Thursday, September 04, 2008

On the Fortieth Review, and Negativity

A couple days ago I got review number 40 for Acacia on That's sweet. Means a lot of people have read the book. Lots of them have liked it, too. Only... well, actually number 40 didn't like it. I may be wrong, but that's my interpretation of... "as flat as a piece of newsprint" and "David Anthony Durham's "Acacia" is an abysmal production" and "Oh, and by the way, Durham can't write women, either" and "worst of all is the flat predictability of the characters". Am I wrong, or does that sound a bit negative? (Number 39 wasn't a fan, either.)

So I say to myself... Ah well, what to do? You can't please everyone, right? All those emails of praise and encouragement count for much more, yeah? Don't forget that. Don't forget all the reviewers - professional and amateur - that loved it. Don't forget the foreign publishers that snapped it up and the film people that have big, expensive hopes for it. Remember the many insightful readers who have found meaning in the characters and actions that give it real depth. Good thing all that's out there. And since it is I can let negative opinions like number 40 (and 39) just slide off my Teflon skin, baby.

Or... Well... maybe not so much...

The crazy thing is that logic and reason and the vast numbers of encouraging readers and avowed fans don't hold up that well in the face of negativity. They are the bedrock of why and for whom I write, but negativity is a sly bastard, persistent. Odious. He lives somewhere in the nooks and crannies of my brain and - like a politician making the boldest of assertions - he doesn't feel any need to nod to other perspectives. All he needs is a little bit of encouragement and he'll say things like...

"Oh my god, you idiot. You complete idiot! You realize, don't you, that you're a horrible writer. That last person that wrote that review on Amazon proves it. You suck. Purple prose, dude. Anachronisms. Completely awkward and incoherent sentences. The kind of stupid plot tricks that will make any intelligent reader throw your book out their window... That's all you have to offer. How could you possibly think that readers would want to read 240k words in which absolutely nothing interesting happens? About characters that are totally flat and cardboard and completely predictable on each and every page? What were you thinking? You should really consider changing your name and never writing again. You better get tenure quick, dude, before your colleagues realize how crap you are. But mostly - stop inflicting your words on the world!"

Ah, yes, that's my friend. He's only dealing out tough love, you know? What can I say to refute that? Clearly number 40 (and 39) have unmasked me...

You know, the thing here is that I'm not entirely kidding. There's is a vastly uneven effect between positive and negative feedback. I can hear 100 great reactions and - while I'm pleased - such things tend to keep me on even keel. I mean, I work really hard to make my books good. So when a reader enjoys them I've not achieved more than I wanted; I've just hit the baseline I was expecting to get all along. But that 1 review that slams down on the other side of the scales has the power - temporarily, at least - to send those other 100 kind folks twirling through the air. It doesn't have to make sense. It also doesn't ever really go away, no matter how many books one puts behind them. Doubt, resistance, negativity; man, they're powerful.

So, I'll admit something to people that seem to enjoy writing really negative reviews. In case you wondered if your attacks have an effect on writers... I'll verify that they do. They do. Even if we think you're completely wrong or stupid or nuts. They still have an impact. You, writing from wherever you are in the world, have pushed an invisible finger through the ether and poked me in the chest. Perhaps that makes you feel good to know that. If so, enjoy it.

There is good news, though. For one, I can take a little poking. I'm a professional. I do know it comes with the territory. The other thing is more interesting, though. And that's that the haters actually play an important role in helping creators onward. That's what they probably don't understand. It's not what they say that matters. It's not that they're terribly insightful and have a lot to teach us about how to really write book. It's that they put out the negativity at all that matters. Creators - in whatever field - must face resistance. We must push through doubt. We must hear jeers and insults and must find a way to put them into their place. It's always been that way. It's part of why creative achievement isn't easy, and part of why it's so rare. Yes, many people don't get through the fears enough to get published, etc, but the ones that do are stronger because of it.

So... Glad I got my equilibrium back. I'm going to go work on the next book.

(Which means, number 40 and 39, that you lost. I know you'll try again soon, but today, right now, you've been trumped.)

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Blogger Tia Nevitt said...

Oops! It looks like I never put my review from Fantasy Debut up on Amazon. Something else for the to do list . . .

Those were bummers, to be sure. I have an author friend who claims to never read reviews because she dreads reading the bad ones. And I have another author friend who read a negative review on Amazon and got REALLY upset. In fact, she said many of the same things that you said in this post.

I do think that some people like being mean. And others may simply be jealous. It is always hard to read/hear criticism of yourself (or your works) and not be in a position where you can defend yourself. Reviewers know this, which is why some of them are so awful. It's a power trip.

8:01 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Hi Tia,

Believe me, I'd be very happy for you to put up that review on Amazon. ;)

I suppose I think a lot of things about why some people seem to thrive on tearing others down. (And that is what I'm talking about here. There's a line between expressing your opinion about a book and seeming to take joy in what becomes a rather uncritical bashing.) It's probably better I don't go on too much about it, though. That's why I wanted the post to just acknowledge that the negativity does have claws. Even as I acknowledge that it's our job as creators to get past it and recognize the audience that does count.

If nothing else, I'll spend too much of the day after reading a review like that walking around shaking my head, thinking "WTF? Are they talking about my book? Sounds like it, but... WTF?..."

And THAT is a waste of time. It's a dent in what I should be doing with my day.

I go through periods of not reading the one or two star reviews. I have to say I don't accept that I write one star books, so when I see that I know whatever they have to say is not going to be something I'll find reasonable or enlightening.

But there always comes a day when curiosity gets a hold of me and I'll read the stinkers... and then walk around with a hangover from it all day...

8:30 PM  
Blogger Andrea Eames said...

I haven't posted a review on Amazon, but I thoroughly enjoyed Acacia. In fact, am currently re-reading it. :)

I am often amazed at how vitriolic negative reviewers get about a book. I mean, it's a book. If they don't like it, fine, but to say things like 'this book proves Jesus died in vain' is a bit extreme, yes? They really seem to enjoy ripping things apart.

Anyway, you're quite right, you don't write one-star books and so those reviews can be safely ignored entirely. Thanks for this post though, was good to hear a measured, considered response to what must be a very painful experience!

9:09 PM  
Blogger Corby Kennard said...

Firstly - you have been touted by most of the current scifi writers of note, so there's that.

Scalzi has great things to say about negative reviews - indeed, he puts them on his site and laughs at them, allowing the rest of us to do so as well. The funniest thing - most of those negative reviews are written so badly that they are all-but-unreadable vitriolic attacks with no critical relevance.

I admit that I have posted one star reviews, but only of Cormac McCarthy and only after thinking about what I really felt and trying to make it legible and honest, not just taking an attack pose.

I really am not affected by baseless negativity - I prefer honest criticisms, even if it points out something negative about the work. I have no ego about my writing - if someone thinks a piece sucks that is fine, but if the critic can't explain why I pay no attention.

I had some criticisms about Acacia, and I've shared them, with you, but I tell you, whether I loved or hated the book (which I really enjoyed, and am eagerly anticipating the next installment), you are a great writer, regardless of the story.

ps. I went and criticized her review. Not that you need people to lambaste your critics, but she was just disrespectful and deserved to be called out.

2:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really respect you, David. You didn't come out guns blazing, dropping bodies, hurling invective or insults... You handled that very well, and just adds to your stature as an author. I think the thing we should also remember is that most of the people who voice such negative comments (when critiquing anything) have only themselves to use as back up; what I mean to say is that they don't do much else, and the general anonymity given by the internet is usually used by sarcastic little idiots who wouldn't know something good if it bit them on the nose! :-) But I s'pose this has to be said too: at least they're giving )in their opinion) their honest opinions. Well, I say 'Whatever'. You're writing wonderful tales, and doing what you what to do - I wonder if those negatives out there can say the same thing... :-)

5:01 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hey- I have not read your book(s) yet but i saw a link to Acacia and poked it and found my way to your website. I read this latest post of yours. I found your post very intelligent and insightful and I am now determined to head out (after the hurricane hits me) and pick it up and give it a read.

An author that is free to speak his mind and opens the doors to his thoughts to his fans, is worth at least the time and cash to hear what their creativity has unleashed.


7:39 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Hi Cat, Rereading it? That's cool, I think. Hopefully, you'll like it even more. (Fingers crossed.) And, don't be shy about posting a review. Friends can have opinions, too.

Paranoyd, yeah, you don't McCarthy at all, do you? I saw that review, though, right? I understand where it came from and that it was well thought out and serious. The single star may be harsh, but you went for it as a way of punctuating your well thought out points. It wasn't lightly done.

Dave, you wrote...

"You didn't come out guns blazing, dropping bodies, hurling invective or insults..."

Was that an option? Sounds kinda like fun... ;)

Jayme, thank you. I'm glad you found your way here. I hope the hurricane treats you kindly, and that you do get a chance to check out my work.

2:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sometimes I check out the Amazon reviews of arch classics which are generally held to be above reproach, critically speaking. I think the only one I ever found that had no 1 or 2 star reviews was To Kill a Mockingbird.

I would have given Acacia 10 stars if that had been an option.

5:53 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Erika, Well you, of course, are awesome. So there you go.

I actually just checked To Kill a Mockingbird on Amazon. The main paperback edition (from 2002) has a ton of reviews - 1,745 to be exact. Of those, 58 are one starred. 36 are two starred. Kinda funny that more people thought the book totally sucked than just thought it mostly sucked. ;)

7:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gosh! Wherever you look, some reviews on Amazon are just blatant nonsense, therefore I ignore most of them. You wrote an outstanding book, David.

Two very stupid reviews on were the main reason for me to write a review, either.
After reading the German version of Acacia in February, I now try the Original - and it's even better.

10:05 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Liath, Thank you. I hope you don't mind, but I just put together a quick post that links to your review!

2:03 PM  
Blogger A. Hartman Adams said...

Hey David--sucks about the crap review. Honestly, I'm a little confused by the "ripped from the headlines" comment, considering slavery and corruption of the powerful are hardly new topics. I don't think the Times has the corner on that market. Maybe Fox News, but just barely.

In terms of being discouraged, clearly you're not. Well done. In these cases, the following thoughts stick with me (which, coincidentally, you helped teach):

1) Criticism from peers and professional colleagues is valuable, usually well-meant, and constructive (at least it should be).

2) Criticism from "pop culture dropouts" is often reactionary and poorly thought out. Feel free to dismiss with wild abandon.

and (my favorite)

3) To quote "A League of Their Own," writing is "supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great."

Happy to see this hasn't gotten you down. Even happier to see that righteousness on the behalf of creative types everywhere.

Take care,

12:35 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Hi Allison,

Well, I do believe that negative reviews are absolutely part of the job, even a good sign. It shows that enough people are reading the work. So, as annoying and time killing as they can be, there's a positive side to it also.

And if I let such things get me down I wouldn't be doing justice to all the kind folks that have put their time into my work and written to tell me they enjoyed it. It needs to be about them more than about those that aren't fans/friends.

3:54 PM  
Blogger Dirk said...

Yah, that's the cloud within the silver lining of the internet. It allows a lot of communication but some of those people you can communicate with you'd rather not.

At least most of the people seem to like your books and you can't please all of the people all of the time.

Even if you gave away a free ice cream cone with every book, somebody would whine about how they didn't like that flavor of ice cream.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Corby Kennard said...

Or that they don't like ice cream at all.

9:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First of all, I'd like to say I like the new look of your site. I haven't visited in a few weeks, so I'm not sure when it changed.

Your persistence in the face of negativity is motivating for aspiring writers like myself and others. It's very easy to get down on yourself and be your own worst critic -- which I know I am -- but it's that persistence and self-discipline and dedication to improve that make us better at the craft.

I think you're right: criticisms and negative feedback can definitely make us stronger. It's nice to know published, well-known authors like yourself go through the same kinds of trials; it gives encouragement and hope to us small guys.

Keep on writing. I, for one, enjoyed Acacia.

11:53 AM  

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