Love me, love my book

January 23, 2015

bad-book-reviewsWriting a book is…difficult.

Authors pour every ounce of their being into a tome–no small amount of blood, sweat and tears are shed–and then it’s out, for the world to read.

And review.

Which brings me to the difficult subject of book reviews.

Who among us hasn’t been taken in by a dozen glowing reviews of a book we buy, read and discover to be… nowhere near as good as reviews indicate.  Because many of these reviews are written by family and friends with the express goal of helping the author’s Amazon rank.

When that happens to me? I feel ripped off.  It’s happened more than once, too. So I became a more critical reader of Amazon reviews.  I am all for supporting authors.  But these F&F reviews  do the reader a disservice.

Recently I was sent a book I really wanted to read. The story was unusual and attention-getting. But the book? Not so much. The writing was serviceable, don’t get me wrong. But as a memoir? It lacked a story arc, a pivot point, tension. It was more a core dump of emotion by the author than a memoir. It was a dull recitation of the facts of her story and her emotions.

I recognized this because I, too, struggle with those things and read successful memoirs to try to understand how to carry the tension through a full-length book. The young author and I had a little bit of a similar background, which is to say we learned to write the facts and just the facts. It’s hobbled me a bit and I could see clearly that it had hobbled her.

Bad book review, dishonest review or no review at all?

My dilemma was that if I reviewed the book honestly it would not be a good review.  It would be a bad review. Not that my review was going to carry massive weight, but it would live out there on the internet forever. Yet she was expecting a review.  Since she was a professional writer of a different kind, I figured she’d been edited and could take the truth. So when she inquired about my review, I told her about my dilemma and gently but directly explained the trouble I had with the book and that I would not be reviewing it.

By return email I got a defensive and snippy email back in which she accused me of wanting her to embellish the story (not true at all) and pointed out all the awards she’d won for a different kind of writing and also the award(s) she’d won for this indie book.  Of course, awards are funny things. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch arrived to critical acclaim and a Pulitzer,  but I was in good company in my dislike of the book–the New Yorker, the Paris Review and New York Times Review of Books (among other literary critics) all disliked it, too. So go figure.

Maybe the young writer’s awards were the same kind of grade inflation we see at schools today, I don’t know.

What I had expected was a note that said “Sorry you didn’t like it, thanks for not writing a bad book review. Maybe next time.”  I did not expect the defensive response I received. I thought it was…immature.

Apparently, age has nothing to do with it.

Much has been made of how Milleniums and younger generations have been coddled and giving awards for simply breathing. Maybe this is part and parcel of that phenomenon.

But I know quite a few writers in all age groups–many are first time writers/authors–who completely obsess over bad reviews.  Some over a single bad review.  I don’t get it. Not everyone will like everything.

Well, that’s not really true:

bad-book-reviewMy mother loved everything I wrote. She thought my writing was genius. But me? I know that sometimes it’s good, sometimes not so much and that it is not going to appeal to everyone.

I’m ok with that.  I am well aware that expecting only good reviews is completely unrealistic. Not everyone likes everything and it would be a really dull world if they did. Bad book reviews can actually be quite helpful.

If everyone gave me a good review I wouldn’t trust them. Because I’d worry that they were simply trying to make me happy. Or loved me like my mother did. The best input I can get on my writing is critical input that helps me do a better job next time.

If someone doesn’t care for something I’ve written, I’m more apt to say, “sorry you didn’t like this one, maybe next time” than to say “Everyone else LOVED it!”  I’d also look closely at their input and evaluate my writing against that feedback. Because I’ve been writing long enough to know that not every word I write is a pearl.  And that reality checks are very good things.

If I review a book, I review it honestly. Over the years I’ve only once been put in a position of having to review a book I didn’t think was very good. My review was written carefully and was still honest. But I won’t be put in that position again.

So if you’re a family and friend reviewer, think carefully about how you word your review and the number of stars. Readers are making buying decisions on your input.

If you’re a blogger asked to review a book you don’t think is very good, I still maintain that honesty is the best policy. Certainly better than writing a false review. Or a bad one.

If you’re an author who gets a few negative book reviews, learn to take criticism. Think of it as an opportunity to take an honest second look at your writing against that feedback. It’s a chance to improve. Take advantage of it. And then let it go. A bad book review is not a cancer diagnosis.

30 comments on “Love me, love my book
  1. That’s why I don’t like doing book review so I seldom do. I did one last year where the book was TOO long, but the writing and story were captivating. I wrote the review, said what I liked and what I didn’t like. The author never said anything.

    I don’t think someone is going to thank us for a bad review. It’s hard to take criticism when you’ve poured yourself into your writing. But at least they should expect some criticism – not even the greatest writers were absolutely perfect. Well, almost.

  2. Linda Roy says:

    I completely agree Carol. I can think of one instance where I was asked at a writing conference to review a book and do a giveaway. The publisher handed me a stack of books and told me to have at it. But I didn’t like the book. I didn’t feel right about reviewing it, doing a giveaway and in essence promoting something I didn’t stand behind. I’ve still got that stack of books, and I’m thinking about donating them to the library, where people can read it and make up their own minds.

    As for entitlement among millennials, it’s real. I have friends teaching at the college level who tell me all sorts of stories to that effect. It’s a harsh reality when these kids hit the workforce.

  3. Carolann says:

    I agree with you in that her response was not professional. She should have said thank you for your honesty… I think there is a fine line when writing a review for a friend or family member in not expressing the actual truth about how you felt about it. As for a review for a stranger, no holds barred – I give a totally honest and open review.

  4. Carol Graham says:

    Dare I ask you to read my book? 🙂 I have only had about 150 reviews and only one of them was a three star. This bothered me at first until I realized that having only five stars is not necessarily a good thing for the reasons you listed above. When I see a book with too many five star reviews I wonder if they are paid reviews or ones from friends? But I know that the more reviews I get, the better the chances are to get some negatives. As difficult as it might be to receive criticism I hope my skin is thick enough to take it as constructive and apply it future work.

    The three star review I received was because the reader was upset he had to wait until the seventh chapter to find out what happened in the situation I presented in the first one. I actually took that as a compliment and knew that mystery is a key element to keep someone reading.

    I have also been asked to exchange reviews by two authors. Both stories were incredible but the books were chronologically written and boring. I knew they would probably never write another book so my reviews concentrated on the story rather than giving them constructive criticism.

    Thank you for your insight. And, yes, a bad review is better than a cancer diagnosis — I’ve had both.

  5. Doree Weller says:

    It’s taken me a lot of work to be okay with taking feedback. I often feel personally attacked by feedback, which is obviously not the intention, and feedback is something that can be very helpful. One thing I’ve learned is that I cannot respond to any feedback until I’ve had at least a day to think about it. Once I’ve digested it, I can usually see it for what it is and take the feedback as the help it’s (usually) meant to be.

    • Yes, there are some people who mean to be nasty but for the most part, the mature writer can recognize helpful feedback, and most of it is just that–helpful. I have been writing for almost 50 years professionally and I know damn well that not everything I write is praiseworthy.

  6. This is so helpful to me Carol as I was just sent my first book to review. I’ve been putting it off afraid I wouldn’t like it but if I don’t so be it that’s what I’ll put if they don’t like the honesty don’t ask me anymore! Thanks for keeping me on the straight and narrow girlfriend!

  7. Risa says:

    So far, I’ve only reviewed books that I could be positive about. I have begged off writing about one that I just couldn’t get behind. They take a long time to write (even the short ones), and I sometimes look at it as time I’m taking away from my own writing–not that I need any new ways to procrastinate!

  8. This is indeed a problem, Carol. I review the Oregon Shakespeare Festival plays for a regional magazine, The Jefferson Monthly–and I live in Ashland. I know how much sweat and inspiration goes into a production, and am just not comfortable slamming the effort in print. My method has been to give a production I don’t care for a second chance–if in the second performance, the flaws still outweigh the glories, I just don’t review it. With 11 plays each season, and a lot of little theatre in town, I have plenty of material, and can just let one or two pass.
    As the owner of a small press, Fuze Publishing, I appreciate your honesty about book reviewing, and your refraining when a book doesn’t work for you. It’s easy to be clever and witty when slamming someone’s creative efforts. The flaws often invite snide remarks. Nice that you back away from that.

    • Well, just because i haven’t reviewed it doesn’t mean I don’t like it–just that I haven’t gotten to it, probably because I don’t usually read the genre. I didn’t realize you live in lovely Ashland!

  9. Good for you! I am not a writer because, although I can write grade A essays, I know that I lack that creative flair that is neccessary. I wanted to take creative writing courses but could not fit them in the class schedules.
    Visual artists also have to learn to take critique. We are even forced into ‘critique sessions’ in classes. I do not expect everyone to like my work… I don”t like all art, in fact I am kind of picky.
    We have a ‘joke’ in the art world that the response, “Interesting!” is the ‘defaut’ when someone doesn’t like it or not know what else to say. I get that sometimes (even/especially from my mother) and it does not bother me. Better than no feedback at all.

  10. Diane says:

    I’ve been in this position. Good friend had written a book. A great book. The only problem I had with it was the title. The title was graphic and crude. This woman is clever. A great writer. And I have trouble with a title? Sigh. I’m still trying to sort that one out . . .

  11. Mary Buchan says:

    As an author I appreciate your honesty about book reviews When a famous person or someone with a large amount of money writes a book, they often have the support staff of an established book company including an editor, design team, PR person and maybe even a ghost writer. When an unknown person with their own unique message and style writes a book, they often have little money, a small platform and little support. They do it to express the voice of their nature, leave a legacy or create a product that benefits their business and serves others. This in itself is a huge accomplishment even if it doesn’t reach a large audience. This “regular” person who poured their blood sweat and tears into a manuscript becomes a fund raiser for the project, an editor, designer, and marketer. They may do more fund raising or drain their savings to enlist the help others. Even if the book isn’t a best seller or perfectly written the author deserves credit for the accomplishment. I love the quote by Elizabeth Barrett Browning ~ “With stammering lips and insufficient sounds I strive and struggle to deliver the right music of my nature.” ~ Thank you Carol for helping me dig down deep and share my thoughts.

    • Well, a person with a vanity project should not ask for a review, in my opinion. Everyone who puts pen to paper, brush to canvas has accomplished something, but we live in a world where reviews are more than a A for effort–and if they weren’t, how would people who really have something great to offer be identified?

  12. Kimba says:

    “Sorry you didn’t like it, thanks for not writing a bad book review. Maybe next time.” This is exactly how the author should have reacted to you. As an author I have learned to not sweat rejection – be it bad reviews or turn-downs from publishers and agents. It’s part of the business. Ya gotta have a thick skin. However, that being said, negative reviews should not be license to troll. Constructive criticism is invaluable, but, crazy rants against the author and their right to inhale and exhale – not cool.

  13. Nora says:

    I’m glad to see this discussion as I am currently in the exact position you describe. I told the person I would review the book, but now that I am reading it, I am not impressed by the book at all. I’m still reading it in the hope that by the end there will be something good I can say about while still being honest about negative thoughts on the premise of the book and its needless “chatter”.

    I’m glad to hear your thoughts about Goldfinch. While I didn’t completely dislike the book, I frequently found myself wondering what it was in this work that earned it a Pulitzer. Still haven’t figured it out!

  14. You are so right about this, Carol.
    Getting a bad review is far from the worse thing that can happen to your book. And it provides an opportunity to learn. If we stop learning we stop progressing and our writing will not improve.
    I’m also with you on the ‘not posting bad reviews’ issue. If I don’t like a book enough to give it three or more stars, I don’t review publicly, but, if I think the author has promise, I’ll offer my thoughts privately. Like you, the reply is not always positive, I’m afraid, no matter how carefully and kindly I choose my words.

  15. I get sent hundreds of books, and I don’t review the vast majority. I don’t want to give a negative review because I intimately know the blood, sweat and tears poured into writing so I just won’t review a book I don’t like. Art of all kinds — books, movies, music — is so subjective, I honestly wouldn’t put too much stock into reviews unless you know you share that reviewer’s tastes.

  16. Wise words as always Carol. I always love your perspectives.

  17. When I hate something, book or product, I dont’ review it at all on my site. Why waste the ink? I have shared this with my readers and they know my stance: http://stillblondeafteralltheseyears.com/2011/09/negative-product-reviews-as-a-blogger-how-do-i-handle/ However, I do love negative reviews when I am buying products or going to watch movies because it does help in my decision. Thanks for the great discussion and peek into the author’s sense of entitlement.

  18. This is why I too have stopped accepting books to review for free. Having written one, I know the sweat and tears that go into it, so I empathize with all authors. However, I also am a relatively picky reader (it’s all those graduate school lit classes!). Unless the topic is something I’m really interested in, I pass. And when I accept a book to review, I tell the person promoting that if I don’t like it, I won’t review it. In the case that you’re talking about here, Carol, why were you even in touch with the author herself?

    • I read something about the book (not sure how, maybe online), looked up the glorious reviews, saw the “awards” and after my “due diligence” wanted to read it. The topic would have made a great blog post and I wanted to use it as a springboard for the post. So contacted the author and she offered to send the book. After reading, I realized the reviews were F&F, but still glowing, the awards were on the obscure topic area and there is probably not much currently being written on it, and the book really was flat.

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