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When you’re published, it’s usually a good idea to not read the reviews. That means don’t stalk a reviewing platform such as Goodreads. The logic is that no matter how many good reviews you have, you’ll focus on the bad ones. It’s human nature.

Avoiding reviews is great in theory. And I have a number of published author friends who advise me not to check out the reviews, while I advise them not to check out the reviews.

And then we check out the reviews.

I envy people who can just not worry about it. But it seems most can’t.

Writing is intensely personal. You have this idea you want to develop into a story, and you want to share that story with the world. Finding positive reviews is both gratifying and euphoric for 5.37 seconds. Unfortunately, negative reviews have a greater impact. Attacking somebody’s work is like attacking the author. I imagine it’s the way a parent would feel if somebody told them their kid’s an idiot.

I break up bad reviews into five categories:

    Valid and Constructive Criticism
    With some bad reviews, the reviewer provides legitimate constructive feedback as to why the story doesn’t work for them. I recall in one of my early reviews for Just Another Week in Suburbia, the reviewer asked some questions about the construction of the world. I believed most of the answers were in the text, but it did make me think that sometimes I might need to set up and explain some things better.

    These reviews can be fantastic, as well as learning experiences.

     
    The ‘Not For Me’ Review
    My friend, Ryan O’Neill, got a one-star review for Their Brilliant Careers – the book which won the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction. I messaged the reviewer and queried why they didn’t like the book – I was just curious (and have done this occasionally with friends’ books). The reviewer told me the book was too ‘high brow’ and they’d stopped reading it at page 12.

    I have no problem with readers abandoning books, or not clicking with a story – it’s going to happen.

    However, I don’t think that reader should be entitled to rate and/or review the book, then. They just haven’t read enough of it to give it a fair assessment.

     
    The ‘It Wasn’t What I Thought It Was Going to Be’ Review
    A friend got a review that labelled his book as ‘grim and bleak’. The problem is that his book is grim and bleak. It’s meant to be. That’s the story.

    Reading the review, it felt as if the reader had picked up his book expecting it to be a light-hearted romcom and, when it wasn’t, they slammed the book.

    Again, I don’t think this is fair. The book should be judged on what it is, what it sets out to do, and how well it accomplishes that – not on how it fails to live up to a misperception.

     
    The Aristocratic Review
    Books are important. They can do – and provide – so many things, from recreation to education to enlightenment. That’s all great. But some reviews read as if the reviewer has condemned a book for its lack of literary ennoblement, as if the reviewer is the guardian of some literary elitism and has deemed the book unworthy. Then comes the criticisms, which might seem valid but are masked under that agenda of condemnation.

    These reviews can be nasty. And totally misguided.

     
    The Troll Review
    Unfortunately, some people use the net as a shield to just be negative, and try to stir trouble.

I believe reviewing is a tremendous responsibility. Somebody has gone to a lot of effort to create something. Now that doesn’t indemnify that work from criticism, but it should at least entitle that the criticism be thoughtful, valid and justified.

I generally don’t let (bad) reviews bother me anymore (although I might joke otherwise). Every artform is predominantly subjective. Obviously, there’s a point something fails to work, and that piece is universally criticised. But, otherwise, we all have different tastes, standards, and expectations, so we’re all going to see things differently.

I saw enough good reviews for JAWiS that they offset the negative reviews and taught me to accept the greater opinion. Still, sometimes the negativity invites questions, such as …

    Q. Could the book have been better?
    A. Well, probably not at the time I was writing it. But as a writer, I’m always developing, and would do things differently today than I did yesterday. (Of course, that doesn’t necessarily equate with ‘better’.)

    Q. Am I happy with the book?
    Yes. Even if I could do better today, I’m still happy with the book that’s out there.

Outside of reviews, I’ve also had people contact me privately – via email, or through social media – telling me they enjoyed it. I’m grateful for the positive feedback it and August Falling have received.

That eclipses the bad.

It doesn’t mean the bad doesn’t sting, or isn’t remembered – particularly when it borders on vindictive.

But that might be a rant for another time.
 

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With the release of August Falling imminent, I’m bracing myself for the reviews.

In theory, as an author it’s best to stay away from reviews. You can have ninety-nine great reviews, and one bad one, and you’ll focus on that bad one. Also, places that invite mass reviews become an open slather. While there are some thoughtful and constructive reviews, there’s also some that aren’t, or books that are rated lowly unfairly.

For example, a friend’s book got one star. One star. Must’ve been a shocker, right? But I found out that the reviewer read only twelve pages and felt the book was ‘too high brow’ (the reviewer’s words), so she ditched it. Reading one/thirtieth of a book should exclude you from being allowed to review or rate it.

I’ve read reviews where people have condemned books for not being what they wanted it to be. Oh, I thought this was going to be a romcom, but it turned out to be dark. How is that the book’s fault? The reviewer has prejudiced their expectations, and smashed the story for being about something else. (The italicised section is not an exact quote – I took liberties, so that book, review, and reviewer may all remain anonymous.)

I have also recently seen books pilloried for their formatting. This book didn’t work on my Kindle, so one star. What the fuck? How is a book not working on an e-reader the fault of the book, the author, or the editor? How can that book be honestly rated?

Surely reviewing platforms should have a ‘DNF’ (Did Not Finish) option that excludes rating a book. That’s only fair on the book and the author.

For example, here’s a so-so fact: I’ve never finished The Great Gatsby, which is considered a classic. I got about halfway through and just couldn’t connect to it. Sometimes you don’t connect with books just because you’re tastes aren’t aligned. Sometimes, it’s not the right time to connect with a book. So I put TGG aside, thinking that one day I would pick it up and give it another shot. On what I have read, I would never, ever rate it or review it.

It’s also important in the appreciation of any artform – books, film/television, music – to try to recognise what the creator’s intention is, and review and rate it on how successfully it’s achieved that intent. If possible, step outside your own tastes when reviewing or rating a book, e.g. there’s been plenty of books I just haven’t connected with, but where I recognise that they’re well-written and well-plotted. My disconnect is a matter of personal taste, rather than a criticism of the writing.

If a reviewer goes in with prejudices – because it’s not the sort of thing they’d usually indulge in, because their expectations and/or preconceptions aren’t met, or just because they want to cut down something that has been getting good reviews – then the reviews are going to be skewed.

I know a number of authors who refuse to go anywhere near reviewing platforms, out of fear how negative reviews will affect them. But I also know reviewers who tiptoe through these platforms, looking for the gratification of a satisfying review.

As somebody who’s done the latter, the gratification lasts about 3.5 seconds.

So what’s the best way to deal with bad reviews? Well, some reviews will contain justifiable criticism, which is always worth taking on board. One of the early reviews of Just Another Week in Suburbia asked some interesting questions about the construction of the premise, which I took on board for future writing. (I thought the answers could be inferred from the information available, but also appreciated that maybe their set-up could be a little more straightforward.)

But as for the bad reviews? The shockers?

Befriend the reviewer. Get to know them. Get to know their viewpoint. See where they’re coming from. Earn their trust. Go out for coffee. Have a chat. Find some common ground. Sprinkle some cyanide in their coffee when they’re not watching. Raise a toast. Drink. Bid them farewell. And feel a lot better.

Of course, I’m kidding.

Maybe.