation and authorial intent.  By reader interpretation, I means the feelings and insights and the rewarded or frustrated expectations that a reader takes away from a story.  And there’s a unique interpretation for each reader.  I won’t debate the issue of validity here.  It’s much too heated and ambiguous a discussion for me to get side-tracked on here.

So, instead, let’s begin with my review.  The review I mention earlier had a different reader interpretation of Ruby than I did.  She hated her.  So did I.  But whereas the other review saw this as a flaw, I saw it as the point.  I don’t know Nove Ren Suma enough to make a firm claim to her intent.  To an extent, it doesn’t matter.  half the point of the novel seems to be to provide ambiguity.  I admit that I am going to go a bit into spoilers.  That’s where my goals in a review differ slightly from traditional reviews.  Ruby is not a nice person.  She’s not a mean person either.  She’s more just amoral.  What matters to her is what she wants, not what’s right or wrong.  And the book does a great job of taking that, and still making her not a complete monster.  When people have always done everything you wanted, it’s not that strange to take it for granted.  Ruby holds the whole town under her spell.  Her character isn’t cruel, just a bit purposefully oblivious.

And that’s part of what makes the book as good as it is.  Ruby’s complete narcissism plays so beautifully into the magical realist elements of the story.  It’s Chloe’s complete belief in her sister that allows all the fantastic events in the story to seem believable.  London’s revival is perhaps the most unambiguous magical element.  But for the rest of it, when you finally have a break from the consensus reality that Ruby holds over the town, when Chloe and London and their friends pass the boundary line and start to say all sorts of awful things about Ruby, there’s a moment where you realize that maybe Chloe isn’t the most reliable of narrators.  Is she so under Ruby’s spell that she never saw these cracks?  That’s one interpretation.  Or there’s the idea of the boundary of Ruby’s power.  There’s enough wiggle room to take either route.  Or perhaps even the boundary is real, in the sense that Ruby doesn’t have enough energy to control things outside of town for mundane reasons involving time and physical stamina.  The moments near the end of the second third of the book, where Chloe sees Ruby for once tired, not perfect suggest that this too is a possibility.  This tension between various possibilities is part of what makes magical realism, real-world superstition, and a magician’s tricks so bittersweet.

Chloe has a few other moments of cognitive dissonance, as well.  And in general she takes the route of doubling down on her faith in Ruby.  Totally believable, to me.  All fiction requires suspension of disbelief.  Even the real world does.  And Ruby has, evidenced by little hints throughout the story, taken a great deal of time to set up her perfect little world, or at least the image of it in Chloe’s eyes.  When you have the scene at the beginning of the book, at the reservoir, and everyone seems under Ruby’s spell, there’s another interpretation to consider:  perhaps many people are under Ruby’s spell–temporarily, or patchily, or entirely–but there’s also an aspect of rubber-necking and denial that could be in play.  Some people absolutely see through manipulation and tricks.  But they still love to see the master work.  Or they want to be part of the legend, even though they know the legend is a fraud.  It’s easy to forget that with humans, sometimes appearances can be more important than reality.  You see it in rich-people take-down stories all the time.  The cracks being exposed, the polite but purposeful ignorance.  The winks that say “I saw saw that” or “we all know the truth but it’s more useful for us to pretend we don’t”.

But it’s common theme that the people most capable of casting these sorts of spells are also not the nicest of people.  They understand manipulation.  They know how to play groups off against each other, how to get someone to overlook the many little problems in the face of the one big wonder.  And they learned those things for a reason.  We don’t really get to learn Ruby’s reason. They had family troubles, and their mom was not the most perfect.  Perhaps some things happened in the past we didn’t get told about.  But I know people like Ruby, I’ve seen how they construct their worlds, paper over the cracks, and the portrayal of that in Imaginary Girls is very well done.  It wouldn’t be the book it is if Ruby wasn’t so selfish and controlling.  The tragedy of the book, the great and terrible beauty of it, is that even if the magic is real, even if Ruby did what she did, and Chloe and then London were brought back from the dead, even if she truly loved her sister in her own way, Chloe is still, for the foreseeable future lost in the spell of someone who’s dead and gone.  (Or is she?!)  It doesn’t even matter if things were really how Chloe saw them, because Ruby has screwed her up just the same.

 

Nova Ren Suma has done a beautiful job encapsulating what it’s like being a teenager, looking up to someone–loving someone, even–looking past their flaws.  Even though I’ve never lived by a reservoir, or had the family situation Ruby and Chloe had, or whatever, this book definitely resonates with me, and reminds me of things that happened when I was younger, and most of all it created a great mystery that was fun to investigate, even if it was impossible to figure out the right answer.  And she did it with brilliant prose and fascinating characters.  And it’s hard to ask more from a book.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on June 14, 2014 in Books, Reviews

 

Tags: , , , , ,