On Bad Reviews…or #HaleGate

Well, we all know about Kathleen Hale by now, and if you haven’t heard of her, her article on catfishing in The Guardian makes for some pretty concerning reading.

Suffice to say, Hale made some extremely bad choices in stalking and doxxing one of her critical reviewers.

Photo Credit:  RSM ♡  via  Compfight   Creative Commons  

Photo Credit: RSM ♡ via Compfight Creative Commons 

I don’t know why she did it.

Yes, the review was harsh, but her book seemed to be doing fine, garnering both praise and criticism. It was selling well, and she has contract for another book with HarperTeen. Most writers would be overjoyed to be in her position. But clearly, she could not let this one review go. She did make some claims of Twitter harassment, but they do not seem to hold up under scrutiny, which with the ease of tracking almost every interaction on the internet, was easy for the defenders of the reviewer to provide. Maybe she thought her Guardian article would be sufficiently clever to excuse her behavior, or maybe she thought she would hit on some zeitgeist of author dissatisfaction with reviewers. Whatever she thought, it was a bad choice.

Hale is not alone.

Authors getting upset over bad reviews and making very bad choices—like physically attacking reviewers or writing lengthy and public responses to their reviews—is becoming more commonplace in this world of democratic crowdsourced comment on writing. One does not have to look very hard to find examples like this one. Sites like Amazon and Goodreads allow the people who do not like your book to make their voice heard, and if they are creative, clever or sarcastic, they can make their voice heard in a way that is very far-reaching and uncomfortable for the author.

What should authors do?

Writing for The Globe and Mail, Russell Smith claims that the solution is “to admit that Goodreads and sites like it are no place where even a barely literate adult would ever be caught sober, and that we need never go there.” Hunh? I do not agree with this. Many Goodreads reviewers write unbelievable reviews. I always go to Goodreads to check out the reviews before I buy a book or when I want to learn about an author. Indeed, given the degree of effort some reviewers spend on their reviews, and the ability to insert videos and images, many of the reviews on Goodreads have become their own art form, compulsively readable even if you haven’t read the book being reviewed. Even the most scathing one-star reviews often have some truths in them that only the reviewer was perhaps bold enough to say.

So for the record, I appreciate each and every review I have received, good or meh, and I appreciate the very fact that someone read my book and then said something about it. I have made edits to my books based on well-written reviews, and certainly take what reviewers have said about my previous books into consideration when I write new books. So to my reviewers, thank you, I cannot tell you how much I respect the time and effort it took to leave your thoughts.

But as much as writers appreciate reviewers (I do, I do!!), bad or critical reviews and ratings do hurt. Writers generally put everything they can into making their book the best it can possibly be and when someone does not like, or get, your work, it is hard. But writers do need to learn how to cope with bad reviews.

Reviews are complex.

One of the difficulties in ratings, and often reviews, is the fact that it is challenging for the writer to determine whether a reader did not like your book because they feel you are a poor writer and failed utterly at what you were trying to do, or because they just don’t like or understand the kind of stuff that you write. Different reviewers have different standards. Different readers have different things they are looking for in a book. There are lots of factors that go into a review.

There are a lot of books I don’t like…at all. My bookshelf is embarrassingly filled with them. There is a myriad of reasons I don’t like them. They are books that were either too detailed, or slow moving or too simple with flattish characters, or deal with controversial issues in a way that I do not appreciate, or set in a place that I am not interested in or written in a genre I don’t care for. But for the most part, I can appreciate that they were well written, and that they are well- or at least reasonably well-executed examples of what they were trying to be.

For example, I do not particularly like romance novels. However I have read a few lately to help me to understand the genre. I did not “like” them, but I could appreciate that they were good romance novels. If I were to write a review of them, my review would reflect my general dislike of many romance tropes and the notion of a happily ever after ending (although I like "happy" endings... just not the "ever after" partromance readers please do not be upset). But these writers are writing to the expectations of their genre and doing it well.

After the Hale controversy, I read the review in question, and the first bit of Hale’s book. I could tell from page one that I would not likely like it for many of the reasons that the reviewer identified. It was trying too hard, too affected and seemed to portray the characters through a somehow satiric and condescending lens. As an aside, that is the great thing about Amazon’s look inside and sample features. You can now get much better sense of the writer’s voice than you could through a few hastily skimmed pages in a bookstore—which is good because it means my bookshelf may groan less under the heft of DNF (did not finish) books because those books will become DNS (did not start) books instead. Hale’s book for me would be a DNS. I just don’t like that kind of book. At the same time, it is evident that she CAN write. She has a good sense of scene and voice. She is clever—perhaps too clever—and I can appreciate to some extent what she is trying to do.

While some written reviews allow writers to determine where they might have gone wrong in the reviewer’s mind, it is often the rating that writers hang on, and the rating system, by its very simplicity, conflates “poorly executed piece of crap” with “just not for me” whether the reviewer intended that or not. It would be great to have a more multi-dimensional rating system that allows reviewers to give a technical merit score, while at the same time saying “not for me.” As a reviewer myself, I often struggle to rate books that I think were well written, but that I did not love or even like for various reasons. I also struggle to rate books that are the opposite—ones that were not technically well written, but that had a good story and a lot of heart.

But in the end, ratings do not allow for that kind of nuance, and one person’s three stars is another person’s five stars.

Keep calm and carry on.

I think I started this post with the intention of pleading for temperance on the part of reviewers, asking for them to always try to recognize the good and bad in a book, and indicate whether the book is just not their thing or whether there are significant flaws in it. But after having spent the day reading a wide variety of reviews, I think that the vast majority of reviewers already do this, and writers have to accept that receiving some critical reviews, and having some readers who do not fully appreciate their efforts, is just part of being a writer. I’ve been at enough bookclubs to know that what appeals to one reader does not necessarily appeal to others.

So my quick and dirty strategy for keeping calm and carrying on when you get a less than stellar review:

1) Go immediately and read some one- and two-star reviews of your favorite novels. It will make you feel better, I promise. You will also realize that no book appeals to everyone and that even amazing books get critical reviews.

2) Read the one- and two-star reviews of some novels that you don't like. You will see that these often contain some truths that you agree with, truths that maybe only the reviewer was brave enough to say. This helps to remind me that reviews are an important part of the reading world, and that as a reader, it does make me feel better when another reader has the same opinion as I do, especially when the book has been well loved by many others.

3) Check out some of the books that your reviewer really likes. Maybe they prefer to read something totally different and grabbed your book by accident, or expecting something else. I can't tell you how often I have felt much better realizing that my book probably wasn't what they were looking for.

4) If you are still feeling unhappy, check out your reviewer's average rating. Everyone has different standards. Some people give three stars to books they really love, while others give them to books they did not like. Some reviewers are all over the place. Some reviewers are more critical. Some are less critical. Understanding what kinds of ratings and reviews a particular reviewer gives can be helpful for understanding what they are saying about your book. Some people (like me) don't ever finish and therefore do not ever rate books that they really hate. Others are more determined readers, and plow on despite disliking a book. Those kinds of people will tend to give more negative reviews.

5) Consider, really consider, what the reviewer is saying. Maybe there is some truth to it that you can use in your future writing. Maybe there isn'tbut just take a few seconds to check in on this, and be honest with yourself. I am well aware of the biggest flaws in my books, and often reviewers hit upon the things that I was uncertain about, that I had to make a call on, and that I knew might be controversial. Reviewer responses to some of these decisions may hurt a bit, but it is all good feedback for my future work. Even if you don't decide to change anything, reviews might be valuable feedback for how you target your work. I know now that I do not write romances :-), and that some romance readers might not fully appreciate my writing.

6) Do not respond in any way, ever to a negative review. Just don't. Of course, saying a big "thank you" to positive reviewsif the reviewer has reached out to you directly in Twitter or email is okay.

7) Go enjoy your day and keep writing. It's one review and it is not going to make or break your career.

8) If you can't do these things, perhaps don't read your reviews. This is super hard I know, but reviews are a part of writing, and sometimes it is just best not know what people are saying about you.

It is great that so many reviewers write so many marvelous reviews and that Goodreads creates a forum for the discussion of something really important—books. Learn what you can from the critical reviews, always be grateful and gracious to your reviewers, and keep working to improve your craft.

At least that's my approach--what do you think?

If you would like to subscribe to my blog, sign up here.