What’s Fair in Criticism? When an Author Responds…

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I tend to write a lot of reviews –  you may even have seen some of them on this here site. I tend to publish them on Amazon or GoodReads as well – I hope that my rave-reviews on books I’ve really enjoyed make at least one person pick up a book I loved that they might not otherwise have done, and I hope the reviews I receive on my own books have a similar effect.

I try to be fair in the reviews I write and spend some time on them (even if the embarrassment of spotting typos and/ punctuation mistakes or repeated vocabulary spring up all too often: I blame it on writing on an iPad or iPhone on occasion). Five-star reviews are pretty rare: if I give a book a 4 star review it means I’m recommending it highly, even though I myself will torment myself if I find someone has given one of my stories or books anything less than top ratings (see an earlier article on Rejection and my personal acceptance of owning a wafer-thin skin…)

I’ve read a lot of books and seen a lot of films over the years. I did, for a period of time write film reviews for a newspaper (my first review itself being savaged by a number of readers – physician heal thyself indeed…) I say this not to make any claims as to being ‘well-read’ (I’m not: my list of ‘classics’ yet-to-be-read or seen is frankly embarrassing) but to make some excuse as to why, when trying to increase my output of reviews in recent months (because if reading makes us better writers, then presumably reviewing doesn’t hurt too much either: it seemed to work for Francois Truffaut anyway, even if he did it a different way round…) some of my reviews may have been a bit short, sharp and not always as sweet as they could have been.

While trying to keep my reviews fair and balanced, I’ve written a few negative reviews over the last few months (I.E. One Star equivalents). A number of these were titles which were recommended to me based on my previous reading, and many of them came with hyperbole promising ‘a stunning twist’, ‘edge of your seat stuff‘ and the rest of it that seems to be generated from a bank of tag-line cliches. Many of them were also set against an abundance of 5-star reviews and, seemingly good sales (even keeping in mind the pointlessness of a ‘Number 1 seller‘ Amazon flag if one has the most basic understanding of tagging and categorisation for gain). 

Seeing a recent twitter conversation amongst various people involved in the writing business (most of them independent writers/ publishers or sellers) the question was raised as to why any writer would belittle another writer. The general tone seemed to be that ‘we’re all in this together’ and that much of the negativity displayed comes down to plain old envy.

But is this the case? I’d like to think not in the reviews I’ve written: while it’s true that I have read some books wondering ‘how did this become such a hit?’ or ‘why did the publishers feel THIS title was worthy not just of publishing, but of such a PR push?’ (and I’m not even getting into the artistically worthless/ financially rewarding patronage of Richard and Judy...), almost 30 years in the professional publishing business has taught me that there can be very sound reasons for it all.

What I have realised, following feedback from a fairly respected author about a review I wrote of his book, was that writers will actually sometimes read the reviews that are written about their material. Shocker, right? And I’m not just talking about authors like me, who are thrilled when the number of reader comments gets into double digits – I’m talking about ‘real’ authors: you know, the ones with publishers and careers and movie interest and all that good stuff. Now I don’t think Lee Child is going to cry himself to sleep because I personally think the Jack Reacher series has long since lost its mojo in terms of the quality of writing found in the first half dozen in the series, and I recognise that there are thousands upon thousands who disagree with me.

So it was still with slight surprise that this particular author responded to my review –  and to be clear, it wasn’t a negative review: I gave it a solid 3/5 and said I liked the writing style (I didn’t say in the initial review that I liked the writing style enough that I bought another book by said author on the strength of it, but I did) – I just thought the plot and the way the characters acted in it got a bit ‘stupid’ towards the end, and he acknowledged in his response that there were some ‘good observations’ made.

Stupid‘ – that was the word I used. And as I re-read the review in light of his comment, I did wonder whether it had been necessary to use that word. There were a lot of synonyms I could have used that were less pejorative than that specific word that would have got my point across as well, or better as to what I actually thought.

Do I think it’s unfair to write negative reviews about books we, as authors, don’t like? No – I don’t believe it’s necessary to praise every book I read: it reduces the validity of the times I really do love a book and I get sick of seeing the same authors praise every new book that comes out, only to read it and end up wondering how they could possibly have thought that based on their own writing (Stephen King used to be the worst offender, Lee Child himself seems to be the name that every publisher looks to get a quote on the new kid on the block for), but I suppose I should be prepared to receive those same type of negative reviews back on my own books and ask myself how I’d feel if I received them. And given the effort I’ve put into creating those stories, I know how pissed off I’d be at a one-sentence review (and there are plenty of those on Amazon – most of them still managing to contain spelling or grammatical errors in the five words they use to say “A load of absolute crap.”

I have always tried to at least give some critical reasoning in my reviews as to WHY a book didn’t work for me but looking back at some of the reviews I’ve written, while not having changed my mind about the overall sentiment, do think my phrasing could be more diplomatic. It’s something, like any writing I engage in, I’m going to try and improve on.

There’s a school of thought that, of course, says, “If you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” And that’s true I suppose. I’m sure those writers I have given a one-star review to are not going to change their style or stories just because of my criticism: especially when more often than not I’m in the minority.

BUT, over the years, the rejections I’ve had – for short stories, novels, articles or other have, after a brief period of blind rage at the pure idiocy of the reader/ reviewer in question who just DIDN’T GET IT, helped me reassess my work. Sometimes dropping it altogether, rewriting (and on more than one occasion then dropping it anyway) or completely reworking.

Is there a place for criticism of those we consider our peers: be they better or worse in our ego-fuelled minds? I believe there is. I personally just have to continue to work on keeping it constructive and professional: neither gushing unrealistically over those 5-star ratings nor making it personal on the 1-star.

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