July 6th, 2009

A Pocket Full of Murder

How I learned to stop worrying and love book reviews (or at least not go crazy over them)

There's been a lot of talk lately about authors behaving badly in response to negative reviews -- in some cases really, really badly. And having had some past experience with less-than-stellar reviews of my work, I can understand the disappointment and frustration that the authors involved were feeling when they allowed their emotions to get the better of their judgment. Nobody likes to be told that the book of their heart, the one they put months or years of effort into creating, has fallen short of excellence -- even if it's only in one critic's opinion.

On the other hand, I've often heard it said by wise and experienced folk that book reviews are written for readers, not for writers -- so in a sense people like Ms. Hoffman and Mr. de Botton are eavesdropping on a conversation that was never intended to include them, and shouldn't be surprised when they don't like everything they hear. I know many authors who deliberately avoid reading any reviews of their work whatsoever (meaning reviews written after the book is published, when it's too late to change it anyway), for this very reason.

Mind you, I am still a publishing n00b myself, and therefore unable to resist reading every review of my book that crosses my path. So if I get a bad review, it's my business to deal with it -- privately that is, without swearing vengeance on the reviewer and their descendants unto the third and fourth generation. (Though it can be tempting.)

Fortunately, I've noticed something about the reviews I've received so far that makes me a lot more relaxed and philosophical about getting the occasional bad one.

"There are too few faeries introduced to us in the book -- it would have been nice to meet some more of them," said one of my early reviewers, and I felt a little sad about all the incidental characters who vanished in revisions. But then, a few days later, I came across another reader lamenting, "There are too many faeries mentioned in the book and I couldn't keep track of them all."

"This book has far much romance for its intended audience!" complained another reviewer on GoodReads. And then, a couple of months down the line, a young reader complained "This book is not a romance AT ALL."

"The antagonist needs more villainy," mused one respectable critic, but then a commenter elsewhere said, "The antagonist's villainy made me so furious I could hardly get through the book."

A review which stated, "The story was muddled and confusing, I couldn't follow it" was followed almost immediately by another saying, "The plot was too plainly spelled out, I would have liked to figure some things out for myself."

Oh, well, okay then.

Of course, there are times when multiple reviewers (or worse, nearly all the reviewers) agree that a particular aspect of the book or story is weak. In which case I think it's the author's duty to swallow their pride, make a note of this particular fault in their writing, and try to do better in future... but in my experience of reading and writing book reviews, this happens a lot less often than one might think.

Anyway, all this has made one thing very clear to me: there is no point in getting upset over one bad review, or even a whole bunch of bad reviews, because every reader brings different tastes and expectations to a book, and it's impossible to please everyone. The best thing I can do when I'm disappointed by a particular review is to remember that I don't love every book I read either, and that some of the books I love best have been heavily criticized by others, and try to move on.