Chicks Dig Scars

I’m always a little leery of writing a blog post about reviews even when I’m of perfectly sound mind and body.  Given that the past three days of my life have largely revolved around being in a bustling city brimming with bars in the company of four fellows I’ve known since high school–and all that such a thing entails–I’m going to have to ask you to bear with me.

In fact, promise me you’ll bear with me.



This post is largely related to the last one I did on the nature of reviews, especially positive reviews, and why I don’t often publicize them as much as I probably should and it largely boils down to this: I believe I’m beginning to appreciate “mixed bag” reviews, of which there are more than a few.  And there are more than a few reasons for my liking them.

Ideally, we should strive for those reviews that declare us to be the next savior of humanity in literary form.  Everyone wants to be loved, of course, and such reviews are the equivalent of a large, sweaty man tearing off his shirt and painting your name across his body for the viewing pleasure of everyone in the audience.  And such shirtless reviews are fantastic, don’t get me wrong.  If you feel the need to tear off your shirt over me, go right ahead.

But I digress.

In the interests of keeping this short, I’m going to recommend you check out Red Letter Media and its staggering, 70-minute long review of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. In a really fearsome point-by-point analysis of the story, plot and characters, I want you to note a criticism that comes up now and then: “it’s too clean.”

“Too clean” seems like something we shouldn’t take a colossal note of.  It’s either a laughing compliment-as-critique or it’s a good problem to have.  It’s like saying “you’re just too pretty” or “you have too much money” or “you are just in possession of too many muscles and bristling with such amazing handsomeness that I just can’t stand it, now put on your tophat, drop your sensible, store-bought jeans and scream like the bipedal gorilla/shark hybrid made flesh you are, Sam Sykes” and then I’m all “whatever you say, Miss Beacon” and she’s all–

Excuse me.  I had something in my…everything.

But the point is that it is a good point.  We instinctively fear that which is too clean, too perfect.  It’s not that it’s intimidating (though it certainly can be) and it’s not that it seems wrong or that it doesn’t fit (though it frequently does and doesn’t).  Rather, it just has no character.  “Perfect” is not a personality trait.  “Flawless” is not a quality.  “Clean and neat” is something you want to read as a checkbox on a little cardboard card in a hotel room next to the toilet that you know three million people have used before you, not in a book.

And yet, I frequently note that we see a lot of people striving for that in what they read and what they write.  While perusing books to buy on Kindle, I noted words like “brilliant,” “flawless,” “masterpiece,” “pantaloons” and “tour de force” thrown about like shuriken from particularly flattering ninja and realized that they didn’t actually tell me anything.  They are words without meaning, like “me” or “you” or “decency.”  They are without meaning because there is nothing offered to explain why they should mean something.

This is about the part where I’m going to have to ask you to honor your promise to bear with me, because here’s where things get a little convoluted.

I feel we are betraying books by viewing (and reviewing) them as a balancing act.  I feel that the tried and true method of Stuff I Liked followed by Stuff That Was Poop followed by Summary And Here’s Some Stars For You is something that we’ve bred out of convenience and standard, not out of a desire to speak about the book.

I suppose it’s useful to readers to be able to leap to the bottom and see four out of five stars and think a book is pretty solid.  I suppose it’s also worth considering that an author saying that books can’t be qualified in numerical terms is a little like a businessman rolling up a dead hooker in a carpet: it’s just something you expect.

But I can’t help but think that we do ourselves a disservice in summary and a diminishing in numbers.  Because it’s too neat a system, too clean.  It doesn’t consider the personality behind the flaws, the particular trick of making up a word that isn’t a real word but sounds like it should be a real word, the way someone’s laughter is really obnoxious but it starts to wear on you and then you start to love it, the way a dimple on just one side when someone laughs in just a certain way makes a person who they are even if it’s asymmetrical.  In this model, we look for points.  In points, we have no personality.

I know I frequently praise Rob Will Review and Pornokitsch to the point of suspicion (rest assured, it’s all pure bribery in an attempt to get them to fork over their renowned stew recipes, which I WILL SOME DAY POSSESS AS MY OWN), but I do quite like what they do with their reviews.  That which is flawed, they look at, see how it blends, see what it does, see whether it gives personality or whether it’s just a flaw.

I know that asking for a review to take the time to consider every single nuance about a book is asking a lot.  So let me go ahead and tell you what I’m not asking.

I’m not asking you to ignore flaws or to staunch your criticism because it’s all a part of the big, beautiful flawed picture, baby.  If it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work.  And if it doesn’t work for you, then you need to say something.

I’m not asking you to put more effort than you feel into a book in the name of giving it a good, hard look.  I’m still of the opinion that a book that has failed to hold your interest is not your fault (though it’s not always the book’s, either), even when it hurts me.

And I’m definitely not asking you to do what I say.  I’ve never claimed to have all the answers outside of the cult I run out of the basements of a New England slaughterhouse (next meeting is Tuesday at 4:30, Karavoirians, remember to bring the sacrifice) and I’m certainly not claiming that this way is the only way or even the ideal way.

But I wrote this for one of Ranting Dragon’s reviewers, Vilutheril, who is quickly becoming one of my more pleasant stalkers, due to this post.  This blog is for those who want to know what’s worth talking about for an author and a reader.  This blog is for writers who strive to be perfect and never find it.  This blog is for readers who can’t explain why they sometimes like creepy goon sex, flawed sentences, made-up words like “fervorous” or bad love poetry.

If you aren’t one of those people, then you might just be too clean.

Go roll around in some mud and tell me how you feel.

Preferably not in my house, though.  I just vacuumed.

18 Responses to “Chicks Dig Scars”

  1. Brent Weeks

    I give this blog post 4 out of 5 stars.

    • sam

      I give you a full five out of five stars. In that I would rather get hit by five stars than have read your comment.

  2. Jared

    This review was too clean.

    You’ll never get my stew recipe, Sykes. It goes to the grave with me.

  3. Mishell Baker

    Bad reviews kill my soul. I’ve had one bad review cause me to stop writing for six months before. It’s easy to say “get a tougher skin” but I’m one of those people whose sensitivity is one of my few assets as a writer. I’m not particularly clever or good at plotting or full of original ideas. The one charm of my work is that it’s emotional and empathetic.

    In order to remain sensitive, but continue writing, I just flat out have to avoid reading my own reviews. So the only point of a bad review would be to scare readers off from reading my stuff, and I find that sort of uncharitable. Let people try it for themselves, and if they don’t like it, they can avoid my future works without being “warned away” from me by someone whose tastes may clash wildly with theirs.

    I’ve seen very high-profile reviewers completely miss the point of good books and slam them as basically worthless, and I’ve seen the slew of comments following these reviews “thanking” the reviewer for saving them the “trouble” of reading a book that might have actually pleased them quite a bit.

    Reviewers have far too much power. In the end, a reviewer is just another reader, and the only reader’s opinion who should matter is the one holding the credit card.

    • sam

      Not entirely sure I agree with the idea of reviewers having too much power. It’s true that a lot of reviewers think they have far more power than they actually do, but a reviewer has only as much power as the audience gives him. If you trust a reviewer, then he has power as far as your opinion extends. If you’re the only one that trusts him, maybe not so much. But they have earned that trust, one way or another, and we can’t really tell people to go back on that.

  4. MichelleKCanada (@AnotherLookBook)

    As an avid book reader who has made it my hobby blogging book reviews, I perked with interest to read you post today.

    Bad reviews are interesting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a bad review only to then purchase the book. If I read a review that says “too much sex” or “I don’t like all those Southern drawls” or “not another shift changer book!” ok fine. Perhaps that is an autobuy for another reader. The point is, the person took the time to tell why they didn’t like it.

    As someone who has read book reviews for years, I can usually sniff out the mean ones. Unless that person backs up those negative comments, I totally disregard. I am sure I am not alone with that reaction. As a member of Goodreads, any books that are rated low that don’t come with an explanation are also a complete disregard in my mind.

    I have reviewed negatively before and I don’t like it but I always back up why I’ve granted the one or two star review and often include example. Never does it include a personal bash against the author. I just personally appreciate the honest reviews.


    • sam

      It’s frequently been my opinion that you cannot go wrong with being honest in a review and I note that a lot of authors share said opinion. Honesty is really the best because it allows us to see what you liked and didn’t like and see what we can use from that. “I don’t like sex” is honest, but we can’t do a lot about that. “I didn’t finish this because the sex is gratuitous and often creepy” is a little better. But really, if you just come out and speak honestly, it’s amazingly useful for authors.

  5. Sharat B

    @Mishell Baker Not being a professional writer (yet!) I may be out of line to say that if empathy/sensitivity are your strength and plotting and interesting premises are distant seconds, the writing cannot he very interesting. I say this not to insult or hurt your feelings but to hopefully encourage you to develop those other essential abilities. From your statement it sounds as if you have given up on developing those, and are relying on your empathy to carry the work.

    Related to that, I think it really helps a writer if the reviewer really picks the book apart because it helps them understand if they delivered the story well. The point of doing creative work is to do something risky. If your risk pays off, good for you, but when it doesn’t accepting and learning which criticism to use is the single most vital skill any creative person can possess.

  6. Mark Andrew Edwards

    Does this mean I’m forgiven for my review of Tome of the Undergates? Or is this a caution before I write my review of Black Halo?

    I’d rather read your stuff than 90% of the Fantasy authors out there. Yours stuff is unique. It’s you. Only with less hair.

  7. BC Woods

    All of this is interesting, but to pick out one point: I always get really divided on the use of numbers to rate a book.

    I mean, you have an excellent point. It doesn’t logically make ANY sense at all. Asking someone to use numbers to rate a book is a bit like asking someone “Do you smell three atomized cats right now?” as a way to gauge their political leanings. Just because the words follow after each other doesn’t mean that the question actually MEANS anything in a given context.

    Books are one of those multivariable multi-disciplinary chaotic human inventions like cooking, music, martial arts and poetry. If done correctly, a bunch of mostly unrelated disciplines and elements should connect in some uniform way that either “works” or doesn’t with a given sensibility. Putting a number on that experience simplifies the process to absurdity.

    However, when you take a couple hundred people, numbered reviews are probably a pretty good heuristic to get an “average” reaction to a book. Of course, no one is that “Average” but other than asking someone’s quantum double their opinion of a book, I can’t think of a better more realistic method to give people an idea of whether or not they should pull the trigger. The only better system I could think of is if Amazon does what Netflix does, and matches you with other people with your stated preferences to recommend books to you.

    I know its Orwellian and kind of Dystopian to put number values on art, but it seems there’s simply not enough time in the day for your average human being to focus long enough to really understand the inner-workings of even a review, let alone a book.

    I guess what I’m saying is: Amazon Reviews should be primarily taken as data points for a Heuristic Analysis and only secondarily as Meritocratically Interesting Essays.

  8. Jill W.

    As a member of the title demographic, I must agree: I do indeed think scars can be pretty hot. Under the right circumstances, anyway.

    I dig a fair bruising in a review too. It takes zero thought to say “OMG AWESOME” and leave your five stars. I almost never look at the five-star reviews when I go to Amazon; I’m most interested in the 2-3-4 range. 90% of the reviews there will still be drivel, but there are sometimes a few fairhanded gems in there.

    Outside of Amazon, nothing turns me off faster than a review blog where every single bloody review is glowing. Ran across one of those the other day and felt immediately suspicious of not only the reviewer but the books themselves. Which kinda isn’t fair, but there are slimeballs out there that would pay someone to publish a good review…

    Anyway, yeah. I think rubrics fail when it comes to properly reviewing literature. But it’s faster and more convenient for the reader. Speaking personally, I can’t put a whole lot of faith into the ‘Fast & Convenient’ school of thought here, but then not a whole lot of readers are also writers. Readers may be able to say what they didn’t like but they may just not be in the right headspace to say why.

    Reviewers that _do_ have the headspace to explain themselves, though, really ought to, IMHO. I find it much easier to put in the work on a good review knowing how much work went into writing the book.

    And I’m quite happy hangin’ out here in the mud, thank you very much. Things that are too clean kinda freak me out. Great blog, btw!

    • sam

      I’ve never actually heard of anyone buying a good review. Sock puppet accounts are common enough that they’re easier to spot, but I don’t think anyone would actually pay anyone else for it. If they do, though, that money was probably going elsewhere anyway.

  9. Ryan

    How us reviewers do our ratings is a topic of much discussion over many beers at the pub. Our site gives scores out of ten to one decimal place, and over the years the average score has migrated up the scale towards high 7s low 8s. We tried rescaling the scores so that 5 was the average score… That didn’t go down very well because a lot of people do buy based on scores, especially if the score comes from a reviewer who you trust.

    For me, the words I write are the most important part of my review. I try to balance my constructive criticism for the author with reasons for why a reader should buy the book. If I get really technical that is good feedback for the author but not so much for the reader who for the most part just want to know if they should buy the book or not. But I want enough technical detail in my reviews to show readers and authors that I have an appreciation for the art of writing and therefore build my reputation as an honest reviewer.

  10. Michelle (Vilutheril)

    I already posted this as a response to Mishell on my own blog so apologies if I’m wasting space with something people have already seen. I just think I’ve written quite a bit on the topic at this stage and can’t think of anything else to say. Thanks for the mention btw Sam. I’m happy to be ‘one of your more pleasant stalkers’. 🙂

    I’m not sure whether I have any influence on what people read or how much stock people take in me as a reviewer but I tend to try to be cautious just in case someone listens to me. I do however stand by my belief that honesty is best.

    ‘I see reviewing as more of a balancing act than a decision between telling the reader to either ‘buy it’ or ‘skip it’. I don’t believe I’ve ever written a completely negative review or one that has any potential to destroy anyones career. All in all, I’d prefer people to read as widely as possible and have never told anyone to definitely not read a particular book.

    I frequently reject requests to review books that I don’t think will appeal to me and would definitely avoid writing anything about books I disliked if the author wasn’t already quite established. Crushing people isn’t really my thing..

    If I only wrote 100% positive reviews it would definitely narrow down the books I could write about. Nothing is completely perfect just as no book is completely bad. Alternatively, I could omit any mention of negative aspects in reviews but I believe that would make many readers suspicious and cause them to discount the review entirely. I think that even the mixed reviews provide publicity and though I may not particularly like a book, it is possible that someone else will read the review and decide that the same book sounds like something that would appeal to them.

    Honestly, I prefer not to give star ratings to books (although I have to for RD). I would rather people read the whole review rather than skipping to a unexplained numerical evaluation. Reading the entire review is more likely to help them decide whether the book will suit their tastes even if it didn’t suit mine.I also like to look at the book as a whole and not just evaluate it according to set criteria. I know not everyone has the same literary tastes as me and during my work have frequently recommended books I disliked to customers who I thought would enjoy them.

    Almost every profession is subject to some kind of evaluation at some stage. Writers sell books by appealing to readers. Thus, reviews in which an individual shares their opinion on their books are probably the test they have to face. Writing is also an art but artistic merit remains whether anyone liked it or not (even if no-one except the author ever reads it).

    I’d hope no-one takes pleasure in writing scathing reviews of books. I certainly don’t enjoy it. Unfortunately there will always be reviewers who do. Maybe honest, more believable, mixed reviews even do something to counter-balance the flat-out haters. I’m not sure. Personally I’d certainly pay more attention to a mixed review than a completely positive or negative one.

    As I said I’m no authority on the matter and this is just my opinion. I think it’s up to every reviewer to decide how they review and I certainly respect their decisions even if they are not the same as mine.’

    As an aside, do men dig scars as well? I have a small one over my left eyebrow and I need to know whether I should embrace it as something that adds to my devilish charm 😛

  11. Jeremy Shane

    I don’t think reviewers have too much power. They can only have as much power as you give them really (as a writer or reader). I’ve always felt like the best reviewer is different for each reader and I read about a dozen different review blogs and really only one consistently seems to think close to what I do on books. His opinion I take to heart more than others, but still doesn’t mean I’ll like everything he does.

    When I do reviews I try to be pretty frank if I didn’t like something — knowing that it’s just the way I read it and the next person might love what I hated. But if people come across my column and find we have a lot of similar opinions, then I might be a reviewer they keep an eye on. If not, they will find someone else. Readers have their own hang-ups and their own guilty pleasures and you have to find reviewers that fit into those areas for you.

    @Mishell I wouldn’t sweat it if I were you. Don’t you have movies or music you love that others hate or hate that others love? Same with books, when a reviewer doesn’t like something, it’s just one opinion and sure others follow it, but they probably already think similarly about books to that person anyhow. I do a review column “Reading Realms” at a geek website The Outhouse and it already had a built in readership when I started it that wasn’t based on already liking me as a reviewer. So I get to hear people often enough tell me I’m crazy after criticizing something or loving it too much. So you decide whose opinions you value and not the fact they call themselves a reviewer do that for you and don’t let it stop your writing.

    Hard for me to give a personal example in writing b/c I’m still working in that area myself, but as a photographer I can assure you I hear a lot of opinions and critiques from people on my work as well. And I think any art hits close to home when you hear people criticize it. But I’ve had too much work that tons love and then one or two people attempt to overly criticize; that doesn’t bother me. If overwhelmingly people hated it, then I might worry. If I get constructive criticism, great.. but sometimes even those folks don’t realize something was done a certain way intentionally.

    As for ratings I’ve started disliking them the more reviews I do. I think I’m going to change them to something along the lines of liked it, didn’t like it or ok and be done with it. I think that’s what most people look at anyways… if it get’s in the upper 30% ratings, they think you liked it, if it gets in the middle it was ok, etc.

  12. N. K. Jemisin

    Something I think people are missing, here, is that — for writers — reviews aren’t about praise for their work. Oh, that’s part of what reviews are about, granted, but not the most important point. Books are a long tail product — there are 250 million of ’em produced every year in the United States alone. Surviving as a writer depends on finding a way to make your book stand out from that seething mass. Reviews help with that.

    Even bad reviews. Hell, especially bad reviews. The snarky ones are entertaining, which makes the book memorable — and the real frothers seem to actually get readers more interested. They want to know what kind of book could possibly inspire such towering rage. I always seem a slew of new reviews whenever a bad review comes out, generally in response to the bad review. And these in turn feed more reviews — each and every one of those which lets more people know that the book exists. The majority of my reviews have been good, phenomenally so — but those few bad ones have probably done just as much for me as all the good ones combined.

    So the thing to fear/fret over is not bad reviews, but no reviews. Any writing career can survive, even gain, from bad reviews. No reviews will kill it deader than Black Flag on (non-New-York) cockroaches.

    This is not to say that writers shouldn’t get upset when they see a bad review. We’re human; it’s impossible to pour so much of ourselves into a work and not react when somebody says bad things about it. But keep it in perspective.

    • Griffin

      And that’s about all I had to add: thanks for saying what I had to say, so succinctly. The check is in the mail.

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