Reviewing Reviewers

Well, here’s a subject that is sensitive to every writer. Reviews. When they are good, we are thrilled. But when negative, not so much. No novel writer, of course, wants to think that his/her Great Work Of Art, as they see it, is not universally loved. He/she spent untold hours (many of us anyway) trying to craft a story that is both engaging and worthy. At the least, we hope that our words will be our legacy and continue to speak for us when we are gone.

Unfavorable reviews, however, are to be expected and accepted. It’s normal. That’s the world we live in. There is a diversity of thought among us homo sapiens that makes us unique. Not everyone is expected to think the same way. Thus, some books are just not for everyone. I don’t have any delusions that a story like Opalescence will be universally adored. For one thing, it’s just not what people who are used to – the usual guns, gore, car chase scenes and raw sex. Sure there is a bit of that in the beginning, the future part, but the greater portion of Opalescence is more about exploration, discovery, wonder and growth.

Frank Herbert’s Dune is a case in point for me. Dune is considered by many to be a great sci-fi novel, one of the best. Yet, when I read it, I wasn’t terribly impressed. The main issue I had was its loquaciousness. There just seemed to be a lot of dialogue. Too much for my liking. But perhaps this is a personal thing. My book, is, in comparison, largely lacking in dialogue through the main section, Tom’s journey down the prehistoric California coast (though there is some). The reason is obvious, he’s the only guy around. So the book is more descriptive.

Another book listed as great is Olaf Stapledon’s Last And First Men. Nope. Not for me. It’s kind of like movie reviews. I don’t know how many times I’ve picked up a video at the library because it was lauded as “Best of the Year!” or some such, only to find, after I watched it, that I felt betrayed. When I end a movie feeling angry or depressed or disgusted, that was not a movie I enjoyed.

Sometimes, though, for reasons that I don’t want to try to explore too deeply here, someone will write a review of a book that seems excessively harsh, even scathing, and, it may appear to the author, wildly unfair. I’ve read reviews of books that were thoroughly acerbic, even insulting in their criticism, with the reviewer relating how incensed said book made him or her feel. Okay. That, too, is to be expected, and, within reason, should be accepted. It may be that the reviewer has a valid point that has been overlooked by others. (On the other hand Sometimes, the criticism is actually dishonest, and someone(s) may even take it upon him, her or themselves to launch a campaign to discredit some book (or what have you) through bad reviews. One clue to this for a review reader might be when some reviews are wildly out of sync with others. Examples: here, here, here, here. And who can forget the Digg Patriots?

Here’s an interesting site I discovered in my research for this post. In the corporate world, the practice of fake grassroots activism is called Astroturfing. Here’s a classic article on the subject).

Opalescence, has a couple of difficult sections. Chapter 2, for example, where I try to give readers a sense a nightmare future, is tough for some. Julie’s poetry in Chapter 9 is probably not Pulitzer Prize winning material (but then, she’s not a prizewinning poet). Still, I hope that the rest of the book makes up for it.

Mike Harris, the Los Angeles Times book reviewer who commented on a draft copy of Opalescence (initially in a personal letter), called my attention to areas that needed improvement. Pointing out these shortcomings he said: “I can say with confidence that the biggest problem for anyone in your situation is to get people to do what I did: read enough of your MS to see what a terrific story you’ve created. Strange though it may seem, agents, editors and others in the lit biz will try as hard as they can to find a reason not to read more than the first few pages of your book”. I worked hard to do listen to Mike’s voice and have revised the book strongly since then.

Yet, within Mike’s letter he also said this:

“My favorite part of “Opalescence,” though — the heart of the book, in my opinion — is Tom’s journey south, his blunders and adventures, his strengthening and growing self-sufficiency, his relationship with Little. Followed closely by Julie’s parallel wanderings and her relationship with Zephyr. Your hiking expertise and love of nature really pay off here. You have time and space to give us a tremendously detailed picture of Miocene California, yet so much happens along the way that the momentum of the story is unchecked. It’s not easy to go for long stretches with a single character, but you pull it off, even as you’re seemingly mentioning every animal, plant, fish and bug that existed then. Do we need them all, complete with Latin names? Yes, they’re proof that you’ve done the research, and aren’t just blowing smoke, and they’re evidence of the Earth’s former beauty and fecundity.”

Mike has since penned another review which you can read on my Reviews page.

I was repelled when I first heard about outfits I used to believe in that are paid to do book reviews. Sometimes they don’t even read the work! I don’t want to mention them, but you can find more info on Google. Anyway, not knowing the possible agenda of someone who would post a negative review, I intend to post only constructive ones there. Perhaps this will strike some as unfair, but, hey.

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