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June 20, 2005

Installment #12: Of Reviews, Fragile Egos, and "He Sure Went Ape-Shit", Part One 

I've been thinking a lot about reviews lately. Part of it stems from the critical reaction to my new novella In the Midnight Museum; part of it stems from my absolute dread of how reviewers and readers are going to react to the second Cedar Hill collection, Home Before Dark, and my novel Keepers when both are released in September; and the last -- and possibly greatest -- part of it stems from a series of events that occurred several months ago on the Shocklines discussion board, events about which I remained for the most part silent while they were happening but that, as much as I've tried to let them go, still bother me a great deal. (And even though I had almost no part in it, I am still dealing with several personal repercussions...as is, inexcusably, my wife. And I'm a bit pissed. You'll understand come Part Three.)

This particular column (which looks to be a 3- or 4-parter (yes, I've been saving up) will deal with, in order (more or less), the following:

1) Reviews and reviewers
2) Blurbs
3) How it's not a question of how an author reacts to good reviews, but how he or she reacts to the bad ones that test the true mettle and show the true colors
4) ***SPOILERS*** (as in, what does and does not constitute them, and why you should or should not care)

... and...(drumroll, please)

5) The Infamous From the Borderlands/Ron Horsley/Shocklines Affair (and why I've waited so long to talk about it).

A lot of territory to cover, so what say we get right to it?

Reviews and Reviewers.

Uh, mmm, wel....

A lot of the time you will hear writers say something along the lines of, "I don't let reviews affect me." If you're ever in the presence of a writer who says this, immediately reach up and hold closed your nose with thumb and index finger, because the stench of bullshit is about to hit you square in the face. I've no doubt that there are writers who don't care about thier reviews, good or bad ... and in most cases, these are writers who have a strong fan-base, who have been publishing steadily for years, whose names have appeared on bestsellers lists, and who can afford to not give a shit. (C'mon, you think Michael Crichton loses sleep over a scathing review in The New York Times?) The rest of us know that the life of a book can very well be prolonged or cut short by enough good or bad reviews; it's one of the harder truths to accept. Sure, you might have a nice 2- or 3-book deal with a publisher, but if all 3 of those books are met with mostly negative reviews and a steady decline in overall sales, someone in the sales department is going to infer a correlation and then your ass is in trouble.

(An aside: have you ever noticed that these writers who loudly claim to not care about reviews are usually those whose web pages contain the most blurbs and review excerpts? What's wrong with this picture?)

There are some in this field who will tell you that the only reviews that really count come from places
like Locus, The NY Times, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, The Village Voice, or other high-profile
magazines and newspapers. While a good review from any of these is definitely something to exploit, most of us in this field aren't lucky enough to have our work consistently reviewed in these publications. (An example? Let me know if you ever see a review of a Leisure title in Locus -- for the record, an excellent publication -- for it will mean that the universe has shrunken farther, the time streams are merging, and we've entered an alternate universe.)

Those of us who aren't fortunate enough to be consistently noticed by such high-profile publications must cull our reviews from every source available to us. This in no way means that we are "settling" for reviews from, say, Horror World, Cemetery Dance, The Horror Fiction Review, or SF Reader, to name but four -- I don't care if a review comes from Lusty Llama Lover's Quarterly, if it's well-written, intelligent, and is going to help me draw notice to my latest book, I'll jump right on it. I am always grateful for reviews, because it means that the publication and reviewer thought my work was deserving of their time and consideration.

Personally, I don't think it's the source of the review, but the content of the review that should be emphasized. Because we know that readers' time and money demand that they be selective about what they read, we want to offer them as enticing a pitch as possible; ergo, we find as many positive review excerpts as we can to aid us in attracting a larger readership.

I am very lucky that In Silent Graves received many good reviews and looks to make a decent sell-through, but one qualified success does not a career as a novelist make. My gut tells me that it could go either way with Keepers because, while it deals with many of the themes that I've always explored in my fiction, it's a much more brutal (and sometimes surreal) novel than was Graves. I do some things here that I've never tried before, and while I am proud of the way it turned out, my fear is that readers who are expecting In More Silent Graves are going to finish Keepers and say, "What the hell was he on, anyway?"

We'll see in September.

Back on track now.

I try to not read reviews of others' works until after I myself have read the work in question; it's not that I think the review will influence my opinion (it won't), but I like to approach a new novel or short story collection with no preconceptions whatsoever -- and whether people are willing to cop to it or not, if most read a review of a book before reading the actual book, some part of that review is going to linger in the back of that reader's mind, so that when they encounter something that the reviewer, say, thought was weak or contrived, they'll think, Oh, I see what they meant. Like it or not, the review has already had an influence on how you're reacting to a novel or collection while you're still reading it, and anything that subtracts from the enjoyment of the reading experience is to be avoided. Period.

So I don't read reviews until afterward. I get a kick out of seeing if the reviewer's opinion is similar to mine, of seeing what they thought worked and what didn't, and discovering whether or not the reviewer had an agenda or a preconceived opinion. (It never fails to amaze me in a sad sort of way when a magazine or newspaper assigns a genre novel to a reviewer who doesn't bother hiding their dislike -- or, in some cases, outright contempt for -- genre fiction; I remember the Newsweek review for Stephen King's Firestarter, wherein the reviewer, after spending a good portion of the review discussing the "...appeal of trash fiction", went on to give it one of the most backhanded recommendations I've ever read. The result was a review that could have been one sentence long: If you're the kind of person who likes this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing that you will like. But I digress once again....)

So what value do reviews hold for both readers and writers? For readers -- whose reading time is precious -- they very well may help that reader decide whether or not they want to read a particular book. A good review can produce word of mouth, that in turn can spark further reader interest, that can turn into book sales, thus sparking more word of mouth, more reader interest...you get the idea. (And by "good" I don't necessarily mean "positive"; we'll get into that somnewhat this time, more fully in Part Two.)

I review books on this site, but I'm up front about my agenda; thus the reviews originally appeared under the title Recommended Reading. I'm not going to waste your time telling you why you shouldn't read something that I didn't like. So, yes, the book reviews you'll find here will be for books that I liked enough to recommend to others.

This is not to say that I goober all over everything; if I had problems with certain aspects of a book, I'll tell you about them (check out the reviews of Kealan Patrick-Burke's Ravenous Ghosts and Harry Shannon's Memorial Day; two books that I strongly recommended but with which I had certain reservatons). To my mind, honesty is what constitutes a good review, even if the overall message of the review is not a positive one. If I review a book, I'm going to tell you what I did and did not like about it.

As far as I'm concerned, a good review should follow the old high-scool debate-team "plank" structure: Begin by stating your conclusion (This book is good/bad), follow it up with a breakdown of the reasons why you arrived at the previously-stated conclusion, and end by, 3) re-stating and re-affirming your initial conlusion.

To that end, I have to share a story with you concerning one the most succinct reviews I've ever encountered.

It came from my late father.

My dad was not an educated man. He grew up during the Great Depression. He had to drop out of grade school in order to go to work and help support his family. He fought in and was severely wounded during WWII, and as a result of his wounds spent 18 months in a body cast. He liked movies, and he liked to read (providing the print wasn't too small). But because of the 18 months he spent in that body cast, he couldn't sit still for very long, which made it difficult for him to go to the movies.

The acid test of a movie for him was if it could pull him in enough to make him ignore and/or forget the muscle spasms and cramps that always began to set in after about 40 minutes. Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron kept him glued to his seat, as did Taxi Driver, Seven Days in May, The Big Red One, Meet John Doe, The Court Jester and a small handful of other movies. Dad's reviews of movies
were, for the most part, given silently; if he sat there and watched the entire thing without once getting up, that was his version of a "thumbs-up".

Okay. One afternoon in 1985 my Uncle Don came by the house and invited Dad to come along with him to see Rambo: First Blood, Part Two. Much to my surprise, Dad said yes and off they went to Stallone's two-hour testosterone fest. When Dad came back home later that day, I asked him: "So, how was the movie, Dad?"

I will never forget his review.

Dad looked at me, smiled, gave his head a little shake, and said: "It was okay. He sure went ape-shit. I missed some of it because I had to get up and stretch my legs, but I guess it was okay."

Beautiful, just beautiful.

Whenever I am reading a book or watching a movie where the creator(s) (are) is going wildly over-the-top in order to achieve a desired effect, I always hear Dad's voice in the back of my head: He sure went ape-shit. Short, sweet, and right to the point.

Before singing off this time, I'm going to leave you with a teaser for Part Two, this one concerning people's reaction to negative reviews.

When Obsidian Press released The Indifference of Heaven back in 2000, I was a nervous wreck waiting for the reviews. I'd damn near wrecked my health finishing it, and knew at the end that I had evolved as a writer. I had challenged myself, tried things I'd never before attempted, and knew that I was never going to be the same writer or human being again. I put a lot into that book, and was anxious about critical and reader reaction.

Then the very first review came in.

Here's the first line: "Small-press stalwart Gary A. Braunbeck's debut novel is a jumbled mess."

And it went downhill from there.

I received a lot of e-mails from friends and fellow writers telling me that the review was "...stupid", that the reviewer was "...an idiot", "...a jerk", "...an asshole", and that the book was "...probably too smart for him -- after all, you make people think."

I won't lie, I was devastated by the review; not only because its overall conclusion was that the novel was too complex and humorless for its own good (two elements I'd secretly feared would be criticised), but because, on a second reading, I realized that the review itself was a good one -- well-written, well thought-out, well-structured, honest, and intelligent. It was a good review, just not a positive one.

Oh, the reviewer? Who was this "idiot", this "jerk", this "asshole"?

Someone whose name you will immediately recognize. Someone whose work you have read. Someone whose work I have read and admired for years.

Wanna know who it was?

Then come back when Part Two goes live the first of July.

Ain't I a little stinker?

Stay Tuned....



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