Monday, January 29, 2007

Me versus John Grisham

Patty here…

Last October at Bouchercon, the granddaddy of all mystery conventions, which was held in Madison, Wisconsin, I was sitting in the bar with my agent, talking about my career.

“I feel invisible,” I said. “What should I do?”

“Stop comparing yourself to John Grisham.”



He was right. There wasn't much to compare. Or was there...



I’ve thought about my agent's comment a lot in the past few months. So on Thursday, feeling more invisible than usual, I went on Amazon.com to compare my sales numbers with John’s. It wasn’t all bad news. His last novel got fewer stars than mine did. Then I checked out the reader reviews. Some of them were really unkind. I suppose if I had as many people reading my novels as John does, I’d receive more negative comments, too. Invisibility has an upside.

John Grisham probably doesn’t read the reviews of his books on Amazon, but if he did I wonder if they would hurt his feelings. They’d hurt mine. After all, we writers are human, too. At least most of us are.

I’ve always wondered why people write hurtful remarks on sites like this. I can only surmise that they haven’t a clue how difficult it is to write a book, how a writer often writes to the exclusion of everything and everyone else in order to meet an impossible deadline, how, when most authors calculate the amount of time it takes to write and polish four hundred pages of text, the hourly wage isn’t much.

I’m not talking about negative reviews by honest critics. That comes with the territory. It’s hard to take, but we writers do take it and survive. I was in a critique group for nine years. Every week nine brilliant writers who were also gifted critics exposed the flaws in my work, but the criticism was always constructive and it made me a better writer. On the contrary, review-by-personal-attack and name-calling adds nothing to the literary conversation. It’s schoolyard bully stuff as well as being just plain ignorant.

Look, I don’t like all of the books I read, but I would never write a review in which I attacked the author personally or pan a book because I didn’t like the cover art, which I’ve also seen done. At least criticize something over which the writer has control. I believe what goes around comes around. Mean-spirited behavior has a way of coming back to bite you in the ass.

To compensate for snarky reader reviews, I'm sure the cosmos sends John Grisham occasional gifts to lift his spirits. I get a few of those, too, especially last week. I spoke at a charity fund-raiser in front of a super group of women who laughed at all of my corny jokes. I had lunch with my writing posse, the Gang of 4: Barb our effervescent surfer-dude who regaled us with the intriguing first chapter of her latest novel, Elaine—writer, mom, and EBay maven whose short story collection will soon be on bookstore shelves, and Mims who is brilliant and sage and possesses an uncanny gift for finding metaphors in the most unexpected places. She brought pages from her work-in-progress, a novel that will set the literary world abuzz one day soon. I asked the Gang to read a synopsis of my 4th Tucker novel, which I'm writing now. They loved the premise and suggested a change in the order of scenes that was spot on, just like in the old days when we were all members of the same writer's workshop.

And as if all of those cosmic gifts weren't enough, I got the news that Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine had just bought a short story I wrote. It’s a noir-ish tale about an old copper on the eve of his retirement. So today I feel a little less invisible. Hope John had a good week, too.

15 comments:

  1. Patty, thank you for touching this subject. As you said, the professional reviews come with the territory, however, those snarky reviews on Amazon can be crushing. However, I have discovered that those reviewers do not make much difference, and in their venomous ragings, the reader switches off and buys the book anyway. I stopped reading Amazon ages ago (another writer said to me, "Oh, Lord, you don't actually read that stuff do you?), however, I have found that I felt enormously sorry for those people given to writing scathing reviews - what lurks inside them? A balanced, insightful review is one thing, and as a writer, we can do nothing but learn from such commentary, but those who take it a few steps further with what they consider to be witty, yet hurtful, remarks, are harboring something that is best left inside. Or they should sit down and write the book they clearly want to write, instead of being frustrated about it.

    Like you, Patty, I have read many books I did not care for, however, not only do I abide by that old saying, "If you haven't anything good to say, keep your mouth shut," but I now know what it takes to write a book, and I don't care if someone has written what they used to call a "potboiler" - it's giving someone, somewhere, entertainment, joy, a laugh, another way of looking at the world, and who am I to criticize that? If you have an opinion, it belongs to you, not the "thing" you are having the opinion about.

    I once heard Michael Kraszny (NPR) interviewing Joyce Carol Oates, when a caller 'phoned in with what he must have thought was a searingly witty critique of one of her books. She wept, on air. Was it worth it, to have done that to an author? No. Could that guy have been hoping to be "discovered" as the next big on-air wit-talent? Possibly, but he identified himself as a fool, a pitiful fool.

    And regarding John Grisham, he's doubtless learned by now that when you get noticed, someone wants to shoot at you. Do you let it trouble you, put you off track when you're following your dream? Absolutely not. You just keep on writing, keep on publishing, and if you are John Grisham, you are laughing all the way to the bank!

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  2. Patty, you could never be invisible, and if we all compared ourselves to Grisham we'd be in the looney bin by now. You're doing everything right!

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  3. Dang, girl. You are the most photogenic mystery author I know! (I know, off-topic, but I had to comment.)

    Yeah, one of my first Amazon reviews--besides Harriet's--was a nasty one. It was my mother who brought it to my attention before my debut launch party. (!)

    Just one of the perils of the business. I figure if I can handle that, I can deal with anything.

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  4. I figure that if I read the good reviews, I have to read the bad ones, too. But that doesn't mean that I take either one seriously.

    I echo Karen's sentiment. You and Tucker could never be invisible. You're just too damned much fun to read to ever have that be possible.

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  5. Whoa! I second everything said above: you can't be invisible, and you shouldn't waste your time reading that tripe. Besides, I thought Lisa Scottoline was the "female John Grisham." I gave up reviews years ago when I found out that I really liked the movies, the music, and the books the reviews/critiques told me I shouldn't, and didn't like many they told me I should. Was it old Abe who said "You can't fool all of the people all of the time..."?
    Carry on!

    Groupie

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  6. G4 wouldn't trade our Patty for Grisham and all his millions. You can take that to the bank.

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  7. Patty, you and Our J. are spot on. I spent two years reviewing the odd fantasy/SF book for a prestigous website in the UK. I'm a creator, so I know what it takes to write, paint, etc something into being. I had to write a review of a book once that I thought was really shallow and with no redeeming characters in it. I let my editor know about it before I handed it in. He rang back puzzled: if I didn't think much of the book,why didn't I just trash it and be done with it. He couldn't understand the lengths I went to in my review to balance my dislikes with something nice to say that was positive. Words have power and you can't take them back once they're said or written. I don't believe in shooting someone down in flames just because I can, and think I'm in a position of power to do so. That's the problem with some of those so called reviewers out there, they speak their minds because they can and wholly ignore the blood sweat and tears it takes to create something, let alone get it published and in front of peoples eyes. Otherwise, these twits might be a bit kinder. It's sort of their power trip, I suppose.

    Patty, dearest, you write wonderfully. I think you might be still gaining ultimate speed and confidence in your writing, and that you're well on the way to some powerful writing in the future. I loved your books.

    CHeers
    Marianne

    PS: I've been posting the odd old review on my Muse du Jour website - I won't be posting the one I just mentioned. :-)

    PPS: Also, for those who like the works of John Singer Sargent, I have just posted my parody of his Madame X on my Daub du Jour blogsite http://daubdujour.blogspot.com My version is called Madame K. :-D Sorry Cornelia!

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  8. Yes, why do folks feel compelled to write nasty reviews on Amazon? I've written a few Amazon reviews, but only about books I really liked and wanted to support. But bitter people seem to come out of the woodwork, particularly on the Internet, where they don't have to face consequences, nor are they speaking face to face with the person whose work they are attacking.

    I've been attacked several times on my blog, always anonymously, and it's just bewildering. I like to foster debate and appreciate divergent opinions, but when people attack me personally because they disagree with me, it's just plain nasty. I don't take it personally anymore. I just erase the offensive comments and move on.

    Unfortunately, writers can't go into Amazon and erase their negative reviews!

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  9. I'm sure that this isn't what you were referring to, Patty, but...

    I think that I could look at one of those two photos all day with a a small smile tugging at my face. And it certainly isn't John. ;)

    Congrats on Ellery. You're the Queen. I look forward to more Tucker.

    Sorry, no time for the proper perusal that you deserve. Best wishes, Patty.

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  10. patty smiley1/29/2007 2:58 PM

    Thanks for all your wonderful comments. My Internet connection has been down all day so I'm just getting back online. Ugh! And Edgy, yes, the snarkiest of the snarky comments are always anonymous. Don't they realize we still know how to find them. Heh, heh.

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  11. patty smiley1/29/2007 3:43 PM

    Thanks, Naomi. It's amazing what they can do with digital images these days. If I'd had any sense, I would have asked the photographer to transposed my head onto Paris Hilton's body. Next time.

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  12. I too am intrigued by the negative, mean-spirited reviews on Amazon. I have even written "rebuttals" to them occasionally if it's a book I really enjoyed and I think they are way out of line. There's something about anonymity that brings out the inner asshole in people.

    I appreciate an honest, candid assessment of a book, someone's stay in a hotel room, or what somebody thought of a meal in a restaurant because I want good value for my money and I don't have time to read all the books published. But when 10 people rave about a book and one person calls the author a jerk and a phony, you know that person is probably a crackpot.

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  13. patty smiley1/30/2007 12:04 PM

    Well put, Sharon J. I have also wondered if those "crackpots" have some sort of hidden agenda that none of us know about.

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  14. patty,
    even invisible ink stamps show up under the right light.
    keep shining.

    april
    (okay. so it takes a black light... party on!)

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  15. April!!!!! Thanks for stopping by. And thanks for those kind words of encouragement.

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