A writing colleague of mine recently had a mean one star review of her work. She was distraught about this. Yet it was clearly written by someone who had some sort of grudge and she also had a whole heap of four and five star reviews. I’ve had this happen too. The reviewer in my case had written a rival book. Except it wasn’t even really that – it was a book written on the same topic but for an entirely different readership. This book, published in 2003, is still in print, and has many good reviews and even letters of praise to the publishers. Even though it hasn’t yet made me into a millionaire.
Positive reviews, then, do not lead necessarily to prosperity. And we tend to focus on the negative – yes, I’m guilty of that too – and ignore the positive. Anyway, maybe the odd malicious one star review can be ignored. Perhaps the bland three star ones are more of a worry. And even then … perhaps we need to get real.
Putting ourselves out there
We really can’t expect to please everyone. Our publisher has a certain taste that we share. Other people have different tastes. By seeking publication we have put our heads up above the parapet. Expect the odd pot shot. There are new gatekeepers now. We’ve got the work past the publisher; now it’s the turn of the critics, the readers and the reading groups. Oh, beware the reading group.
And then there are people like me. As a writer, editor, academic and creative writing teacher I’ve developed a very critical head. I’ve yet to find the perfect piece of prose. I find it hard to abandon my own work even; it’s never actually finished.
Reacting to reviews
A review of a text creates an expectation in the reader. Those books which receive scathing ones are never as bad as the reviewer makes out. Likewise those that receive sparkling ones often fail to deliver.
Perhaps this I best illustrated by the review that Anne Fine did of Melvin Burgess’s Doing It. I’m actually not sure it’s fair to call it a review. It’s almost like an attack and one senses a lot of anger. She quoted the opening page, and yes, it makes the book sound horrible and the characters in it seem despicable. Yet when one reads the same page in the book itself it is not so shocking. Maybe it’s because I taught for many years in comprehensive schools and I’m used to the way some young men talk some of the time. Actually though, some young men at the grammar school I attended in my youth also talked like that some of the time. And that’s what’s important here: “some”. This also becomes clear in Burgess’s text. In fact, he portrays some quite vulnerable young men who have some deep concerns about their sexuality – probably similar to those of the young person reading the text. You see, though, Fine had made me expect something atrocious and in fact it wasn’t too bad at all.
And here’s a twist. I have a lot of respect for Anne Fine. I was intrigued that she had such a strong opinion about the book. So, I bought it to find out what had made her so angry. I don’t think it would have appealed to me otherwise. And I actually enjoyed it. In fact, it’s now a set text on one of the courses I teach.
So, take heart if you get a mean review. It may well make me chuckle and I’ll probably buy the book to see what pushed a button for the reviewer.
My reviewing strategy
I regularly review for ArmadilloMagazine, a site about children’s literature and Troubador magazine, a hard-copy publication for people who self-publish. These two publications have slightly different reviewing styles. In both cases, though, I have to complete these reviews, whether I like the book or not, and if there are problems I must draw attention to them. Nevertheless, I always try to start with something positive, then bring in any negatives and then give an overall impression, perhaps highlighting the book’s greatest strengths or weaknesses.
For other books I’ll only do a review on Amazon or award stars via Twitter if I can give four or five stars. I’m not going to make people miserable.
And then there are those that make it on to my Recommended Reads blog. These are the ones that almost completely take me out of my editor’s head. No book quite ever manages it; an odd typo can drag me back to that mode and every book has those, I’m afraid. But some come close. And not every book I give five stars to on Amazon gets on to Recommended Reads. Those that do are pretty exceptional. Of course my particular taste comes into play, but if you’re just a little like me you’ll find some good books there.
Happy reading, writing and reviewing.