Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tastes and critiques

"All of life is a dispute over taste and tasting." - Friedrich Nietzsche

"Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." - Henry Louis Mecken

I had a friend in one of the online forums I hang out in say that he doesn't like bacon.  Now, that absolutely floored me.  As a comedian whose name I can't remember once said, bacon bits are the fairy dust of the culinary world.  All it takes is a sprinkle and anything is better.  How, then, can you not like bacon?

I love, love, love brussel sprouts.  Steam 'em up, cut 'em down the middle, drizzle with olive oil, and hit 'em with salt and a little pepper, and bam!  Well--no, not really bam.  Bacon bits are bam.  But it's good--really, really good.  It's one of my favorite vegetables, in fact; probably belongs at the very top of the list if you disallow the inclusion of something whose name ends "with cheese sauce" as a veggie. 

Let's not even get started on sizes and shapes and brands of automobiles.  We all have our own tastes, though, yes?

What I don't understand, then, is why such emphasis is placed on good vs. bad reviews.  There was recently a much-publicized incident where a gal wrote a fairly level-headed 2-star (out of 5) review and the author melted down over it and retaliated with a 1-star and a blog post that rambled on about some things being unforgivable.  Whole thing was just silly.  But this issue has been burbling under the surface for a while, and likely will continue to do so.  I've had friends on Facebook get entirely out of the reviewing schtick due to authors' overly emotional reactions to reviews that aren't coupled with five out of five stars.

Similarly, at work, I evaluate the folks who work directly for me based on HR's fancy "Needs Improvement," "Meets," "Exceeds," or "Outstanding" metric on a questionnaire that is somewhere around 25,984 pages long (I exaggerate--a little).  The power structure is a little different there than it is in the business of book reviews, so we've never had a meltdown and retaliatory rating, but there have been some tense moments.  "I think I earned an O for the Teamwork category because...."  Hey, it's covering an entire year, which is a pretty long and diverse period of time, and the measures boil down to being fairly subjective.  Just.  Like.  Book.  Reviews.

That said, my subordinates and I may not always end up agreeing on every evaluation point, but the discussion is always useful.  They go in valuing certain activities and accomplishments more than I, and vice versa, and getting those differences aired out increases our mutual understanding and, in the end, helps bond us more closely as a team. It teaches us something.

The purpose of a book review has nothing to do with bonding or teamwork; it's there for two other reasons.  One is to help guide people into making a book purchase.  That, I think, is the part that gets under authors' skin when there's a review that's less than perfect; in our minds we see sales falling through the floor, everybody who already bought a copy returning it, and us having to give our homes back to the bank and go live in a special trailer down by the river just for failed authors who got reviews with fewer than five stars.

Doesn't really happen like that, though, does it?  Take, ferinstance, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  There were a gajillion copies of that book sold, so it must've only had great reviews, right?  101 one-stars, actually.  Twilight, Breaking Dawn, sold another gajillion copies--1,178 one-star reviews, out of 5,700 reviews in total.  That's indication that nearly 20% of the people who took the time to write a review thought the book was total crap, and yet I understand that the author is doing quite well these days.

But those are nothing new; I've posted before about the dichotomy of wonderful books (as defined either by "I love them" or "they sold a gajillion copies") that have negative reviews.  Fact is, they all do.  Bad reviews are part of life, just like having people go "eww" when I say that I love brussel sprouts is entirely normal.

The other, more important (to me), purpose for reviews, though, is to learn something.  There's no such thing as an author who has perfected the craft.  We all have something to learn, and while we like to think that we're learning all we need to know by attending workshops at our local conferences, there's still a great deal to be learned from the feedback of total strangers.  Of course, you always have to take it for what it's worth: don't get upset if you write about bacon and find one of your reviewers doesn't like bacon.  It happens. And some reviews contain nothing at all useful: "Great book! four out of five stars" or "Worst book this year by anybody who dares call themselves an author! three out of five stars."  But I find that most of the time there's something useful to be learned in reading reviews with an open mind. 

Bottom line is that in order to succeed, you have to be able to accept feedback, extract the nuggets of truth from the inherent taste concerns, and figure out how to use that to make your future efforts better.


1 comment:

  1. I whole-heartedly agree. What's one person's trash is another one's treasure. Reminds me of those creatures in 'Labrynth' who carried around those huge loads on their backs of what they thought was precious, but someone else threw out :-D If everyone liked the same, there'd be no creative difference or innovation. Liked & Tweeted!