Are Shit Reviews Good for a Writer’s Soul?

In the last few weeks I’ve been dabbling in controversial topics on this blogsite. First I DARED TO DEFY the great John Scalzi by pointing out that he’s totally (utterly! completely!) wrong to argue that Inglourious Basterds is not a science fiction movie.  (It’s multi-genre, but one of its genres is definitely alternate history, a subgenre of SF.)  Then I launched an attack on one of the greatest SF directors of all time by asking, Is James Cameron a Traitor to His Own Species? (Answer: Yes!)

This week however I’m going to delve into the murkiest, darkest topic of all: the topic of how writers should deal with crap reviews of their work.

The truth is that all writers, however established, however talented,  get crap reviews from time to time. However, it’s also the case that really CRAP writers get crap reviews, and deservedly so.  Thus,  every writer is disheartened, demoralised, and let’s face it, humiliated when the stinky reviews come along.  Writing is a lot to do with maintaining self confidence and self esteem; and the crap review can often be the pin that bursts the balloon.

The great John Scalzi (I love this man – how the HELL does he write so many blogs, AND write novels, and consult for TV, and have a family, and still have a sense of humour?) has confronted this delicate issue head on by actually publishing crap reviews of his own books on his own website.  All the two star and one star reviews he gets on Amazon – he doesn’t pretend they don’t exist, he just prints them.  And a couple of other writers have followed suit. It’s a great way to diminish the writer’s agony;  a bit like easing the pain from a stubbed toe by breaking your own little finger.   

I haven’t got that much courage, but I am going to give a link to a recent review of my novel Red Claw which is really REALLY bad.  In fact, I’ve never had such a bad review (well, apart from the Amazon review that said Debatable Space was ‘the worst book ever written’ or similar.)  It’s a STINKER. And here it is.  (Be warned, there’s a major – in fact THE major – plot spoiler dropped into the critique at about the mid-point.)

I’ve  read the entire review; it’s intelligent, well argued, well written, and is a devastating demolition job of a novel I don’t recognise.  But I can’t deny that The Blogger Who Hates My Book is smart and sincere and entirely entitled to his opinion.

Other critics have been kinder, and the major press crits have been highly favourable (though the guy from SFX clearly thinks I’m really weird.)  But the views of bloggers are hugely important in this genre – bloggers tell it like it is, and I value that.  So to restore my battered pride I’m also going to link two reviews by bloggers who DID read the book I thought I wrote. So there’s this one,  and this one.  

These things are subjective – blah blah. We all know that.  But I’m beginning to think there’s something interesting about the way my work seems to polarise readers in the SFF community.  My publishers, Orbit Books. are also fascinated by this – they actually think it’s a good thing! (Rather to my surprise.)  And they even published a flyer for Red Claw containing a blend of my good and crap Amazon reviews for Debatable Space. This came as something as a shock for me – as a point of policy, I stopped googling myself and reading my Amazon crits about a month after DS was published – so I hadn’t even seen some of these negative crits.  I’d thought that everyone loved the damned book!

Gulp.

Anyway, the point is there are things about my work that some people love, and others hate.  In Debatable Space, it was Lena’s story that divided people – for some it made the book special, more than just a space opera shoot ‘em up.  For others, it was a foolish digression.  Stick to the point, you idiot! seemed to be the gist. 

The one critical comment that haunts me – from a blogger called Liviu – is the suggestion that Red Claw is in some way less maverick, less bold, less iconoclastic  than Debatable Space. I hope that’s not true; but it might be.  But I guess I would counter-argue that with DS I never intended to ‘break the rules’ just for the hell of it.  All I wanted to do is write an SF novel that shocked and enthralled the reader.  And I think the only ‘rule’ I broke is a dumb and stupid rule, and it’s this:

Everything should be about the plot.

This is a guiding principle of much mediocre television drama; the note producers and directors give to writers all the time, because they think they’re being ‘focused’.  (But watch a great TV drama by McGovern or Abbott or Russell T. and it’s the minor characters, the digressions, the turns of phrase, all the things that create the texture of the world that make the stories come to life!)  And in my years working as a television writer,  it used to drive me mad.  Because plot is just what happens in the story; the story is why it happens. 

So in DS, the plot involves a war between Flanagan, Lena and the Cheo; but the story is WHY these people get involved in this war, and why we should care. So the ‘digressions’ about Flanagan’s life, and the long sections with Lena, are about the Why. That’s why these bits matter; they don’t advance the plot, they advance the STORY. And, more than anything, the story of the book is the story of Lena – a thousand years of fucking up, getting it wrong, being too passive, being too arrogant, falling in love with the wrong guy, finally finding the right guy – that’s the story that interests me.  The fact she gets embroiled in a galactic war is almost a side-issue set against all that.

That’s how it seems to me anyway.  But I think everyone who hates the book hates it because they LIKE plot.  They like plot more than anything else.  And that’s fine; but it’s just not the way I write books. (In Red Claw, the Story begins with Hugo Baal writing about the biosphere of the planet – the thriller stuff is the plot but the STORY is that – scientific passion for the myriad forms of life on a world run by evil bastards who don’t care about alien bugs and their morphology.)

Here’s another thing some people seem to hate: Irony.  I use a lot of irony.  But some folks don’t care for it, and maybe don’t even see when it’s there.  And that’s fair enough.  There are plenty of books I love which have no irony. But it’s clearly  something that’s deep in my soul, a warped love of not saying what I mean but letting it emerge through the cracks. 

Here’s an example of my kind of irony, from Red Claw. It’s a diary passage written by Hugo Baal after the death of Jim Aura – a minor (very minor) character who Hugo, as a self-obsessed geek type, has never really noticed or cared about, until Jim’s horrific demise.

From the diary of Dr Hugo Baal.

June 44th

The death of Jim Aura has affected all of us badly. 

I didn’t know him well, I have to admit. I’ve never really connected with the Noirs.  And there was something about Jim’s staring black eyes that repelled me. Though he was a fine Scientist, albeit of a practical bent.  And, apparently, so I’m told, he had a wonderful singing voice.  A lyric tenor, of professional calibre. Though he never sang for us.  In fact,  to be honest, we hardly ever spoke to him.  Or at least, I hardly ever did.  He was such a reserved and distant individual.  He never got animated, even when the Fungists were in full rant.  He always wore black, and apparently he always knew he was a Noir, though he didn’t have his eyes and the tattoos done until we reached Xabar.  In fact, I think it was only a few months before the Hooperman attack that he made the final surgical commitments.  Though I might be wrong about that, I didn’t really notice him to be honest.

And, as I say, he never talked about himself much. Or, indeed,  at all.  He kept himself to himself, even after our shared trauma at the Depot. Though perhaps by that point, he was in mourning,  for the rest of the Noirs? I suppose he was, in a sense,  the last of his kind?

Even so, we all thought he was rather spooky. Or at least, I did.  Although, looking back, I wonder if –

Well,  I suppose. Maybe - 

But no. No maybe about it!  We definitely should have made more effort to talk to him.  After all, we’re all in this together aren’t we?

Except he’s not. Not any more.

But those black eyes! So alienating.  And yet –

Anyway.  His death has shocked us.  It was an unnecessary death. A foolish death.

The impact of Jim’s body hitting the earth created a vast hole in the ground, deeper than any we have dug.  We attempted to retrieve the body but a landslide took it away from us.  We have analysed soil samples and discovered that at a depth of forty metres and more the soil here is infested with and almost possessed by a complex interlocking micro-organism.  The soil in this region is, it seems, alive.

But I have no zest for analysing this in any more detail. Jim was a bright and brilliant  spirit, so I’m now told, and had a dark wit and a wonderful sense of humour, though I never experienced it myself, as well as black eyes.  I feel his death as though it were my own, well okay, not quite, but I am certainly very moved by it. 

Things are not good.

How does that advance the plot? It doesn’t!  But have you ever had that shocking experience – of realising that someone ‘ordinary’ who you’ve barely noticed is actually complex and intriguing, and has just as much of a rich inner life as you do? And you’ve missed the moment to find out more, to get to know this person properly?   If so, you might like the way I write here. If not, well, not.

But my honest feeling is – and I know I shouldn’t say this!  -  if you’re someone who  likes everything to be about the plot,   and who  doesn’t like irony, then please,  steer clear. Don’t read my books.

(But do BUY my books; buy half a dozen copies of each in fact; and give them as Christmas presents to your enemies.  It will, trust me, be a hugely satisfying and deeply ironical revenge…)

That just leaves the question that started this blog: Are Shit Reviews Good for a Writer’s Soul?

Curiously, I think they are.  I had three comments about Red Claw  over the weekend. On Saturday morning,  I spoke on the phone to my former Bill script editor – the smartest, most creatively impressive woman I know  – and though she’ s no SF fan, she told me how much she adored Red Claw and the way it’s written. Then later the same day, a female friend who is a social worker and who also doesn’t read much SF told me she’d just read Debatable Space and loved it – mainly because of the portrait it gives of the flawed, fallible 1000 year old Lena.

And that’s nice. Writers like to be praised. If fact, we like it too  much; we spend our days writing just IN ORDER to be praised.  And although praise is nice, it doesn’t do much to help the quality of the work.

But that same day I read the piece by the Blogger Who Hates My Book – and it filled me with a huge creative energy.  It helped define me as a writer; it energised me in the writing of my new novel.

Without occasional shit reviews, in other words,  writers can get flabby, lazy, and timid. 

So I truly believe that a certain amount of virtriol – ah! I can taste it in my nostrils now! – can be good for a writer’s soul.

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