On the usefulness of reviews to a fan and a writer

Some recent online discussions about reviews had me thinking about my own feelings on reviews last night. I have two perspectives on them: as a fan and as a writer. And since I think of myself as a fan first and a writer second, I’ll start with my perspective as a fan.

I don’t go see a lot of movies (I think I saw one movie in 2011) and I don’t read movie reviews at all. I do read a lot of science fiction and I do read reviews of science fiction, but I am somewhat selective about it. I almost always skim the short fiction review columns in Locus. And I usually read the book reviews columns in Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF. I read many of the book reviews posted on SF Signal as well. I generally don’t read book reviews that appear in major newspapers like the New York Times or the Washington Post, but that is because I don’t generally read newspapers. I will read a review in one of those outlets if someone calls it out specifically.

As a fan, my greatest joy in reviews is reading a good review for book or story that I liked, especially if it is for a book or story by someone I know. I love seeing my friends and fellow writers winning praise from reviewers because I know how much hard work goes into writing the stories and it’s nice to get some recognition for that.

Of course, I occasionally come across a review that I don’t agree with, but even that is useful because it often gives me a different perspective on how a book or story is perceived.

The biggest value of a review to me as a fan is when a review helps me to make the best use of my time. There are a lot of books and stories out there that I want to read but I can’t possibly read them all. When a book or story gets some buzz, a review of that book or story can help me decide whether to push it up in my queue and read it sooner–or let it be and read it when (and if) I ever get around to it. Mind you, this doesn’t have to be a glowing review or even a good review of the book. But the content of the review has to be good. If the review makes the story sound interesting–even if they reviewer saw flaws, I might be convinced to give the book a try. And of course, there are some reviewers whose opinion of science fiction meshes closely with my own and in those cases, when their reviews recommend a book or story, I will almost always move it up on my list.

As a writer, I look at reviews somewhat differently. When a story of mine is reviewed (and most of the stories that I have sold have had some kind of review, some more than one) I try to take two things from the review, regardless of whether the reviewer thinks the story is good or bad.

First, was their interpretation of the story different from my own? I am of the opinion that once I let the story out into the wild, its interpretation is no longer mine it is the reader’s. They are free to interpret the story in whatever way they wish. Sometimes, this is different than what I intended, but that’s just the nature of the game. Looking at a review to see if the reviewer interpreted the story differently than me allows me learn, to make adjustments that will hopefully better communicate my intention in future stories.

Second, wherever possible, I try to learn from reviewers. I think I’ve learned something useful from just about every review I’ve received. Sometimes it’s something small, but even the small things add up to allow me to improve future stories. I’m not talking about changing the way I write to tailor stories for a particular reviewer. Instead, a reviewer might spot a weakness that is more general and something I can work on. Often times, these have to do with the clarity of the work (at least for me).

The reviews that I am talking about, both as a fan and as a writer, come from reliable sources. I am not talking about reviews on Amazon, for instance. I don’t discount these reviews entirely, but I’ve noticed that too often, the reviews on Amazon object to things that are completely outside the writer’s control–as when people give a 1-star review to a perfectly good book because they object to the price.

But what about reviews that seem to rip apart a book or story and attack the author as much as the piece in question? I don’t think any of my stories have received such a review, but even if one did, I can’t imagine it bothering me. I suspect I’d be more amused than anything else. There is some measure of success in a work that can generate such a vitriolic reaction from a reviewer. Then, too, those types of reviews often garner the most publicity and ultimately the most discussion around a piece. And even if the discussion is just two sides baiting one another, the work in question (and the author) are mentioned repeatedly and that’s got to be good.

I have a difficult time believing (as a fan or a writer) that any review, good or bad, makes for a noticeable bump or dip in sales in the aggregate. If you think about it, a positive review is often geared toward those people who were already planning to buy the book. Maybe you gain a reader or two who is on the fence, but by the same measure, the review will probably lose a reader or two who was equally uncertain. A negative review does the same, in reverse.

I grow amused when I see fans and writers alike getting worked up by negative reviews. When I read a book and think of how it affected me, I always think of it in comparison to something else I’ve read and mentally rank it accordingly. Science fiction has a long history with a lot of books and stories. Not every new book or story that comes out can be 5-stars. If every book got a 5-star review, where is the distinction? Too often I suspect that writers (myself included) think that a review is done in isolation, without consideration of everything else that is out there. But I think comparisons come natural.

In my opinion, the best reviews are those that can summarize a story or novel, giving just enough information to make it interesting, and then provide a set of pros and cons and how they affected the reviewer’s reading of the piece: what delighted them and what distracted them.  Those type of reviews are often a win-win for they help the fan in me decide whether or not to read the book, and they help the writing in me better identify what are perceived to be my strengths and weaknesses.