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July 20, 2005

Installment #14: Of Reviews, Fragile Egos, and "He Sure Went Ape-Shit", Part Three 

Because the last installment ended by presenting you with a Catch-22-type situation, I want to recap a couple of thing that we've covered up to this point:

1) Reviews can be useful tools in helping a reader decide whether not they want to read a particular book.

2) Reviewers should not be made to feel that they must hold back certain information about the story (a.ka. ***SPOILERS***) if that information plays a key role in supporting their thesis.

3) But readers, for the most part, don't want any ***SPOILERS*** contained in those reviews.

Where doth the twain meet here?

There are a couple of things that you can do to avoid this quagmire: you can read the work in question first, before you even so much as glance at a review, thus removing the ***SPOILER*** element from the equation, or you can employ a trick I've learned over the years: if the reviewer in question knows their stuff, if they adhere to the ideal structure of a review (see Part One of this column for an illustration of that structure), then you can read only the first two and last two paragraphs of the review in order to know what their overall opinion was. Then bookmark or set aside that review so you can come back and read it in its entirety after you've read the work in question for yourself.

To illustrate this pont, I once again direct you to Nick Mamatas's review of In the Midnight Museum. Nick knows his stuff, and because he does, you can read only the first two and last two paragraphs and have a clear understanding of his thesis. G'head.

See what I mean? We've now solved the problem: you've read enough of the review to know Nick's opinion, and Nick doesn't have to worry about someone throwing a hissy fit because his review contained ***SPOILERS***. You can read the novella, then go back and read the review in its entirety to see if you agree with his points. Everybody wins.

Except... (Knew that was coming, didn't you?)

Except there's a strong possibility that a lot of readers don't want to put in that kind of effort. Some have actual lives and better things to do with their time (a concept most writers I know cannot grasp). Some just don't have that kind of patience. Some don't want to waste time reading reviews that could be spent reading the book itself. And some may just be lazy and expect reviewers to put in ***SPOILER*** warnings.

So what's that leave?

Blurbs.

If you're not familar with that term, a "blurb" is a brief piece of text wherein the virtues of a particular book or writer are turned all the way up to 11 in order to give potential readers the prose equivalent of a sound bite. Both of my Leisure novels, In Silent Graves and the forthcoming Keepers, feature on their front covers a blurb taken from Publishers Weekly: "Braunbeck's fiction stirs the mind as it chills the marrow."

This is a perfect blurb; it's concise, it gets your attention, and it gives you a sense of what my work is about without revealing anything specific about the work. It's also a "general" blurb -- one that comments on my overall body of work rather than a specific book.

That blurb, by the way, was taken from the PW review of my first short story collection, Things Left Behind. Now, because it's a "general" blurb, its appearing on the cover of these novels is not taking it out of context; it is being used to give readers an idea of what they can expect from my work in general.

Now, flip over Graves and you will find on the back cover a handful of blurbs taken from reviews of the book itself. Open the cover and you'll find a full page of them that tout both the novel and my work in general. Taken individually, each one is (hopefully) enticing; taken as a whole, they're designed to make the hesitant reader decide in favor of purchasing and reading the book. (This why they're called "marketing tools.")

None of the blurbs were taken out of context (I'll get to that shortly), and I think they make for an intriguing sort-of introduction. Which is why I am a firm believer that a handful of strong blurbs can be just as effective as the same number of positive reviews; they're shorter, they're direct, and they reveal nothing ***SPOILER***-like about the work in question. This, to my mind, makes them a good alternative for potential readers who don't want to chance having a review give away too much of the story.

Not all blurbs are culled from reviews; sometimes -- okay, probably half the time or more -- a writer will contact other writers and ask them if they would be willing to read something with an eye toward providing a blurb. I have gotten several wonderful quotes this way, and have also provided them for other writers. (I don't always do this; in the past 4 years I have been asked to read several novels for which, in the end, I couldn't in good conscience provide a blurb because, well...I didn't like them.)

Let me quickly address a few misconceptions about writers providing blurbs for other writers:

1) Yes, a lot of the time these writers know or are at least acquainted with one another -- but that in no way means that a good blurb will be guaranteed.

2) I can't speak for others, but I myself do read, from first page to last, each and every book I am asked to blurb. (There seems to be a rather cynical belief that writers don't bother reading their buddies' books before giving them a blurb -- while I don't doubt that this happens every so often, it is most assuredly not the norm.)

3) Yes, any writer providing a blurb is aware that it's going to be used to entice a reader to buy this particular book, and will slant their blurb to that end -- but bear in mind that is because they like and believe in the book to begin with, so its integrity needn't be called into question.

This is not to say that things can't go wrong here, as well. If a book is saturated with too many blurbs, one gets the feeling that the publisher is overcompensating and perhaps trying to sell you a bill of goods. The first book in the new Dean Koontz Frankenstein series has ten pages of blurbs inside. That's overkill, because the sheer amount of them robs each individual blurb of its effectiveness. You're so numbed by the time you reach the end of the damned things you almost don't feel like reading the book -- which turns out to be quite a lot of good, old-fashioned fun. But because it starts off by pummeling you with page after page of rave blurbs (almost none of which refer to the book itself), you go in with the creeping feeling that someone is trying to convince you a sow's ear is actually a silk purse.

My own personal cutoff point is two pages or a dozen blurbs (whichever comes first); after that, I ignore them. With blurbs, less is defnitely more. (The ideal for me, by the way, is a single page containing somewhere between five and ten concise, tantalizing quotes.)

I am very careful to make certain that none of the blurbs used for my books are taken out of context -- I don't want readers to feel that these quotes have been employed to mislead them, and I don't want reviewers to feel that I've misrepresented their theses by "doctoring" their comments.

F'rinstance: if you go back to Nick's review of Museum, you'll find -- as I did -- that there are some choice lines that could easily be pulled out and used as blurbs, the most obvious being "...entertaining and gripping..." taken from the 3rd paragraph. But I won't do that, because, while excerpting that trio of words does not (technically) misquote Nick, it would constitute a misrepresentation of the review's overall tone and conclusions -- hence, taking them out of context. So no blurb from Nick Mamatas for me.

So what it boils down to is that strong blurbs can serve as the middle ground for readers who want some sense of what to expect from a book but don't want to chance having anything "spoiled" for them ... and reviewers can write whatever they damned well please without fear of being accused of "spoiling" anything.

I still think the best solution is to read the book first, but if that's not possible for whatever reason, then go the first-two-last-two paragraph route when reading a review; if that doesn't appeal or work for you, then turn to the blurbs. Beyond those three options ... I got nothing.


Two weeks from now, I'm going to publish the final part of this four-part column, and I fully expect to have a lot of people upset with me afterward, because I'm going to talk about a trend that I've been seeing more and more of lately, one that I find both infuriating and embarrassing: that of writers attacking reviewers who give their work negative reviews. Sometimes these attacks come in the form of a snide line or two from a particualr writer's blog, and sometimes they appear as long posts in discussion threads on message boards. While I don't doubt that this situation has existed for a while, I first became aware of it during a prolonged and ugly flame war that began on the Shocklines message board a little over a year ago when a friend of mine by the name of Ron Horsley posted a scathing review of From the Borderlands.

What ensued from there was a debacle of near-legendary proportions, one that I chose to stay out of, foolishly believing that my silence would be seen as, simply, objective nuetrality. (It also left me keenly aware of the trend I mentioned above, one that is not restricted to Shocklines or any single discussion board or blog.)

I'd hoped my silence would be seen and respected as impartiality; such was not the case, as it turns out. And as a result, both myself and my wife have been dealing with several personal -- and sometimes professional -- repercussions. I was bound and determined to not get involved with it or to ever comment on it publicly or privately, but a series of e-mails last week between myself and Brian Keene made it clear that I'm going to have to talk about it whether I want to or not.

And it's not gonna be pretty, so don't say you weren't warned.

See you in two weeks.

Until then, stay tuned....

 

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