Reviewing the Reviewers

Self-publishing is one of the most inspired uses of the digital age, but it has dangers: one of them being the spawning of self-appointed book reviewers. Yes, I include myself in this category.

Some of us actually have studied and practiced the forms we critique, but many of us haven’t. As an author, this means that your work may be glorified or reviled by people who don’t know anything. This innaccurate or determental publicity will be read by your potential audience – and they may not realize that the reviewers are idiots.

I’m fairly well-read in traditional forms of fiction and poetry and plays. Even the bizarreness that evloved in the late 20th century I can discuss intelligently. Flash fiction, however, is something in which I am not well-versed. Unfortunately, I did not realize this until this past summer.

I was given an anthology to review, and I hated it. I would have flung it across the room after reading it, I was so furious with it. I spent a week pacing through my house, trying to come up with some emotionally neutral way to describe my thoughts. I failed. I failed, and I posted paragraphs of vitrol that make me blush even now.

The editor of the anthology responded beautifully. Despite my unfocused negativity, the editor replied and asked if I could be more specific in my criticism, as what I had posted wasn’t terribly helpful at all. The editor then added that it would have been considerate if I had contacted them first to discuss any questions I might have had before posting my opinion.

This got me thinking. I’m not convinced that a reviewer ought to share his or her review with the publisher prior to releasing it. I think that once someone publishes something, that work now begins to breathe and walk on its own. Critics talk about the work itself, not the authors (this was one of my mistakes; I got sloppy this time and did not prevent personalized language from entering my review).

However, the editor had a great point: I had not offered anything substantive that could have been used in future revisions. In the most basic sense, I had failed as a reviewer. Whether I like or dislike something should not be part of my review. I need to be discussing how this work measures against its own ideals – which in this case meant the genre of flash fiction. About which I knew nothing.

I revised my review, leaving the original up. (Yep. You can google it.) I left the first one up because, while it’s embarrassing professionally and personally, I did say these things, and I need to be accountable for them. I amended it by adding specifics. It wasn’t eloquent or pretty, but I acknowledged the editor’s comments, and tried to learn from it. (You can find those comments, too.)

This cautionary tale about potentially bad reviews is not limited to review content itself. I want to bring up something else, something potentially more important than the review itself.

How you, as an author or editor, respond to a bad review, can change the impact of the review itself. You do not need to start hyperventialing and toss out your keyboard. Also, there’s no need to begin practicing voodoo to punish the critic. You can respond, and by maintaining your composure, you can rescue your work.

If the review was nebulous and caustic, respond – politely – by asking if the reviewer can be clearer and more precise. If he or she can’t, that reviewer’s inability to reply to your questions will effectively neuter that review – and you’ll look by remaining calm despite the slap in the face. If the reviewer can provide details, it will still burn, but you can use this to learn. Not everything that we write is excellent or golden, and almost everything can always be improved. Unless you’re Shakespeare or Joyce or Eliot – and, honestly, none of us are.

One more thing to consider: ask for the reviewer’s background or credentials. If the person is someone who wrote a review because they were given a free book, but who otherwise has no real experience with writing and literature, it can be much easier to ignore their comments. If the person is well-studied and experienced, you may hate what they say, but they might have a point or two. We get so close to our work, we love it (and hate it) so much, that often we can’t see flaws anymore. We’re simply too close. We need reviewers to point out our blind spots. (Hopefully, you’ve also got good beta readers and editors who can do this, but never turn down the chance to learn from someone.)

I have continued to take peeks at flash fiction. So far, I have only liked “Baby Shoes.” But, I’m still trying it – because an editor called my attention to my ignorance. FictionBrigade’s defense of their authors and polite but firm push-back on my reivew has made my world bigger.

Art of any kind is dynamic. Sure, at a given point of time, the work itself takes its final form. The discussion around it, though, is constantly moving and shifting. Once you’ve published, you need to let your baby take the occassional hit, but you can still contribute to the conversation.

First published in irevuo magazine, January 2013.


About Shannon Blue Christensen

Storyteller. Author. Editor. Literary Critic. Director. Teacher. Knitter. nascent Musician. Student. Operations and Quality. Marketing. Historian. Lear's Fool. View all posts by Shannon Blue Christensen

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