Before I launch into my irregularly scheduled ramble, I want to take a moment to thank every single person who’s been talking about and spreading the word about We Are the Ants. I’m blown away and humbled by the response y’all have had to Henry’s story. I haven’t been able to keep up with and respond to everyone on Twitter (partly because the response has been more than I could have ever imagined, partly because Twitter’s new non-chronological timeline has made it difficult to find things), but I’ve been reading them, and I can’t thank you all enough. WATA has only been out in the world a week, but it’s been such an amazing week.
Some highlights have been the blog tour hosted by The Irish Banana, a review by Mugglenet (I’m one degree of separation closer to J.K. Rowling!), and a wonderful review by Lambda Literary. There have been so many more than I could ever link to here, but I’m just beyond humbled at the way ya’ll have connected to Henry’s story. So, thank you.
And now I’m going to ramble about embracing critical reviews. I think I wind up writing about critical or negative reviews about once a year. Usually it’s because I see a story about an author who responded to a negative review and wound up dousing a bridge in gasoline, lighting the match, and burning it down. It was something I could identify with; the desire to “set the record straight” as it were. And I still get it. I still get the emotional response an author has to reading something negative about their work. But five years and five books later, I’ve come to embrace those critical reviews. They’re important to the overall conversation about books, and they’re important to me.
First, I want to differentiate between critical reviews and other types of reviews. I used to try to ignore reviews because I couldn’t take the emotional hit. I couldn’t hear someone speak negatively about something I’d created. A lot of that probably boiled down to hubris. Obviously I’d created something beyond reproach, right? If someone didn’t like it, it was because they didn’t understand, right? Yeah, not so much. My books are flawed. Deathday leans far too heavily on dick jokes. FML didn’t subvert the boy-obsesses-over-girl-from-afar trope so much as fall gracelessly into it. My prose got a little too purple in Five Stages. Time and distance have allowed me to see and acknowledge the flaws readers have been pointing out since day one. So now I take the time to read those critical reviews. I can’t read them all—there’s just not enough time in the day—but I do try to read some of them.
Critical reviews are reviews that point out deficiencies in a book. The pace was too slow, the characters lacked depth, the author mischaracterizes an important issue. Even when I disagree with the assessment, those reviews are important. I ignore the reviews that are just random potshots or that were written by someone who didn’t read the book (my favorites being one that trashed FML for being too diverse, and another that assumed Simon from FML wound up having lots of gay sex). Which isn’t to say those reviews aren’t someone’s valid opinion, just that they’re not helpful to me. Which is fine. Reviews aren’t meant to be helpful to the author. They’re meant to guide other readers. Any benefit I get as a writer is ancillary.
I’m just going to focus here on those critical reviews that I find helpful.
When I shop for something on-line, I inevitably check out the reviews. Generally I look at a couple of the five-star reviews, then a couple of one-star reviews. But it’s the two, three, and four star reviews that usually help me make up my mind. Why? Because I’m suspicious of any product that is universally lauded. Look, I love my iPhone, but I’ll be the first to tell you that the battery life sucks, the integration with my car stereo is a joke, and the Touch ID can be a nuisance. There’s nothing I love that doesn’t have some faults. What I want to know (and what I get by reading critical reviews) is whether those are faults I can accept.
I bought a computer monitor a while back. It had some really terrible reviews. It was a high def monitor, the size I wanted, and listed at a great price. From reading the reviews, I found that most people who wrote negative reviews were upset that it didn’t accept the monitor’s max resolution when using an HDMI cable. Which is a valid criticism. But seeing as it also had a DVI input capable of utilizing my computer’s max resolution, and my Mac had a DVI output, I decided it was a deficiency I could live with. And I wound up leaving a five-star review of the product because it was a perfect monitor for me.
Critical reviews add credibility to five-star reviews. I like vague endings to books. Not only do I not mind a little ambiguousness, but I find it more realistic. I might review a book like that with 5 stars because it’s the perfect kind of book for me. A person who hates ambiguous endings might leave 1 star. And somewhere in the middle will be the critical reviews pointing out both the positive and negative aspects of the book. Critical reviews let people know that you didn’t pay a hundred faceless internet people to shill for your book.
But they’re helpful to me as a writer as well. One of the first reviews of We Are the Ants came from someone I admire. Wait…let me stop here for a second. I want to mention the relationship between author and reviewer. The Internet has blurred the lines to an often frightening degree. I’m not incredibly active on social media, though I do try. A lot of the people in my online social circle are the same people reviewing my books. Which can be weird for both parties if I write something they don’t like. But it doesn’t have to be weird. I don’t want reviewers I’m friends with (or any reviewer) to ever feel like they can’t be critical of something I’ve written for fear of offending me. In fact, I hope that our being friends means they’ll be even more critical of my work. My very best friend in the world—and my first reader—is probably more critical of my work than anyone else. It’s something I admire and love about her. She’s not afraid to call me out on anything and everything. And I hope she continues to do so for as long as I continue to write. We can be friends and you can hate my books and write about how much you hate them. We can talk about how excited I am for more Gilmore Girls or the next Star Wars movie or whether or not they should have cancelled Supernatural after the fifth season.
So back to the story. A person on Goodreads left a wonderfully awesome review. They just had one quibble regarding a fat joke in the book. After I read the comment, I looked back through my copy of the book and found the joke and felt like shit. She wasn’t wrong. The joke was in there. And there was no one calling the character out on it. It was just there. And with that realization (and the help of my best friend) I began seeing that I’d characterized a lot of my “evil” characters in the book I was in the middle of writing as overweight in some way. At this point, I could try to defend myself, but what’s the point? I clearly have an issue with weight. I was extremely skinny my entire life. I’d spent most of my teenage and young adult years listening to people tell me I was too skinny. Then in my mid-twenties, due to a combination of factors, I began to gain a lot of weight. Since then I’ve battled my own self-hatred of my weight, getting skinny and overweight in cycles. I have an issue with weight. Not other people’s, but my own. And it crept into my writing in a really shitty and hurtful way.
The reviewer on GR had only pointed out one example, but it opened my eyes to how pervasive the problem was in my writing. If I’d never read and embraced that review, I might not have recognized the problem and been able to take steps to correct it (not only in my future books but also in my own life).
Critical reviews can be an important part of growing as a writer. Obviously, you don’t have to read them. And if you think you can’t handle them (much as I couldn’t handle them earlier in my career), then by all means don’t read them. But embracing criticism can help you, the writer, become better.
Another example was a review that criticized a joke I’d made in Five Stages. It was a joke by a member of the hospital staff about a Hispanic patient. The joke was crude and racist. It was intended to be so. But I’d written it with the intention of pointing it out. Making it an example of thoughtless racism. And I’d failed to do so. I’d failed hard. I don’t believe we can or should ignore racism or homophobia or gender disparity or any of the problems we as a society have and perpetuate. But it’s not enough to simply say “well, racism exists, so I get to use it in my book.” You have to acknowledge it. Shine a light on it. Explore it if you’re going to bring it up. And I hadn’t done that. Embracing that criticism helped me see that and helped me do better (I hope) in We Are the Ants.
I’d be a liar if I said criticism doesn’t hurt. Of course it hurts. But I think it hurts because it forces us to recognize our own failings. That perfect book we put out into the world isn’t actually perfect. It’s flawed, like us. And criticism forces us to confront that truth. Which isn’t always pretty. But we can choose to ignore the criticisms or we can embrace them. I ignored the criticisms for a long time, but now I’m choosing to embrace them. Because I want to be a better writer and I want to be a better person. And that’s the goal, right?