Monday, April 30, 2012

Sticks and Stones . . . and the Kobayashi Maru

News flash: All of life revolves around Star Trek.  Everything you ever needed to learn, you can learn from that show, and this is nowhere more self-evident than the (in)famous Kobayashi Maru scenario.  For all you neophytes, let me briefly summarize: the Kobayashi Maru is a Starfleet computer simulation all cadets must take.  The explicit objective is pretty straightforward: the Kobayashi Maru has somehow bumbled its way deep into the Klingon neutral zone and become stranded.  If you do nothing, the crew's so much Klingon gagh (blood worms), which--trust me--is pretty disgusting, no matter if you prefer those squiggly things alive (how real Klingons show they have hair on their chest) or not.

Do something--cross the border and try and rescue the ship--and not only have you now violated the Organian Peace Treaty (don't ask), but you're also hopelessly outnumbered and soon to become one more plasma smear.

The Kobayashi Maru is the classic no-win scenario.  Natch, it goes without saying that James T. Kirk beat it, but he cheated.  So you can debate whether that really counts.  Distilled to its essence, however, the Kobayashi Maru is a test of character.

We writers also have our peculiar Kobayashi Marus.  They're called reviews. 

Now, every adult knows you can't please everybody all the time.  But we'd like to think that we can just as I think we might also like to pretend that reviews don't matter.

Case in point:  I once heard this crazy-famous writer give a talk, and someone asked if he ever read reviews.  Now, this crazy-famous writer's newest book had just come out a bare five minutes before this particular conference, and so I wagered that he, like everyone remotely human, would be interested in hearing how people reacted to what he'd written.  Well, he said he never looked at reviews because he just didn't need to--and, ooohhh-kay, I thought that was pretty flat-out, shut-mah-mouth amazing.  I mean, we're talking some serious willpower here.  This guy was so sure of himself, his place in the universe, that I bet he was a Klingon in another life.

But I also thought he might be lying, and here's why.  The guy's crazy-famous.  He might pretend to be a Klingon, but we all know he's human and you're telling me he NEVER reads one of those fab reviews?  You expect me to believe his editor NEVER shoots him a review from PW or Kirkus or what-have-you?  Look, I'm not even a gazillionth as crazy-famous, and when my editor sends a review, I read it.  (And, sometimes, yeah, I wish I hadn't.  Like, wow, life is hard enough and now I'm all depressed.  Like, wow, thanks a lot; I really needed that; am I bleeding?) 

Anyway, as it turns out, I was right.  That crazy-famous guy lied, and you know how I know?  Because: I happened to stroll past the Amazon site that day to check out his newest, and I saw this one review that completely trashed the book.  Utterly and totally.  Just ripped that sucker to shreds.  And here's the kicker: I know this famous guy read the same review because he tweeted about it, talking about some Amazon meanie.  Of course, all his fans jumped in to make him feel better--it was a fascinating feed to follow for awhile--and I'm sure that's why he tweeted it in the first place.  (I'm not condemning him, by the way.  That's what friends are for.)

But you do have to ask yourself: why did this crazy-famous guy lie, and about something so trivial?

I don't have a clue, so don't ask me.  Yet this does bring up an interesting point about reviews, in general. 

First question: Do they matter?  (Come on, you all know the answer to this one.)  So, second question: How much do they matter?  Well, we all know the answer to that one, too.  It depends--and oh, isn't that a loaded word?  What makes one opinion more valuable than another?  Because more people agree?  Because the opinion is based on observable data and facts?  (For example, we might all agree that a book with horrible grammar and terrible spelling just can't be good . . . but then we'd have to diss Huckleberry Finn.  In that instance, of course, the story is so damn good, and we all know it.  Sort of like pornography, I guess . . . )

My take--the one I spout when I'm not bleeding from some scathing snipe--is that a review is nothing more than a private opinion made public.  Now, as in all of life, some opinions mean more than others.  Some carry a lot of weight.  (And, no, for the record, while I love my mother, her opinion carries no weight at all.  She's my mother, and people who love you lie.  Ditto for my husband.  On the other hand, since he's read absolutely nothing I've written in the last ten years except a few short stories--and, yes, he said he loved them, but he might be lying--he doesn't have to worry about lying at all.  As for why he doesn't read what I write, it's simple: he's worried that if he says something nice, I won't believe him, and if he criticizes the story, I'll cry.  Honest to God.  For him, offering an opinion is the spousal equivalent of the Kobayashi Maru.) 

The problem for writers is . . . what do you do about reviews?  Do you read them?  Do you search them out?  A very wise pro writer friend once told me that I should never search out reviews because the ones that are the most bruising are the ones I'll remember.  He thought that review-trawling ought to be left to someone else: my husband, a friend, my editor.  (He and his wife, both writers, cull reviews for one another.)  Great advice, if you can take it or have the luxury of someone who will do that for you.  Editors are busy people, though; they'll send you the biggies--PW, Kirkus, Booklist, maybe one or two others--and the rest, they leave out.  Which I think is a shame because I've read some very perceptive reviews by readers and fans, some of which find things in books I never realized I'd done but were obvious once they pointed them out.

The problem with searching for reviews is you're going to read some real stinkers.  Some people are just flat-out mean.  Others are vicious.  A great many are even-handed; the book just didn't work for them, and those you can live with a lot easier than the ones which have decided that you're clearly disturbed and in need of psychiatric help.  (Swear to God, that's what one person thought of a Mechwarrior book.  Blasted me all over Amazon.  It was ugly, mean, really going for that jugular.  Now, I could've been a very understanding shrink and decided that, whoa, guess my book touched some nerve.  Because, honestly, if people rant and foam and decide you're some sort of pervert . . . well, that says a little something about them, doesn't it?  But I'm only human, and that review really got to me.  Fortunately, it got to a bunch of other people, too, who complained to Amazon that the post was a personal attack and got it removed.)

But reviews--ones that trash your work--are attacks.  There's no other way to put it.  Some are just a little more civilized than others, a nice jab with that épée rather than a saber slash or mace bash.  Make no mistake, though: the reviewer is savaging your work, sometimes nicely and sometimes not.  A reviewer with her eye on her audience is more likely to get in those withering bon mots than not--because a review is also a form of entertainment of which a reviewer, like any writer, is always mindful.  Think what a bore Maureen Dowd or the late Molly Ivins would be/have been without a touch of that old zingy venom.

So the question remains: what to do?  I'll be honest; I go back and forth.  On the one hand, I really want to know.  Being told that I've done well is just so primal, you know?  It's like running to your mom with a picture you've drawn, or screeching at your dad to lookit, lookit as you pirouette in your sparkly pink tutu. 

But, on the other, bad reviews are the equivalent of those zits your mother told you to keep your fingers off of, only you never could because they were just begging to be squeezed and there was something about destroying those suckers, that satisfying little pop.  Come on, you know what I'm talking about; I'll bet you stood at the mirror for hours searching out those blackheads and zits until your face looked like you'd gotten carjacked and drug about five miles over gravel.  I know . . . as appetizing to think about as gagh.)  

In the end, I guess it just depends--on what you can tolerate; how much damage good or bad reviews will do (because good reviews can be just as deleterious if they shake you up enough to wonder just what the hell you did right because you sure don't know); how much satisfaction you get out of the rest of your life; if there's someone there to hold you when you get the zingers; if you're self-destructive (think squeezing zits until you bleed); if you can decide whose opinion really matters; and if you can roll with the punches.  Yeah, I know: the trouble with punches is you never know if you can roll until you get hit.  But if you don't bounce back well after a couple . . . maybe best to rethink that strategy and not end up in those no-win scenarios.  Because, as we all know, for the valiant and doomed crew of the Kobayashi Maru?

So sucks to be you.


Jordan Dane said...

You are such a Trekie. Hilarious.

I used to read reviews. Rarely do now. Usually only early on after a book is released, but I mainly read the industry reviewers, PW, Booklist, LJ, RT, et al. These sources influence how libraries buy, so they carry more weight for me.

For non-industry reviews, good ones by thorough & insightful people can actually give you a different take on your writing & influence you. Over time, I've learned who to "care about." Before I even thought about writing, a friend talked about critics & said, "if you don't hold their opinion in high esteem, why should you care what they think?" Well, honestly, you have to be made of stone to read a negative harsh review & simply slough it off without a second thought. So that's why I don't read many reviews.

Harsh "entertaining" reviews aren't worth reading because their mean-spirited words can tip the scale toward the self-doubt "I'm only human" side. That outweighs any insight they may have (but rately do). Anyone who brutally skewers the work of a fellow human being for "entertainment" doesn't earn my respect.

Ilsa said...

I think that learning which reviews to pay attention to takes time, as you said, which means additional time spent getting to know the various reviewers, who has more weight and all that. I know that some advocate looking at total views and/or followers before moving on . . . but, again, that all takes time.

So the question really is: how much time do you want to do devote to this? I guess I devote SOME time because I do want to hear what people think . . . because I am only human and as everyone knows, resistance is futile, unless you're a Borg.

That said, I've noticed that I don't spend nearly as much time I did. Just too busy and life is short.

Totally agree with your comments about libraries, too. This is why I tend to linger over librarians' blogs as well. They are important people.

Live long and prosper.

Jordan Dane said...

Totally agree. With time you figure out what to care about.

A very wise person told me that the only thing you can control is your writing. That left me with the feeling that my writing is also my sanctuary, my oasis too. It's the place (mentally) where I am most happy, so that's why I carve out more time for it.

Ps-I can totally rock Spock's hand thing. Practice, practice, practice.

Beth W said...

Good points! I try to be even-handed and specific in my reviews (as generalized feedback is pretty pointless, whether good or bad). But once I'm published, my plan is to always read reviews with a glass of wine. In that way, I am less likely to care about/remember them. :)