On reviews…100 and counting

Last month a new Twitter hashtag surfaced: #Readwomen2014. It aims to change the inequitable treatment of male and female authors by the literary establishment — i.e., critical reviewers who historically published in print. Think New York Times, New York Review of Books, New Yorker, the Atlantic.

As a female author, I can’t argue against being read. But I think there’s a flaw in the rationale behind the hashtag’s campaign. Implicit in the goal is acceptance of the notion that, in fact, these establishment publications still ARE the rightful, respected critics of the literary world. If it is a hidebound, good-ol’-boys club, deaf and blind to half the author population, why cede those claims? (In a similar vein, I always wondered why feminists so badly wanted to wear the green jacket at sexist Augusta National.) Especially today, when reader reviews offer authors an alternative that (here’s where I crawl out onto the literary limb) can be — not is, but can be, especially on a collective basis — as valuable an endorsement as a critical review.

I wouldn’t have thought this way even a year ago. Joining an even more marginalized group of authors — self-published* — however, has changed my tune. If female vs. male critically-reviewed authors looks like this:


Then self-published authors, of either gender, vs. critically reviewed authors looks like this:


Fighting to get into that tiny sliver where orange and yellow overlap isn’t a very effective use of time. I have just two critical reviews, both garnered from entering contests. What to do if they won’t let you play? Find another game. And as I’ve discovered, there’s two good ones going on over at Amazon and Goodreads. **

This is on my mind due to two coincidences. First, I learned of the readwomen hashtag this week, just as I got my 100th reader review (combined, on Amazon and Goodreads). In politics, the 100-day period is considered a crucible for the politician, a bellwether for her or his future.

Second, I ran across this quote from John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars and other bestsellers:

“I still feel proud of the books I’ve written, but they also feel very *finished* to me. They belong to their readers now, which is a great thing–because the books are more powerful in the hands of my readers than they could ever be in my hands.”

If readers are powerful — and it’s worth noting that it’s readers, not literary reviewers, who will fill the seats June 6, when Fault hits the big screen — 100 reader reviews is a benchmark I am hereby co-opting.

I’m darn proud of my 4.6 star average ranking on Amazon, and my 4.14 on Goodreads. Far from being superficial, Sparrow Migrations reviewers have weighed in on plot, story structure, character development, voice and writing style, subject matter research and authenticity. These are people who read deeply and widely and are telling me they want more, like this Connecticut reader: “Will look for others by this author.” From Texas: “Looking forward to more from this author.” And my favorite: “Please, please more books!” (I’ve finally set up an e-mail sign up form so you can find out when I do have another book out. Just click the blue “author newsletter” button on the right.)

Back to #readwomen2014. Yes, do. Read them every year. But more importantly, read without regard for who you “should.” Read self-published. Read traditionally published. Read literary fiction, genre fiction, nonfiction, poetry. Read widely, abundantly, voraciously. 

Just read.

What do you think? As readers, are critical or reader reviews more meaningful to you? Do you write reviews of the books you read?

– The letter “L” brought to you by Daily Drop Cap. 

* I am aware that the sea of crap exists. There are still self-published pearls awaiting discovery, but you won’t find most critical reviewers deign to dig. In my own community, the National Writers Series has done an admirable job setting aside self-published prejudice as it has searched for and promoted worthy local authors in its Author Next Door program. (Full disclosure, that includes me.)

** For the sake of argument, I admittedly oversimplify here. A lack of critical reviews can be a significant impediment to getting into libraries, for instance. However, Vida, the organization lobbying for more female authors to be critically reviewed, doesn’t even include the American Library Association’s Booklist or Library Journal among the “most respected” journals they’ve set their sights on. Nor do they include Kirkus or Publishers Weekly, the flagship trade journals of the publishing industry. Frankly, in the immortal words of Mo Willems’ Gerald, I just want to be read. Libraries, Kirkus and PW offer a lot more access to readers than the Atlantic, the Paris Review and the New Yorker. So again, I question the value of the target.

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