The alternate title for this post is “Are you sure we’re talking about the same book?” My forty-sixth and forty-seventh published books recently hit stores a week apart and with that came both reviews and emails from readers. I like to think I’m fairly rational when it comes to reacting to other people’s opinions of my work, but sometimes I do wonder how people’s perceptions can be quite so diverse.

I also wonder why some folks feel they have to contact writers personally to tell them why they don’t like their books, but that’s a separate issue. Note to such readers: I do not answer “fan mail” that is rude, insulting, or combative . . . but it might inspire a blog topic.

Sometimes the comments I receive  concern the series as a whole or the continuing characters, rather than a specific book. One “fan” took pains to tell me she liked my writing and my plots but informed me that Liss MacCrimmon is a “spoiled brat.” There’s no good response to that. Other readers have disliked my choice for Liss’s love interest, finding Dan Ruskin, now her husband, dull. There’s no way I can change those perceptions. The characters are what they are. Readers who don’t care for Liss and Dan and company should probably switch to reading mysteries that feature characters more to their liking.

Last year, one online bookstore reader comment took me to task for allowing Liss and her aunt to search a hotel room in Scotched. According to that reader, Aunt Margaret should have been fired for using her master key to let them in. Another “review,” this one of A Wee Christmas Homicide, complained that I had Liss comment on fictional heroines who were TSTL (too stupid to live) and then had her do something that made Liss herself TSTL. Um, that was sort of the point. I write humorous mysteries. I readily admit that my idea of what’s funny may not match anyone else’s, but the titles are a big hint not to take things too seriously. If a reader doesn’t “get it” there’s not a heck of a lot I can do about it.

Recalling such comments prompted me to go through the scrapbook where I paste reviews, both good and bad. It wasn’t hard to find quotes that illustrate my point. Reactions to the same material are about as varied as you can get. Although I’d love it if I received nothing but glowing praise, everyone has the right to an opinion. So, here goes. 

Is Kilt Dead, the first book in the Liss MacCrimmon series, “an utterly delightful book” or “shallow and slow?” And what about the characters? Is Liss “impulsive and insensitive” or “feisty, determined and strong-willed?”

The fourth book, The Corpse Wore Tartan garnered more reviews and reader comments than any of the others. I’ve no idea why, but this gave me lots of choices to share here. Publisher’s Weekly slammed my “vanilla prose and the unconvincing, underdeveloped plot” but the
Mystery Gazette said “this is a terrific locked room (locked hotel is more descriptive) mystery  . . . Liss is a great heroine who remains determined to see justice prevail . . . another engaging amateur sleuth cozy starring a quirky cast.” The reviewer at Reviewing the Evidence agreed, writing “It is difficult to say whether Dunnett’s strength is plot or character. The plot is seamless; the reader avidly awaits each development, often as befuddled as Liss as to which twin was actually the victim.” Those were the professional reviewers. The amateurs weighed in, too. One posted that “obsessive Dan has all the makings of a creepy stalker ex-boyfriend, as well as coming across like the world’s biggest bore.” Poor Dan. A reader commenting on one of the other books in the series called him “jealous and grumpy.” PW, by the way, liked the next book in the series. They said that Scotched had “a fast-moving plot with unexpected twists and well drawn characters.” Trust me, I did not suddenly change my style, voice, or ability to plot from one book to the next.

Over in the non-mystery historical novel part of my writing life, as Kate Emerson, the book that provoked the most comment was one titled Between Two Queens, featuring a maid of honor at the court of Henry VIII. She was based on a real person, and for the periods of her life for which there are no records, I extrapolated from the facts to show what might have happened. PW liked the result, calling Nan Bassett “a strong heroine who maintains careful command of her sexuality and her independence. Nan’s behavior is as brave as it is scandalous for the time, and Emerson makes readers appreciate the consequences of Nan’s choices.” Another positive comment, this one from a reader, was that Nan is “an appealing character who develops well over the course of the novel. At the beginning she is impetuous and immature . . . she becomes a balanced and thoughtful woman.” But not everyone agreed. One wrote that she was “shallow and manipulative” while another said she “annoyed me throughout with her constant assessment of the men around her as marriage material . . . a greedy, self-serving little thing.” A third called her “flighty and unfocused.” Still another reader commented on the “detestable characters” (and “ridiculous subplot”) and a fifth felt moved to complain that “there isn’t really a likeable character in the entire novel.”

To some readers this novel of intrigue, treason, and betrayal was “light fluff” while others thought it was “so wonderfully written I didn’t want it to end” and “a well-researched, sensitively written book.” Oddly enough, it’s usually my most true-to-the-facts novels that are most harshly criticized for taking liberties with history. I could defend the choices I make for my plots and the details I use, but getting into a debate with readers never ends well. People are rarely willing to change their opinions.

That goes for writers, too. I write what I write. If someone doesn’t like the result, they have the option of not reading it. Fortunately, so far anyway, most of the reactions to the two new entries, Bagpipes, Brides, and Homicides and The King’s Damsel, have been positive. But, good or bad, the best advice I’ve ever heard on the subject of dealing with other people’s perceptions of your work is a line in a song, “Garden Party,” written and recorded by Ricky Nelson in 1972:

You can’t please everyone,
so you got to please yourself.

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6 Responses to Perceptions

  1. Barb Ross says:

    Hi Kaitlyn

    If there’s one thing publishing the Best New England Crime Stories anthologies has taught me, it’s how much of a role personal taste plays in people’s perceptions of fiction. I’ve seen authors get great reviews in one publication and then be singled out for a public thrashing the next day.

    Even among us four editors who’ve known each other for years, it’s amazing how, every once in awhile, they’ll be a story one of us absolutely loves that another absolutely hates. That’s why, when I’m ranking the stories every year, I always ask myself, “How hard would I fight for this one?”

  2. Joan Emerson says:

    The wide disparity of opinions regarding books that are being read/reviewed never fails to amaze me. Generally, I pay absolutely no attention to book reviews, either by professionals or by amateurs.

    I do not understand readers who feel compelled to “trash” the books they read. If they think the series protagonist is “too stupid to live,” then why in the world are they bothering to read the books? It would never occur to me to contact an author solely for the purpose of being critical of his or her work . . . and, although it is easier said than done, it’s probably a good idea to chalk these sorts of tirades up to readers who feel compelled to find fault simply to make themselves feel superior. Why waste the time worrying about that sort of attitude? I think if the story is well-written the readers will come — and enjoy the book . . . and appreciate the hard work the author has put into creating it.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Especially the ones that say, “I hate your series protagonist, and in the third book…”

      Either way, at least the author is evoking emotion in the reader…

      • Good points, Joan and Barb, and thanks for your comments. I guess I can see readers wanting to vent if they spent money on a book and were disappointed but, as you say, why buy more books by the same writer? The reader reviews that make least sense to me, though, are the ones that seem to blame the author for the small print, the poor binding, or some failure on the part of the bookstore!

  3. lil Gluckstern says:

    There are people who love raining on the parade, and they do it because they can. I only review books that please me, and I only write to authors when they have pleased me. This is part of my “make the world a better place” routine, and as sanctimonious as that may sound, I’m stubborn. And you do please me, Kaitlyn. Now I have to checkout Kathy Lynn Emerson.

    • Thanks, Lil. And I agree. It may be old fashioned, but I was always taught that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all, at least not about something someone else has clearly put a lot of work into.

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