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Writers and Amazon Reviews

I’ve recently been asked – by more than one person, oddly enough – if I read my Amazon reviews.  It’s a weird thing to be asked.  What is at the root of the question?  Gauging a writer’s relative vanity/humility? 

Looked at one way, I suppose a writer who reads all her Amazon reviews could be considered very vain.

Looked at another way, I suppose a writer who reads all her Amazon reviews could be considered very humble. 

Here’s how I see it:

If you are lucky enough to have a number of Amazon reviews (or Goodreads reviews, which provides an alternate forum for booksellers/librarians/non-Amazon consumers to share their thoughts… and has, of course, now been bought out by Amazon…) then it’s worth taking the occasional peek at them.  Somebody cared enough to write something about your book.  Even if they hated it – well, hey – they took the time, and that alone is worth something. 

The best and worst thing about writing is that you do it alone.  You spend hours alone in your head, and more hours alone at your keyboard.  Sometimes months go by as you scribble away, and there is no reason for you get in touch with your editor until you’re really on the final stretch of something.  You have wild mood swings about your own work: One day you’re reveling in the details, pleasantly surprised you wrote such a nice sentence.  The next, you’re suddenly convinced the whole plot isn’t working and you consider throwing your laptop across the room (hmm… maybe this is why they used to make typewriters so heavy…). 

Writing is kind of like living on a deserted island; it’s only a matter of time before you start talking to Wilson.  What I’m saying is that there are no quarterly performance reviews.  What I’m saying is that writing for a living gets WEIRD. 

Then, suddenly, your book comes out, and “performance reviews” are shooting at you from all angles. In newspapers.  In magazines.  On book blogs.  If you’re smart you’ll develop a method that allows you to really hear what they have to say, but also leave yourself a little inner switch to shut off the noise when you need to be alone again. 

And for me, this includes Amazon/Goodreads reviews.  I haven’t read all of them, but I peruse them from time to time, just to take the temperature, so to speak.  Sure, I care what newspapers and magazines have to say about my book, but I also care what the average reader thinks.  Philosophically, a writer only makes up 50% of the equation; the reader makes up that other 50%, and a story only exists in an exchange between the two.  Pragmatically, the reader is why I’m getting paid to do this. 

Sure, you’re going to get some reviews by cranks.  And some really bizarrely personal, snarky or flat-out mean reviews.  Hopefully you can laugh at those.  I was chatting with a writer friend on Facebook, and we commiserated-slash-shared mean reviews.  I picked out one that read:

 

… a strange kind of material for a newly published author. Usually agents and editors are looking for something that really "pops" from a new novelist. This is a not-really-compelling exercise in narrative voice from someone on the professor track who's read a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald (and maybe a little Stephen King)…

 

While I take this gentleman’s comment that he didn’t find my book’s plot compelling to heart, I had to laugh at some of the other remarks in this one.  And part of this laughter has to do with laughing at myself.  Because while he claims I’m “someone on the professor track,” I’m actually someone who (sheepishly) fell off the professor track in order to move to New York and work at a literary agency.  He thinks I am the very thing I still feel a little guilty about not becoming!  Also, I have never read Stephen King.  I can’t tell if he meant that particular comment derisively but that’s another thing I feel guilty about, not proud (side note: I feel especially guilty because Stephen King is a “commercial” author who stirred up controversy more than once because of his inclusion in highbrow literary events/editorships/awards, straddling an arbitrary division I find intriguing). 

Anyway, this whole digression aside, I think there’s a case to be made for writers to read their Amazon/Goodreads reviews.  Should you do it every day?  Hell, no.  Should you get worked up over the mean ones?  Also, no.  If you find you are honestly that worked up, then perhaps reading the reviews is a good therapy tool for you to grow thicker skin and learn how to culture professional distance between you and your work (hot tip: no matter how brilliant you are, you can always learn something more).  And if you really can’t reach this state of peacefully allowing the criticism in, then maybe writing isn’t for you.  

But you know… we have this wonderful tool called the Internet nowadays, and it provides a place for the masses to speak.  Not all of that feedback takes the shape of carefully-crafted gems – I grant you – but should we ignore this entire forum altogether?  There is certainly something terrible and obnoxious about a writer who obsesses over his/her Amazon reviews.  But there is also something terrible and obnoxious about the snob who sniffs and says, with a superior air, “I’ve never read my Amazon reviews.”  My two cents on that? – either you are lying or else you have a bad case of the wannabe-Franzens. 

“Have you ever personally posted a response to an Amazon review?” a friend recently asked me.

“No,” I said, because honestly, I believe that, under no circumstances, should an author ever – ever! – do this. 

“Oh, wait,” I said, suddenly remembering.  “I responded to one, once.  It was from my mother.” 

Ah, mothers…  So there is one exception to that rule.