“I couldn’t do it.’ Those are my wife’s words every time I talk about reading though reader reviews of my books. Many authors won’t do it. I’m one who does, grudgingly, very grudgingly, because I’m still a reluctant optimist, but I believe that you can learn something from anything — even reader reviews.
Unfortunately, maybe those other authors are right, because I don’t much care for what I’m learning, and it doesn’t seem to be of much use, not if I want to keep trying to become a better and better writer. At first, I thought that I was imagining things, but then, because I do have a background in economics and analysis, I decided to apply some basic analysis — and I used The Magic of Recluce as the “baseline.” Why? Because it’s been in print continuously since 1991. It’s not a perfect baseline or template, because the reader reviews I used [Amazon’s] don’t begin until 1996, but it gives the longest time-time of any of my books. Over that fourteen year time period almost 35% of readers gave the book a five star rating; 25% gave it a four star rating; 18% gave it three stars; 8% gave it two stars; a little more than 15% gave it a one star rating [and yes, that adds up to 101% because of rounding]. More interesting, however, was the timing of ratings and the content of key words in those ratings.
To begin with, for the first two years or so of ratings, comprising roughly 20% of all ratings, all the ratings were either four or five stars, and not until 1999, eight years after the book was first out, did it receive a one star rating. Not just coincidentally, I suspect, that was the first review that claimed the book was “boring.” More than half the one and two star reviews have been given during the last five years, and virtually all of the one star reviews use terms such as “boring” or “slow.” From the wording of those reviews, I suspect, but cannot firmly prove, most come from comparatively younger readers.
The fact that more and more readers want “faster” books doesn’t surprise me. Given the increasing speed of our culture, the emphasis on “fast-action movies” and faster action video games, it shouldn’t surprise anyone. What does bother me is the equation of “fast” to “good” and the total intolerance that virtually all of these reviews show for anything that takes thought and consideration. The fact that more than twice as many readers find the book good as those who do not, and that a majority still do indicates that there are many readers who still appreciate depth, but the change in the composition of readers, as reflected in the reviews, confirms, at least in my mind, that a growing percentage of fantasy readers want “faster” books. Again… no surprise, but the virulence and impatience expressed is disturbing, because it manifests an incredible sense of self-centeredness, with reader reviews that basically say. “This book is terrible because it didn’t entertain me in the way I wanted.” And terms like “Yech!”, “Yuck!”, “Such Junk?”, “its [sic] horrible”, and “total waste” certainly convey far more about the reader than about the book.
As an author, I understand all too well that not all authors are for all readers, and there are authors, some of whom are quite good, who are not to my taste. But there’s an unconscious arrogance that doesn’t bode well for the future of our society when fifteen percent of readers state that a book is terrible because it doesn’t cater to the reader’s wishes — and throwing the book through a window because it doesn’t [yes, one reviewer claimed to have done so].
I’d say that they need to grow up… but I’m afraid that they already have, and that they’re fast approaching a majority, at least among the under 30 crowd. Two recent articles in other publications highlight the trend. The latest edition of The Atlantic Monthly has one explaining why newspaper articles are too long and basically gives what amounts to a variation on the USA Today format as an answer — quick juicy facts with little support or explanation. And what’s really frightening was the conclusion of an article in the “Week in Review” section of The New York Times last Sunday — that youngsters who are now 4-10 will make today’s young people seem like paragons of patience.
Newspeak, here we come.