Beta readers, trial editors and rejection letters sometimes make me wonder what the hell I was thinking when I decided to write anything. Of course, few books make to the big leagues (and I don’t expect that a first novel of someone who doesn’t even know how to write is going to win the Hugo award), but what surprised me in this process is how subjective and contradictory people are when reading and evaluating anything.
During my years as a software engineer I learned that opinions may differ, and usually they boil down to idealists versus pragmatics. A successful team is made of a combination of people that are evenly spread in this spectrum since we need the perfectionists and the MacGyvers to ship software. More importantly, despite the difference in opinions, the final implementation either works or it doesn’t. This is not subjective.
When The Best Are The Worst
Would you want to read a book that is a naive, idealistic piece of writing in which naivete and idealism are ultimately rewarded? A one-trick pony? What about a novel that has probably done more to perpetuate racial stereotypes than any other single force? Well, you probably already have read it.
These are some Goodreads reviews for the classic To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Think about it: nothing–no movie, no historic event, no organization–NOTHING did more to racial stereotyping than To Kill a Mockingbird by poor Harper Lee. Allegedly.
And I know what you’re thinking. Yes, no one can please everyone, there are weirdos everywhere, and it’s more likely that the Cubs will win the World Series than a certain candidate (pick your choice) to ever be president, right? Well, wrong! (Or, maybe, correct!) As of today, there are 57 thousand people that at some point in their lives not only disliked it, but woke up feeling like going to Goodreads and giving a 1-star rating to what is considered one of the best novels of all time.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. There are bad reviews for The Fellowship of The Ring (“the book is all about walking“), The Great Gatsby (“so they were in love…yeah..I’ve been in love too, who cares?“), Hamlet (“Hell, The Lion King was sort of based on this goddamn play, so it’s not like I was expecting to completely hate it since I kind of knew where the story was going.“) and Don Quixote (“tedious, extremely wordy and repetitive“).
The Godfather has a simplistic and repetitive prose, 1984 tells instead of shows, and Grapes of Wrath drips with unparalleled condescention. And here I was thinking I could never compare my work with the classics!
And really, even fake writers are not spared. In the 2016 movie Passengers, Jennifer Lawrence plays a writer called Aurora Lane, and Chris Klimek finds the time to criticize her writing on his review of the movie:
And people can’t agree with anything. Kanye West “Yeezus” album was rated both the most underrated and the most overrated album of 2013 by Pitchfork readers.
Going Too Far
The problem is not only that people don’t like a piece of literature. It happens all the time. This may shock you, but I couldn’t finish American Gods or The Fellowship of The Ring, and yet I understand why they appeal to a lot of people.
There’s always a main reason you like a story, and reading someone badmouthing that specifically makes me want to force them to binge watch a marathon of Jersey Shore–although, based on their reviews, they probably wouldn’t mind.
Take I, Robot, as an example. Not the awful movie that betrayed everything the author created (the irony, I can also be a judgmental a-hole), but the brilliant collection of Asimov‘s robot stories. There you can find his famous three laws of robotics. These laws are the foundation of several other Asimov‘s stories and novels, but they are so intriguing that several other authors built on them as well. There’s no possible way anyone wouldn’t like it.
(okay, if you have kids reading this please remove them from the room because the next paragraphs are going to be disturbing.)
This is one of the Goodreads reviews for this masterpiece:
No, I’m sorry sir. You’re talking about the three fucking laws of robotics. Not rules. Not suggestions. Not by-the-ways. Laws! There’s even a fucking wikipedia article about it! I think you own us an apology, and I really hope you don’t like Jersey Shore (and I’m kidding, in case anyone thinks I’m actually threatening someone).
One of the 1-star reviews had the nerve to say that “aber irgendwie habe ich mich bis zur letzten Seite gezwungen und *gequält*.” Well, I don’t speak German but I don’t like the way the word gequält is highlighted, and I’m not going to translate it because I’m already upset just writing about bad reviews of I, Robot.
But What About My Book?
Of course, any constructive feedback for your writing shouldn’t destroy your sense of self-esteem and make you think that you are the lowest lifeform that walked on Earth since its creation, or in any other planet really, ever, or that the reviewers hate your guts so much that they wish you stop writing forever. (Although, to be honest, sometimes this is exactly what happens, like in this review for the bestselling novel The Martian: “for the love of god, don’t write another book!”)
I had beta readers that couldn’t hide their disdain for my style, while others loved it. In fact, even small passages have contradictory reviews. Take this excerpt from my novel (now in editing):
“Have you heard of the multiverse theory?” Hermes asks.
Of course I’ve heard of it. It’s crap, I think.
“Of course I’ve heard of it. It’s crap,” I say.
Some reviewers asked me to remove the repetition, while others added a comment to tell me they found it really funny. This is great, but what the hell do I do now? Seriously, I have no idea what I’m doing!
Still, criticism is crucial to improve our technique, and it doesn’t matter if it’s valid or not. Constructive feedback fall into one of the following groups:
- I did something wrong and I’m a dumbass;
- The reviewer just doesn’t like my style and voice, or;
- He or she is a dumbass*.
*Non-constructive feedback is always here.
Despite the natural tendency of us thinking everyone is in group 3, we must take everything in and use all the feedback to become a better writer, even if it’s for our next book, and even if we don’t agree.
Grammar mistakes, typos and overall bad writing can be fixed with more and more passes, but voice is the hardest to change. And if the book sells, perhaps we shouldn’t change it, regardless of what other people think.
Anyway, if you’re sent here because you gave one of my future books a bad review, all I can say is that I’m sorry you feel that way, and I hope my next novel makes you change your mind. I take every feedback into consideration, and I bare no ill will towards you. Who am I kidding? I hate you.
Hard Work and Luck
To be successful, your novel has to appeal to a relatively large group of people who like it, and you still need a lot of marketing and some luck. Even Andy Weir complained about the unpopularity of The Martian at some point.
Writing and publishing a book is putting our work out there, and it takes a lot of work and a lot of courage. People will judge it. Some will hate it, some will love it. But as long as you’re having fun while you do it, you’re doing it right.
Finally, and to be frank, if you think we shouldn’t care about The Great Gatsby love story, you don’t know what love is.
By the way, Amazon should split its reviews between the story itself and the product. There’s a lot of reviews complaining about the quality of the audiobook, or how the product misled them to think it was something else, or how the delivery wasn’t fast enough, or that the Kindle book was too expensive.
Thanks to my lovely daughter for the drawing (not the Starry Night painting: that was Van Gogh or some other dude, and it deserves at least three stars and a half).
Disclaimer: I’m not a writer, I have a hard time paying attention to detail, I overuse adverbs, I start a lot of sentences with ‘I’, and I often confuse words that are similar. More importantly, I reserve the right to change my mind at any time, in which case I’ll deny I ever wrote it. Please let me know if you find something that is too embarrassing. This blog is riddled with typos and creative grammar problems, but it’s mine. Luckily, I can always blame my mistakes on the fact that English is not my first language. Or hackers.