Saturday 21 July 2012

"How dare they say I can't write BUM on a wall?"

Note: since writing this, over two years ago, my attitude to this has mellowed slightly, as I realise that some people give bad reviews to a book for reasons other than it being crap!

My last post on here was about accepting bad reviews.  I've written in the past about how I disagree with the 'culture of encouragement' that can give fairly average writers the false impression that they are likely to win the next Booker Prize, and also about whether or not authors should comment on reviews at all (I don't think they should).  Since then, I've had discussions with other writers about whether bad reviews are cruel and unnecessary, and whether the reviewer should give constructive criticism (including suggestions of how a flaw might be improved).

I've also just read an article in the Guardian about some group on Goodreads that 'outs' bullying authors who snap back at reviewers.  It suggested, amongst other things, that the group was as bad as the bullying authors.  I haven't looked at the group, but I imagine I would agree.  I did actually see one of these groups on Goodreads and almost joined, just out of nosiness, to see what it was all about, but stopped myself in time!

It all seems a tad like the playground, to me.

This is my view on the subject:

The purpose of a review is to tell the reading public what you thought of a book, to advise them whether or not to read/purchase it.  If you didn't like it, you have the right to say so.  If you (ie, the author) puts something out for sale/on show, you must expect criticism.  The purpose of a review is not to give an author feedback.  To most people, your book is a product, for sale, and that is all.  I know it doesn't feel like it when you've slaved over it for nine months, but that is how the reading public sees it.  I'm sorry if that sounds a bit harsh!  If you want feedback on your work, there are plenty of creative writing/critiquing groups you can join. 

The self-published book market gets bigger and bigger all the time - some of the stuff therein is marvellous, and would probably have been taken up by an agent/publisher in different times.  Some of it is very good, some quite good, some just okay.  Some of it is dire; those manuscripts that made the agent say "Jesus H Christ, what IS this crap?"  are now appearing on Amazon, along with five star reviews by the author's mates. Sometimes, people need to be told not to give up the day job.

It's a bit like The X Factor and similar shows; people who couldn't sing a note would be told by Simon Cowell, forget it, you can't sing; they would be seen outside the audition room in tears, saying "but everyone (read: my family and close friends) tells me I've got a brilliant voice!  It's all I've ever wanted to do!"

Yes, but you can't sing, love.  Desire to do something doesn't necessarily mean the talent is present.  I'd love to be able to paint wonderful landscapes.  I can't, though.  I'd love to be an actress.  If I ever tried, I suspect I might be fairly average.  No-one can tell you you mustn't write if you enjoy it, or that you mustn't publish your work, but once you put it 'out there' it WILL get commented on. 

People are entitled to their point of view.  It is not the responsibility of the reader (who doesn't know you from Adam) to give you helpful suggestions that might help you improve your work.  Having said this, if I don't think a book is much cop, I won't review it; knowing how it feels to get a particularly vicious bad review, I wouldn't want to bestow that feeling upon anyone!  Furthermore, I do understand that some reviewers might have their own issues with the writer him/herself, or indeed with any writers who have managed to finish a novel.   They might make comments that seem unnecessarily cruel, for a variety of reasons.  And yes, it's frustrating when the reader just doesn't 'get' what you were doing with the story; however, you can't tell someone how to read a book. All this, however, is another subject.

Every time you tweet or write on Facebook that a certain film or TV programme is rubbish, you are, in effect, giving a bad review.  Yet I imagine some of those 'bullying' authors have done just that, many times.

Another thing to consider is whether your first novel should be your debut....  


  1. I do agree with most of what you've said, but I have a problem reconciling the two different sides of the review prerogative: on the one hand, it’s subjective, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Absolutely! But on the other hand, it’s OK for them to tell other people what they should, or shouldn’t read? No, no, no. If it’s subjective, and one person’s great book is another person’s dire drivel, then no – reviewers shouldn’t say ‘Don’t read this book, it’s crap.’ Demonstrably, it’s not crap – it’s just something you don’t like.
    The foundation analogy is a good one, but you might not tell others not to buy it just because it wasn’t for you. (If it made your skin burn that’s another matter!) You would just throw it away and make a note not to buy it again. I would say that someone who read a book – and I’m talking in the main about ebooks here – and didn’t like it, should just make a note not to buy that author’s books again. If you simply don’t like someone’s writing, don’t get the plot or what that author’s trying to say, the book isn’t defective. It’s not damaging – people don’t need warning about a book you don’t like. Yes, it’s taken some of your valuable time, you feel you made a bad choice downloading it and now you’re pi**ed off with that author. Suck it up, is what I say. Don’t buy their books again, and try to make a better choice next time.
    Unless of course the book is defective – poorly edited or badly proofed – but in some ways this is subjective too. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the way the review culture is going – we are encouraged to think we can have a voice about everything, and that our voice should be listened to. But, as you said, it’s just our opinion. And really, who cares?
    One day soon, reviews like those on Amazon will be meaningless and no one will even read them (that’s starting to happen already – in D.D. Scott’s new book she talks about fake bad reviews that are purely to discredit the competition, and if this is true, readers are going to get wise pretty soon). Can anyone remember when we didn’t have all these other people’s opinions to wade through before making a decision? When we just read a blurb and decided if we fancied giving a book a try? If anything, the internet has made everything too collaborative, and readers do seem to think they should act like editors, and it’s totally natural for authors to be fed up with this.
    Went on a bit! Sorry ;) Great post x

  2. Totally agree with you. If you're on Amazon selling a book you're going to be looked at as a product. Everything else on Amazon is reviewed from movies to diapers, so deal with it. Hopefully, you can take something from the criticism and make your next work better for it. If you can't hack a little bad news, you need to change professions. Maybe they're hiring at Babies 'R Us. They you'll have a pacifier handy if you get your feelings hurt.

    Great analogy with X Factor as well. And please send me this response when I get my first bad reviews on Amazon so I can remember go right out and buy a pink paci.

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  4. Joanne - Thanks for that! Good to read your differing viewpoint. But I don't think reviews tell anyone whether they 'should or shouldn't' read a book - they just give their opinion. Whether or not a book is 'crap' is only opinion anyway.
    As far as the cosmetic analogy goes, it could be anything; a restaurant, a film, a make of soap powder - people tell people how they feel about whether a product, any product, is good. It's just what we do. We may not write it down or stick it on the internet, but we do it all the time. I don't think reviews are 'warnings', they are just that person's opinion.
    Don't forget, reviews were around long before all the self-published books on Amazon - people have been reading reviews of things for hundreds of years, it's not a new thing. Yes, there are many tales about people posting 'the opposition' bad reviews, (and even, I have heard, people posting fake bad reviews to make their fake good ones look more realistic), but I think these are in a minority. I've read reviews of books, TV programmes, music, films since long before Amazon KDP existed, and I'm sure many others have, too.
    However, I think all this has moved on from the main point of this article, which is: should people be entitled to write what they want in a review, as long as it is not abusive or personal, without some egocentric author taking them to task about it? Yes, I think they should.

    Karen - Precisely - we're not children, we don't need to be encouraged and told that we're good all the time in case it has a bad psychological effect on us - or if we do, we need to SORT IT OUT!!

  5. Hi Terry,

    I agree with much of what you say but there's a difference, I think, between the reviewer who is just a reader, and the reviewer who is also a writer. The reviewer who is just a reader is really a new form of 'word-of-mouth'; someone who says 'I just read this book, it was great.' They are usually fairly short and genuine and quite valuable, I think (especially if they're positive); you can usually tell that the person isn't very accustomed to writing a lot about books but just wants to record their opinion, positive or negative. And that's fine, but it's also fairly new, because these people didn't have anywhere to record their opinion before the internet.

    Then there are the more 'educated' reviewers, who are often writers themselves (or failed writers, who are the really dangerous ones) These people have always existed; they used to write in newspapers and magazines (like the Spectator) and authors and publishers were, and still are, very keen to get their books reviewed in these places. This is helpful to the reading public, but also fairly incestuous; you can often see journalists reviewing each other's books and think 'Ah-ha! I know why you chose that book!' It sometimes seems to be as much about how these people like - or occasionally dislike - each other, as it is about the books themselves. It's fairly natural human behaviour: writer A writes a good review of writer B's book because he hopes that writer B will do the same for him in return. If one of them breaks this mutual contract and writes a bad review then you can end up with a literary feud that can go on for years.

    Before the advent of self-publishing ordinary mid-range writers like you and I (I presume) were often excluded from this altogether; if we didn't know one of these professional reviewers our books were ignored, so we had no access to the publicity that such reviews can bring. But now, with the advent of self-publishing and the blogosphere, we have much more chance to be reviewed by someone who is capable of writing a thoughtful and analytical review which is often just as good, or better, than we could have expected from a newspaper or magazine.

    But the problem of 'you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours' hasn't gone away. If I wrote a glowing review of one of your books, for example, I imagine you'd be delighted, but you might also feel an obligation to take a look at one of mine in return. If you liked my book you might return the favour, and we'd both be happy. But what if you didn't? What if you thought my book was pretty average, or not good enough? Would you give me a 2 or 3 star review in return for the 5 star one I gave you? It would be embarrassing, wouldn't it? So we'd probably end up behaving like those journalists I mentioned before.

    What's the solution? There's an American writer called Alle Wells who was kind enough to give me a 5 star review, and on her site she says she only gives 5 or maybe 4 star reviews; if she thinks the book is worth less she simply doesn't review it at all. I think that's pretty fair; it avoids a lot of the embarrassment and unpleasantness (and risk) of one writer saying to another one 'your book is rubbish.' So far, that's the line I'm taking.

    There are several other sites, I've found, like the Indie Book Review, and the Indie BRAG site, which seem to take a similar line. If I've understood them correctly, they seem to see their role as sorting out the wheat from the chaff: they appear to be less interested in giving bad reviews than in giving good publicity to books which they feel deserve it. At least, I hope that's what they're doing, because that's what we all need, isn't it?

    I'm glad you raised this subject. Good luck with your new book.

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  8. ps, Tim.... yes, I agree, the best review sites are the ones that see themselves as sites that recommend good books - as you say, sorting the wheat from the chaff.