Friday, 19 August 2011

Envy? Dream on!

Should anybody mention online that they’re not particularly keen on Twilight, they face the prospect of die-hard fans popping up to say ‘OMG ur soooo stupid how can u hate my edward ur just jelus!!!

I’ve noticed, however, that assumptions of literary jealousy aren’t confined to the inarticulate. They're a standard way of comforting an author who has received a bad Amazon review.

Ignore him,’ the author’s friends say. ‘He's obviously jealous because you're a better writer than he is.

Whether or not they technically mean 'envious', comforting a distressed author is a nice thing to do, so I’m not going to suggest people tell their writing chums to stop whining. I don’t believe, however, that bad reviews are automatically the result of jealousy or envy. Books are commodities purchased by readers, who have no obligation to see the author as anything other than a name on the cover. It's a bit conceited to imagine they give you a second thought, let alone be so awestruck by your talent that they're seething in resentment about it.

No doubt there are some occasions when a reader has a personal grudge against a writer who once refused to help with their English homework in 1989. But the average book-lover is an intelligent individual choosing a product that they hope to enjoy, not a supervillain on a mission to destroy the mental state of the person who produced it.

The reading relationship surely isn't between the reader and the writer but between the reader and the book. Sometimes it doesn’t work out and the reader is disappointed. Maybe they feel misled by the cover or bewildered that the story doesn't live up to a friend's recommendation. Maybe they are amused at how far-fetched they found the plot, or maybe they're downright angry at having wasted their money. Expressing an opinion about this is natural, even if writers wail: 'What sort of miserable little person could put so much time and energy into writing a bad review?' Well, people are free to use their time and energy how they like – after all, you used yours writing an entire book for some reason.

If I had a disappointing meal in a restaurant, I might tell other people not to bother going there. This does not mean I was jealous of the chef and determined to crush his delicate feelings. If a recently fitted tap starts to leak, I might find this annoying - but I'm not therefore responsible for the plumber's depression and alcoholism. (Incidentally, why are plumbers the standard unit of measurement when comparing writing with other occupations?)

The difference with these situations is that one can get some money back or have the problem fixed. It's more difficult to return a book to the shop just because you didn't enjoy it. Negative reviews are perhaps a way of redressing a perceived imbalance of power and enabling the reader to get a refund on their emotional investment. This does not need to have anything to do with envy. Are we writers so awash with talent and all-round amazingness that everyone envies us? Yeah, right!

Feeling mortified and upset (in private) is a valid writerly response to a bad review. But that does not make the reviewer jealous, stupid, evil, lonely, bitter, twisted, untalented, or any of the other adjectives our well-meaning buddies might come up with.

A person just didn't like your book. That's about it, really.

5 comments:

JO said...

I so agree - all a bad review means is that someone doesn't like your book. They are not saying you are a bad person - so why take it quite so personally? It's impossible to write a book to please everyone.

What seems even sillier is when the writers whinge all over FB - most people wouldn't even notice the bad review if they kept their bruises to themselves. As it is they are inviting people to click over to Amazon and see just how awful the review is!

Neil said...

You have to develop a thick skin and just shrug off the bad reviews. Hardly any book will meet universal approval - look up your very favourite books of all time on amazon and you will find that there are people who have given them one star. Occasionally you will get a comment that seems malicious = a particular bugbear of mine is when people say that because they didn't like the book then anybody who gave it a good review must be a shill, a personal friend, as if their opinion is the only possible one. But the rule of thumb is that you should never, EVER, respond to a bad review. No good can come of it.

Derek said...

I think it's the anonymity - and self-celebrity - of the internet that does it. If someone had to compose a letter, purchase a stamp and walk to the postbox, they'd be less inclined to share their opinions. All that said, I do sometimes read the negative comments online to try and get a balanced perspective. It's also a useful reminder that you can't please everyone. I recall the words of JK Rowling in a TV documentary where she visited her old home and was asked what she would say to her readers. Her response went along the lines of "I've done the best I could with what I have."

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Thanks, Caro, for the reminder that the important thing is the relationship between the reader and the book. Very helpful to remember this.
Susiex

Debs Riccio said...

Hear flippin' hear, Caro! Part of the reason my blog's been so quiet lately is that I've started reading about four books and haven't liked any of them three chapters in (a good enough test I believe) but I don't like to announce this on the internet - and I've stopped telling writer 'friends' anywhere that I'm about to start reading their book - just in case. Simply because I don't like what they write doesn't make them any less a lovely person to chat with. Sometimes this social networking gets out of hand, doesn't it?
p.s. I love to look at Robert Pattinson but am quickly bored when he opens his mouth *ducks*.