I’ve been involved in a few conversations recently about the kind of reviews people leave on Amazon, Goodreads etc. and it never ceases to amaze me that there are people who can be downright malicious in their reviews with no real substance to their criticism. While there are some truly dire books out there, behind those books are authors with real feelings who have put their all into their novels. It frustrates me that this seems to be forgotten with the “what a load of crap” and “it’s boring” comments.
Of course, all reading is subjective. What I enjoy to read will not necessarily be what others enjoy to read and vice versa. However, it is possible to dislike a book but be able to appreciate the skill that has gone into writing it. I read a book not long after I started my website called Cold Call by Colin L. Chapman. I didn’t particularly enjoy it; it just wasn’t my cup of tea. However, it really was beautifully written and despite the grimy, sleazy storyline, Chapman had made it an engaging, clever narrative and I gave credit where it was due, although I did say that it wasn’t to my tastes. Why wouldn’t I respond in this way? I’d been invited to read the book and I felt obligated to give an honest review. Honest, not offensive! Indeed, the author has spoken very highly of my review on numerous occasions since. Any criticisms were reinforced by valid points.
How can any potential reader looking at the reviews for a book to read gain any insight where the entire review is full of insults to the writer/book and no proper comment on the reasons why they don’t like the book? What possible assistance can that kind of review be? I can only surmise that the only objective of the people who leave these kinds of reviews is to hurt the author, which seems a bit ridiculous when the worst thing the author has done is written a book that the reviewer didn’t like. Yet it happens all the time. One author friend of mine stopped reading their Amazon reviews because some of the reviews were so upsetting. That’s not to say that their books were awful, on the contrary, the one’s I’ve read so far have been fantastic, and the split of 1-5 star reviews supports this, as there are only a few reviews under 4 stars. However, as these reviews are so scathing and because the author has spent months or years perfecting their novel to the best of their abilities, these reviews must be very hurtful. It’s like throwing a glass of wine in the sommelier’s face just because the wine is not to your taste, or throwing your popcorn at the cinema usher because the film was awful. Just because the book wasn’t to your taste doesn’t mean that you can insult the writer.
I wrote a post a few months ago on the merits of using dialect and swear words in novels after an author had expressed his surprise that I had not felt the need to comment on the number of swear words in my review of his novel. The book was Ghost in the Machine by Ed James, which was a crime novel set in Edinburgh, where the accents are strong and the language often blue. Bearing in mind this novel was set in a police department where they were seeing all manner of miserable scenes of murder and rape, I’d be very surprised if there wasn’t any swearing. It fitted with the setting. It wasn’t gratuitious, it supported an image of downtrodden policemen and women who spent most of their days knee-deep in grime and unsavoury characters. Yet some of the criticism by the few people who had given this book a 1 and 2 star rating is based on the language and dialect, which to me, added authenticity to the novel, and people did not seem to consider this in their judgement, only that it had swearing and Scottish accents in it and they didn’t like it, therefore the book must be awful!
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that all 1 and 2 star ratings are pure insults and that some books don’t deserve it. I’m sure there are. I rarely rate a book 1 or 2 stars, as I can usually find some merit in most novels, but there are some that, in my opinion are not worth more than 2. However, my criticism would be constructive, not a string of insults. In my experience, authors appreciate an honest review, no matter how critical, if the argument is supported by valid comments. I don’t imagine for one minute that they are particularly nice to read, though. As my good friend Alison can attest, I got very irritated when I got an assignment back at university and read my tutor’s comments. Not that the assignments were dreadful, just that I was never satisfied with the marks! Yet none of my tutor’s ever wrote “Lisa, this is absolutely dull and boring. You are rubbish.”. They may have thought it, but none felt the need to write anything other than constructive criticism. After I had ranted with Alison a little, I could understand that the comments were meant to assist, not to insult, and I considered the points for my next assignment, hopefully improving them. So, why do some readers of books feel that it is okay to not even try and appreciate the merits of a novel beyond whether they personally enjoyed it?
I don’t tend to read Amazon or Goodreads reviews as I do not wish to be swayed before I’ve even given the book a chance by opinions of people who may, or may not, have the same tastes as me . I understand the merit of reviews, obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t write them, and I also understand that the bulk of a review is really based on opinion but surely, as readers, we should give a little respect to these authors purely for putting themselves out there with their work. In such a competitive market, a writer who makes a lot of money is the exception to the rule and given how long it must take to write a book, the risk taken by a writer to spend all that time researching, writing, editing, re-editing, publishing a novel that may or may not make a little bit of money should be admired. That’s not to mention the myriad emotions felt by the author whilst undertaking this unforgiving, confidence-draining process as they pour their creative juices onto the page. How would these reviewers who have nothing good to say feel about the author telling them that their review-writing skills are lousy, the spelling, grammar and punctuation leaves a lot to be desired and their writing lacks analytical style? With supporting evidence! This would be constructive criticism and perfectly valid for a lot of the nasty reviews that people leave, or at least, the one’s I’ve read.
My most critical review was for Gray Justice by Alan McDermott, yet there were many, many people who did not agree and thought it was brilliant. My review was honest and supported by the elements that I didn’t like. I addressed the fact that the premise was a good one and had the potential to be brilliant, yet it wasn’t, and I explained why. I felt incredibly frustrated by the author’s lack of consideration for some of the issues that would have made it such a wonderful book but the points I made, in my opinion were valid ones. At no point did I dismiss McDermott as an awful writer. I haven’t read any others so who know, perhaps the sequels are brilliant. Maybe one day, I’ll give them a try. I’ll be honest, though, even though I still maintain that my review could be justified, it didn’t sit well with me that I’d written such a negative review. I would do it again, though, because it was my honest take on the novel.
I wasn’t particularly complimentary about Grey by EL James either (not so much in the minority here, though) but again, I backed up my issues with specifics and commented on what I did like as well as what I didn’t. I much prefer to give a balanced review rather than a one-sided, all-negative review. Mostly, I like doing glowing reviews and I have been very fortunate to have done quite a few of these since I started Segnalibro. It’s nice to be nice, in my opinion, and I enjoy explaining what I like about a book. I have read some really amazing books by some truly skillful writers, and a lot of them have made my Book of the Month.
I’ve probably laboured my point a bit here (something the reviewers of my author friend’s books would apparently take particular issue with, with no consideration for the fact that there may be a stylistic motivation for doing so) but essentially, I want to implore those people who review on Amazon and Goodreads to put yourself in the place of the author before you press submit on your reviews. By all means, make criticism, but make it constructive. I will always put as much of a positive spin on a book that wasn’t really for me because there will be a considerable amount of other people who will like it, for whatever reason. Certainly with McDermott’s book, I am definitely in the minority of people who didn’t like it. Author’s are people who have feelings that can be hurt by cruel words, especially when those words are aimed at a piece of work that has been their raison d’etre for such a long time. For those who take the time to review a book, keep it kind, keep it honest, but most of all, keep it respectful. Also, bear this in mind next time you leave a review:
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