Monday, July 06, 2015

Bad Reviews

Bad Reviews

There' have been some particularly intelligent discussions lately about writers responding to bad reviews. When I first began publishing novels thirty years ago negative reviews ruined not just my day but my week and sometimes my month.

Back then my friend Charlotte McLeod was still vividly alive. I asked her about a nasty review I'd gotten and told her that I wanted to write the reviewer a letter. She said don't do it. She'd been at it for a quarter century longer than I had so I took her advice. In the ensuing years I've only once alluded to a reviewer in print. He made a moral judgement about my characters that I felt was pretty high-handed. But after I made the reference I realized that that's his job, to make judgements like that, even though I may think they're pretty damned stuffy. I apologized to him. This is a man who has done so much important work in the field that I felt I owed it to him. He wrote me a very pleasant response. Not that I changed his mind. I hadn't expected to.

Things have changed today of course what with the internet and the other means of communication I don't understand--Blackberries and Twitter etc. This, I think, has changed the relationship between writer and reviewer. I'm told there are a number of sites where reviewers write under pseudonyms. I'm also told that there are such things as flame wars. And I've witnessed a number of grudges being carried on under false names.

I guess I feel this way: though there are a handful of reviewers in newspapers and news stand magazines I don't care for, they generally conduct themselves professionally. Their reviews are signed, they write literate reports on what they've read and they rarely make their judgements sound personal. There are some tics I hate of course--this direct please to the writer "C'mon, Ed, you're not a mastermind but you can do better than this." This makes the reviewer equal to the writer and no matter how bad the book might be, the writer is the star here. There are also reviewers--and we've all caught them--who obviously haven't read the book. All they've reviewed is the flap copy. You have your own list of professional reviewer tics that really irritate you.

On my blog I list the sites that I think are thoughtful and entertaining in their reviews. I'd use any of them as an example of how I think net review sites should be run. On the other hand I've accidentally bumped into a few sites that pissed me off. None of them were mystery sites. The so-called reviewers slipped into that "C'mon, Dave, you know you can do better than that. You're a moron but even you have done better books than this." And the letters that followed were of a similar tone. Inane, childish. Paul Levine recently got an online review that was inane and childish to the highest degree.

If you get a negative review that is thoughtful and well-written and the reviewer's name is a real one, I don't see any justification in writing the reviewer. Hard as it is to imagine, some people just don't like our books. On the other hand if the review has the feel of an axe job or obviously reveals that the reviewer hasn't read the book or even makes up things about the book--you can ask Max Collins about that--hell, yes, I think it's legitimate to register a complaint on your blog or in a private letter. Personally, I've been treated to a couple of shots like that but all I did was boil for a few hours and forget about them. But if I ever got something that sounded as if I'd slept with the reviewer's wife and then shot both of his puppies...yeah, he'd hear from me. He'd hear from me real good.


Richard said...

Well said, Ed. In fact, I wish I could do as well at that.

Richard S. Wheeler said...

There is something to be said for writing under a pseudonym. Much the worst reviews I've received have been for stories written for a dead author franchise. As for bad reviews in general, I'm inclined to believe the reviewer is more often right than wrong. I'm more troubled when I believe I've written a good story, but no one notices. In the end, I'm still me; the good or bad reviews have not altered my life, but can be instructive.

pattinase (abbott) said...

It's the amazon and good reads reviewing that is worrisome. Anyone can wage a war on a writer there and not be called out on it. And sadly, most people get their reviews there. I know the people in my book club do.

Mathew Paust said...

Worst "review" I ever got was an anonymous paragraph on Amazon by someone I think had a day or two before unfriended me on Facebook over a little political spat. If it's him, he was once an editor of mine, and we got along famously. His "review" said simply that it was the worst novel he had ever read, with two or three generic complaints. As I couldn't be sure it was him, I never asked him. I did, however, a year or so later deny his request to join me on Linked-In. I also had a little fun writing a quickie flash fiction piece inspired by the incident, which has been my most popular contribution to date on Should anyone be interested, here 'tis: Author Meets Unflattering Reviewer in Bar