On Reviewers and Readers

Over the past couple of days we’ve seen some discussion in the web fiction sphere on reviewers, and how an elite breed of such reviewers can help online fiction. An unspoken but widely-held belief underlying this debate has been that more reviewers would equal more quality, and more quality would equal more readers. This argument is best summarized as: ‘the reviewing class sets the bar for online fiction. A good reviewing class equals a high bar, and a high bar elevates the medium.’ (Forgive me for the wordplay here, I’ll soften my argument in a bit).

I no longer believe this to be true. The quality of a medium has never been measured by the quality of its reviewers. As writers, this is intuitive: how often do you write to please your critics? I know I don’t. I write for myself, and I’m pretty sure that you too, write for reasons far more important than the next glowing review. Perhaps we’ve gotten the causal relationship wrong: the bar isn’t raised because of reviewers; instead, reviewers improve in scope and ability as the bar of quality in a medium rises. And the bar rises of its own accord, driven by writers who work to improve themselves, or by writers who attempt to experiment within (or even without) the boundaries of their chosen form.

When you think of it like this, WFG’s true value becomes clear: it isn’t valuable because of its reviewer integrity; it is valuable, rather, because it makes it very easy for one writer to look at another writer’s work, and to learn from that experience. I must admit that I used to believe in such an idea: that good reviewing would improve the quality of web fiction. But a year at WFG has proven me wrong: quality happens regardless of whether or not there are reviewers on hand to catalogue it. Writers are fantastic people, and they don’t need to be told to up their ante.

That is not to say that reviewers aren’t important. They’re just important for a different reason. In indie music, independent music blogs (usually curated by a team of music lovers) post tracks from their favourite artists on a weekly basis. This helps to spread word of mouth, from artist to blogger and finally to audiophile. Reviewers play the same role. They’re not important because they improve the quality of online fiction. They’re important because they attract attention, and attention in turn translates to more readers. The eFiction Book Club is one such ‘music blog’. We need more like them. But, more importantly, we need to be clear on the form and function of our reviewer class, and we shouldn’t get too presumptuous over what the reviewer can achieve. Reviewers don’t improve the quality of our medium. We do. Let’s not mix the two up.

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Category: Writing Web Fiction
  • http://1889.ca MCM

    People generally don’t like to think of themselves as selfish, but this all boils down to self-interest: writers should be looking to use reviewers to give them credibility and eyeballs, and reviewers should be looking to use writers to say “Look how good I am at sniffing out talent!” The symbiotic relationship between the two will elevate the field.

    If a writer chooses to change their writing to meet the standards of the reviewers, that’s probably the exception and not the rule. The reviewers serve a higher-level purpose.

    One thing I just realized is that we don’t have many “advance copies” in the weblit world. That would definitely help boost the profile of reviewers, if they had insights ahead of time…

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Well, I got Lee to send me an advance copy of her latest work, Corvus. I needed to do a review, and I couldn’t base it on just the 3 chapters she had uploaded on her website. Advanced copies do happen, I suppose you have to ask for them (and be known enough that you’re serious about doing reviews).

    (Oh wait, something just came to mind: I could ask you for an advance copy of Vector, for a review on Novelr, but that would be cheating you of the purchase price, wouldn’t it? =P)

  • http://www.ditchwalk.com Mark Barrett

    Here’s how I framed the issue for myself in comments on another site:

    “…I want reviewers to demand as much of self-published works as they do of any other. No more, but absolutely no less. In fact, I can’t imagine anything that will do more to legitimize self-published authors.”

    I agree that reviewers won’t improve the quality of web writing or self-published works. Reviews are rarely about improving a writer’s work and reviewers are rarely qualified to speak to that issue in any case.

    I simply want to be compared to and judged against the best writing anywhere. That’s the standard I want reviewers of my work to adopt. That’s where I want the bar set.

    Anything less is an admission of failure.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    “…I want reviewers to demand as much of self-published works as they do of any other. No more, but absolutely no less. In fact, I can’t imagine anything that will do more to legitimize self-published authors.”

    Here’s another way of looking at it, Mark. When web fiction/self publishing becomes legitimized (and I believe it will, though for compelling reasons not connected to critical response), the reviewers would then demand as much of self-published works as they do of any other. It’s a reverse causal relationship, I feel, that has very little to do with whether or not reviewers now treat self published work with respect.

  • http://roydss.blogspot.com Miladysa

    “Use what talents you possess;
    the woods would be very silent
    if no birds sang there except those that sang best.”

    For me, ‘web fiction’ is about having the opportunity to be creative and to enjoy and share that creativity with others.

    The feedback I receive from readers (and readers who take the time to review) is invaluable and has, without doubt, helped me to improve and spurred me to continue.

    We have moved into an exciting new era for fiction, one were readers have the opportunity to hear all the birdsong not just that which has been deemed fit for our ears or profitable by dead tree publishers.

    Not everyone who writes/publishes online wants to be compared or judged as the best – just the opportunity to be read.

    I shudder at the thought of reviewer policed web fiction.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Thank you for that lovely comment, Miladysa. I should’ve remembered that there have always been writers who’re in web fiction for the thrill of it, who’re just relieved that they’re finally being read.

  • http://www.ditchwalk.com Mark Barrett


    You’re right about this —

    “Not everyone who writes/publishes online wants to be compared or judged as the best – just the opportunity to be read.”

    — and I didn’t mean to volunteer everyone for critical study. :-)

    My concern relates more to the idea that the publishing industry controls for quality, which is an argument being used to dismiss authors who haven’t navigated the publishing mine field. And it’s not just individual authors who suffer: whole markets feel this bias. (Poets and short story writers are rarely published, and never marketed.)

    But still, you’re right. People should have some say over the standard they’re aspiring to. I just don’t want that authorial choice to be made in reverse by the people who control the publishing markets.

  • http://peacock-king.infernalshenanigans.com/ Irk

    I’m all for having a bar that I need to stretch up and reach for. I’ve witnessed the onset of reviewers in a before-then unreviewed community of writers, and it immediately improved quality and reader respect of the medium. Readers knew where to look for the good stuff and were more willing to take a chance on new stuff because they knew there was a standard authors were trying to *aspire* to.

    If you don’t want to aspire to a reviewer’s standard, then don’t. It won’t change anything for you. But if you want to work harder and improve your craft, readers will respect you for it and you will probably get more of them. It’s all a matter of if writers want to grow or not, and if they want to use reviewers as a standard to grow by. There will always be some influence over your work’s improvement. Nobody truly writes in a cave – the wifi won’t reach in.

    Something to remember is that reviewers ARE readers, and while I don’t cater all aspects of my writing to all readers, I do write for readers. I want to tell a story to someone and I want my story to be read. A reviewer is a reader who tells other readers how their reading experience was and whether they suggest other readers try out said experience for themselves. A reviewer is a reader who PIMPS YOUR STORY IF THEY LIKE IT. We already have reviewers in the WebLit community and thus far they’ve helped expand readership quite a bit.

    If you’re afraid that a bad review will not get you hits, then think of this: every time a reader doesn’t like your story, they’ll probably warn friends away from it. Bad reviews happen all the time, from person to person. They’re a fact of life. Not everybody is going to like your story. But if you wrote a story worth talking about at all, at least you’re halfway there.

    In conclusion, reviewers are not the scary gatekeeper boogeymen. Do not fear them.