For most people, “infer” is usually something you only talk about in contrast to “imply.” In one of my previous lives I was a civil litigator, and inferences can be a consideration in trying and appealing a case.
When you try a case, you present a bunch of pieces of evidence (witness testimony, photos, other documents) and then you try to convince the jury of your side of the story. [Sidebar: Drives me nuts when TV shows et al say “It’s just circumstantial evidence.” It’s almost always only circumstantial evidence!] Sometimes the type of evidence you have becomes an issue because the jury doesn’t have enough to make a “reasonable inference,” or judges will decide that the inference wasn’t reasonable.
In other words, the jury came up with an answer that wasn’t warranted based on the evidence before them. Given that the standard advice for fiction writers is “Show, don’t tell,” it seemed a parallel situation: sometimes readers come up with an answer you didn’t mean for them to when you “show” them the story.
Let’s take a concrete example: Here’s a letter sent home from an elementary school. Before the letter, Teacher A and Teacher B split the school day between them, with Teacher A taking the morning and and Teacher B taking the afternoon:
We want to notify you of a staffing change that will affect your child. Effective Tuesday…[Teacher B] will be your child’s…virtual teacher in all subjects. Your assistance in making this a smooth transition is deeply appreciated. As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to call. You may also set up a meeting time at 8:30 am. We are confident that this will be a successful school year for your family.
What did the recipients “see” from this?
Teacher A was fired.
Teacher A quit.
Teacher A was taking all the kids attending in person, while Teacher B was taking the virtual classes.
There wasn’t enough evidence from the letter to decide, so inferences were made. The way you would make those inferences would depend on what you thought of Teacher A–her competence, her satisfaction with work; how you would be reacting to the situation; and what you thought or knew about how the school works with staff.
The more you want to control those inferences, the more you have to either “show” more or tell the audience directly. In this case, if you’d seen Teacher A make many mistakes, then you might think she’d been fired—unless your experience leads you to believe that schools never fire anyone that isn’t convicted of a crime.
On the other hand, if you knew Teacher A was immuno-compromised and was really worried about the recent reports that some other staff members had contracted Covid-19, you might think she quit—unless you didn’t know what her insurance situation was and she’s a “Miss,” and you’d never quit a job without having health insurance.
Or, on a foot, if you knew they were having to rearrange staffing because there were more students returning to in-person classes, you might think it’s just a change in terms of how they staff for virtual versus in-person students—unless you know that Teacher A has always done only math and Teacher B has never taught math and you thought they always split classes by subject.
In this case, it would probably have been easiest for the school to simply state that they were rearranging the class loads because more students were returning to in-person classes. But if this were a story, you’d want to give the reader more of the types of information as illustrated by the sorts of things that would fill in the blank.
The more “evidence” you give the reader, the more likely they are to read the story the way you want them to. On the other hand, there are intangibles, like whether the reader liked the character of Teacher A—if not, the reader would be more likely to want the first scenario than if they would if they did like Teacher A.
So if you’re getting feedback about how readers are perceiving a particular situation that’s different than you’d meant for it to be, consider the evidence you’ve given them so far. You have the choice to leave it ambiguous (“Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn.”) or to make it clearer. You can’t control all the inferences, as illustrated above, because of preconceived ideas the reader brings with them to the reading, but, unlike a trial, you can manufacture any evidence you need to get the jury to come to the verdict you want.
After two days in the hospital waiting for the neurologists to decide whether my imaging studies meant my head was going to blow up, I was released without a firm diagnosis, but the attending neurologist shrugged and said “It could have been a migraine.”
I rolled my eyes hard every time I had to tell someone about it. I knew what a migraine was, dammit. I’d had 3-5 per week for at least seven years before they’d stopped about five years before. This was no migraine. I was right and wrong: it wasn’t the common, classical migraine I’d become so intimately acquainted with. It took five months for me to find out that it was probably the first big moment of the vestibular migraines that would become my daily life.
Last March, after other, less drastic symptoms, I started having a vestibular migraine which, for all intents and purposes, hasn’t stopped. I have fluctuations in the intensity and mix of the symptoms, but it never really ends.
It took six weeks to get a diagnosis, because when you hear that dizziness is the primary symptom, “migraine” is not the first thing you jump to. Like me, most people hear “migraine” and have a completely different idea about what’s happening. A VESTIBULAR migraine is a different animal, but, even though I’ve explained it multiple times to people, they still ask me, “How are your headaches?” It’s upsetting and frustrating because it feels as though my struggles to explain were completely ignored—and it is now a struggle to explain.
Even when I had the “regular” migraines, the headache part was never the worst part of it. For me, it was always the photophobia and phonophobia that made it worse. When every noise has the same effect as fingernails on a blackboard, and light feels like someone has thrown a dagger into your eye, it’s just as debilitating as an extremely painful headache. I had a hard time talking, because my own voice hurt. It was a period of isolation and darkness, and when I wasn’t actively having a migraine, I was having a migraine hangover.
In some ways, vestibular migraine (VM) is worse, although arguably, it’s also what I’m experiencing now, so that could account for it seeming worse. It’s always dangerous to compare suffering, so don’t take this as saying my vestibular migraines are worse than your regular ones. All I’m saying is that, for me, VM has some features that I have more difficulty with.
I can probably sum it up with this: The persistent symptoms of VM that are most troublesome for me, and have lead to an inability to work, are ones that go to the very heart of my identity: the ones that make up “transient aphasia.” I have always feared Alzheimer’s, which runs in my family, because of the way it eats away at the sum of who the sufferer is. The vestibular migraines are not in any way the same as Alzheimer’s, but that erosion of your cognitive self is there, albeit in a less dramatic way. And the lack of drama in itself is part of the problem.
Here’s the deal: Although dizziness is the hallmark of the vestibular versus the common migraine, it’s by no means the only one. When the VM first started, yes, the dizziness was the most salient symptom. It was constant, and I was always sure I was on the verge of falling over–my shorthand description was that I felt like I’d slammed a couple of margaritas all the time. So I thought that it was the dizziness itself that made reading and writing impossible. But when the dizziness was banked down to a low level of instability most of the time subsequent to botox treatment, I still found issues with reading and writing—transient aphasia.
I read about aphasia for the first time in a linguistics survey course in undergrad. I remember thinking it sounded horrifying—to have the words in your head but not be able to force them out of your mouth. It’s no fun, although, like most things, the reality isn’t quite as awful as imagining it (and it’s mitigated by the fact that it comes and goes). But while it’s going on, it’s extraordinarily frustrating to be trapped in your head with the words that literally will not make the trip from the brain through your mouth and into the air.
Even when fluency is less of an issue, I still misspeak. I write something and later realize I’ve said what I meant backwards, or said something baseless or inane that wasn’t what I was trying to say, or had an episode of non-sequitur theatre. I struggle to spell words that never gave me problems before (for some reason, for example, “female” is always “femail” on the first try now.) I feel like I need a warning label on everything I write to say “It may be social awkwardness, or it may just be my VM acting up.” But the need to engage in some kind of conversation coupled with my ADHD pressure to say something RIGHT NOW because, well, impulse control, makes me continue to try to talk or write and then repent later.
That’s the outgoing version. There’s also the incoming version, where words stop making sense. It’s as though the words start dancing around, text devoid of meaning. I don’t know if it’s true of everyone, but for some reason, it happens more frequently for me on electronic devices, and is worse reading on a laptop than on my phone. My guess is that it has something to do with the lighting and with the amount of eye movement involved, but that’s pure speculation on my part.
I also start having trouble processing what someone is saying to me if a phone conversation goes too long. It happens some in live conversation, but, again, for some reason it’s worse when it’s purely a telephone call.
The ability to make sense of text is also dependent on the complexity of text. For some kind of context, my husband has always referred to me as his mentat, and I’m trained as a lawyer. But now, I have been having difficulty figuring out if I’m eligible for Social Security Disability or if it’s only SSI that has a need component (like the Medicare/Medicaid distinction) because it’s all situated in more difficult texts and I cannot get it to stay still long enough to puzzle it out.
A novel that’s too oblique—the kind I used to enjoy hugely—now baffles me. One with too many characters is too hard to keep track of. Nonfiction is down to a page or two at a time (on a good day). Magazine articles of any length have to be taken at several sessions.
Given that the constant in all my various careers has been the ability to process language, it’s unsettling that this disease attacks that particular faculty. I’ve never been athletic, so a disability that would limit my physical speed wouldn’t affect my sense of self in the same way that the limitations on my language abilities have. Thanksgiving was almost comical because of the mistakes I made in preparing the dishes I’ve done every year for decades—substituting two sticks of butter for two tablespoons, for example, more than once.
You may read this and think, well, but you’ve written this post. But what isn’t readily apparent is the number of times I’ve had to come to the computer and write a little, revise a little, write a little more, for a document that I could have done at one sitting a year ago. I can’t write, edit, and proof effectively for hours at a time now, and I have to take the times I’m relatively clear to work on it.
So if you come across something in the blog and think, wait, that doesn’t make sense, or see a typo, please feel free to point it out. Odds are I missed it—of course, that could have happened in the past as well, but my frequency of errors is much higher.
If you someone tells you they suffer from vestibular migraines, realize that the modifier “vestibular” is very important to the person who is letting you know: it’s something more than or different than a headache going on. It may have come on quickly with devastating consequences’ almost 89% of the 56 respondents to a question about the onset posted at Vestibular Migraine Community said it did (“Like a lightning strike”). It may be completely different for another VMirate than for me; I have almost all of the symptoms in the cloud (I think I counted five that I’ve never had), but not all of them have affected me as profoundly as others. Different VMirates will have a different cocktail. And it may be a struggle for them to explain, so if they’ve said “vestibular,” or if they’ve described it, that takes an effort, and repeating the song and dance is just that much more frustrating.
VM is poorly understood, but there’s some research to indicate it involves more of the brainstem than classic migraine. It’s also not even all that well known among doctors. I was fortunate that both the ENT and the neurologist I saw the first time for it were aware of the syndrome; there are stories of people taking years to get a diagnosis.
Treatments are pretty much the same as for a classic migraine, and probably will remain that way for a good while, as only about 1% of the populations suffers from VM versus 12% for classic migraine, and not all VMirates had classic migraines before the VM hit (about 17% of 36 respondents). Treatments are like any other drug—some work for many, some work for a few, but all of them take trial and error. There’s not much more than anecdotal data out there, but it’s not uncommon to hear that folks took around three years from the initial onset to getting back to a normal life.
So I’m about a third of the way there; I guess I’ll take that as a glass-half-full observation.
the ides of indies, a recurring discussion of indie publishing matters
Let’s talk about awards season and how indies have been faring in fiction. as well as the state of inclusiveness for people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.* Kirkus Prize and the World Fantasy Awards have already announced their winners, Goodreads is in semifinal voting, National Book Awards will announce their winners on 11/18/2020, and the Booker Prize will be announced on 11/19/2020. I got award fever, so I’ll announce the Bibliostatic 2020 Year of Doom awards at the end (going to have to rethink that name—open to suggestions).
But first, the analysis. I got out my handy spread sheets and did a whale of a lot of cut and paste as well as some heavy Googling (sounds like a weird sex act, but never mind). I’m sure errors have crept in, but I wanted to share what I’d learned. And, yes, I realize, it’s not a scientific sampling, but it’s still interesting.
Quick note on the data: I only took the Goodreads data from the semifinals for fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. The Kirkus Prize was based on fiction nominees only. The Booker Prize information is from the longlist. For determining POC and LGBTQ+, I looked at the authors and protagonists as described in the summaries, and at the shelves on Goodreads. This is probably the part most subject for debate, because I have no idea what criteria was used for shelving.
Not surprisingly, the Big 5 dominated the awards overall. Of 94 nominations, constituted of 90 separate books, the Big 5 took a respectable 83% (or 78 nominations) through all their various imprints. Sometimes it’s like following pirate maps to figure out which are Big 5. During my first run at researching, I thought Bookouture and Sourcebooks Landmarks were independent publishers, and congratulated them on being the only indies nominated in the Goodreads Mystery category.
Turns out, Bookouture used to be an indie, but was acquired by Hachette a few years ago. The founder was a former Harlequin marketing guy, but the website doesn’t have anything that would make you think it’s a Hachette subsidiary. It’s not until you do a little digging that you find Hachette is the parent company. Yeah, I’m a bit embarrassed about that tweet now.
Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks, says it’s an independent publisher on its about page. Seems straightforward. As you, a seasoned reader will have guessed, it’s a little more complicated. Penguin Random House has a 45% ownership share in Sourcebooks. Is it then still an indie? Sourcebooks says yes; I’m not convinced, and I’m moving them to the Big 5 pile.
Then there’s Amazon. Not one of the traditional Big 5, but it’s hard to argue it’s an indie when it’s bringing in cash for book sales comparable to those hoary veterans: a whopping $5.25 BILLION compared to Simon & Schuster’s measly $830 million. (I’ll take that version of measly, please.) Granted, Amazon’s not making even most of that wad of cash from their own imprints, and it may not be quite the same kind of conglomerate as the Big 5, but it smells more like a Big 5.5, so its nominations are counted with those guys.
And I have to talk about Shuggie Bain, and not in terms of its content. Shuggie Bain is listed as a publication of Grove Press in most awards—except the Booker Prize, which lists Picador, an imprint tracing back to Macmillan. So which one is it? Well, the novel is published in the US and Canada by Grove Press, but by Macmillan in Commonwealth countries.
So, of course, they have the pull to get more attention for their books (and to make it pretty and neat). If you’ve tried self-publishing (or even book blogging), you’ll know that the challenge is being heard over all the noise. The Big 5 (and Amazon) have air horns and rock concert sound equipment. They’ll get heard.
But how does that play out among indies? There’s Bloomsbury Publishing, home of Harry Potter, with the wealth that series brought, and then there are others that make far less than the million dollar magic goal. Grim Oak Press and Bloomsbury are both semi-finalists in the Fantasy category of the Goodreads Awards, along with lonely Hidden Gnome Press, Will Wight’s self-publishing alter ego. What are their chances against the other 17 books? I’m really asking; I’m no good at calculating odds—where are C-3PO or Spock when you need them?
Overall, a rather surprising 35% of the titles (a total of 32) were either authored by and/or had a character in the novel that was a POC; LGBTQ+ rated 17% representation (total of 15). The standout for least inclusiveness was Goodread’s Mystery category, with no LGBTQ+ and only one Black protagonist written by the only Black author from the 20 titles in the semifinals. Interestingly, Mystery was the only group of nominees that had zero indie publishers.
Award for double appearance by single author: Jim Butcher appears twice in the Goodreads Fantasy category. Butcher’s double appearance was a result of the publisher splitting the intended single novel into two halves, Peace Talks and Battle Ground, because of the total length, to much muttering and grumbling among fans of the Dresden Files.
Award for only self-published: Will Wight is in the room, ladies and gentleman, and he brought his own damn self with Wintersteel.
Award for the greediest Big 5: Okay, perhaps I should say “most successful.” I’ll give you a hint: Unsurprisingly, it’s the largest of the Big 5. Yep, Penguin comes out on top with 28 nominations. Then there’s nearly a three-way tie: Macmillan and Hachette with 13 and HarperCollins with 12. Simon & Schuster, what the hell happened? You only got 4.
Award for most inclusive genre: Hello, Historical Fiction—13 total titles over more than one awarding group with either a POC character and/or author and/or LGBTQ+ characters. (I”ll give you a minute to sort out that sentence; suggested rewrites welcomed in the comment section below.) However, Fantasy had the most titles with both POCs and LGBTQ+ characters and/or authors.
Award for managing to avoid any indie nominees: We have a tie for the big fat goose egg. The Goodread’s Mystery category included all of the Big 5 plus Amazon, but no indies. The World Fantasy Awards listed books from Redhook, Orbit (both Hachette imprints), Tor.com (Macmillan), and Pantheon (Penguin Random Books). The tie-breaker: the award will go to the one which had the most total opportunities to include an indie. Congratulations, Goodread’s Mystery category, for your second raspberry, since you failed to include one indie among the 20 choices. (And, no, your own imprint doesn’t count.)
Award for most inclusive Award: Kirkus Prize, which only had one nominee that wasn’t either a POC or LGBTQ+ and awarded the prize to Raven Leilani for Luster. Yeah, it’s Macmillan book, but whatcha gonna do?
Award for the Award with the most nominations for indie publishers: Although several got up to 4 indie published nominations, only one had a significant percentage of them: Kirkus Prize, which nominated a striking 2/3 (or that annoying 66.66%) of its list from indie publishers. That would be more significant if it weren’t for the fact that Kirkus makes its money from reviewing books ($425-$575 a pop) and book editing ($500 minimum), and there’s potentially a huge indie market for them.
Although I had fun with this, the takeaway was all too depressing: $$=respect. Damn.
*Or whatever term you prefer; as a straight, CIS, white woman I don’t and shouldn’t have any preference, but can’t determine what the consensus is at the moment.
As usual, I start with research, and started Googling the issue. Laura Lipman’s article in the Washington Post basically told me not to ask any Black acquaintances, and I get her point, but that’s not helping me decide what to do or say.
This article from Writer Unboxed was great, but, again, didn’t really help me from a reviewer’s point of view. Additionally, the specifics she raises doesn’t really address the particular situation.
The thoughtful article by Sarah Schulman, White Writer, gave a better theoretical framework for considering the issue. To oversimplify, the idea is that white writers addressing Black characters should make sure they are not reinforcing privilege and “cultural dominance.”
I’m going to digress for a moment and talk about my own evolution in the struggle for anti-racism. I grew up as a military brat, and, although I can’t say there wasn’t racism, there was at least a good faith effort (well, I perceived it as good faith) to create a more equal environment. My first experience of the N-word was on a school bus on the way to Hamura Elementary, a DoD school that occupied a former Japanese POW camp sometime in the late 60s. (Take a second and unpack that. I’ve tried to find more info about it as an adult, but no joy yet.)
Some kid yelled the word at another kid, and a chorus welled up from listeners. “OOoooh, your dad is gonna get in trouble for that,” was the main version, although the phrase “court martial” was also thrown around. I was in second grade.
My next memory of awareness was in recess at the same school, a year or so later, when I was confronted with the choice of playing with a Black girl. I didn’t like her, but I remember thinking that I couldn’t dislike her because she was Black regardless of her character. I played with her, begrudgingly.
Makes me think of this bit from 30 Rock, particularly the interplay between Tina Fey and Wayne Brady:
Fast forward to the 90s (I’ll omit the rather long story of moving to Alabama in 1972). For various reasons in my life and surroundings, I had few Black acquaintances until my thirties. First was my husband’s work friend, another military brat with whom I had more in common with as a result of that shared experience than with many white friends. The second shaping experience was a multitude of interactions with my students when I started teaching at the local community college.
At that point, I was consciously raising racial issues in classes. I’d learned late about white privilege, and was determined to get that out there, as well as historical perspectives on how we got to where we are. This forced me to really think hard about how to talk about difference.
I realized that I had originally thought anti-racism was just pretending nonwhites were white. I had trouble identifying someone as Black or Mexican American (San Antonio, remember) for a long time, as though it might embarrass them somehow–as if it were a social disease.
But I realized that was a paternalistic racism, an attempt to erase difference in favor of the white version of reality. So I started facing the issue head-on, asking questions in classes made up of Black, hispanic, and white kids. I found that there was often ignorance of each other all the way around, and the conversations were useful. (I still remember a Mexican-American kid saying after one of the movies I showed (I want to say Mississippi Burning) that he didn’t realize how bad it had been for Blacks. My jaw about dropped.)
One consistent reaction was to my presentation on white privilege. The white kids usually were unaware of the concept, and the Brown and Black kids had a hard time understanding how they couldn’t be. That blindness, the inability to see the food sticking in our teeth and swiped across our faces, is what makes us ask the dumb questions about “is this racist?” to friends and acquaintances of color. (My favorite comment in response to something I’d said and then questioned was, “Probably, but you mean well.”)
So in the current climate, where we are elevating the discussion of anti-racism and looking at our issues, it seems remiss not to discuss what I find to be insensitive handling of race in a book I’m reviewing. On the other hand, it’s so charged that I anticipate an overreaction if I raise it.
In this case, I wouldn’t say that you could simply omit the Black characters. It’s set in North Carolina, and the two Black characters are the housekeeper and a cook/chef. This is a reflection of a reality that still exists, so to pretend that it’s otherwise would be inauthentic.
But it seems like the writer is trying to dodge around their Blackness, which seems to me to be as big a problem as caricaturing them. It triggers my judged past of treating Blackness as a social disease. But i’m not sure how I’d tell her to fix it beyond not ignoring it and them making those characters fully rounded individuals, not just place holders. To be fair, I haven’t finished the book yet, but that’s where I am in the process.
I understand that there’s a problem inherent in this situation for the white writer: how do you write the Black characters in a way that doesn’t exclude them, but doesn’t pretend you know something that you don’t, nor does it whitewash them? (Guys, really, read Sarah Schulman’s White Writer,)
And then another thorny bit: there’s a reference to a joke about the protagonist inheriting the housekeeper with the house. I didn’t realize until that point that the housekeeper was supposed to be Black, and it was only because of a clumsy attempt to distance the protagonist (it’s first person) from the joke which more clearly references slavery. It could be argued that it’s a way to get the protagonist, that you need to see her flaws, but it doesn’t feel like a conscious choice to me for that—more that the author doesn’t even realize it’s problematic.
What’s a reviewer who wants to be sensitive to both the race issues and to the writer do? Truly. I’m asking. What do y’all think?
I tell myself that I shouldn’t judge on such superficial things. But when there are so very many books to choose among, there are things that immediately make me prejudge a book as being sloppy or amateurish. I was tempted to put the covers up here as examples, but I’m not a fan of shaming people.
For the most part, my pet peeves boil down to my dislike of being careless about communication. If authors aren’t careful about these issues that directly impact the perception of their book, how can I trust them to communicate effectively in the book itself?
These are in no particular order of importance.
Typo in the title: An immediate turnoff. I found two like that yesterday looking for new releases. One lacked an apostrophe for a possessive, the other had a misspelling.
Including a description or promo in the title: This kind of thing: Bibliostatic, a wonderful book review blog that all should read–or even just Bibiliostatic, a book review about fantasy books. When I see this on Amazon, I cringe. It’s not just unprofessional—it strikes me as needy.
Not formatting the book correctly: If I open the book and the text is not separate from the front matter or the font size or line height makes it difficult to read, I peace out.
Not listing a publisher: It’s a really stupid prejudice on my part, but I want to see that the author is serious enough that they set up an imprint to publish under. So often indie authors omit this step.
Listing the publisher with “LLC”: Look at how the Big5 or small presses do it (which is pretty good advice across the board). They just put the name of the publisher, not the corporate entity ending. That may be the legal name of the company, but there’s no reason to include it here. Again, it feels like a failure to adequately educate yourself about the business you’ve entered into.
Listing a support service as the publisher: There are various services for self-publishing. If they say the word “self-publishing,” they are not your publisher! A few of these I’ve seen listed as the publisher: PublishNation, CreateSpace, and Ingram Spark.
Using the same title as a bunch of other books: Rather than carelessness, this reflects a concern that the book is unimaginative or trite if they can’t come up with something new.
Messy/difficult-to-read cover: This is a hard one to explain without showing examples, so I made a faux one. If the cover is, well, covered from top to bottom with text, it bothers me.
First, there’s just too much text. Second, many of the letters are lost because of the lack of contrast. Third, it’s not easy to read at a glance.
I’d go with the same idea that designers are *supposed* to use with billboards: something that can be read at a glance while traveling at high speed.
Asha at A Cat, A Book, And A Cup Of Tea was kind enough to share her turn-offs: “poor cover artwork, bad reviews noting poor grammar/spelling, authors promoting inappropriately on social media (DMs, cold-tagging, replying to irrelevant tweets with buy links), authors who don’t read review policies!” Asha notes that these problems are not confined to self-published books. I agree, although the issues seem to come up less often in traditionally published books.
The point of all this is to say that indie authors have control over all of these issues in a way traditionally published authors don’t, so use that control so that readers will look at the candy, not the wrapper.
Any superficial qualities that make you avoid a self-published book?
I was talking to my son about a piece I wrote because I wanted feedback about what I was getting across with the meaning of a piece. In the conversation, I had an epiphany of sorts that I wish I’d head in the 90s when I was first teaching writing. Granted, it wasn’t creative writing, but some of the same principles underlie all good writing.
Let me give you a little background. My son is a visual artist. The short version is that he didn’t opt for art school for multiple reasons, and one of them he is thankful for is that he doesn’t have to make art to make a living. He is passionate about art for Art’s sake.
So in that context, he gave me a response about the writing piece which I suspected about this first draft: it was kind of all over the place. “I can’t tell if your article is an Allegory for white flight, racism in America, or someone earnestly trying to bring awareness about birds in SA.”
After a little discussion about the content of that statement, I asked, “ Do you think it’s worth pursuing as is?”
For me, that was a question about technique. I wanted to know if what I’d done could conceivably achieve the effect I desired. I think the question, if posed to a visual artist, would be “Do you think this drawing that you can’t tell is a bird or a cat can be worked on so that it looks like a cat, or is it too far gone and I should just get a new piece of paper?”
He took the question as “Is it worth drawing a cat?” and went on to make valuable points about not getting tied up “in the get,” as my daughter would say:
“I would just set the expectation that this is for you, and maybe other ppl will like it or not, but it should be about your expression first and foremost.”
I agree with that statement. I believe that in creative writing, you shouldn’t make art just for others. If you get too tied up in the salability or popularity of the book, you’ll end up strangling the work.
On the other hand, there is technique. In visual art, it’s a little easier to separate the output from the technique (or maybe is just my ignorance that makes me think so). I hadn’t thought of it that way, though, until this discussion.
My response was this: “Yes and no. Because writing is about communicating with others, clarity about what the writing is is a matter of technique, so getting feedback is made akin to asking how to mix the color you want (or what choices you might have according to color theory). It’s a tricky line in writing, i think, trying to separate technique from substance.”
I realized that not separating technique from substance is part of the problem with getting criticism, whether constructive or not, on something you’ve written, whether it’s in the editing stage out of the final product, as in a book review.
In art, sometimes you hear people speak in terms of craft (as well as it being an arbitrary distinction between arts and crafts, but I’ll pass on that digression). Craft refers to how clean and finished it is, how much you can tell that a maker has figured out how to use the materials. If you’re not versed in the craft, it can be very hard to tell when a piece is lumpy because they didn’t know what they were doing or that they’re making a point about lumpiness. You just know whether you like it or not.
I believe I try to sort out substance from technique by trying to say upfront what I don’t like about a book that is a matter of taste: I don’t like peanut butter or horror. Not a judgement on the validity of someone making or eating the one or writing out reading the other. Just me.
But since it’s hard to separate what you’re trying to say with how you say it, sometimes both the reviewer and the writer make errors in the how when trying to get to the what. The question isn’t, fundamentally, did the reviewer like it, but did the piece have the effect I wanted.
So, say, for example, that you want to leave people with an ending that is ambiguous, letting them fill in the blanks. For me, what I’m about to say could be a spoiler, but I’m a little overboard on my definition, which will be the subject of another post.
A great example of ambiguous endings is Washington Black by Esi Edugan. It’s won all kinds of awards, and is an excellent piece of writing. It’s a little risky to end the book the way she did because of the way endings can change how we feel about the entire book, but that was the choice she made.
I hated the ending, and it did affect how I felt about the book as a whole, which I was enjoying immensely until it ended. I felt like it just stopped and there was no resolution, and, dadgummit, I wanted to know what happened to this character I’d come to love.
Which brings us to the problem specific to reviews, a problem endemic to our society that begins in kindergarten: grading or rating.
We have been graded our whole lives, so we think we know what grades mean. Grades are easy. They don’t require us to think critically, and we can quickly review many choices to find what we want. It’s a symptom of both abundance and mass production. We have so many choices because things are mass produced, but to mass produce, you must have uniformity, requiring grading and sorting of things that aren’t really uniform.
Hence the pressure in reviews to rate, whether 5 stars or ten, stars or pickles. As a writer, it is tempting to see that as a comment on substance rather than technique, when it could be either.
In the case of Washington Black, I gave it three stars on Goodreads, which was kind of meaningless, because it was a compromise between what I thought about her technique (5) and whether I’d recommend it to someone (debatable, but maybe a 1, because the ending pissed me off because it wasn’t how I wanted it to end).
So if Edugan cared what I thought, she’d read the review to see why I rated it like that. But because I rated it in the middle, splitting the difference between my rating of her mastery of the craft with the rating of whether I’d recommend it, it would be lost in the averages. If, hypothetically, she was trying to get feedback on the effect she was having in the exercise of that craft, then a one-star review would have been more useful for her, as that flags it as something someone felt passionate enough to rate it that way.
Frankly, I didn’t want to give it a one because Black writers have more barriers to get thorough to have their work read, and I don’t want to contribute to the problem. Edugan is a fabulous writer and deserves to be read. It was just a case of me not liking the aftertaste.
So when reading a particular review about your own writing, you should ask yourself whether the criticism addresses what you’re trying to achieve. Does this reviewer think it’s a bird when it’s supposed to be a cat? Or does the reviewer want it to be a bird because he doesn’t like cats? Those are important distinctions, and not always easy to sort out.
Of course, if you’re trying to make them wonder if it’sa bird or a cat, then, again, congratulations, you’ve done it. But this analogy is assuming you want them to talk the difference.
As a reader, one rating can’t tell you whether a book is worth reading; you have to read the substance of the review to see if you, as a cat-lover, would agree with the reviewer who dislikes a book because it’s not a bird.
However, an aggregate rating is more informative. If a hundred people have rated a book, and it’s got less than a three-star rating, maybe it’s because the craft hasn’t been mastered—or it may just not have found the right readers yet. If a thousand people have rated a book that low, it’s becoming more likely that it’s a matter of craft rather than substance unless it’s trying to make a point about lumpiness that only a small number of people will get.
Or if it’s particularly controversial, but that tends to be clear at the outset, and relatively fewer people will read a book they know they won’t like, although trolling is definitely a thing. For the most part, though, a book had to have reached enough readers who liked it to gain the attention of trolls, so for a newer or more obscure book, it’s less likely to be an issue. But for bots. Okay, I’ll stop looking for exceptions.
So the point here is that reviews, like any feedback, are useful to the degree that they succeed in telling you something about how a reader experiences the book. Book reviews are supposed to be for other readers, not for the writer, so the thrust is why I did or did not like the book, regardless of whether it is technique or substance.
That’s why my review process is an attempt to separate the two. If I think it’s an issue of insufficient attention or mastery of the craft, it ends up in the “Not ready for primetime” summary reviews. Full reviews assume that the book is competently written and are focused more on matters of taste, just as the Big 5 won’t publish a book if the author hasn’t adequately mastered craft.
For me, that’s part of raising the status of indie authors and publishers: trying to spotlight what’s good quality writing regardless of whether I like what someone is writing about.
For another point of view, see this awesome post by Ryan Howse, Books Are Awesome. A short quote from his article: “Books need to be judged on what they are attempting to do, not on a predetermined checklist.”