Time-honored wisdom among writers says that it’s better not to respond personally to reviews. I agree with that; what I’d like to do is use a review as a jumping-off point to discuss something it made me think about.
I’ve gotten my first negative review. (Counting the Kirkus slam as a rite of passage, rather than a review. <g>) A reader on Amazon who had adored my first two books rated this one two stars, and explained his reasons.
Let me say straight-out: from my perspective, Midnight Never Come is the best book I’ve ever written. It is not flawless; if I thought it was, I’d kick myself, because the only way I could think like that is if I weren’t trying hard enough to improve. But I consider it more intricate and well-thought-out than either of my first two novels.
But that isn’t the point, is it? Quality, if we can even speak of that objectively, is not the major determinant of the reading experience. Midnight Never Come is not the book this reader wanted (and hoped for) from me. I’ve said to several people that you can read it through a variety of genre lenses (urban fantasy, historical, romance, political thriller) — but secondary-world adventure fantasy isn’t one of them. So while I think there are points of similarity, such as the espionage, that will attract some readers who liked the Doppelganger books, it all depends on what you attached to the first time around. There will be other readers who pick this up, wonder what the hell happened to the Marie Brennan they enjoyed before, and walk away — some of them permanently.
This? Drives writers crazy. Because it’s a balancing act for which there isn’t even a recognized “win” condition. Some forces want you to do more of the same; some want you to grow and change and try new things. It isn’t even a straightforward matter of readers on one side, writers on the other, because of course writers may want to keep exploring a world their readers aren’t responding to, or readers may get bored by a writer they perceive as stuck in a rut. What’s victory? Selling lots of books? But what if that comes at the cost of pursuing ideas you’re really passionate about?
Actually, I take back what I said. There is a win condition, and it’s called being Neil Gaiman. The man could probably write anything he wants to, and his fans would love him for it.
This is my third novel. It’s not set in the same world as my first two. This is officially my first encounter with the phenomenon: that every time I change tracks, I will lose readers whose sphere of interests don’t include this new thing. There’s nothing wrong with it (unless I lose so many readers my publisher drops me), and it doesn’t mean the disappointed readers are wrong. They just wanted something else than what I delivered. I may or may not find that the shift brings me within the ambit of a greater number of new readers. Someday, I’ll decide to shift again: rinse and repeat.
I can tell myself it’s natural, but it’s still saddening, realizing the choices I’ve made have disappointed a fan.