When I first published my book, I was like a proverbial kid in a candy story when good reviews began to roll in. After a horrible first start at GoodReads, Amazon readers actually reviewed the story, not the title. They also didn’t hate on the fact that I chose to do a parody/pastiche of Fifty Shades of Grey. Any reader who knows anything about form and genre knows that this is allowed. Don’t they? Otherwise we wouldn’t have Ulysses, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or even Fifty Shames of Earl Grey, just to name a few.
I have an amazing base of readers who get what I was trying to do with this story–put a little diversity in a popular erotic romance and poke fun at some things that, as an African American woman, used to totally piss me off. Like the use of the terms “Jungle Fever” and “Ghetto.” I wanted to show readers that people are not always a product of their environment. You can take the hood out of the girl–well most of it. I also used the pop culture references and the fairies to infuse the story with humor that bordered on the ridiculous, sort of like that old HBO sitcom Dream On.
My goal was to strike a precarious balance in Fifty Shades of Jungle Fever, because I didn’t want to go to extremes on either end of the spectrum. I honestly didn’t want to offend anyone, but I should never have been so naïve. “You can’t please all of the people all of the time” is sage advice, or real talk as we like to say these days.
I found out in short order that my balance wasn’t precarious enough. While for the most part, my reviews skew good, I get the rare one or two rating. Usually these are from people who are 1) offended by the title, 2) rushing to judgment, 3) biased for reasons both known and unknown, 4) determined not to like it because I deigned to spoof Fifty Shades of Grey, 5) editors in their own minds, but really don’t have a clue what bad editing looks like (no, it is not the odd typo). There are other groups, but there are so few of them that don’t get a category.
When you’re a new writer–and a minority of veterans, I understand–you tend to take reviews personally. I decided early on I wouldn’t do this. In fact, when I got my first one rating, I celebrated with a blog post because I felt it was a momentous occasion. That less-than-stellar rating validated me as an author, because I knew that all writers get bad reviews. Some books, as well-written as they are, are not the literary tastes of all readers. Readers feel compelled to tell you and the world when this is the case. That will likely never change.
As I have interacted with other authors, both Indie and traditionally published, I’ve found that writers have varying ways of dealing with reviews. While some read each and every one and let them roll off their backs, some read every one and agonize over them, analyzing the nuance of every sentence and the words contained within. Some writers are deeply offended by bad reviews and others couldn’t care less.
Then there is the camp of authors who don’t read their reviews at all. These are the ones that fascinate me most. Their reasons for doing so vary, but I find most do so for either one of two reasons 1) they don’t want to be that writer who believes their own press (reviews, if you will), and 2) they don’t want what’s there to mess with their creative muse or mojo as we writers like to call it. I am an author who falls in the later camp, but I also find myself torn over this issue. While I want to read all my readers reviews and emails out of appreciation for purchasing and reading my book, I find myself often getting distracted by things that really shouldn’t matter.
Often it is the reviews or emails I don’t understand that keep me thinking about them. Reviews that say things like, “your characters are too ghetto,” or “your characters aren’t ghetto enough,” or “there is too much ebonics in this story (newsflash: there is a difference between ebonics, vernacular, and slang).” I particularly love the ones that say, “this story is poorly edited,” because my story has gone through two rounds of spectacular editing, and if there are any typos in there, they are entirely my fault. It is because my eyes have played tricks on me when I’m going through and accepting and rejecting the changes from my editors. (And if another author or reader notices any of these in my book, please point them out to me.)
However, the granddaddy of them all is the “I could not finish reading this book, but I’m going to give you a one, anyway.” This really doesn’t merit any expounding on because, well . . . it’s like filling out a customer service survey for a product or service you’ve never sampled or experienced. How do you know what your rating would be, since you didn’t really try that product or service?
I had been toying with the idea of not reading reviews at all anymore, but I felt like that would be a slight to the many readers who’ve read and enjoyed my book. So my compromise is this: when I’m in the throes of writing and trying to meet a deadline, I will not read my reviews for fear of stalling my creativity. However, when I’m not working on a deadline or going through a severe case of writer’s block, I will read every review and email I get, because I refuse to let an opinion in the minority negate the validation that so many other readers have given my book.