REVIEWING: MY POSITION

Since the new Focus is almost ready to go, I thought I’d put my editorial from issue 56 online (this is a slightly longer version than the one that appeared in the magazine)…

I always seek out reviews of the stuff I get published. I know there are people who say they never look at a review, but I don’t really believe them. For me the point of writing is to tell stories to other people. Some people say they write only for themselves, not caring whether they’re read or if their work is liked. But what’s the point of that? If you’re telling stories to yourself, keep them in your head  –  the special effects are better and you don’t have to worry about the spelling.  And how come so many of those people get published? If they‘re only writing for themselves, how do the publishers get hold of their manuscripts? Do Orbit or Angry Robot have teams of housebreakers and hackers going round pinching pages from winsome artistic types?

Nonsense. All writers who seek publication want to be read and getting reviewed is one of the few ways that an amateur author (like me) can ever be (reasonably) sure that anyone has bothered to plough through one of their stories.

Not only do I read reviews, I value them, even the ones that point out flaws or rip a story to shreds.

That’s not to say a negative review isn’t annoying, or even upsetting, but once the sting has passed there’s usually something to be learned from the comments. As Aliette de Bodard points out (on page 8 of Focus 56 – back issues may be available…) there is an art to taking critiques, but I’m always of the opinion that any review is better than being ignored.

The old advice is that an author should never respond to a review  – whether it is good or bad  –  but there are times when that can be difficult.

Usually it isn’t the negative reviews that grate the most, but the ones where it doesn’t feel as though the reviewer has paid attention to your story, the ones where they patently get things wrong or just don’t get what you’re trying to do but are content to go ahead and give their opinions anyway. And, sometimes, it’s just the way the reviewer phrases something that makes your head hurt.

In one review I received recently (of my story “Proper Little Soldier” published in the Conflict anthology from NewCon Press) the reviewer said he didn’t like the story because it reminded her too much of Steven Spielberg’s recent film War of the Worlds.

I still have the bruise on my head where it impacted the desk, several times, after reading that line.

What was my problem?

I wasn’t annoyed that the reviewer didn’t care for my story, or that he compared my story to War of the Worlds. Indeed my point when writing the story was deliberately to echo parts of that story.

But he compared it to Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.

No!

HG Wells. H! G! Bloody! Wells!

The review still rankles, a little, even after all this time.

But here’s the thing  –  even this review tells me something. Actually it tells me a couple of things.

First, never explain your story. Stories are a bit like jokes, if you have to tell someone why a joke is funny then either: (a) the joke wasn’t funny to begin with; (b) you’ve made a mess of telling it; or (c) the person you’re telling the joke to doesn’t share your sense of humour and you’re wasting your time. If all of the people who read your story stare blankly at the last page and ask “Huh?” then you probably need to take it back to the drawing board. But if most readers understand it, shrug off the outlier’s comments and get on with your life.

Take “Proper Little Soldier”, I wasn’t surprised when that people made the connection between that story and HG Wells’s classic – as I’ve said, I had War of the Worlds in mind when I wrote it and I wanted readers to make that link. What did disappoint me, slightly, was that having recognised the similarity, none of the reviewers went on to consider what it was about the story that was deliberately different from the original. But there’s no point complaining about that. If readers missed what I was trying to do, it’s because I obviously didn’t do a good job of getting this point across. As I said, if I’m left with the need to explain what I meant to everyone who comments on the story then I obviously haven’t succeeded in getting that point across. Hopefully, though, there were enough other interesting bits in the story to make it work at other levels.

Which leads me to the second point, don’t obsess over it if not everyone likes or understands what you are trying to do. People react to things differently. There are people out there who prefer Billy Ray Cyrus to Bach  –  you can’t legislate for these people and you probably can’t change their minds.  If you’re aiming for the Bach crowd (or, for that matter, the Billy Ray Cyrus crowd) don’t worry about what the other lot think  –  be grateful that there are some people who like what you’re doing.

In the end you have to accept that, in putting your work out for public consumption, you are going to get criticised. Suck it up. Always remember that it’s better to be read that to be ignored.

Another story I had published last year, “Barcode Babes” (in Daybreak Magazine), was a story I wrote several years ago and then sat on for ages, not sure whether to submit it. I worried that it’s a story that some people might read differently from the way I intended – but Daybreak’s editor Jetse de Vries got the essential optimism of the story and so when he asked to publish it I let it go ahead. I won’t pretend, however, that I wasn’t a bit worried when it went online.

I needn’t have fretted. So far as I can tell, no one has reviewed it anywhere.

I got no feedback on the story whatsoever. I assume that it moved no one to anything other than a shrug and a meh!

I’d rather they’d misunderstood it and hated me for it.

Reviews, positive or negative, are part of being a writer. If you’re getting any reviews you’re making progress because your story has escaped from your head, made it to paper (or webpage) and is being read and thought about by someone other than your closest family members.

Even a bad review is a good review.

But, really…  Steven Spielberg?

Copies of Focus are available to BSFA members – if you’d like to read Focus, Vector and all the other cool stuff the BSFA produces go here and join now…

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One Response to REVIEWING: MY POSITION

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