I think most of us small-time writers share at least one trait in common: we obsess over our reviews. I know I do. When a new review pops up, I scrutinize it, interrogate it for clues, for hidden meanings. Like a hermit living in a remote garrett, starving for news from the outside world, I read it over and over.
And it is, in fact, a completely pointless activity. Reviews are what they are. You can’t change them, and they may not even be all that important in terms of selling books (the subject is at least debatable.) There’s really no reason to read them at all unless you are one of those writers who plots his next book according to what worked in the last one—and if by worked, you mean earned positive feedback from reviewers.
I’m not, and I don’t. But I can’t deny my own fascination. Sometimes, even months later I’ll take them out and play with them, arranging them just so. Is this just an ego primp? Maybe. Though it’s often the the less-than-glowing reviews that keep drawing me back for another look. Some little comment, some bit of faint praise. What’s that supposed to mean? Why did he say that? Who says I’ve got pacing issues?
A while back, I received a review of Spark. It wasn’t bad. It was four stars and mostly positive. There were parts she found a little confusing (and very weird) but she praised the writing and the characters. She wasn’t wowed by the ending, which seemed incomplete to her (an occupational hazard. I tend to like a loose ending.) But the money quote, the one that knocked me over, came near the beginning:
“I have the oddest feeling walking away from this book that I’m not sure I can even begin to describe. Spark by Atthys J. Gage was not what I was expecting, and yet it hit the bullet points of everything it promised. Even now, half an hour after finishing the book, I sit here and marvel at what I just read in a strange state of confusion…”
(The boldface is my addition because, hey, read it!)
Near the end she added: “It was both better, and odder than I expected, and I was entertained.”
I can’t entirely explain why this made me so happy. I’m not one to value obscurity for its own sake. Ambiguity can be a powerful tool in writing, but it needs careful handling. It’s no good being abstruse if it’s just so people will assume you’ve got some heavy, brainy subplot going on.
Take it from me, Spark is not a particularly symbolic book. The story is pretty much right there on the page. I didn’t design it to be an allegory with deep hidden meanings. And yet, this reviewer found in it something so confusing that she marveled at it. AND she still liked it.
All fiction is allegory. Real life, in fact, is rife with allegory, and even though we are usually at a loss to explain the hidden meaning that seems to underlie the mundane events of our lives, in transcendent moments we are at least aware of it, even profoundly so. And how do we typically respond to that glimmer of awareness? With confusion. A confusion so deep and disturbing that we marvel at it. Life is, perhaps, both better and odder than we expect it to be.
If a book can invoke that kind of confusion, even for one person? I’ll take that as a win.
Then again, maybe I just want to be misunderstood.
All right, enough of me indulging myself. How’s about you indulging yourselves for a while. Has a review ever changed your life or made you fundamentally rethink what you’ve been doing? It’s mostly just us scribblers here, so don’t worry. You have my permission to crow, just a little bit.