I’m writing this piece from a slightly uncomfortable position on the fence that separates readers and writers. I am most definitely a reader, of 32 novels in the first half of this year to be precise, so if I keep it up I’ll easily smash last year’s record. I also think of myself as a writer, but I am not, so far, a published author, so I haven’t had personal experience of receiving reviews. I do have a passionate interest in new fiction though, and I spend a lot of time writing reviews. The critical environment into which new books are being released has changed beyond recognition, and online reviews are the main reason why.
Sticks and Stones….
Last week on Twitter, Shelley Harris, author of Jubilee, unwittingly started a trend under the hashtag #crapreviews and dozens of writers piled in contributing quotes from their least complimentary critiques. Many (not all) found it very entertaining, as was her post mortem blogpost http://shelleyharris.co.uk/. One of the things that has surprised me most since joining Twitter is just how much reviews, both positive and negative, matter to writers. The thinking used to be that writers should remain silent and not respond to criticism, but now they’re expected to be online, communicating with readers, it’s not unusual to find even best-selling, prize-winning novelists venting their sorrow about poor reviews, ironically drawing attention to them, as if that lessens the sting. Maybe it does; it can usually be relied on to bring some sympathy and affirmation from those who do like their work. Writers are human.
If you can’t stand the heat
Maybe I am migrating to the dark side – I instinctively find myself seeing it from the writer’s point of view now I know how difficult it is to write a novel of any description. I respect any author who gets published, even if I don’t personally like their work (Taking No Prisoners – My View of Fifty Shades of Grey). Nobody pays me to review, so I choose to spend my time writing about novels I’ve enjoyed and want to recommend, whilst still taking a critical approach. Some people evidently crave the satisfaction of doing a hatchet job. Let’s face it, most people will never write a novel, but anyone can express an opinion, or to be perfectly blunt about it: If you are a published writer anyone can trash your book in an instant. Unfortunate, unfair, but true. Once it’s ‘out there’, you have no control over how it’s received, what people read into it, what kind of critical response it gets, the assumptions they make about you. That’s what you signed up for; nobody made you do it.
The democracy of taste
As I mentioned in Being Selective – How do you choose which books to read?, the influence of professional critics and reviewers is on the wane. Nobody’s denying there’s still prestige attached to getting coverage in a national newspaper or magazine; Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times is so renowned for her cutting reviews (even of Anne Tyler, imagine!) that it must surely be an honour to be savaged by her. Online reader reviews, especially at Amazon and Goodreads, now have a greater impact on sales. (The smartest publishers are well aware of the influence of book bloggers too, but I’m not commenting on blog reviews because it’s too close to home). The reason publishing is such a risky business is that nobody can predict if a particular book will fly or flop. That’s the bit that readers get to decide. The books are written for them, after all.
Who’s giving out the stars?
I’m willing to bet that you take more notice of a book recommendation from a friend or someone whose taste and judgement you trust than a stranger’s review on Amazon – I know I do. How do you know how much weight to give someone’s opinion if you don’t know where they’re coming from?
Some online reviewers give a thoughtful and balanced assessment of a book’s strengths and weaknesses, commenting on the characterisation, the plot, the writing and the ideas and emotions it stimulates. Those reviews are the most helpful, but not everyone reads in a critical frame of mind; a lot of people just want a good read and that’s fair enough. I’m all for readers having their say and am just as interested in hearing why someone didn’t enjoy a book – and everybody has that right – as long as they explain why. Reasons which crop up repeatedly are unlikeable characters, plausibility issues, and disappointed expectations. I’m not sure it’s fair to criticise a book for not being what you thought it was going to be rather than what it IS, but I do understand the feeling. Far too many novels have either a title or back of book blurb that give a completely false impression. When readers feel cheated, it’s hardly a promising start.
Many online reviews seem to be dashed off in haste, slanted by obvious prejudices or (my personal pet hate) determined to spoil the story for other readers. If a review is inarticulate or ungrammatical, I’m not interested in that person’s opinion, especially if they then comment on the writing!
Raves and Rants
Judging the by star ratings, having some degree of enthusiasm for a book seems to be the main motivator for writing an online review. Know that feeling of loving a book so much you can’t put it down, can’t stop talking about it and feel bereft when you get to the end? Last year I felt this way about just 5 of the 55 books I read, although many of the others were good or very good. I hardly ever write Amazon reviews, partly because I hate giving books stars, it’s too blunt an instrument for a delicate task.
As #crapreviews and a quick surf on Amazon reveal, a small but significant number of individuals (usually hiding under cover of anonymity) make extremely negative comments about the book or really spiteful or insulting remarks about the author’s writing ability or even the writer personally. They sometimes go as far as suggesting all positive reviews are by the author’s family and friends! I actually think it’s healthy for writers to be able to have a laugh about it. Those people may get a kick out of the thought they’re damaging the writer, but I think we all know it says more about them.
I’d like to end with one of my favourites. It’s not even nasty, I just found it very funny.
Once put down, it was unpickupable.
Whether you’re a reader or a writer, what’s your take on reviews? Do you pay any attention? I’m hoping for another of our lively debates!
I’m delighted that Suzanne Joinson, author of A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar (out on 5 July), will be the second Guest Author to join me On the Literary Sofa on Monday 9 July.