On Negative Reviews…

As many of us OC writer-types will do occasionally, I browsed over to amazon to check out A MAGIC OF TWILIGHT, and found that someone had given it a one-star review.

Of course, I had to read it — it’s like picking at a scab: you know it’s going to hurt and you shouldn’t do it, but you can’t stop yourself. Now, mind you, I believe this person is absolutely entitled to her opinion and I know that the last thing a writer should do is respond to a negative review. And hey, she does say that S.L. Farrell is one of her favorite authors, but…

Her primary complaint was that she “found myself lost trying to pronounce proper names!”

The argumentative (strong ego) side of me wonders why she liked the Cloudmages books so well when the names there are Celtic-based and (to my mind) stranger and more difficult to pronounce that the names in TWILIGHT. I mean, “Ennis O’Deoradháin” vs. “Ana cu’Seranta”? Most of the names in TWILIGHT are actual French, Italian, or German given names and surnames (the latter with an added ‘status’ syllable tacked to the front of them.) They’re not names I just ‘made up.’ Did she want “John Smith”?

But the critical (weak ego) side of me starts to worry that maybe she’s right. Maybe I’m making the readers work too hard, demanding too much of them. Maybe I should have looked for easier-to-pronounce names; maybe I shouldn’t have used so much of the ‘native’ language. I do that — as every fantasy writer does — to give flavor and solidity to the imagined world, and nearly all the reviews have praised the book for the depth of worldbuilding, but maybe I went too far. Maybe I’ve sprinkled in too much flavor and made it unpalatable. Maybe I made it inaccessible for too many readers. Maybe…

On my website, I sometimes review books I’ve read. They’re all ‘good’ reviews, because as a writer, I know that a review that eviscerates a book can only hurt…. and even if the author might agree with the flaws you point out, there’s not a damn thing they can do about it once the book’s out there. The time for negative feedback is in the drafting process, when you can still fix a mistake. Telling me you didn’t like my book for Reason X after the book is published has only one effect: it makes me feel bad. That’s true whether I happen to agree with your Reason X or not. I tell my students all the time that “the criticism is about the story, not about you,” but I’ll admit that my work is enough a part of me that, even though that’s my stance intellectually, emotionally I’m not always so solid.

OTOH, you can tell me you really liked my book all you want. :-)

I do know writers who refuse to look at bad reviews because it utterly undermines their confidence and causes them to doubt their competence and to second-guess all their decisions. I know other writers who don’t give a damn at all about bad reviews; they’ll laugh and even post them — it doesn’t affect their confidence at all. I’m not quite sure where I fit on that scale — somewhere in the middle, but probably (honestly) closer to the “shouldn’t look at bad reviews” than to the “I laugh at their stupidity” end. My writing ego is probably weaker than it is strong, in many ways.

What about you, you other writers out there? How do you respond to bad reviews? Do you read them or avoid them?  And as a reader, how much do reviews affect your purchasing decision? Do you put reviews on the book-selling sites like amazon, and if you do, what about a book would compel you to write a review, either good or bad?

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  1. 1. Lisa

    Ah, complicated names. There’s a fun debate. I like exciting names – it keeps things interesting. I do not, however, like having to wade through a sentence that has become convoluted with _too many_ names and titles. When I popped over to amazon to look at the book’s description, I profess that I was fairly put off by the chunk of text “…Archigos Dhosti ca’Millac, leader of the Concénzia Faith and Marguerite’s staunch ally, struggles to control fundamentalists like Orlandi ca’Cellibrecca as they clamor for action against the Numetodo heretics…” That’s a whole lot to digest at once. However, if the text of the book itself does a good job breaking that up and introducing it in nice, bite-sized pieces, it makes all the difference.

    As far as reviews go, I don’t usually post reviews on B&N or Amazon, but I do keep a book review blog. I don’t hesitate to write a scathing review if I feel a book deserves it… after all, my reviews are for other -readers-, not the authors themselves. Reviews aren’t meant to be constructive criticism, they’re meant to tell others your opinion of a book. I can assure you that if I wrote every “review” with the author as my audience, their tone would be very different.

  2. 2. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    I pick the scab. I know I should avoid them. When at first I read them, I’m usually fine. But then I find they haunt me when I’m in a place of self-doubt about writing. Then they rise hungry. And the crazy thing is that no matter how many good reviews you get, they seem to mean little when you hit the self-doubt path. Then the bad reviews are all you can hear. But the good reviews can really make my day.

    Di

  3. 3. Randy Johnson

    As far as how to pronounce names in books, it doesn’t bother me. If I’m not sure, I make up my own and continue to read. It’s never interfered with my enjoyment of a book.

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    I remember hearing somewhere that it takes, on average, 10-15 pieces of praise to counterbalance one criticism.

    I can believe that.

    I disagree with you, though, that pointing out the flaws only serves to make you feel bad. Depending on the flaws in question, it can teach you a lesson to use on future books. I read a great takedown of Warrior and Witch that, among other things, got me to be more conscious of how often I use italics in my writing. Sure, that review stung — but it was substantive in its criticism, rather than just Amazon whinging. And I learned from it.

  5. 5. S.L. Farrell

    Di — Yeah, for me that self-doubt sometimes rises way too easily, I’m afraid (though it is sometimes accompanied by a contradictory “I’m right and they’re wrong” feeling). I probalby shouldn’t pick the scab, but I always do… :-)

    Randy — I’m with you; I don’t have to read aloud to read. I’ll see an ‘unpronounceable’ or difficult name as a gestalt, and just associate that unique combination of consonants and vowels to that character… and I’m fine.

    Marie — You’re right in that sometimes a critical review *can* point out something that a writer should probably fix in later works. Some critical reviews do indeed have substance, I’ll grant you that!

  6. 6. Mike

    The lead character in my new novel Spider Star was going to have a very minorly modified version of a common American name. There will be new or modified names in the far future, yes? It would make the story feel a bit more out there, yes? Well, my editor doesn’t tend to micromanage very much, but she came right out and said that she hates that sort of thing and strongly suggested I change it to the contemporary version. I did. For what it’s worth.

  7. 7. Kelly McCullough

    I tend toward the thick-skinned end of the scale, though it’s at least in part for another reason. I’d often* prefer to have a bad review rather than no review, because it means that the person read my work and it mattered to them. Mind you, I infinitely prefer that it matter to them in a positive way and that they give me a good review, but if I can’t have that, there’s something to be said for criticism over indifference.

    *ask me another day, say a low-self esteem day and you’ll probably get a different answer, but today is a couple of days after I finished the latest book, and self-esteem is currently high.

  8. 8. Amy Sisson

    A couple of comments, which I want to preface by saying I don’t disagree with you as much as this will likely sound like I do (if that makes sense).

    You say: “Telling me you didn’t like my book for Reason X after the book is published has only one effect: it makes me feel bad. ” The thing is, as a book reviewer, I’m not writing the review to tell the author anything. I’m writing the review to give those who are trying to decide to buy or read the book additional info on which to base that decision. I suspect the same is true for many other reviewers, whether professional or “Amazon”ian — they’re writing the review for potential readers, not for the author. (I’m sure there are exceptions to this, of course, when snarky Amazon reviewers might even address the review directly to the author.)

    In many instances, I am assigned specific books to review. There’s nothing worse than to be assigned a book you end up hating, or even just disliking — especially in the small and incestuous speculative fiction field. I review for VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates). If the book I’m assigned is marketed towards young adults, I have to review it whether I love it or hate it, because librarians need to be able to decide whether to purchase it for their young adult collections. Thankfully, though, it I get assigned an adult book to look at it for possible YA appeal, I DON’T have to review it if it has none. The journal editor isn’t going to waste review space on bad adult books that librarians weren’t going to be considering for YA purchase anyway. But they do want to include it if it does have that appeal, to draw attention and say “hey, this adult book would be great for your YAs!” Does that make sense?

    I guess I feel that authors should decide to either read reviews; decide not to read reviews; or decide to read only positive reviews that a trusted “screener” has passed on to them — and then accept the consequences of that decision.

    One last thing… While I don’t want authors to dumb things down for me, if there are too many character names that I can’t figure out how to pronounce, and therefore can’t hear in my head, I tend to have trouble keeping the characters straight because my reading-voice-in-my-head has to keep glossing over the names. I had a lot of trouble with “The Hunt for Red October” many years ago, for that reason. It’s also a problem if characters’ names are simple but too similar to each other within the same work.

    Speaking of italics (Marie mentioned them), a reviewer once said only this: “It arrives, possibly to berate individual for excessive italicisation.” Obviously the reviewer felt I used italics obsessively, but otherwise I’m mystified by that sentence. I think it’s pretty funny, regardless.

  9. 9. S.L. Farrell

    Mike — I’d say that editors are a ‘special’ type of critic; it always pays to listen hard to what they have to say, even if you still don’t take their advice!

    Kelly — there’s no such thing as bad publicity, eh? :-) To a point, I can agree with you; there’s something to be said in that your book incitesd passion in a reader, even if it is the negative variety.

    Amy — I do understand what you’re saying. But from the writer-perspective, even if I agree with a critic’s view, once the book’s in print, I can’t *do* anything about it. The best I can do is make changes in future books (assuming the critique is something I agree with) so that response doesn’t occur again. Bad reviews can (sometimes) send me into a tail-spin where I don’t want to write for a day or three or seven… which is *my* problem, not the reviewers. But there it is.

    I just wonder how common a syndrome this is for other writers.

  10. 10. Anne

    Reviews – as a reader, the weight I give them depends entirely on the degree of confidence I have in the reviewer. Something on a book jacket from someone I’ve never heard of is useless. Something on a book jacket, even from an author much better known than the author of the book being reviewed, is questionable, at best, since there’s a self-congratulatory or self-publicizing motivation suspicion.

    On the other hand, I found this blog by reading Charlie Stross’s blog, and I found Charlie Stross because Marc Andreesen reviewed a list of SF books .. see blog.pmarca.com, the books topic. Marc has reputation in a number of spaces – and in this review he specifically mentioned authors whom I had also previously read. I have already bought and read the majority of the books which he mentions (those I didn’t already own).

    Don’t know if that helps authors very much ..

  11. 11. Simon Haynes

    It’s only one data point, though, so I wouldn’t read too much into it.

    Personally I’m not wild about complicated names, since they do funny things to my brain. However, I find bland names with similar syllables far worse .. better to have tk’something and pl’other than smithson and nesmith or Thompson and ‘Thomson without a P as in Venezuela’ … (gotta love that Tintin humour)

    As for bad reviews, I’ve only seen one mildly negative review for my first novel in the major press (something about the plot being complicated), and the magazine which published it closed very suddenly a couple of weeks ago after 130+ years in business.

    My vengeful nature would like to think the two events are related, but sadly I don’t carry that much power. Strike one for Karma, though. If someone puts a bad review of Hal on Amazon and the whole company folds THEN I’ll believe it.

  12. 12. Jay Charles

    From a reader’s perspective, I find that I trust a reviewer’s opinions far less than my own. This seems to be true in everything from books, movies and music to local eateries.

    With regard to books, in the event that one of my “preferred list” of authors (around 50 or so, at last count) doesn’t have something I haven’t yet read when I’m in the market for a new book, I don’t check the reviews on books before deciding to venture into unknown territory with an unfamiliar writer. Instead, I gather ten or so books that seem appealing, using the following criteria in descending order of weight: a)the dust jacket/back cover; b)the title; c)staff recommendations; or d)cover art (sorry, but it can be a consideration, given complete unfamiliarity…at least it comes in at last place). I find a place to sit and I read the first chapter or so, which gives me some idea as to the author’s style, plot, charcter development, etc.

    Regarding “difficult” names: if they’re complicated for a reason, I think they’re fantastic; if they’re complex just for complexity’s sake… For example, if your story takes place in the USSR in 1975, by all means make the names reflect the culture, complete with Cyrillic characters. If it takes place in in the Andromeda Galaxy as humans first encounter two alien species hostile to each other, why not make the names distinctive and complex; it lends to the verisimilitude. But if every name is a polysyllabic jumble of consonants, numbers and diacriticals for no apparent purpose, you’re probably going to lose me.

    Of course, as you say, it isn’t necessary to read aloud in order to read! Thanks for your post!

  13. 13. Kate Elliott

    It depends on the kind of bad review it is.

    If the reviewer loathed the book for reasons that don’t clearly have to do with the book’s putative flaws, then I do just feel bad, especially if the review might have some negative consequences on sales and I know that a different review would have had a very different point of view about the book. But at other times a “bad” review is really a mixed review and there are interesting and often illuminating comments within it, including some of the critical ones.

    It’s like the difference between someone saying, “you totally suck” and someone saying, forex, “I got tired of hearing you complain especially when you weren’t doing your share of the chores, but it was really a lot of fun dancing with you.”

  14. 14. S.L. Farrell

    Simon — I probably should have made the distinction about reviews from individuals (as in blog or on amazon) vs. reviews from the major reviewing sources (PW, Kirkus, the various newspapers and large reviewing sites, etc.) — the vast majority of the reviews from there have been very positive, and a bad review from one of them would have more impact on me personally. A bad amazon review — like the one cited above — is, as you say, one data point.

    Kate — heck, with a mixed review, you can often dredge a decent quote from it. If the Cleveland Newsrag reviewer says about Sarah Smith’s new book that “There are finely-drawn characters and wonderful twists of plot, but the turgid pace kills the effect,” Sarah can always put on her website ” ‘Finely-drawn characters and wonderful twists of plot…’ — Cleveland Newsrag” :-)

  15. 15. David B. Coe

    I read the bad reviews of my books on Amazon and get really ticked off about them. Shouldn’t do it, I know. It only serves to aggravate me, particularly when a reviewer “Knows” I did this, or says that “clearly” I was basing my story on that. Nine times out of ten, they’re just wrong. But that doesn’t keep me from getting angry. I don’t ever respond to Amazon reviews, but only because I actually get up and walk away from the computer after I read them, just to keep myself from posting something I’ll regret. Sometimes, though, later, when no one’s looking, I’ll go back to the review and click the button that says “This review was not helpful to me.” It’s true, after all. And it makes me feel a bit better. Pretty pathetic, I know, but it’s my little revenge.

  16. 16. S.L. Farrell

    David — Yeah, the rule is definitely “never respond to a bad review.” I often do, however, respond to good reviews (assuming there’s contact information) with a “Hey, glad you liked it!” and sometimes even to mixed reviews if they point out something I think is interesting.

    But bad ones? Nope. Except when I mention them in blog posts… :-)

  17. 17. C. C. Finlay

    The first Amazon review on my first novel was an extremely negative review. I’m almost certain who wrote it, someone I’d had a bad encounter with in a workshop and who’d never even read the book. I decided to be thick-skinned about it and just ignore it, even after some people close to the book suggested I actively solicit positive reviews to balance it out. But in the end, I think it kind of poisoned the reviews that followed and the ratings never recovered. I compared it the ratings the German translation of the book received, and at least for a while they were higher. So I’ve become much more sensitive to the power of negative reviews since. I still don’t let them hit me *too* hard for short fiction, but I find myself really wanting readers to love my next books as much as I do.

  18. 18. Maria V. Snyder

    I try to skip reading any reviews with one or two stars on Amazon – just not worth my time and potential feelings of depression.

    But if I get a thoughtful and insightful review that’s not all sugar and honey, I do like Marie does and learn from it – especially if they touched on one of those places I already knew was weak :)

    I do have a harder time not responding when a reviewer makes a general comment that is misleading – for example someone said my main character was being “rescued” all the time by the hero – it’s true to a point, she doesn’t know how to protect herself in the beginning, BUT she learns self-defense and how to use a weapon and, by the end, she does defend herself without help. So my fingers itch to send an explanation with examples (page numbers included ;) So far I’ve managed to stop myself.

  19. 19. Elizabeth Moon

    Names: when I speak to groups of readers/writers who don’t usually read SF/F, I always ask them why they don’t read it. The number one reason is “Those weird names: I can’t figure out how to pronounce the names.” For some readers, this is a deal-breaker: they cannot bond to a character they can’t “talk” to by calling the name. (Some of them aren’t very good readers, since one of them asked me how to pronounce “Gird.” I asked how she thought it would be pronounced, and she got it right. I asked why she thought it might be something else, and the answer was “It’s a fantasy book…it might be something weird.)

    Reviews: I don’t read them…I can’t stand to read negative reviews of friends’ books, let alone of mine. They churn around inside, like the start of a stomach flu episode, and make it impossible to work for several days–can’t afford that. As you pointed out, reviews are generally useless to the writer (good or bad) because what they’re talking about is already done and set in type. And that’s assuming an astute reviewer. I’ve had reviews by people who seem to have read someone else’s book (sometimes even getting the names of characters wrong) and criticized bits it didn’t contain. I’ve had reviews by people who used my book as a platform for their own political bias, or who assumed they knew my motivation for writing it, which they didn’t approve of. And even in a good review, some reviewers seem determined to find *something* to damn…and that’s what will stick with me, the bur under my saddle for weeks to months.

    So I just don’t read them. I tell myself they’re for reader guidance (though, when I was not published and read a lot more, I didn’t find most reviews useful at all. A few reviewers lined up (pro and con) with my own taste enough that I could risk any book X liked and most books Y hated, but the others were scattershot. It was simpler to go into the bookstore and read the first few pages myself.

    And I get enough reader email, including blasts far worse than bad reviews, to keep me shaky at the mental knees.

  20. 20. Keilexandra

    FYI: As a reader, any blog/website/reviewer that only writes positive reviews loses all credibility. There’s no way you liked every single book you’ve ever read, and if you choose to simply ignore the “bad” books, then lack of guts will lose you credibility anyway.

  21. 21. S.L. Farrell

    Marie — I do understand, believe me. It’s really tempting to respond to those totally off-base reviews…

    Elizabeth — I’m not quite to the point where I actively avoid reviews, but I do wonder whether that wouldn’t be a better tactic for me. A really savage review does end up shaking me enough that I lose writing time, and that’s not good.

    Keilexandra — I don’t know if I agree. Yes, no reader likes every single book they read, but that doesn’t mean you have to *review* the bad ones. As I said, the (few) reviews I have on my site are of books that I read, enjoyed, and feel that I’d can recommend to my friends and readers. So they’re more ‘recommendations’ than reviews, but I don’t see that doing so necessarily makes me lose ‘credibility,’ nor is it from a ‘lack of guts.’ (Hey, I’ve refused to blurb books from friends when I didn’t feel I could give honestly give the novel sufficient praise.) It’s more a display of the Golden Rule.

  22. 22. S.L. Farrell

    Charlie — I do suspect that a spate of negative reviews will affect both future reviews and sales. But I hate to ask those I knew to write good reviews, in the same way that I won’t ask those I knew to rec me for the Nebula or Hugo — I figure if they want to do that, they already know they can, and my asking means that when I see it, it means nothing… As you can tell, marketing isn’t my forte!

    Anne — I agree that finding a reviewer whose judgment you find matches yours can help. I have a couple movie reviewers that work that way for me.

    Jay — you’re welcome! Glad the post provoked some thoughts.

    Lisa — I hasten to mention that the sentence you reference ISN’T in the book, and isn’t mine at all, but some copy editor’s prose! :-)

  23. 23. Keilexandra

    S.L. Farrell – If you want to only write positive reviews and cast them as recommendations, that’s completely different. Obviously you would only recommend books that you liked. But if you cast yourself as a serious -reviewer-, then you have an obligation (IMHO) to present both sides and not shy away from negative reviews.

  24. 24. Jim Harris

    I’m afraid I shy away from books with complicated character names – but I’ve discovered a solution for that – I buy the book on audio. And I generally buy books because of entricing reviews.

  25. 25. Chris (The Book Swede)

    As a reviewer myself (but also as someone who is writing hard, and planning — well, hoping! — to have stuff published one day) I try to make my reviews constructive, even if they are negative. I can be scathing, sometimes, certainly, but I try to establish the balance of informing the reader of precisely what I think, making the review readable, entertaining, but also giving the author something, too.

    I’m always pleased when an author comments and says something like, “It’s a thoughtful and honest response, and that’s all any author can ask for.” ‘Cause that makes my day!

    Of course, it probably doesn’t always work! :)

    I have noticed though, that mixed opinions throughout the blogosphere often have people more interested in the book than lots of reviews that say — whether good or bad — the same thing. Also, the reviews that get the most feedback from readers are the mixed ones.

    ~Chris
    The Book Swede

  26. 26. H.E.A.

    I don’t know how to deal with bad reviews. I’m not published (yet) but I’m working towards it, and today I got a rude comment on a chapter of a book I’m writing. I’ve never been able to take criticism, and I have no self-esteem (yes, I had an eating disorder when I was younger), so I don’t really know what to do. The best thing for me to do is just look over all the good reviews after reading a bad one, and seeing how many people actually do enjoy what I write.

Author Information

Stephen Leigh

Stephen Leigh (aka S.L. Farrell) is a Cincinnati author with 25 novels and several dozen short stories published. Booklist called his Cloudmages trilogy "Good enough to cast in gold." He teaches creative writing at Northern Kentucky University, and is a frequent speaker to writers groups. Visit site.

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