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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!


Rosemary Gemmell said...

A very interesting post, Lynette. I detest the whole idea of really bad reviews - why say anything at all?

Although I try to be honest, there is one review I gave (someone I know) on Amazon a few years ago that I wish I'd been slightly more balanced towards - I was too complimentary on reflection but I would never have been unkind.

ManicScribbler said...

Thank you, Rosemary,
I totally agree - I would rather say nothing than write a bad review.
It's especially difficult when you review for someone you know (as writers often do). It's important to be honest because a review is essentially there to guide other readers; on the other hand being negative (especially when you know the writer) can cause hurt and hard feelings.
I recently wrote a review for a book I totally loved and agonised for days over whether I dared point out its one negative aspect (poor editing) which no one had mentioned in other reviews.
Fortunately the author was so thrilled with the positives, she didn't mind at all - even agreed with me!

Anonymous said...

I'm an honest consumer that doesn't have any vested interest in making books/movies or games but I spend money and time on each one; I'm entitled to read/play/watch or not read/play/watch whatever I choose regardless of reviews and popularity, and if I spend my time and money (finite resources) on something I end up regretting there's no reason I won't focus on everything I hate about it and 'doom it'.
I spend the majority of my time doing a regular job that isn't particularly enjoyable (like the "creative industries") so if I feel bilked out of time and money I'm not going to have a second thought about voicing that.

ManicScribbler said...

You are absolutely right, anonymous,
No one is denying the right to voice a complaint and/or speak the truth about a product.
My argument is about people who misuse the review platform for more sinister reasons. I feel those types of reviews are based on ignorance, not honesty.
I also feel sure you would voice your legitimate complaints in a way that is not intended as a personal attack on the writer or creator of the book, film or game.
Thank you for taking the trouble to comment.

Laura E. James said...

As a rule, I do not review books. I read them and if I enjoy them, I'll let others know.
It's all subjective, anyway. We literally cannot please all of the people all of the time.
What can be done about spiteful reviews?

Bonnie McCune said...

As a new novelist, I'm learning reviews are extremely important to getting the word out about a writer. I don't mind honesty. I DO mind (whether comments are on my work or someone else's) when a reviewer seems more intent upon showing his/her own writing skill or sense of superiority than a valid opinion. That stated, an individual's preferences always come into play. No one piece of writing is going to be treasured by all. Thank goodness we live in a time when many styles can flourish. Bonnie McCune, author, "A Saint Comes Stumbling In"

Jenny Twist said...

What a superb piece! I agree with everything you have to say about reviews and the power that the reviewer wields over the author. Reviewers really ought to think twice about what they say.

ManicScribbler said...

Thanks for taking the trouble to read and comment, Laura.

I'm interested to hear that you don't write reviews - I discovered when I published on one site that the vast majority of readers prefer not to do so. I suppose that's why reviews are so important to writers. If only one or two readers in every hundred gives feedback, it shows how valuable reviews are.

I couldn't agree more about the subjectivity of reviews - one man's meat etc. But isn't the review process a bit like voting? It offers a platform for readers and a valuable learning experience for writers.

But then it does also lend itself to misuse and, as you say, there is precious little writers can do about reviews written purely out of spite. Except, perhaps, use their own platform and write about it in their blogs - hoping a few people will be kind enough to give it a second thought? I don't know if you have any experience of this, but I do have one dear friend who suffered really badly from this targeted spite, which was what prompted me to write this article.

ManicScribbler said...

That's a really interesting point, Bonnie - and one I hadn't thought of.
You are absolutely right that some reviewers (especially some professional ones) do just that. It's really just a form of cheap point-scoring at someone else's expense and can be very unpleasant.
Good luck with your new novel and thank you for dropping by and taking the trouble to comment. I really appreciate it.

ManicScribbler said...

Ah, dearest Jenny,
I know you've already covered the subject of reviews excellently in your article ( and on Goodreads) so I know your thoughts on this subject.
I think I can safely say though that you have no need to worry ever about receiving bad reviews!
Thank you for dropping by - your comments are always appreciated.

kim said...

Well said, Lynette. Thanks for bringing this subject forward.

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