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Reviews Part 1: This publishing train isn’t going where I thought it was going

I read a review of a friend’s book that bothered me. The reviewer objected to his use of the second person. It’s actually a common objection and, in my view, kind of a silly one. The common objection is the reader couldn’t “get past” all that “you, you, you.” And yet the ubiquitous use of “I, I, I” in first person narration is no problem.

What bothered me more is that reviewer seemed to address the author in a way that made the negative review more personal. “I’m sorry, NAME OF AUTHOR, but nobody does it.”

Nobody does it? Really?

I do in my crime novels and it’s part of the psychology of the hit man’s character. Jay McInerney did so famously in Bright Lights, Big City. There are plenty of novels that challenge convention.

But I’ve blogged about the use of second person before and I don’t want to repeat myself. The above is a reiteration for new visitors to this blog.

And here’s what this post is really about:

Convention. Art challenges it.

This is not to argue that anything is Art simply because it’s weird. “Weird” is a word that stands in for, “outside the reader’s experience.” This is to say that I enjoy books that are uncommon, that challenge the status quo, that defy expectations. This Plague of Days has a subtext of psychology and philosophy underlying the action. Its design is unusual and that’s done on purpose. 

That was the other thing I objected to when I read some reviews of my friend’s book. The writing was executed in such a way that it played with readers’ expectations. It was well done though it left some readers off-balance. Then a couple of reviewers complained that they didn’t know if it was the author’s skill that accomplished that feat or if he merely missed the mark.

I have an answer for them:

The author knew exactly what he was doing. He did it on purpose and it took skill. It takes a lot of skill to propel a narrative across the expanse of a book. They are entitled to their opinion, of course, but perhaps a more careful reading by the reviewers was in order. All the elements were there and it wasn’t the author’s fault that a couple of readers missed it. I was irritated that a couple of people took the time to review my pal’s book, but they didn’t seem to pay attention in the first place. Worse, despite staying with his story to the end, they opted to question his intelligence in their reviews.

A fluke doesn’t keep going for 250 pages. Writers know this. Perhaps that’s one reason why our reviews tend to be kinder.

In Part II of this essay, I’ll discuss why it’s becoming more difficult to sell books the way some of us used to write them. My suspicion is that next time, perhaps my friend won’t write such a brilliant book and, sadly, he’ll probably sell more of them.

That’s a down note to end a post on, isn’t it? It’ll probably get worse in Part II.

Filed under: author platform, Rant, readers, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , , , , ,

10 Responses

  1. Kat Loveland says:

    Ok, I don’t think my prior comment will show up. I had the same problem, my Honor Bound Series has (gasp) 6 CHARACTERS and is written in 3rd person POV. The HORROR!! The main complaint I get. Too many characters. The people who love my books love all the characters, they all have a purpose and are all unique.

    I knew it was a niche book when I wrote it, I like it that way. I am a firm believer in writing what you know, writing what you love and writing what makes you happy. I like challenging, unique reads and that is what I write. I may never be rich or famous but I am already getting a small fan base and that makes me happy.

    I am glad you posted this!

    • Chazz says:

      That’s interesting. I’m unfamiliar with a rule (made by whom, I wonder) as to how many characters are allowed in a book. Heh. We must all write what makes us happy, but my conception of what will sell is certainly a moving target lately. Worrisome.

    • blair says:

      Interesting. I’ll sometimes get the “so many characters!” thing as well. Oddly, though, not a single reviewer complained I wrote the first novel in omni–surprising to me, since “common advice” states omni is deeply disliked by readers. But what I found most odd is that one of the novel’s highest reviews and one of its lowest both said essentially the same thing.

      I want to take my reviews as clues on how to better target the readers who will enjoy what I write. My goal is to sell my books to people who will enjoy them, after all. I’ve blogged about it a little, but haven’t quite figured out how to use the knowledge.

      • Kat Loveland says:

        Everyone likes different things. I try not to let it get to me and make me second guess my story. The tagline from XFiles tends to run through my head often when I think about targeting readers “The truth is out there.” The readers are out there. They will find your book if the story is well constructed.

        I do hardly any advertising on Wattpad (free site I write on, good motivation and I use it for offsite storage) yet I am still picking up a following because they share my stories. I know not every story I will write will appeal to every person. My goal is to make it such a good read that the people it does appeal to thoroughly enjoy it. 🙂

  2. “All the elements were there and it wasn’t the author’s fault that a couple of readers missed it.”

    A word of warning: blaming the reader is a dangerous game. It leads to letting yourself off the hook when you shouldn’t and ultimately to lazy writing.

    It’s not like there’s a director or cinematographer or editor between you and the reader who misinterpreted something or left out a really important part. It’s mental telepathy, says Stephen King, and if readers (even a few) aren’t catching your thoughts in the right way, it’s not them, it’s you. It can be incredibly frustrating, but we as writers have to own it.

    Finding out where readers missed your breadcrumbs and veered off the path should always be instructive and lead us to a better book next time around. We don’t have to think of that as pandering. That’s just good telepathy. 🙂

    Maybe my mixed metaphors above turned some people off. They will now leave their comments and I will learn a valuable lesson to stick with one train of thought if I don’t want to derail the reader altogether. (And there’s another one.)

    Not to say I don’t agree with pushing against limits or challenging convention. But sometimes that happens and everybody gets it and the book blows up and becomes something everybody wants to read. It’s only by taking ultimate responsibility for the reader experience that we’ll ever get to that mythical place with our writing.

    I know there are some readers out there who didn’t know how good second person narration could be before they read “Bigger Than Jesus.” Maybe that will make them open to your friend’s book or even Jay’s, for that matter. Good on you!

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post, with which I completely sympathize and partially disagree. 😉

    • Chazz says:

      Except sometimes the reader has to own it. If it’s in the text and they aren’t paying attention, that is on them.

      I’m reminded of two incidents: Going to a movie where two couples treated a movie theater like it was their living room. The movie was background for their chat. Soon into the movie, one woman looked up and asked, “What’s happening? Where are they now? What are they doing?” (I moved.)

      Deeper into the lit part of the problem, in Bigger Than Jesus, as I’ve mentioned, Jesus Diaz treats his life like a movie and talks to himself. It’s made clear at the end of the first book of the series why it’s told in second person and it’s not a gimmick. Still, some readers didn’t get that. It’s not “like a video or RPG game.” It’s about the assassin’s broken psychology.

      One excellent reviewer (who is also an author) who was paying attention commented that “it shouldn’t have to be said overtly but I understand why the author made that choice.”

      Yeah, because if I don’t explain everything inattentive readers won’t get it and if I explain too much, then someone will say (as one UK reviewer did) “the author doesn’t trust the reader.” Damned if you do, etc.

      So let’s all own what we’re responsible for. It’s not necessarily binary and I do blame readers where appropriate. I don’t think it’s the majority of readers that have ADD, but in Part Deux, we will talk about attention paid and attention lost. Stay tuned.

      In fact, I might use some of this for the follow-up post, so thanks for reminding me why this bugs me so much.

    • About a books that a lot of people get: I think they often have a bunch of topics woven in, and pull in people who are interested in different things, because I see reviews where I wonder if these readers read the same book I did.

      Well, they didn’t. We each read through our own perceptions and prejudices – it’s unavoidable.

      Some of us are conscious of the process – we know why we like or dislike a book – other either don’t care or prefer not to have their reading experience ruined by being anything other than a gestalt. And the same readers may change during their lifetimes.

      I agree: a though-provoking post.

  3. mohanalakshmi says:

    With more support/reflection like this to experiment and explore writing as a craft, hopefully your friend (and the rest of us) will remember that opinions are like mouths (or other parts): everyone has one.

  4. John Sleeper says:

    It is certainly unfortunate that reviewers and editors insist on everyone using the accepted “literary” forms (i.e. don’t use adverbs especially ending in ‘ly’) or passive ‘ing’ tense. Some even say that if they find these things in your work they will reject your submission.

    Readers “DON’T CARE” about these things. In fact my ideal reader (my wife) is an extreme-ly avid reader. We have hundreds of books that she has read by myriad authors and now that she has discovered and accepted e-books she has even branched out to new indie authors. When she read my first novel where I tried to follow all the ‘literary’ rules she had many complaints about my ‘showing’ emotions instead of just stating them. In my second novel I now write the way I always have which got me straight A’s in college composition classes and the way I enjoy reading myself.

    I must say that most reviewers I have run into do not insist on this strict literary format, thankful-ly.

  5. It doesn’t matter WHAT you do in a novel; what matters is whether you know what you’re doing and do it well.

    POV doesn’t matter, per se – as long as it doesn’t get in the way of a particular reader’s preferred way of turning little marks on paper or screen into images in brain.

    I agree that there are many readers out there who have no clue that they are part of a broad spectrum of people with many tastes and reading histories. They leave reviews that make you question THEM, not the book. Complaining about a book being written in 2nd person is like complaining that Perfume has too many smells in it.

    I think there are writers all over the writing spectrum, and readers for each kind of writer – but some of each will be out on the ends of the bell curve, and there will be smaller numbers of them. If you don’t hit the broad middle, it may also be difficult finding the readers who like what you write.

    I don’t like to see writers complain that they can’t find readers, though, when they choose (or are anointed by the gods) to write very far out there topics – and don’t leaven it with fascinating writing and perfection in character, plot, and theme.

    You can make many things palatable with skill (The Exorcist, The Silence of the Lambs) for a wider audience.

    You will never please everyone, but most of us can widen our appeal a bit with careful craft – if we want to expend the effort.

    I, BTW, like the ‘odd’ negative reviews – they often reveal things about the book no one else mentions, and I’ve bought many a book based strictly on the negative review.

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