Thursday, September 12, 2013

An Author’s Perspective on Reader Reviews

Elizabeth Zelvin

Death Will Get You Sober has gotten some orchids and some onions from reviewers since it came out in 2008. But with today’s emphasis on reader reviews and two free days on Amazon bringing me a whole new magnitude of readers (40,000 downloads of the e-edition), I’m privy to much more of what readers who are complete strangers to me think. And the feedback is just as contradictory as it ever was.

My experience is nothing new. There’s a wonderful passage in Little Women (1868) about the reception of Jo’s first novel:

Well, it was printed, and she got…plenty of praise and blame, both so much greater than she expected that she was thrown into a state of bewilderment from which it took her some time to recover.

"You said, Mother, that criticism would help me. But how can it, when it's so contradictory that I don't know whether I've written a promising book or broken all the ten commandments?" cried poor Jo… "This man says, `An exquisite book, full of truth, beauty, and earnestness. All is sweet, pure, and healthy.'" continued the perplexed authoress. "The next, `The theory of the book is bad, full of morbid fancies, spiritualistic ideas, and unnatural characters.'… Another says, `It's one of the best American novels which has appeared for years.' (I know better than that), and the next asserts that `Though it is original, and written with great force and feeling, it is a dangerous book.' “

I have no doubt that the author was quoting from her own experience. Knowing I’m in the august company of Louisa May Alcott helps me maintain a philosophical attitude toward my own contradictory and sometimes wildly disparate reviews. The excerpts below all appear on Amazon, and are written, without exception, by readers unknown to me in person or online.

This was ok and I read about half of it before I realized that I was just plodding along through it and not really enjoying it

interesting point of view. very enjoyable easy read. I would read the whole series. It's easy to like the main character.

an eye opener. I found it very enlightening and refreshingly honest perspective. Throw in a few deaths of person's who society normally looks the other way when they pass and it was a very good read. I think you will be surprised how it unfolds.

The book was entertaining, good story, good dialogue, good pace. It kept me interested. I liked the way it wove in AA and Al-anon without hitting us over the head with it.

The tale is well-written and the characters are vivid and real.

an interesting but flawed book. The writing is weak. The dialogue is weak. Why don’t the main characters just report the nastiness to the police and stay the hell out of the way?

a thought provoking trip through the process of alcoholic recovery. a bang-up finish.

Bruce is an interesting character and his struggles ring true. The relationships between Bruce and his sponsor, and Bruce, Jimmy and Barbara were realistic I found the book to have a good mix of mystery and 12-step philosophy. And the ending was satisfying.

Almost an insult to AA. a tedious read If you know nothing abut recovery or AA I can't even imagine what someone would think about.

This could have been a real "downer", but there were places where I actually chuckled. A serious subject, well addressed, well handled.

Enjoyable characters and an intriguing plot line make this novel a fun read.

A very moving, sad story. I recommend to anyone who has a friend or loved one with an addiction problem of any kind.

It was boring! Did the author REALLY think ordinary people want/need to know all that information about AA? Just made me want to go to the kitchen and pour a glass of wine.

this one kept me reading. I had to find out who done it!

Very well written. The characters were endearing where you want to know if Bruce stays sober,

Creatively funny about the serious side of alcoholism...found myself cheering for the main character in his fight to remain sober. Interesting mix of characters and plot twists.

This is an excellent mystery with multiple layers and a good plot.

Very entertaining and easy to read book. Provided insight into the 12-step program.

I enjoyed the characters and their quirks and complex personalities. It was hard to put the book down and I found myself liking Bruce more as the story unfolded.

When a book keeps me up past know I like it!

kind of boring. didn’t capture my attention.

The characters were believable and the story kept you interested

I found this book unrealistic. Characters did not seem believable.

draws you in from the beginning Suffused with wit and believable banter, The book is very well written; it moves quickly; its use of profanity is appropriate rather than gratuitous. almost a masterpiece. The ending fizzled.

Some truthful insight into the life of a recovering alcoholic. Simple enough to relate to and complex enough to keep me reading. I enjoyed the character development. Good to the end.

The book went downhill at the end.

It's an entertaining story line educational about the process of getting sober and AA. the story line of multiple murders and the story of recovery are completely linked so it isn't a preachy book.

Over the past ten years, I’ve developed some degree of the rhinoceros hide necessary to sustain a literary career. Only one of the many reviews actually stung:

She writes as someone on the periphery of the recovery movement and seemed to lack any real understanding of the dynamics.

Since I’ve spent twenty-five years working professionally with alcoholics and addicts and those who love them and have been very, very careful not to make public whether or not I have any personal connection with recovery, I can’t prevent this reader from thinking what she thinks, but I don’t have to agree. I’d rather take the word of the reader “coming up on thirty five years of continuous sobriety”.who wrote:

You…really seem to get it... a delightful read.

I once heard a senior editor with one of the big publishing houses say that the best way to deal with reviews is to ignore the bad ones and make the most of the good ones. So here are a few more that express the kind of praise I dreamed of:

Great read!!! I laughed and cried and could not put this down.

Heart warming and eye opening in many ways.

This was a delightful read that kept my attention throughout. I even learned something about alcoholism and recovery

Murder, suspense, funny all wrapped in one.


Sheila Connolly said...

Why I don't read reviews of my books. The negative ones hurt far out of proportion.

But the direct emails about my book set in Ireland have been heart-warming. It's always great when a reader tells you that s/he has seen things the way you hoped.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, from my perspective, not avoiding the reviews has sensitized me to most of them over time, so that I don't mind them so much. I know my strengths--prose, characterization, dialogue. I'm more vulnerable to criticism of my plots and structure--and correspondingly more reassured by readers' praise of those elements. The sorest point is any suggestion that I don't know my subject, and I can live with that--especially since the theme of my series is a hot potato for our whole society.

Leslie Budewitz said...

A month after my first release, just what I needed to hear -- thanks for sharing! When you get completely contradictory comments, all you can do is laugh, shake your head, and chalk it up to personal taste.

My new policy: read the formal reviews, skip the reader comments/reviews online. Let's see if I can stick to it!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Leslie, some of it has to do with the vagaries of today's publishing. The reader reviews became important to me with the new e-editions of my series from BooksBNimble, because promotion opportunities are pegged to them--not to the content but to the number of reviews, especially by readers who paid for the books, the exact opposite of traditional reviews. This wouldn't apply to your books with a Big Five publisher.

Sandra Parshall said...

Shouldn't writers refrain from saying publicly that they don't read the reader reviews/comments, don't care about them, don't take them seriously? Aren't some readers going to be insulted by that attitude?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, I think reader reviews are written with other readers in mind, and that it doesn't occur to most of them that the authors will have feelings about them. That's my hunch, anyhow.