It occurred to me that I hadn’t looked at the iTunes user reviews of my podcast novels in a while, so I popped into the iTunes store, searched my name, and started clicking through, title by title, so see if there were any new reviews. Mostly, no, but a couple of reviews for Sophia (none for Emily?). One five-star review posted last week, “This was a great vampire story…..got to learn how an adolescent would deal with vampirism.”, and there was another new-to-me review dated 11/21/2012:
“I unfortunately wrote the previous review after listening to only about one third of the story… oh my god, was I off base. I kept expecting something to happen… All I got was a sermon disguised as a story. If you’re interested in evangelization, this podcast is for you. The characters remain as 2 dimensional as they were in the beginning (a normal expectation in the first 3 to 6 episodes, not so by 27) and I was left feeling like I’d watched a 1970’s After School Special aimed at Christians (no slam on Christians). It was awkward and I often felt myself cringing in reaction to his dialogue and descriptions, knowing I’d written a somewhat favorable review for the story… yet I had to finish, and I’m glad I did. Why? Because the author goes on to explain in an end note that this was written in response to The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which McClanahan describes as a heavy handed, over the top mess of a novel. I believe he even refers to Atwood’s writing as ‘ham-fisted.’ I was stunned. This cat is delusional. Sophia is the definition of a heavy handed, underwhelming mess. Total waste of time. I will never ever write a review until I am completely finished listening to the story… sorry the initial review was misleading.”
(Forgive any typos; iTunes wouldn’t let me copy/paste, so I’ve re-written the whole thing by hand. Assume any errors are my own.) Now, I never saw the initial review, so I don’t know what praise this person may have initially given Sophia… but this is the sort of feedback that makes it hard for me want to write, at all. Or to live, for that matter. Seeing a review like this actually makes me feel like I oughtn’t go on living. That the world would be a better place without me. That my best work isn’t good enough, and that I’m making the world a worse place by my existence, and by my contributions to the world.
“Total waste of time.” A year and a half of my life, a total waste of time. Heck, since this is some of my best writing to date, my whole life is apparently a total waste of time. If only any of my frequent suicide attempts across the 1990’s had been successful, this person wouldn’t have had to lose six hours and fifteen minutes of their own life listening to a free book they didn’t enjoy.
Well, if I put it that way, it seems a little out of proportion. I mean, what sort of failure am I if it takes me a year and a half to ruin just a few hours of someone else’s life? Surely I can do better. I mean, I could become one of those high-volume traders, right? Then by making bad bets on mortgage-backed securities I could ruin thousands of people’s lives and futures in a matter of seconds. Maybe contribute toward crashing the entire global economy.
I’ve gone off track a bit. Back to the review. Because really, if this person thinks Sophia was heavy-handed, have I got a book for them! Emily, the one they probably ought to have started with if they aren’t a Christian (and they’re pretty clearly marked, for anyone who bothers to read book descriptions), is the one of the two books of Never Let the Right One Go I would have described as heavy-handed. This is largely intentional, as I was trying to mimic what I saw in other dystopian fiction, and Emily was the dystopian of the pair. Nine times out of ten, dystopian fiction is much more over-the-top and heavy-handed than even Emily. That’s one of the many things I didn’t like, reading those books/stories, but something I definitely intentionally copied, to the extent I could stomach it. (Note: I didn’t go far enough, because about a third of the feedback I’ve received about Emily has come from people who entirely missed the message, actually reading the opposite of what I thought I’d made overtly, painfully, the point.)
Worse, perhaps, to me, is that I don’t know for sure what this reviewer thinks I was being heavy-handed about. I mean, I could probably write you a 5-page essay on the over-wrought “symbolism” in A Handmaid’s Tale, and another 5 pages of suggestions for how to make the same points more subtly, if subtlety were the author’s intent. I wouldn’t want to, as doing an accurate study would require me to re-read the book so I could make accurate and detailed references, but it could easily be done. Unfortunately, other than perhaps that the protagonist is a Christian (and likes being a Christian), I cannot discern from this review what the reader thought I was being heavy-handed about. I mean, I know what I was trying to prove with Sophia, but since that only really makes sense in context of Emily, which this reviewer seems not to be aware of, I’m not sure what this person is talking about. They refer to it as “a sermon disguised as a story”, but wouldn’t a sermon have some sort of universal moral lesson? The closest I can recall in Sophia was that, if you’re an eighteen-year-old trapped in the body of a seven-year-old girl, there probably isn’t any appropriate way for you to be involved in a romantic relationship with another person, and it might be better for you to vow celibacy and dedicate yourself to your religion. Not exactly a universal moral lesson.
Of course, I may be delusional.
Personal attacks aside (especially since I gladly describe myself as a crazy person; I believe it’s in my bio most places), I get the feeling that any book with a Christian protagonist where their faith plays any part but something to be dashed would be offensive to this type of reader. That the only way to make them happy would be to have the Christian character 1) give up their faith by the end of the book, or 2) not be meaningfully Christian at all. That the only fiction that contains Christians should be segregated into Christian bookstores, not allowed to mingle with all the rest of the books. I mean, that’s the impression I get from reviews like this.
(As an aside, there are a few anti-theists I’m friends with who I know purchased Never Let the Right One Go but (as of the last time we spoke about it) have not yet read it. I am dreading their reaction more and more with every review like this I get.)
On the other hand, they do mention things I’m worried about. Like saying I have two-dimensional characters. This is the sort of thing I’ve heard from people my entire life (mostly about other people’s work, but sometimes in reviews like this about my own) and have never understood. I genuinely do not know what these people think they mean, or what could be done to alter their impression. I can read the books (or watch the movies/shows) they refer to as having “flat”/2D characters, and the ones they praise as having “deep”/3D characters, and not see/understand the difference. It is as though I’m color-blind, and most of the characters look the same to me. I mean, I can recognize when a character is a clichéd caricature and/or stereotype, but that doesn’t seem to mean the same thing. I genuinely do not understand, and this is a sort of crippling fear: If I can’t see what other readers see, how can I even know whether what I’m writing is good or awful?
Or this reviewer also mentions that they were “cringing in reaction to [the] dialogue and descriptions”. Since I’m pretty sure that “dialogue and descriptions” encompasses all the text in the book (whereas Emily contains a brief epistolic introduction with every chapter, as far as I know all of Sophia is either dialogue or a description), I am concerned that (apparently) every word of the book was cringe-worthy to this reader.
I am also concerned that they would have been okay with a book which radically shifted in writing style a third of the way in; I put a fair amount of effort into maintaining a consistent style and tone throughout an entire work. Their apparently favorable review of the first few chapters (I’m pretty sure chapter 1 is literally half sermon, btw) has been rescinded because the rest of the book continued to do what the first few chapters did. They didn’t say it got worse as it went on, just that they were hoping that the rest of the book hadn’t been like the beginning of the book. Again, I do not understand. What would lead someone to have the expectation for a book’s writing to radically change part-way through the book? I mean, this is something I have seen, done, and have considered doing more of, but only in fringe or experimental works, such as where the narrator changes mid-story.
Putting those two complaints together, I further cannot understand how the text in the first third of the book can be praise-worthy and the text of the rest can be cringe-worthy if another complaint is that the quality of the text didn’t suddenly change. What?
I suppose this is part of why I don’t often look at reviews of my books. (Another major factor being their infrequency, of course.) When I find them, I tend to deeply analyze and consider what -with all due respect to the reviewers- is not usually something which the writer took the time to consider deeply before posting. It’s their unedited gut reaction. You can see mine above, too – that I see a review like this and my gut reaction is to kill myself. But you can also see that with just a little bit more thought, I realize my gut reaction was, perhaps, not the entire answer. Or even a reasonable response. And I know I’ve done the same thing. I sometimes post my in-the-reading gut reactions to books to Goodreads, though when I do I have tried to usually also include a more reasoned review after I have completed the work. And I know it isn’t really unreasonable for people to post such things, or even to have such reactions. It just … takes a while to process them emotionally.
Because even when the reviewer refrains from making personal attacks in their negative reviews (ad hominem is all too common in the negative book review), it’s still personal. I cannot be separated from the work. It is a piece of me. It is as close to a child as I am ever likely to produce. I spend months or years carefully pouring myself, my mind, my emotions, my hopes and dreams and fears, into a creative work. I craft it and polish it and perfect it to the best of my ability, and then I put it out there to be shared by other people. I put myself out there, my thoughts and fears, my imagination and my skill, all on the line. Your criticism of the work cannot be separated from a criticism of me; it’s my work. You’re saying I did a bad job. That I’m a bad writer, a bad storyteller. You say that I have wasted your time.
If we were face to face, we could probably have a congenial discussion regarding the text. The characters, the themes, my goals for the work, and what they did or didn’t like, and I might be able to take some meaningful feedback which I could incorporate into future works. I certainly always try to make my next work better than what I’ve done before. With the anonymity and asynchronicity of the Internet, coupled with the brevity of this sort of review, behavior tends toward the base and consideration tends to be minimal.
So in the end, the review gives me little more than bad feelings and (maybe?) fewer sales/downloads. Worse than that is the current state of user-based reviews, where there is a broad perception that “anyone can get good reviews” (so, say, that 5-star review I got last week would be dismissed by many potential readers) and that only low-star-rating reviews can be trusted. So right now on iTunes these are the only two reviews, one that many will simply dismiss and another that they will consider a good source of information by which to make a decision. Argh! My average rating at Goodreads (across all tiles/ratings/reviews) is only 3.69, which with the above considerations roughly translates to “avoid this author at all costs!” (Instead of what it means, mathematically: “This author’s works are at least somewhat above average.”) It doesn’t help that the proportion of my readers who take the time to write reviews is somewhere south of 2 per 1000 readers.
I’ll try not to look at reviews again for a while. Maybe after another 3 months I’ll have another 2 reviews, eh?