Saturday, 23 July 2011

My first bad review


I'm glad my post about reviews on Wednesday attracted quite a lot of interest. As a reviewer, as well as a writer, I'm all too well aware of the sensitivities of the subject - and its importance to those concerned.

I thought I'd tell you the story of my first bad review, back in 1991. Of course, I was excited by the appearance of my first book, All the Lonely People. It featured a Liverpool lawyer, Harry Devlin, and was the first in a series of (so far!) eight books.

The early reviews were great. Then I read one in a magazine for law students. It began well, by immediately comparing my book to Raymond Chandler. I was pleased, though surprised, as it really bore no resemblance to the work of the great private eye writer.

Then, as I read on, it emerged that the reviewer really didn't like Raymond Chandler. Nor did she like poor old Harry. And she didn't like my book, either. Indeed, she went on to make it clear she didn't have any time for crime fiction in any shape or form.

I remain unclear as to why she bothered to write the review, but I do know the magazine soon became defunct and of course I really didn't mourn it! Anyway, my book was later shortlisted for the award for best crime debut of the year. So perhaps, whatever its faults, it wasn't too terrible after all.

But the incident has stayed with me as an encouraging example of why one shouldn't get too despondent about reviews, however unkind or indeed unfair. And there is one golden rule, I think, for authors. It's a mistake to argue with reviewers who don't like your book. You have to chalk it up to experience. Not a happy experience, sure, and like any other writer, I love having my books positively reviewed. But there are much worse things in life than bad reviews. Besides, just occasionally, a bad review says more about the reviewer than about the book.

17 comments:

Barbara said...

I had a terrible review once by someone who apparently had been assigned exactly the sort of book he despised and thought was only read by stupid people. It was so dismissive of the entire genre (and of women writers) that I began to think people who actually like mysteries would be so annoyed by his attitude they might pick up my book in defense of the genre - and anyone who agreed with him would never pick up the book even before they read the review.

But it was the first time I had someone in a review say "I can't imagine why anyone would read this book." Or, apparently, any mysteries at all, unless they were exceedingly hip and by the right sort of people - the ones who presumably transcend the genre.

I was actually laughing by the time I finished reading it.

I think it only makes sense to pay attention to negative remarks in reviews if you're hearing the same kinds of complaints frequently or if someone says something that makes you think "that's actually a good point." A one-off "I have an issue with this" is - as you say - merely proof that people don't all respond to a book the same way (and anyone who dislikes the entire genre should remember that reviews are to guide readers, not simply reflect one's own prejudices.)

Jennifer Thomson said...

Great post. So being compared to Raymond Chandler was a bad thing in the reviewer's eyes? Bit like saying 'that was the worst book since Dickens.'
Just goes to show reviews are no more than someone's opinion.

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - What? How could any reviewer not like your work? :-). It is encouraging to remember that we all have those unpleasant moments. But I can't blame you for your reaction when the magazine folded ;-).

Pauline Rowson said...

Good post, Martin, and very sound advice.

aguja said...

Oh, this post is so amusing. I can see this po-faced reviewer sneering her way through her piece with a curl of disdain and look of distaste.

And you did not do badly, which shows that she missed something in the reading.

Deb said...

It's not so much that you received a bad review, but that the review was written by someone who admitted that she didn't like crime/mystery/detective fiction. Why in the world would a magazine assign someone to review a book in a genre they disliked?

I steer clear of any review where the reviewer makes it plan they do not like the type of book under review. If they don't like it, they will not understand the conventions of it and will not see how and where the author has used (or subverted) the expectations of the genre.

John said...

I've read the first Harry Devlin book and it in no way bears any resemblance to anything by Chandler. How incredibly odd. Usually reviewers recuse themselves when they don't like the book and can find nothing good to say about it.

BTW, if I were to use analogy I would've compared your first book to the work of Ian Rankin even though he had only written two Rebus books by 1991!

And I especially liked the scenes in ALL THE LONELY PEOPLE with the homeless guys at the junkyard.

Maxine said...

It can be quite hard for a reviewer (though in this case not - why did she take on a review of a book in a genre she did not like?). If you don't like a book you can just not review it, but if you've committed to review it for someone else, and they've obtained the book for you, what do you do if you are honestly disappointed in it? I have this problem quite a bit. I don't like being negative as I know how hurtful this can be, but equally a review's main purpose is to advise on whether to read the book or not. So is it fair only to write positive reviews?

Martin Edwards said...

Barbara, thanks, that's very well put.

Martin Edwards said...

Jennifer, too right!

Martin Edwards said...

Margot, Pauline, thanks very much.

Martin Edwards said...

Aguja, I hope she became a kinder solicitor than she was a critic!

Martin Edwards said...

Deb, I very much agree.

Martin Edwards said...

John, thanks very much. I'm glad you liked that scene, which I was quite pleased with at the time. And I do rather like being compared with Ian Rankin!

Martin Edwards said...

Maxine, excellent question. I think I've touched on this issue ages ago, but I will return to it.

djskrimiblog said...

I know what you mean. So far, reviewers have been very generous to my short stories, but yesterday someone helped me grow up very quickly when she gave me TWO stars for the first time. It stung a bit, but I have promised myself I will just ignore it and remember that reviews make people notice my work.

Dorte H.

NB: I don´t know if you have found my new wordpress blog.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Dorte - these two star people just don't know a good thing when they see one!
And I've belatedly updated my blogroll link - thanks for reminding me!