It’s often said that we don’t know how to complain in this country. We either go all shouty and launch a nasty review on Trip Advisor or we slump into passive aggression and say nothing. At the risk of being controversial, I’m about to talk about book reviews.
There used to be a time when book reviews only appeared in newspapers and magazines, care of professional critics. Fortunately, we now have a more level playing field that allows writers, who are not big names, to also have their novels written about and commented on. The growth in the blogger industry is truly phenomenal and hurrah for that. Anyone and everyone can now write a review and post it. This all sounds lovely and democratic. However there is a downside. Too often, nasty reviews can be posted with little or no thought to the consequences for the writer. This also includes folk who complain about the packaging, delivery issues, or the wrong book sent to them.
Let me make it plain that I am deeply in favour of free speech. I’m not talking about the kind of review that offers considered criticism and feedback even if the review is ultimately negative. I’m talking about the nasty, the horribly dismissive one-liner, the vicious and arrogant. And no, this is not written as a result of one star reviews of my own work. After eleven published novels, I’m accustomed, if not quite hardened, to these. So what am I really saying?
A couple of months ago, I read a review of an incredibly popular and successful debut novel (that I haven’t yet read). The self-styled reviewer not only attacked the work but also attacked, in the most offensive manner, the writer, the writer’s agent and publisher as well as scores of readers. It appeared on a respected site: Goodreads.
Nobody put glass in this reviewer’s food, punched him (or her) in the face, or insulted him publicly in the street. And here’s the rub, the anonymity of the Internet can obscure the identity of those who set themselves up as Judge, Jury and Executioner. Rather chillingly, the reviewer I’m specifically referring to posted a child’s face as his (or her) profile. What this kind of reviewer wouldn’t dare say to a writer in person, allowed and emboldened him or her to go for it in print. Gone are the days when, if you read a novel and didn’t like it, you simply set it aside, and chose something else – something I do quite often.
While I accept that ‘if you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen’, that oft trotted out phrase to anyone who works in the Arts, as if ‘creatives’ are fair game to receive the sharp end of anyone’s pointy stick, it’s worth stating a few things.
The reader might spend minutes posting a ‘Ha, take that,’ review on Amazon. The writer has spent more likely a year writing a story with all the commitment, energy, passion, determination and self-belief that entails. Even bad books take time to create. However much a novel is disliked, and for whatever reason, the author will need at least twenty-four hours and often a good deal longer to lift him or her out of the crushing depression that ensues as a result of a destructive review. As for readers who carp about stories of action adventure with villains and assassins and gritty themes, when they only enjoy romantic fiction, the classics or another genre, they confound me. Did they not read the book blurb before purchase? More charitably, I like to think they fancied something new and then found they didn’t like it. A bit like checking out whether or not they really do have a food allergy.
Now I’m not saying don’t write a negative review. In fact, I’m deeply suspicious of any novel that receives trillions of five star ratings that all say how brilliant the story or writer is. But if a reader wants to post critical comments, it would be wise to ensure that these are thought out, and not simply a personal rant as a result of getting out of bed the wrong side, or because life is unkind or, dare I say, due to the reader going through the private hell of having his/her own novel rejected. Respectable and respected bloggers and reviewers, and there are tons of them, recognise this. Often a decent reviewer that doesn’t fancy a novel will simply decline to comment. It’s not a noble calling to save someone else from reading a novel that you personally hated by being deliberately unkind.
With regard to novels that are traditionally published, consider this: a book may not be worth your hard earned, (in many cases 99 pence.) You may feel cheated of time and energy wasted wading through the most boring drivel, with characters that are cliched and with distasteful or alien themes in your view. But respect the fact, or at least give a little credit to agents and editors at publishing houses who receive hundreds of manuscripts a week. Novels aren’t accepted for publication because of the goodness of the hearts of those who work in the industry. They (mostly) do so to make money. Their judgements count and they are accountable to higher beings like accountants. If you disparage a book in the crudest of terms, you disparage many more than the humble writer. So, if you are thinking of writing a review today for a novel that you really didn’t enjoy, resist the temptation to verbally work the story or writer over.