Animation by Kayelle Allen at The Author's Secret

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

It's not what you say, it's the way that you say it...

I know a lot has been said on the subject of reviews recently – and most of it very eloquently too – but it’s a subject I’ve wanted to discuss for a long time, so am about to add my two pence worth.

 Every writer values honest reviews and when they are good, they can make one’s day, or week. Even ones that are not so glowing can offer constructive feedback, which is manna to authors. But there are certain people who seem to use the review platform for a rather different agenda.  And these reviewers really make my blood boil.

I’ve been doing a fair bit of reading and reviewing myself recently and I discovered something interesting. The glowingly good and gloweringly bad reviews often seem to have something in common – something that begs me to take both with a pinch of salt and read and judge for myself. That’s me with my reader’s hat on. But when I’m reading, I sometimes switch hats.

Three times recently I’ve downloaded a book on the strength of a very bad review which sits like a thorn beside a number of four or five star accolades. The chances are, if a book has a number of good reviews and then one scathingly bad review, either the negative reviewer simply didn’t understand the book or has written it in the hope of damaging the author’s reputation. And sadly, I know of several instances where this has happened to very good writers and the motivation mainly seems be jealousy – by other writers!

Being a champion of the underdog (a typically British trait I’m told) I feel a vitriolic review sometimes calls for further investigation. The “Click to look inside” option on Amazon is a great idea. Anyone with any experience as a reader can quickly judge the potential of a book from the first few paragraphs, or certainly the first chapter; and Amazon is pretty generous in what it offers as a taster.

If my curiosity is piqued to a sufficient degree, I might also click on the “See all my reviews” option beside the reviewer's name to see if this reviewer is genuinely hard to please or just venting spleen. If there are no other reviews, my hackles rise and the gloves are off. I really hate unfairness and injustice. Who doesn’t?

Reviews should be honest or they have no value, but I see no reason for them to be downright mean. Criticism that isn’t constructive is simply cruel when levelled at one person. If you buy a product and it doesn’t work, you won’t improve that product for others by attacking its manufacturer or inventor. If you can’t reasonably explain the faults, you can’t hope to be taken seriously and get the problem rectified. I’m not denying a customer/reader’s right to complain about an unsatisfactory product, merely questioning the motive and manner of execution of that complaint.
Many writers see their novels as their babies

Of course, when it comes to a novel, it’s the author’s personal ideas and skills which are under scrutiny. There are very, very few writers who receive any kind of sponsorship for their product. They invest their time and energy (often in vast quantities) in creating a product whose sole aim is to please.   The review process is their feedback and it is unfiltered and something they can’t share with a team of colleagues, peers, subordinates etc. They have no buffer. The damage done by an inconsiderate verbal assault really hurts and sometimes causes irrevocable damage.

I’m not suggesting that writers should be allowed to influence the review process, but simply that reviewers recognise their power and use their platform judiciously. The whole subject of reviews is a bit of minefield. It reminds me of that rhyme about the volatile little girl with a curl.

  When they are good, they are very, very good

But when they are bad, they are HORRID!