Authors pour every ounce of their being into a tome–no small amount of blood, sweat and tears are shed–and then it’s out, for the world to read.
Which brings me to the difficult subject of book reviews.
Who among us hasn’t been taken in by a dozen glowing reviews of a book we buy, read and discover to be… nowhere near as good as reviews indicate. Because many of these reviews are written by family and friends with the express goal of helping the author’s Amazon rank.
When that happens to me? I feel ripped off. It’s happened more than once, too. So I became a more critical reader of Amazon reviews. I am all for supporting authors. But these F&F reviews do the reader a disservice.
Recently I was sent a book I really wanted to read. The story was unusual and attention-getting. But the book? Not so much. The writing was serviceable, don’t get me wrong. But as a memoir? It lacked a story arc, a pivot point, tension. It was more a core dump of emotion by the author than a memoir. It was a dull recitation of the facts of her story and her emotions.
I recognized this because I, too, struggle with those things and read successful memoirs to try to understand how to carry the tension through a full-length book. The young author and I had a little bit of a similar background, which is to say we learned to write the facts and just the facts. It’s hobbled me a bit and I could see clearly that it had hobbled her.
Bad book review, dishonest review or no review at all?
My dilemma was that if I reviewed the book honestly it would not be a good review. It would be a bad review. Not that my review was going to carry massive weight, but it would live out there on the internet forever. Yet she was expecting a review. Since she was a professional writer of a different kind, I figured she’d been edited and could take the truth. So when she inquired about my review, I told her about my dilemma and gently but directly explained the trouble I had with the book and that I would not be reviewing it.
By return email I got a defensive and snippy email back in which she accused me of wanting her to embellish the story (not true at all) and pointed out all the awards she’d won for a different kind of writing and also the award(s) she’d won for this indie book. Of course, awards are funny things. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch arrived to critical acclaim and a Pulitzer, but I was in good company in my dislike of the book–the New Yorker, the Paris Review and New York Times Review of Books (among other literary critics) all disliked it, too. So go figure.
Maybe the young writer’s awards were the same kind of grade inflation we see at schools today, I don’t know.
What I had expected was a note that said “Sorry you didn’t like it, thanks for not writing a bad book review. Maybe next time.” I did not expect the defensive response I received. I thought it was…immature.
Apparently, age has nothing to do with it.
Much has been made of how Milleniums and younger generations have been coddled and giving awards for simply breathing. Maybe this is part and parcel of that phenomenon.
But I know quite a few writers in all age groups–many are first time writers/authors–who completely obsess over bad reviews. Some over a single bad review. I don’t get it. Not everyone will like everything.
Well, that’s not really true:
I’m ok with that. I am well aware that expecting only good reviews is completely unrealistic. Not everyone likes everything and it would be a really dull world if they did. Bad book reviews can actually be quite helpful.
If everyone gave me a good review I wouldn’t trust them. Because I’d worry that they were simply trying to make me happy. Or loved me like my mother did. The best input I can get on my writing is critical input that helps me do a better job next time.
If someone doesn’t care for something I’ve written, I’m more apt to say, “sorry you didn’t like this one, maybe next time” than to say “Everyone else LOVED it!” I’d also look closely at their input and evaluate my writing against that feedback. Because I’ve been writing long enough to know that not every word I write is a pearl. And that reality checks are very good things.
If I review a book, I review it honestly. Over the years I’ve only once been put in a position of having to review a book I didn’t think was very good. My review was written carefully and was still honest. But I won’t be put in that position again.
So if you’re a family and friend reviewer, think carefully about how you word your review and the number of stars. Readers are making buying decisions on your input.
If you’re a blogger asked to review a book you don’t think is very good, I still maintain that honesty is the best policy. Certainly better than writing a false review. Or a bad one.
If you’re an author who gets a few negative book reviews, learn to take criticism. Think of it as an opportunity to take an honest second look at your writing against that feedback. It’s a chance to improve. Take advantage of it. And then let it go. A bad book review is not a cancer diagnosis.