Tuesday, June 05, 2007

bad reviews and good relationships

There's a really, really bad review on Amazon of Undine. Actually it's not such a bad review as a wounded, outraged diatribe. I would link to it, or quote from it, but I can't actually get onto Amazon from my home computer due to some problem with our provider (I can't get onto ebay either - it's actually quite restful). Anyway, it's been on my mind since I read it yesterday. I have been lucky to get mostly good reviews for Undine. Of course there have been some perfectly reasonable criticisms, but most of them have been intelligent and thoughtful, and generally it's because they've wanted a different sort of book, a good book, but not the book I set out to write. These people have been polite enough to point out what Undine gets right before drawing attention to their perceived shortcomings. But the rant on Amazon is from a different kind of reader. He/she feels like I entered some kind of contract to write the book in a particular way and is howling because I failed. He/she clearly feels some kind of personal grievance because the book is not the book he/she wanted. Aspects of the book others have loved he/she is bitter about. This person wanted a book about families and instead got a book where family, friends and relationships are intermingled. They seem to think it's an incredible weakness of the story that Undine's magic is so directly linked to her sexual identity. But this is my book, and Undine is a part of me, born of my experiences, my views, values, my enchanted debris, my internal narratives. Undine's magic is linked to her sexual identity because my first experience of my own power (after I'd lost the supreme power of childhood) was linked to my sexuality. The amount of feedback I've had from adult readers suggests I am not alone in this experience.

And yet why the wounded outrage? I've decided to take it as a compliment. A warped scary don't ever send me flowers laden with poisoned insects kind of compliment. But the only reason that person would get on there and write such a long incensed review is if for some reason he/she believes the book is (or could have been) important in some way. Generally if I read a fairly crappy, disappointing book I don't then get onto Amazon and rage eternal about just how crappy and disappointing it was. I just put it down (probably without finishing it these days) and move on. But for some reason this person thought they would find something in Undine. For some reason the absence of that something has left a wound and rage in them. That's not actually my fault. Of course it's possible they just thought it was a bad book and that's okay too.

Gwen Harwood said something about how you can't pin a note to a poem and say 'this is a good child' when you send it out into the world. As a mother now, I triply understand that anguish. When Martin is out with Frederique and she throws a tantrum and knocks his glasses of his face, he is embarrassed. He worries that other people will think he's not in control of the situation. When she does it to me, I worry that other people won't like her. And I feel the same about Undine. As much as I'd like to stick up for it now and tell you all about why it's a good book really, it just has to make her own way in the world, occasionally making enemies in its journey to find other people who will understand it and, occasionally, love it for what it is, not the book it could have been.


  1. Anonymous11:15 AM

    i don't spend a great deal of time on amazon, and usually its for obscure crafty ref. books, so the reviews are a little more "very useful, excellent quilt design" or "found it useful in planing my sewing space". but that review was just about the longest review I've seen in a while.

    that said, i'm one of the literary ignorant who prefer to read books rather than reviews of them.

  2. Wheesh!!
    that's a humdinger.
    I wonder if it's a young person with some aspersions towards literary criticism somehow - there's a tendency within that review to try and rewrite the narrative that suggests it may have been done by a young reader who hasn't read lots of different kinds of writing and, as you say, is annoyed because it is not the book he/she wanted it to be.

    Such a shame, as the other reviews are so good. I wonder if you can get them to take it down? as it really dissects the book into tiny, tiny pieces and will spoil it for anyone else. There must be some guidelines for reviews somewhere there - I'll send a message to an e-list I'm on and see what I can find out for you, Penni.

  3. yes, that's true Genevieve, it is rather mean-spirited in its spoilerage. I must admit I don't usually read reviews of fiction on Amazon for that reason - I like my reviewers to be bound to the conventions of the medium, not just any old person with an axe to grind. Though like you Zose, I do find the user feedback-style reviews useful for non-fiction.

  4. Anonymous12:14 PM

    I think you can read her own prejudices fairly clearly in her review (and also her review of another book whose title has just whooshed out of my head). She doesn't like fantasy and she doesn't like the whole sexualy awakening theme much either. I also suspect I know where she's coming from, although that's a lot to read into a username. But the values that she seems to be promoting are certainly more conservative than those in Undine, and the perspective that is presented in your books, Penni, may simply be something she finds (or has been taught to find) unacceptable.

    I think Genevieve is right in assuming this reviewer is 'younger'and/or new to the genre, if you must classify Undine under one, and that she has literary pretensions. Attacking a book is considered by some to be the main point of reviews. It seems, for the aspiring literary critics, if you have anything nice to say, it's not worth saying.

    As for the spoilers, I've seen plenty of reviews laden with them in magazines both online and in print, but either the writer or the editor always signposts them so that you can skip them or the review if you want. Maybe rather than asking them to remove the review, it would be better to ask them to, as a general rule, include a 'spoiler alert' type feature or ask reviewers to indicate when they're about to reveal the entire bloody plot.

  5. Oh, your book Undine sounds wonderful. I'm going to try to get hold of a copy. And I'm not going to read that review because I don't want to know the plot before I start. The first time I heard of the story undine I was reading an essay by George MacDonald, and he said if you want to know what a fairytale is, Undine is one. So I had to get hold of it. The German fairytale I mean - I loved it but I can't remember who wrote it. But I'm sure you know all this anyway.

  6. Anonymous12:48 PM

    I don't know whether I can bear to go and have a look. I'm about three quaters the way through Breathe and even though I have Drift waiting I don't want it to end. Undine is with me at the moment in the best possible way a character in a book can be, and I feel quite appalled that someone should be having a go at her in this way. Sheesh.

  7. I wonder if it's more of a cultural mix up? Having lived in the USA I know first hand that some of what you say in Australian ENglish doesn't translate into American English the same. Also the lifestyle is different for American Teens. I understood it well
    1) Having known you around that age!
    2) Knowing the areas that you talked about mostly
    3) Same type of upbringing
    I had reference points to compare the book with. Maybe this young person has had a completly different upbringing and just plain misses the plot?

    BTW loved Drift found in the local library by accident, I was waiting for a big Blog announcement to go out and buy it..lol..

  8. Well I've just read the review and honestly it really is a fascinating insight into ther reviewer's mindset. I agree with Nadia, it sounds like a young personality to me, someone who wanted to have a go at lit crit. The dismissive comments about Undine's r'ship with her mum, her hormones, calling Trout a side character of not much importance - I'm half way through the book and VERY offended on Trout's behalf - I adore his take on the world and his wry sense of humour - side character at all! And the grudging "I suppose those things are part of a teenager's self discovery" - do you think?! Hmmmm and such a long diatribe really makes you wonder what else is going on - absolutely fascinating from that point of view but really, who is this person and what on earth is their problem and could they please take it elsewhere? Just hang onto the reviews that matter Pen, like the one in Reading Time, written by people who know a thing or two about great writing.