Thursday, January 29, 2015

Confronting Claims of Mediocrity

So, obviously I think I write a decent book. I’m nobody’s Shakespeare; heck, I’d settle for a nice Ilona Andrews. I’m a much better character builder than world builder. I do dialogue way better than action scenes. Metaphors flow like electrical impulses through my creations, but my pacing is sometimes a bit slow and introspective. But, ya know, I think I do this writing thingy pretty good.

You can imagine my open mouthed surprise, my prim little gasp, my grumpy tingle, when I discovered a reputable romance review site had given The Tithe three out of five stars. Three. Out of five. That’s, like, a 60%, which in my classes is a D-.* Ouch. Super, duper ouch. I tried to laugh it off, to rationalize it as mere differences in opinion. But, like a bee sting, these things kinda keep burning until, finally, you chomp your lip and yank out the stinger.

Consider this the stinger yanking.

I don't know. Maybe I would have preferred receiving one star out of five. I see this all the time on Amazon with heavily ideological books. It's not the writing but the content they're blasting. These one star ratings don't reflect on the author but the disconnect between author's and reader's intellectual positions. But, worse than a giant "FAIL" stamp, this reviewer gave me a lukewarm rating. Like, "Good job for trying! Maybe next time!" 

Truly, I would rather be told I suck like an industrial Hoover than be considered "okay" or "passable." Elle doesn't do mediocrity.

On the positive side, the reviewer said she really liked my characters and their developmental arcs, especially Josh and Blue, my main protagonists. She seemed pretty pleased overall with my world building, which I tend to do gradually and through discussions rather than in exposition. In fact, the only negative thing she mentions is “What this society accepts and what it doesn't will probably leave some readers pleased, while others cringe.

So, she disagrees with the politics of my world’s “utopic” theocracy? Or, even if she agrees with some of them (dubious, but possible), she’s worried on others’ behalf? I earned a D on my paper because my theocratic regime has no problem with lesbian and gay folks but sacrifices people with disabilities? A regime that strictly enforces vegetarianism and population control ala modern China? That uses illiteracy as a fun and handy way to ensure ignorance and social control?

Are some of those offensive? Good. I hoped some of them would be. Granted, I may be offended by other things than some of my readers, but the arbitrariness of what constitutes a supposed utopia is kind of the point of the whole novel.

Speaking of politics, the reviewer described my main character, Joshua, as “a crippled orphan.” This may say more about our philosophical differences than anything else she wrote. I don’t want to police her language (okay, I totally do), but the c-word is, you know, outdated. Insensitive. Maybe even a little mean. For anyone who wants a brief primer on some alternatives, there are debates in disability communities about terminology; some advocate “people with disabilities,” while others prefer “disabled people.” I’m a fan of the first, personally, and like to speak of people as having blindness, like Blue, or Charcot-Marie Tooth Syndrome, like Josh. Any of those are preferable to the c-word.

Reading over this, I find myself chuckling. I think the poison is getting purged, peeps. Heck, I think I may even have spawned a new blog post, since it occurs to me I’ve never discussed outside my brief and possibly pointless virtual book tour the reason I wrote The Tithe. I knew this book was going to raise some hackles and possibly even garner some intense criticism. It's inevitable! The Tithe is an ideological book, an intense no-no in the romance genre.

Maybe I’m rationalizing away my less-than-sterling grade. Maybe, like some of my students, I’m pouting and saying, “The teacher never liked me, anyway!” But given the lack of any other criticism in her review, I’m led to believe the reviewer finds objectionable the politics of my book. Folks, I’m super used to that; I'm an academic liberal in a square, flyover state. Call me an idealist. Call me a pinko commie. Call me a preacher yelling out from the book-pulpit. I can handle any of those.

I’m a relatively new, and kinda tender, author. I would have had a much more difficult time hearing someone thinks The Tithe’s writing leaves something to be desired. This reviewer doesn’t say this; in fact, she acknowledges it’s a well-written book. And, in all modesty, it is. I may be a liberal, Atheist feminist writing in an inherently conservative literary genre, but wielding words well is what I do.

All this said, I’m still grinning at her final sentence, which pretty well sums up her experience with my sociological novel: “Overall, an [I’m mentally inserting coughing sounds] interesting read.”


* Yes, I’m aware it doesn’t work that way for reviews. In fact, according to their own grading scheme, a 3/5 means a book is “good.” Sniff.

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