Friday, April 5, 2013

E is for echo-chamber

There is a rule of thumb out there in Blogland that says if you’re an unpublished writer, you don’t get to criticize … well, pretty much anything.

Everything is “be nice” or an unspoken “or else.” If you didn’t like a book, keep it to yourself. (If you did like a book, however, BY ALL MEANS review it to the moon and back!) Apparently, if you ever want to be an author yourself, your identity as a reader with discerning taste just evaporates.

Recently, I read three different self-published books. I specify self-published in this instance mainly because self-published books rely more heavily on word-of-mouth for their marketing—which, for some people, makes a negative review seem less objective and more vindictive.*

The first self-published book I’ll call ARISTOPHANES. It had clearly defined, compelling characters. The plot was simple, but believable. It was funny, sexy, and the writing flowed. I would happily recommend it to others.

The second self-published book I’ll call ROCKY BALBOA. It had one-dimensional characters. The male romantic lead was one part Manic Pixie Dream Boy, two parts cliché Bad Boy With A Heart of Gold. The plot, such that it was, had plot holes you could drive a truck through. And there were some messages embedded in the novel that, frankly, I found pretty appalling.  

But the writing, itself, was actually pretty good. I found myself wanting to finish the book, to see if it got better, to see if it got worse

The third I’ll call JUST SHOOT ME. The writing was weak. The characters were paper thin. The plot was practically non-existent. The sexy-time scenes actually made me laugh out loud once – and I can only assume that wasn’t the goal. The messages presented were good, but handled awkwardly and obviously, which is almost worse than a bad message. Worst of all, it was boring.

ARISTOPHANES, ROCKY BALBOA, and JUST SHOOT ME don’t have a lot in common, except they were all self-published. The quality of these three books is, in my opinion, wildly different.

But if you were to read their reviews on blogs, Amazon, or Goodreads, you wouldn’t have much idea that anyone shares my opinion. There have been a few people on Goodreads who have noticed, and pointed out in greater detail, the issues I have with ROCKY BALBOA. No one seems to have the same issues I have with JUST SHOOT ME, but then again, there are a lot fewer reviews -- so either I am off-base, or there are a lot of readers holding their tongues. But for the most part, you’d think they were OMGAMAZEBALLS.

Weirdly, this almost makes ARISTOPHANES look ... less good by comparison.

I mean, yes, the reviewers gushed over it. They also gushed over some fairly terrible books. What does their opinion mean to me, the consumer?


Do you think there is any way for an aspiring author to give an honest review, AND attach his or her name to it? Have you noticed the same phenomenon I've noticed? Or do you think this concern is overblown?

* This, to me, is the problem with all reviews. Notice that, although my critique is harsh, I haven't said anything about the aforementioned books' authors, because as personally as people take their own writing, to call a plot "weak" or "unbelievable" is not the same thing as calling an author "dumb."

Do I think ROCKY BALBOA is a bad book? Yes. But that doesn't mean I think the person who wrote ROCKY BALBOA is especially a bad author. He/she might be a very good author who wrote one bad book. It happens! In fact, I recently read two books by the SAME author, and I thought one was great and one was just so-so. Wacky how that works!

And yet, you hear now and then about writers who read a review that says, "The book wasn't great" and turn into "Your mom is a smelly pirate hooker" (Name the reference!) in their minds. 


Take it down a notch with the "artistic temperament" thing.


  1. Your asterisk is the reason there are so few reliable recommendations on self-published books. A lot of emphasis on the SELF in self-published. Bad book must mean bad person. I think as an author taking critique, positive and negative... would be essential, right? Especially the negative.

  2. Completely agree. I have to go on word-of-mouth from WRITER and crazed reader friends to start anything new, cause there isn't anywhere online I've found yet, that can guarantee me I'll like what i read. I think a problem is writers are trying to write ONE good book to get out there, instead of trying to find their brand, and how to repeat what their skill set lets them be good at. So they let something become their "baby" and are appalled when someone else thinks their baby is ugly, instead of learning how to use criticism as the word was invented...without implied attitude. Criticism is a tool to become better. *hopping off soapbox*

  3. In graduate school, for a Library Science degree, one entire class was reading Children's books and reviewing them on a blog for a grade. The professor was a published author herself. I think some may have taken the road of saying only complimentary things, but I was honest, and I got an A.

    I don't think you have to be a (published) writer to have a valid opinion, good or bad, any more than you have to be an artist for the same. You know what you like, and whether or not you like it, and since we are the masses a writer needs to appeal to in order to sell, it is necessary to remember that every person does have valid, though perhaps opposite opinions. Taste is too varied, as are levels of interest in specific genres. I don't think a review should be no holds barred vicious, but neither do I think anyone should feel they are somehow unqualified and unworthy to form an opinion.

    Thanks, nice to meet you through the A to Z!

  4. It's so frustrating, that whole "be nice" thing. There have been a couple of books I absolutely hated and wanted the world to know how bad they were so they could run the other direction. But, of course, that's not very nice and people judge you for it.

    I don't trust positive reviews on Goodreads anymore. Especially on self-pubbed books. Most of the time it's the author's friends and family who are just trying to be supportive.

    1. So true about the positive reviews on self-pubbed books on Goodreads. :/