Friday, January 03, 2014

(Quite) A Few Words About Book Reviews

from Jacqueline

Just to get 2014 off to a bit of a blast here at Naked Authors, I’m going to launch into the thorny area of reviews.  

Thorny, because writers often like to steer away from this subject, mainly, I suppose, so as not to inadvertently upset reviewers, or let them think they’ve affected the writer in any way.  
They also don’t want to be dissed all over the internet – I keep thinking of that scene in The West Wing, where Josh responded to an internet comment about him (against Donna’s advice, I might add – remember that one, West Wing fans?), and subsequently unleashed the full power of social media against him. 

 The issue of reviews came to mind while I was listening to reviewer Oline Cogdill being interviewed on the subject of the TV series Downton Abbey, and which books viewers might choose if they wanted to delve deeper into the period represented in the series.  The Great War was covered, so along with several other authors, my books were mentioned.  I wasn’t going to listen to the interview at first – I try to keep away from reviews of my books  - but I became taken with what, for me, was the most interesting part of the interview, which was the integrity of the reviewer when asked about her process.  Her responses shone with a professionalism, which of course you would expect from someone who has honed her craft over a good number of years and with many publications, online and paper.  You don’t always find such integrity among (for example) the comments posted on online retailer websites.  Frankly, I sometimes wonder whether some of the readers commenting on those sites really want to say something about the book in question, or whether they are on a quest to be as sarcastic as they can be so that they might come across as overflowing with wit. Of course, there are many very good reviewers, amateur and professional, who want only to share their thoughts about books they’ve read – which is great and a good way for others to get an idea of whether a book is one they’d like to invest in.  Then of course, there are the people who give a poor review or comment because the packaging was inadequate – but that’s another story.  I should add that I do not read Amazon or any other online reviews of my books.  In fact, I try to stay well away, as I mentioned earlier.   I came to that decision soon after my first book was published.  I made the mistake of reading an Amazon “review” by a snarky individual and it really upset me.  I lost sleep over it.  Authors don’t cease to be human with all the frailties of the condition on publication day. 

I believe that anyone who decides to embark upon a writing project – be it a novel, an essay, short story, children’s book, etc - needs a good old pat on the back.  Well done – this world needs your creative energy. Unless of course you’re writing a guide to blowing up buildings, then skip that last comment.  Seriously, it takes time, commitment, faith, and so many other attributes to write a book, so I take my hat off to anyone – and I mean anyone – who tries and succeeds.  To be sure, we can’t all be considered up there with the greats of literature.  All we can do is produce our work to the best of our ability and then, if our sense of self hasn’t been completely zapped by the humbling nature of the process, we put it out there into the publishing universe.  Maybe that book/essay/short story does well. Maybe it doesn’t.  But if you’ve made it that far, well good for you!  You’ll never be an, “If only I’d….” kind of person – and there’s a lot to be said for that.

Ok, so maybe some readers don’t like your work – it’s going to happen, make no mistake.  You can’t please everyone, because we all have different tastes.  But here’s what amazes me – the manner in which some so-called reviewers communicate their disregard for an author.  Constructive criticism is one thing, but some of the reviews I’ve come across are just beyond the pale (to write this piece, I went to online reviews of a few of my favorite books published in 2013).  When I looked at some of the bad reviews, I wondered if the reader-reviewers really wanted to be that unkind?  Did they think they were showing intellectual heft when decimating a book? Heck, if it makes you that grumpy, do what I do – if I don’t like a book, I put the thing down and look for something else to read.  Donate the unwanted book to a library – someone will read it and enjoy it, even if you don’t.  Find something you would much rather read and try to be positive – it’ll make you feel better about yourself, which will inspire much better juju all around.  After all, what we say about something and how we voice our opinion reflects who we are in the world more than, say, the book we’ve just read.

If you’re willing to step up to the plate and learn to assess a book (essay, short story, etc.) with the integrity of a well-regarded professional reviewer, and develop your review with that sort of mindset - then your reviews will find a broader audience, and might just be read by the writers, who will be pleased to have the feedback, the constructive criticism along with an indication of what’s working and what isn’t.  And maybe the review might inspire a writer do something next time that makes all the difference to their work – and to their career.  A reviewer who can do that is worth their weight in gold – because as well as bringing a book to the attention of readers, they also become teachers for all of us.  I once heard Elizabeth George give the following advice (paraphrased here), “Read above yourself.”  That’s good advice – keep your sights high in terms of your reading matter.  And if you’re a writer, that goes for reviews too – if you have to read reviews of your work, then take note of who’s doing the reviewing.  A good reviewer stands out and is going to help you.   Credentials don’t necessarily make a good reviewer – I’ve seen drivel from the pens of Ph.D’s – but a lack of ego certainly helps, someone who can get out of their own way, bringing to the table a finely honed sense of what makes a given book a satisfying reading experience, while adding, perhaps, an encouraging word or two on what might have made it even better. 

Finally, I remember listening to an actress being interviewed on the radio – I can’t remember who it was - she had been asked about reviews of her recent performance in a movie.  “I realized a long time ago,” she said, “that if I believed all the good reviews, I had to believe all the bad reviews.  Now I don’t read any reviews. I just do my best, always.”

That’s the mantra for me.  It’s all you can do as a writer, really – weave your words on the page and create the very best story you can.  And never do a Josh from The West Wing!

Happy New Year, everyone!  And what’s on your TBR list this year?


  1. Many reviewers on Amazon or other sites have not taken the time to analyze what went right or wrong and write a cogent, well-reasoned review of the book. Maybe they don't have the ability to do so. The Internet opens the door for all sorts of folks with agendas. Some of the comments are just nasty rants from trolls.

    I'm reading a non fiction book at the moment that was on the NYT's best books of 2013 list. Most of the Amazon reviews were positive. Some were dismissive of the effort. I usually read a sampling of 5 and 1 stars but usually ignore the 1s because they are more snarky than smart. With this book, I found some of the 1s mirrored my own feelings about the book's shortcomings. You won't find me writing my own review there but I also won't recommend the book to friends.

  2. from Jacqueline

    You're right, Patty - read a smattering of reviews and make a decision from there. A well-reasoned review with no underlying agenda is always worth reading if the book has piqued your interest in the first place.

  3. As a reader, all my life, I have been amazed that there are so many people in the world that have important things to say, and have the time, courage, bravo, to get in into a book! I read all around..have some favs I go back to again and again....but I jump the fence broaden my horizons.I don't like to write a review..I dont' feel I know the author enough to formulate on their piece of art..I like to write to the author and ask questions, more for me to understand better what the heck was going on that I missed!!! And I re-read be sure I caught the tone, inflection,and,,,did the tale succeedd as wanted,Authors have to be tough,,,,once you release your precious out into the world..all you can do is watch,and, not take anything to heart,I
    wrote music...for kiddies, and taught them,,their parents were worse nightmare,,,,I got things like,what do you know..Well, I know, your child of the dirty hands and sticky fingers,,has learned to be clean at my key board and pay attention, and learn
    and they were happy to be able to do the bit they did.I take all reading books as they them understand what it is the author is saying....If you did what you set out to do...and it was done well, published, then you should be content,Your words make you or break you. EVERYONE KNOWS....gosssipy reviews are just that,leave it go...Do what you do well,,and continue on....

    1. from Jacqueline. Thanks for commenting, SueAnn - and you're right - we all have to do our very best work, then let it go, and along with that, let the gossipy reviews go too. Continue on!! I like that - a call to arms (or pens!) if ever there was one!

  4. I was once telling the late Stephen Jay Cannell about a very nice book review I'd received for one of the Lassiter novels. He gave me that wry smile and said, "If you believe the good ones, you have to believe the bad ones, too."

  5. from Jacqueline

    Well, if the very gracious Stephen Cannell said it, then it must be the right thing to do! What a sadness that he is gone now.

  6. Ms Winspear,

    I just finished reading your Maisie Dobbs series (in order, thanks to my local library being connected with other libraries around Grand Traverse County) and want to let you know how much I enjoyed the books. I am glad that its not the end of the series and that there will be another Maisie Dobbs book in 2015 (and maybe more?) Love the ending of "Leaving Everything Most Loved". Well done! You have created such an intelligent, independent, caring protagonist rising above her circumstances but respecting how she got where she is, that she is poised to accomplish anything she sets out to do.

    I love mystery books and movies with a strong female lead and enjoyed the pace of Maisie's story and how her character and her relationships are revealed. I'm so glad you have this site so I could thank you for your wonderful stories and encourage you to write more adventures for Maisie! I can see your books as a Masterpiece Theatre PBS series? With the popularity of Downton Abbey and all the strong women and set in England, I think you might be in the right place at the right time!
    Best Wishes for continued success!
    Cher Cronican-Walker

  7. I'm pretty new to the writing circle. Very good article, I intend to stay tuned!