My Google radar pinged back this review of Proper Job on Cornish Literature, a blog run by a chap called Lee Broderick. It’s an interesting perspective on the book; Lee is most interested in its Cornishness, whereas I’m focusing more on the comedy. Some thoughtful comments.
I’m coming late to the brouhaha that surrounds customer reviews. The social web, it seems, is crawling with examples of sharp practice, where reviews are not written in good faith. If you want more background on the present storm, read this article from the New York Times about reviewers-for-hire and this from Forbes about the behaviour of author Stephen Leather.
Customer reviews are important. Without them, products with established brands would have too great an advantage. The Stephen King brand shifts many books; the Ian Hocking brand shifts few. The sources of professional review — newspapers, and so on — can help, but if I want to buy a product, I’ll be happy to know what other buyers thought.
As a writer, I do solicit reviews. I have afterwords in Déjà Vu, Flashback, and Proper Job that point out that I publish without the benefit of a publisher, and I need all the push I can get. People do try to help me out. Many of my reviews begin with ‘The author asked me to write a review, so here I go’.
Here’s one such, from a reader called Kvsir:
I’m no critic. I’m just a guy with who like his SciFi/Fantasy stories — a lot! Ironically, considering my opening sentence, I generally buy on the strength of the customer reviews which is what prompted me to download Déjà Vu in the first place so after reading Ian’s acknowledgments and blog excepts at the end of the book I felt moved to add one here for him as I know he’s going to read it. …I’m off to download Flashback, hope you make enough coin off that sale to go buy yourself a beer. Cheers!
So I solicit reviews in general. I also reply to tweets and emails asking for reviews. I keep to the form: ‘Hi, this is Ian Hocking. Thanks for tweeting/writing. If you could pop a review on the Kindle store, I’d appreciate it. No worries if not’. I try not to ask them for a positive review, but my replies are typically elicited by tweets that praise the book in the first instance.
If someone emails me to say that they liked a book of mine, I’ll often ask them to post up their thoughts as a Kindle store review. Here’s an email I received two days ago:
I just want to tell you, [Proper Job] is one of the funniest books I have ever read! Last night I was reading it in bed and almost choking myself with trying to laugh silently so I wouldn’t wake up my husband. I can’t remember the last time I read a book that made me laugh so hard!
I asked this reader to post up a review, and she did so — almost word for word. So there’s certainly a positive bias in these reviews, and I help to cultivate it. Do I feel any ethical qualms? Some, since my actions are helping to engender this positive skew. However, I don’t know these people; I offer them nothing in return ; and they’ve already established that they like the book.
Like any writer, I have family and friends who want to see me do well. I have ten or so reviews from these, er, ‘interested parties’. They are rarely five-star reviews, however, and those friends/family who did not like the book remained silent. All reviews in this subcategory are truthful.
I have a simple rule for reviews of my work: they need to be an honest reflection of what a person thinks, so that a prospective reader is getting an accurate picture of how the work has impacted upon a sample of people. No money should change hands. Any prompting from the author should be of the ‘It would be nice if’ variety.
A word about negative reviews. I hate it when a critic writes one, because (i) they haven’t paid for the book, and may not be one of the target audience, (ii) they assume a position superior to the writer, and (iii) the effect of their words are proportionate to their reader base. I’m much more interested in negative customer reviews. They are — most times, but not always — genuine, unadorned thoughts, and useful. Here’s a negative review of Déjà Vu, this time a one-star review from Goodreads:
Sub-adolescent prose fails to lift the pedestrian plot. Where there were attempts at twists, they were obvious and signalled to the reader in neon lights from several miles away. Cardboard characters perform series of actions in locations described in halting statements. They have stilted conversations with each other and the reader is left hard pressed to care what happens to any of them. The crass backstory provided for the (beautiful, sexy, female) lead protagonist is unnecessarily graphic and reads like filler material while the author is trying to work out how to proceed.
An irritating thing for me to read, to be sure, and it annoys the hell out of my partner, but there is some useful feedback here — not feedback I agree with, but comments I’ll drop into the melting pot of experience from which I’ll draw subsequent books. If this were a critic, I’d be annoyed, but he’s a paying customer and he has every right to share his opinion. You should have heard me mouthing off about Tom Hardy’s accent in the latest Batman film. I’d be embarrassed if Christopher Nolan heard me.
A second point, which need not be made, is that reviews do not necessarily reflect the quality of the work. I’ll head over to Amazon right now and pick a review of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
I dont know who decided Hemingway was a great writer but it couldnt have been a decision reached on the basis of this book because its bloody awful.
This is, I think, the first non-customer review of Déjà Vu for its current edition. Red Adept is a site where authors can submit their works for review. The administrators make clear that reviews are non-debatable, and always publish them to the book’s Amazon page after one month. I like the breakdown into ‘plot’, ‘character development’, ‘writing style’ and ‘editing’.
I wanted to share this excerpt:
Saskia enjoys a metric ton (or rather, tonne, as Mr. Hocking is British) of character development during the course of the story, since she begins from a point that’s worse off than a blank slate: the little she knows about her current life is a lie. As the plot progresses, she worries who she truly is, and if she’ll be lost to the resurfacing of her body’s violent personality. By the end, she’s far outstripped everyone else in complexity and sheer awesomeness.
Did you know that Déjà Vu’s price has been slashed by 16% to make it 72p? That’s 72p British pence, people.
It’s over at BigAl’s Books and Pals.
Déjà Vu is a science fiction novel set in the fairly near future, and it introduces technology that I can already see myself using and keeping in my pocket. I found the mechanical wonders a lot of fun, and I think the characters are well-drawn, as one might expect from a psychologist who writes novels. There were twists and turns, surprises and character shifts. On the whole, I found this a well-crafted, interesting tale of technology and hot pursuit.
An article has passed my nose once or twice this week, tennis ball stylee. It’s by a man called Josh Olson, a screenwriter whose credits include the script for A History of Violence (itself based on the graphic novel of the same name). The article is entitled — and the easily offended might want to cover their eyes at this point — ‘I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script’.
In it, Olson writes entertainingly about how he is forced to turn down requests by non-professionals to read speculative film scripts.
Here’s a bit that’s been quoted frequently around the web:
I will not read your fucking script.
That’s simple enough, isn’t it? “I will not read your fucking script.” What’s not clear about that? There’s nothing personal about it, nothing loaded, nothing complicated. I simply have no interest in reading your fucking screenplay. None whatsoever.
He goes on:
[…] If you’re interested in growing as a human being and recognizing that it is, in fact, you who are the dick in this situation, please read on.
Yes. That’s right. I called you a dick. Because you created this situation. You put me in this spot where my only option is to acquiesce to your demands or be the bad guy. That, my friend, is the very definition of a dick move.
It is entirely possible that the person Olson refers to here is a genuine dick. There are some twenty-four carat dicks in the world; I’ve met some myself. However, there are occasions when a person puts you in a place where the only possible outcomes will present you in a bad light because you can’t cope. It suggests to me that some growing might be possible on both sides. However, I didn’t write this article to dispense pop psychology. I’ve got some swearing of my own to do.
It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.
(By the way, here’s a simple way to find out if you’re a writer. If you disagree with that statement, you’re not a writer. Because, you see, writers are also readers.)
My response to this is predicated on being a teacher first and a writer second. In particular, I’ve worked with some people who find it difficult to express themselves in written English. Essentially: Olson, belt up.
It is a persistent and toxic myth that the world is divided into those who can write and those who cannot. There was a time when Olson couldn’t write a damn. Me too, and my other writer friends. Like any apprenticeship, the road is long. Being labelled a ‘non-writer’ might well mean that your writing is bloody awful — but that is rare. Most adult, native speakers of English who’ve read a goodish number of books, seen films, and can tell a story over the dinner table or the pub, have the potential to write something that others might find compelling. Therefore, a professional writer can probably come up with something useful to tell the apprentice writer.
Olson’s article reads very much like a polemic written by a man who is pissed off with his correspondent (who replied to Olson’s dismissal with a terse ‘Thanks for your opinion’) and prefers to share his response — essentially a ‘Don’t you know how busy I am?’ — with the world.
The thing is, would-be writers get virtually no support from the industry. Your manuscript will probably get no feedback from publishers or agents beyond something like ‘Your call is important to us. Please hold and listen to Vivaldi for six months, then we’ll send you a postcard’. As a writer, you are expected to present yourself to the publishing industry fully formed. There is no university for fiction (though some might think so). Manuscripts are not considered with any due process or transparency. The support network for writers comprises, in effect, individuals within the industry who are willing to give some of their time for free.
I’ve written about this before, but when I approached several established writers about reading my debut novel, I did not receive what I’ll term ‘Olson’s Dick Response’ (i.e. ‘I Will Not Read Your Fucking Book’) from any of them
I’m no angel myself. Would-be writers contact me with some regularity, and if I have time — there’s not much of it — I’ll agree to peruse a chapter or two. A recent example is Stephen J. Sweeney’s The Honour of the Knights
So, anyway: There are people in the industry who are not like Olson.
The Fountain is a 2006 film by director and screenwriter Darren Aronofsky. Back in 2002, Aronofsky was about to begin filming when Brad Pitt, the film’s star, pulled out over creative differences. The sets were auctioned and the project shelved. Then, in 2005, Hugh Jackman came on board — bringing his box-office capital with him. The Fountain was released in November, 2006.
Watching the film yesterday afternoon prompted some thoughts about metaphor. I thought I’d write them down. This isn’t a review as such, but it does contain some spoilers.
This film is notable in several respects. While most Hollywood movies drip with Computer Generated Imagery (CGI), The Fountain benefits from exquisite macro-photography. (This involves filming chemical reactions with high-speed, high-magnification cameras to create organic-looking starscapes and vistas.) The decision to forego CGI
Another point of interest is the splintered narrative, which one might call ‘nonlinear’. But not only is this narrative broken apart, it deliberately fails to make sense. That is, questions are introduced and not answered; one is never sure that the different narrative threads are designed to complement or clash. Do they happen in the same universe? Is one the dream of another, written down?
We have the story of a Spanish conquistador searching for the so-called tree of life with which to save Spain from ruin. We have the brilliant doctor racing to find a cure for his wife’s brain tumour — a cure that somehow involves the bark of a single, South American tree. And we have the Last Man: a guardian astronaut taking the same tree to an exploded, dying star that once inspired the Mayans as their underworld. Three times; three people. Why are they played by the same man?
Aronofsky appears to have taken his metaphors in all directions. Where they clash with the plot, the metaphor wins. The conquistador, the doctor and the astronaut: they should not be the same man. But using the same actor expresses unity. Unity is symbolised by the tree itself (which is one of two) and by the loss of the doctor’s wedding ring, and even the unending Kubrick
Once again, it seems that the story is metaphor. Strengthen the metaphor, strengthen the story. The plot can go to hell. Sometimes it should, just to see to what happens.
Remember when, as a child, you’d suddenly see things from a new perspective? I must have been about nine, or perhaps eight, when it struck me that there were people in the world who had not heard of James Bond. That thought held me in a tighter grip than the notion that some people had no access to drinking water, or the Bible…but no James Bond? What kind of alien existence would that be?
The antipope — Charles Stross — has been brave enough to post his most negative Amazon reviews.
‘The writing is some of the worst I have ever experienced.’ (Accelerando)
‘Reminds me of cheap SF comics of the 50s and badly written online adventure games.’ (Halting State)
Déjà Vu had one absolute stinker of a review, and it was written for Interzone by Martin Lewis. It was his first review for Interzone and, as I understand it, his last. I can’t find it on the web and I ceremonially burnt my copy…but I think it said something like, ‘Tedious characterisation, awful dialogue, generally so boring I wanted to poke my eyes out’.
(Via Charlie’s Diary.)