Reviews and responses: why I'll keep reviewing bad books

I've had some nice comments about reviews on this blog. John Harding, who wrote the fantastic Florence & Giles, for instance, thanked me for my glowing review of his book. William Horwood, author of Hyddenworld and Awakening, beautifully written fantasy novels dear to my heart, also emailed me with thanks. Helen Grant seemed to be happy with the review I gave her gripping, eerie young adult mystery The Glass Demon, too. And I had a nice response from Michael Stewart, author of King Crow, which went on to win the Guardian's 'Not The Booker' Prize.

However... I loved all their books. I gave them glowing reviews because I thoroughly enjoyed them. I'm always honest in my reviews. I mentioned when I reviewed The Glass Demon, that I was worried I'd hate it because the author and I follow each other on Twitter and I was terrified of having to post a negative review of a book by someone who is clearly a lovely person - but if I had hated it, then I couldn't have not said so here. I told myself I'd review every book I read for the first time and finished, whether I liked it or hated it, and if I'd hated Helen's book... well, I'd have been truthful about that. But fortunately I thought it was absolutely great, so no problem there.

What happens, then, when an author reads my terribly negative review of their work? This happens, apparently. Yesterday, FG Cottam, author of The Waiting Room, read my scathing review of his book and accused me of arrogance, stupidity and not reading his book properly.

Arrogant? Sometimes, probably, although not for the reasons Cottam suggests. Stupid? No, I don't believe so. Certainly not when comes to reading and discussing books, anyway. And of course I read his book properly. I never, ever review something I haven't read properly. If I reviewed books I started reading, hated and skipped chunks of or didn't finish, for instance, there would be a lot more entries in this blog.

Cottam was clearly hurt and offended by what I wrote about his book. And fair enough - I was very blunt about it. If I was an author, and I read something like that about my work, I expect I'd be hurt, too. And here's the thing: I don't particularly enjoy upsetting people. I wouldn't ever go out of my way to do so, unless they'd made a point of trying to upset me or someone I care about first. Also, I really wanted to enjoy his The Waiting Room. I was extremely disappointed that I didn't. I spent money on it and thought I would love it. I didn't wilfully post a horrid review for fun, and I certainly didn't set out hoping or wanting to dislike the book.

So, what do I do? Lie, and say that everything I review is great? When I do review things I didn't much like, I do look for the positives, and I state them. Not that I found many in The Waiting Room, but I did point them out. But I cannot bring myself to be charming about books that I thought were genuinely awful.

I've thought for a long time about this. After receiving Cottam's aggrieved message, I've seriously considered not posting bad reviews any more simply because I don't like the idea of some author reading my views on their work and being as obviously upset by them as Cottam was. I don't actually enjoy the idea of someone reading a 'trashing' (as Cottam put it) of their own work.

But I've come to the conclusion that this would be silly. I'm deeply uncomfortable with the idea of only writing about the books I liked. I love writing about books, and the (few) people who read this blog tell me they enjoy reading my reviews. I don't think people's opinions of any form of art should be suppressed, unless we want the world to be a deeply boring place. So, after considerable thought, I'll still be reviewing books I hated, and I'll still be reviewing them in the style I feel most comfortable with. I know that's a style that some people feel is 'vicious', to quote Mr Cottam, but I'm afraid it's also the style that best expresses how strongly I feel about books I especially dislike.

But there's another strand to this whole argument - and really, why I'm wasting time on arguing about it at all is beyond me, but hey, it's my blog and I'll argue if I want to - which is how people view authors who chip in with this sort of reaction to a review. Remember, for instance, when Mark Lawson (rather diplomatically, I thought) asked Russell Crowe about his accent in Robin Hood on Radio 4's Front Row? Russell was offended, said so, and accused Mark Lawson of idiocy and incompetence.

Who came out of that discussion looking like a fool? Was the tone of the following day's media coverage 'Vicious Radio 4 arts critic cruelly insults poor, hurt, hardworking actor'? Or was it 'Millionaire megastar throws silly hissy fit at Radio 4 critic who dares to do his job and express an opinion'?

If you don't know already, I'll leave you to guess.

There's an expression generally applied to comedy which is also relevant to this kind of situation. It's 'punch upwards': in other words, it's usually more acceptable to be critical or mocking of people who are more successful and powerful than you. So, a comedian who says vicious things about the Prime Minister, a celebrity or the filthy rich generally appeals more to the wider public than one who says vicious things about, say, the homeless, or a disabled child.

I think the same applies here. I'm a total nobody. I do a pretty average job, and in my spare time, I like reading and writing. My writing's nothing special. I've never had a novel published. The pinnacle of my success was having a tweet re-printed in the Guardian once... the giddy heights of fame, eh?

FG Cottam, on the other hand, is a successful author who has had several novels published, all of which are in print and apparently sell pretty well. He's doing well. He's probably a million times more successful than I'll ever be, and his books probably make a lot of people very happy. His agent and his publisher clearly believe in his work, as do the reading public. He absolutely doesn't need to care what I think. Ever.

Don't get me wrong: if I was a published author and I read a bad review of my work, I'd doubtless be hurt and annoyed. But then I'd shrug and move on. A review by some blogging nobody means bugger-all, and I'd be the one laughing all the way to my next successful novel, so who gives a toss, right? I'd ignore that kind of nonsense. Clearly that reader wasn't my audience, so I'd focus on the many more readers who were.

However much I thought that reviewer was a prize twat (which no doubt I would) I'd keep it to myself - not least because I'd find it pretty undignified to be bickering over my own book with a random unimportant stranger, and also because nobody who reads that discussion is going to think "Dear me, and here was I thinking her review was spot-on. Now that the author of the book has informed me that anyone who dislikes his book is stupid and arrogant and didn't read it properly, I'll pick up a copy at once." No. They are far more likely to think "Blimey, that author's a bit up his own backside, isn't he?"

And the thing is, he probably isn't up his own backside at all. I'm sure if you sit down with FG Cottam for a chat over a pint he's as nice as anyone you'd care to meet. But, unfair though this may well be, it's very difficult for someone - anyone - to get into a row with a critic, especially one who isn't even a professional, over a negative review without looking like a bit of a tit.

So, anyway - this clearly isn't anything even close to the Jacqueline Howett level of absurdity, but if I was handling any author's PR (and remember, kids! PR is what I do for a living) my advice would always, always be to ignore that sort of review and move on. Not only because it looks rotten if you don't, but also because it just gives the bad review a new lease of life. I posted the review of The Waiting Room back in April. Dunno how many page views it had, but I doubt more than about 40 or 50. Today, when I received Cottam's riposte, I had the foresight to refer to it on a social networking site. 'Author bickers with reviewer' is a lot more interesting to most people than 'random girl reviews book'; consequently, I've now had absolutely loads of page views. Those are all people who would never even have seen my bad review of the book if the author hadn't commented on it in that particular fashion. All the act of posting a nasty response to my nasty review has achieved is driving traffic to my blog (traffic's up on all my recent posts as of today, not just the one on The Waiting Room) and exposing more people to a review telling people why they probably shouldn't read the book.

All in all, rather counter-productive.

Of course, anyone is perfectly within their rights to disagree with my reviews - although a remark that I haven't read the book properly is simply a baseless accusation no truth to it, and hardly falls within the realm of critical debate - which is why I haven't deleted FG Cottam's comments. I would make no attempt to censor or stop anyone unless I thought it had got to the point of trolling or harassment. So by all means, if authors want to take me to task over bad reviews, they're absolutely welcome to do so. But for all the reasons I've just outlined... I really wouldn't recommend it.

Comments

  1. "Don't get me wrong: if I was a published author and I read a bad review of my work, I'd doubtless be hurt and annoyed. But then I'd shrug and move on." This is pretty much exactly how it works when I get a (thankfully rare) stinker. It's easier if it's obviously the reviewer's honest reaction. We throw this stuff out there. Nowhere does it say that anyone has to like it. Sometimes, however, there's a faint sense of axe-grinding. Maybe you've written a book that the reviewer wanted to do themselves. Maybe you spilled wine on them accidentally at a launch years ago. That's when I have to sit on my hands and stop myself sending a very snotty missive to the reviewer.

    Then there are the bad reviews where the reviewer's got a point...

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  2. Oh, if I was an author myself and competing with Cottam for sales, or if I was in the publishing industry and had been snubbed by the guy or something, then I can certainly see why he'd imagine I had some sort of vendetta against him. But I'm none of those things. I am a woman who walked into a bookshop, bought his book and read it. I really wanted to like the bloody thing - I even finished it, even though I wasn't enjoying in the slightest, because I wanted to give it a chance right up to the end.

    Oddly, he says that he only read my review because 'someone else saw it and drew his attention to it because it was particularly vicious'. Hmmm, nice people he hangs out with, who search the internet for people being nasty about his work and then draw his attention to it. If I'd called the guy a murderer or something, fair enough; his mates would want him to get his lawyers involved. But a bad review of his book? Seems a bit... toxic.

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