I haven’t been blogging much lately, but I got an explanation for that. I’m working on my book… Therefore, I hope you don’t miss me too much. I promise to be back soon.
In the meantime, why don’t you enjoy the company of John Kenworthy? He wrote about how to deal with negative reviews. Thanks John for using The Manicheans as your platform today. Ladies and Gentlemen, without further ado, John Kenworthy!
For new writers, one of the most difficult things with which to deal are negative reviews. They are bound to happen and frankly it is hard to get around it – they hurt. How can they not. For months, years even, we as writers have toiled away often in the solitude of our own workspace to write the best book we possibly can. We have laboured hard. We have been too close to characters, situations, voicings and all the multi-varied elements of our little tomes and have finally taken that leap and put it out there for mass consumption.
As it trickles out there – typically the first reviews are from family, friends and colleagues who somewhat may know us as fellow human beings traversing this lovely planet. They tend to be overtly positive, a bit effusive, somewhat generic and make us feel darned good about ourselves, our book and the cosmos in general. And it is not that these reviews are wrong – they just are based within a context that is different from a truly unbiased reviewer.
But those unbiased reviewers will surely come – and Lord help us – the inevitable scathing review will pop up as well and slap us back to cold, harsh reality. As with any setback in life, it is how we handle it that matters.
The first response for me is almost always – WHAT??? WHAT KIND OF IDIOT ARE YOU???
My second response is to take a deep breath and realize that this world has lots and lots of different kinds of idiots. And some aren’t truly idiots at all. Most people who review books do so thoughtfully and even in a deeply negative review attempt to share their own personal opinion based on their own context, persona, taste, and motivations.
“The Missionary and the Brute” recently received a negative (2 Star) review from an unbiased reader and I want to dissect for you how I synthesize the comments into being a positive for me as a living breathing evolving writer. Here is the review en toto as posted on GoodReads:
“I won this book from Good Reads Giveaways and just finished it.
John Kenworthy is a fairly good writer – he is very good at setting the stage and vividly describing Tanzania without being too verbose or losing the reader’s attention.
However, two things prevented me from really enjoying this book. First, is I found the main character “The Missionary” entirely unlikeable. I didn’t care about what was happening to him, which made me less interested in finding out what was going to happen to him. Second was the pacing – in a matter of 3 days I am supposed to believe that a group people who have never decide to make a bunch of major life altering decisions – including 2 who fall in love and 1 who wants to change her family life back home in the US. It felt like an unbelievable time line and distracted from the story the author was trying to tell.”
Okay, dissection time. The first line tells me that this is someone who entered a contest. She may or may not have truly had much interest in my book, the genre, or subject area. But she won it fair and square, got it in her hands and read it. This in many ways makes her a great audience for truly unbiased opinion. She had no real preconception as to what it was.
Click. Plop. Read.
The next line – kind of faint praise but when you are grasping to find the positives, you’ll take it. I credit her for not doing some blithe comparison to other writers – even ones that I might admire. I also credit her for doing what I often do myself in critical reviews – I start with a generic positive statement – move to specifics that reinforce that claim and then get into the meat of it. She does this very adroitly. I can glean from this some perceived strengths I may have in the descriptive work I have done, not to mention the twin accolades of not being verbose (When has THAT ever been attributed to me in any way? Woohoo!) and keeping – or at least not losing – the reader’s attention. Both of those are really important to me as a writer. I am quite lyrical with my language in “The Missionary and the Brute” and that might be perceived as verbose by some, but this reviewer felt it not. Also to be able to hold her attention throughout is a major plus. Especially in light of her following comments. To not like a book, yet be propelled along anyway says something in a positive way to me as its author.
The first negative comment comes in and I have to assess that from my own context and from other readers who have shared their thoughts. This reviewer found the Missionary Jadwin Ross to be wholly unlikeable. She is precisely right in this. I planned it that way and explicitly intended it to be so. I actually recoil much more strongly when folks who are mid-way through reading tell me how much they enjoy him! Really? Yikes!
This reviewer gleaned the exact correct response from Ross that I intended. My intent was to create a transgressive character not unlike Frank Norris’ McTeague or Chuck Palahniuk’s Tender Branson. Not likeable – but hopefully memorable and engaging enough to propel the narrative along. I bounce this off her comments regarding holding the attention and take away a positive. Therefore I don’t see this as too much of a negative in MY context – but it of course is in hers. Not every one is going to appreciate the thought behind an unlikeable protagonist. I surely understand that. But for me it is affirmation that she got it. Part of my intent with the Missionary character was to play with that concept that we are all too willing to believe in and give psychic breaks to protagonists that they don’t deserve. I toy with that even more with the device of the first person narrative which when stripped away at the end reveals even less that is personally admirable.
The next criticism is interesting to me. She thinks the pacing moves too quickly. Hm? That too was my intent to a degree. All of my fiction tends to whirl along at a breakneck pace with what I hope are well timed bits of respite to alleviate temporarily that tension. But the intent is that I want to propel the reader forward – to jolt with non-stop lightning bolts of thought, concept, action, sensuality, life to move the reader to the next equally thrilling section. I try to do what Walt Disney used to do in the theme parks – to PLUS the experience. I think I have done so and unabashedly so. But the worry now lies that I may have done so at the expense of natural pacings and realism.
This is a valid critical element. I know the craziness that ensues upon any journey to the parts of Tanzania that Jadwin and the Americans are traversing. It is high trauma in ways that are often subtle and devastating. For me, I know that to put a group of travelers together in those conditions for even a day – establishes a bond and a heightened sense of emotion than can be imagined in our workaday lives here. Imagine it. You are with a group of people for 24 hours a day. You eat together, you travel in discomfort together, you get sick together, you squat around the same hole pooping together – there is a complete dissheveling of the strictures of normalcy in those situations. I know that. But she didn’t feel that in what I have written.
That is on me as the writer then.
If she did not sense the reality of that even amidst a compressed time frame of three (or was it four?) days, then that is on me for failing to adequately share that through my writing. I need to watch that in future writings that I don’t assume my own sense of context and project that onto the reader. It is therefore valid on her part.
What else I can gather from this review is what she did not write about. This book is complex. It has three distinct non-linear timelines and two POV’s. That those didn’t register strongly as negative or positive gives me heart that they were simply unobtrusive and that they were accessible. That she wasn’t knocked out by the myriad twists and turns, can be seen as either positive or negative, but tells me that they weren’t restrictive for her accessibility to the book.
Overall, while the review is a two-star critique, there are things to be happily learned about the book and about myself. Life and art are learning adventures to be sure. I’d prefer to try to find the path to grow. Not wallow in the malaise of self-pity and doubt.
I have far too many books that need yet to be written.
Guest blogger John Kenworthy is author of the chilling new novel “The Missionary and the Brute”, a thriller set in Tanzania, East Africa. His previous books have included “The Hand Behind the Mouse: an intimate biography of Ub Iwerks” and “Bungee Jumping & Cocoons”.
His latest work:
The Missionary and the Brute on Amazon (paperback)
The Missionary and the Brute on Amazon (Kindle)
The Missionary and the Brute on publisher’s site