The Story Behind the Book

Dealing with Reviews

I write reviews.

And I write some scathing reviews.

But when I do that, I try and deconstruct why I don’t believe the story works.

There can be a lot of reasons for this: from bad plotting to thin characterisations to tonal inconsistency (and then lots of stuff in-between).

The overriding priority is identifying what the story’s trying to do. This comes from my years as an editor. When I ran editing workshops, I’d instruct the participants to talk to the author and understand what they’re attempting.

Disaster looms when the author and the editor aren’t simpatico. For example, if the author’s written a book they believe is a a journey of self-discovery, and the editor is editing it from a standpoint where they believe it’s a romance.

You need to recognise what the story’s attempting.

The same applies to reviews. I don’t watch a James Bond movie and judge it by the tenets of romcoms. I don’t watch a superhero movie expecting slapstick comedy. I try to identify what the story is, and judge it from there.

The only exception to this rule is when the story takes place in an existing franchise – e.g. JJ Abrams’s Star Trek (2009) – and I believe it’s being untrue to that franchise. In that case, the story isn’t being what I expect it to be because I’m drawing on a frame of reference that’s already established tone, voice, and characterisations.

(As an aside, properties can do different things within this framework: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a dark and gritty story about vengeance and acceptance, whereas Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is a quirky fish-out-of-water comedy, yet both are true to their property. The characters, their choices, and the events, are all consistent within the Star Trek realm, whereas JJ Abrams’s Star Trek turns the property into a Star Wars facsimile.)

I offer this preamble for a simple reason: to qualify that there are two types of reviews.

Good reviews and bad reviews, right?


Reviews that judge a property on its merits, and reviews that misread the property, and thus criticize it and condemn it for the wrong reasons.

Here’s an example of misreading a property: a friend wrote a dark story that involved death, dislocation, and a whole lotta other bleak stuff. A reviewer on Goodreads criticized it as “grim”.

Really? The story’s “grim”?

Yes, of course it is. It’s meant to be grim. It’s dealing with grim subject matter. The blurb tells you it’ll be grim. SO WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU EXPECT? You can’t criticize something for being what it’s trying to be. It’d be like saying you don’t like musicals because they have music. (Of course, you could criticize it for having shitty music.)

I’ve seen reviews of my own stuff, and friends’ books, that condemn them for not being what the reviewer wanted.

This isn’t a fault of the story. This is a fault of the reviewer, yet they’re holding the story accountable. Uh uh.

The story is what it is. It should be judged on how well it carries out what it attempts. Now it can go too far with what it’s attempting and then enter this new realm where it’s unpalatable, or dyssynchronous, or overwhelming, but you don’t often see this cited (unless it’s in relation to Zack Snyder’s DC Universe).

I saw flattering reviews of my books.

Strangely, they’re hard to accept. Most creative people are insecure. They understand and appreciate everything that could be wrong with their work. They’re worried when its out there, those potential flaws will be exposed.

When positive feedback comes, it’s fleetingly gratifying. But then the doubts come. It’s like a drug addiction. How long does it last? How long until the next fix is needed? How awful is the interim?

Then there are the bad reviews. Some are simply a matter of taste. Others have justifiable criticism.

And some criticize the book because it’s not what the reader expected or, somehow, they’ve misread the book (or sped-read it, and missed lots) and then it’s criticized for things that don’t exist.

Somebody raved that they picked the twist in Just Another Week in Suburbia. What fucking twist? There is no twist in the story. How do you pick something that’s not there? Either you’re big-noting yourself, or misread the story, or a combination of both.

Just Another Week in Suburbia is about inevitability and taking responsibility for one’s life. Now if I was criticized for not getting that across, that would be fine. But seeing somebody condemn the story (and thus me as an author) for something that’s not there just speaks to the invalidity behind the review.

Some bad reviews now also fall into the realm of artistry. They exist so the reader can exalt themselves as a critic of merit or sophistication or whatnot, like they want to exalt themselves as such an authority that everybody else should worship their insight and collectively agree to their viewpoint. If they have time, perhaps they should burn the author, too.

And you have reviewers who seem to pride themselves on bad reviews, like they’re the Big Bad of the review world, this is their niche, and everybody should respect just how infuckingsightful they are.

I recall being at a networking event and talking to a Sydney playwright about a review of one of my books. When I mentioned the reviewer’s name, the playwright clamped her head in horror, walked away, then came back and unloaded on that reviewer – from how he’d unfairly criticized one of her plays (she said he was lambasting stuff that wasn’t in the play – it was just his interpretation) to pretentious stories she’d heard about him. (Since, I have heard others criticise this particular reviewer as being unfair.)

Some bad reviews make you think about how you can improve aspects of your writing or your storytelling, while others are deflating – well, if you let them be.

Reviews used to affect me like rejections did. Your writing is you. An attack on your writing is an attack on you. Naturally, you’re going to be hurt.

But not anymore. You shouldn’t hand anybody that power.

Just like dealing with feedback, take on board what you need, and dismiss the rest.

You can’t please everybody.