Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bad Reviews

There's been a particularly intelligent discussion on the Tie-In Writers site about responding to bad reviews. When I first began publishing novels twenty-five 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 professional 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.

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.


Mathew Paust said...

Ed, I hope nothing that low ever comes your way, but if it does, and you do choose to take the reviewer to task, how's about conducting it in the open - your blog or his (or hers)? Good way to sell books, and that's what it's all about, no?

Sandra Ruttan said...

I know I might be tempted if I got a personal attack in the form of a review, but I do think it's wisest to steer clear of direct confrontation with a reviewer. If the person is a professional, it's unlikely they'll attack an author personally, and if the person is an online/anonymous reviewer, I think confronting them only validates them.

I think it's fair to vent on one's own blog and even point out why you take issue with something in the review, but you have to be careful how you do it. I know last year I got a good review in The Globe and Mail, and I was happy about it, though I did clarify on my blog that though it said the books were set in Vancouver, that was technically inaccurate - they're set in the Greater Vancouver Area. Vancouver doesn't have RCMP, it has it's own police force. I didn't get a review in The Globe and Mail this year... maybe my book wasn't sent to them. Or maybe they didn't like my technical clarification. Or maybe they just had too many books to get to mine.

At the end of the day, a review is an opinion, and it's okay to disagree about a book. It doesn't (usually) make a person bad or wrong. It just means they saw the book differently. I do know that the odd time I've reviewed a book and the author has argued over it, it's never been a positive experience and has usually left me feeling as though I won't review that person's work in the future, so I wouldn't advise direct confrontation. As long as the reviewer conducts themselves professionally even if we disagree with them, we have to respect their right to their view... Just the way we want our right to our view respected.

Mathew Paust said...

Susan, you make a lot of good sense. I was thinking of the kind of public hissing matches Norman Mailer developed into a kind of art form. I guess if the writer has a public persona he or she feels needs to be defended, then it might make more sense. You'd almost have to attack the reviewer in hyperbolic fashion, as an "idiot" or "Nazi" or such, and push the debate to a comic edge to keep it interesting.

Then there were the feuds between the likes of Nabokov and Wilson, McCarthy and Hellman, Dreiser and Lewis (which actually got physical, as did Mailer and Vidal - recall the head-butting). Dignified? Dunno, but it might have sold some books.

Mathew Paust said...

Ooops, sorry, Sandra! Tried to post without my glasses. Not trying to start a feud!

Charlieopera said...

Their reviews are signed ...

That should be a requirement, especially from the industry reviews, but you're right, all reviews. I suspect there are as many blow job reviews as there are hatchet jobs. It would be especially interesting if the names had to be revealed going back (rather than just forward).

Ah, transparency ... how "liberal" are we really?

Ruth L.~ said...

This is an interesting conversation and one that the editors at the Internet Review of Books have discussed. We post thoughtful reviews and often include some negative in with the positive, but if we ever (and it's seldom) run across a book that's poor enough that all we could do was essentially "trash" it, we opt not to review it. A solid review requires analysis and evaluation and includes the individual reviewers subjective opinion.

See what you think:

Kenneth Mark Hoover said...

I pay attention to reviews of my work from the public: readers and the like. People who think enough about a story I've written to contact me. I take those very seriously.

I never read or pay attention to reviews from magazines, though, whether they be online or print.

All too often the "review" is more about the reviewer than the work in question. Like you said, good reviewers are few and far between.

Anonymous said...

If it weren't for bad reviews I wouldn't be where I am today. Early reviews lashed at various weaknesses in my work. They hurt; I also learned from them. Most of the reviewers were right. Once in a while now I will disagree, but even then I usually discover something useful. I could have handled a scene or character better. I'm a middling writer and don't have the courage or confidence to disdain a bleak review.

Richard Wheeler