Who are these annoying little people who are reviewing my book on Amazon?

Advice-columnist Margo Howard is distressed that she received bad reviews of her recent memoir from real, ordinary people on Amazon.  The reviews were written by Amazon’s Vine community, and Ms. Howard didn’t like them one bit, finding them “inaccurate, insulting, and demonstrably written by dim bulbs.”  She finds the very idea of being reviewed by these folks distressing:

I can see the valuemaybefor man-on-the-street reviews of cold cream and pots and pans, but books?!

(I love the interrobang.)  And:

Books, of course, can be and are reviewed pre-publicationbut by reviewers who are attached to magazines or newspapers. “Book Reviewer” is considered a profession, and reviews are done by other writers. Good sense would seem to militate against any group of people unschooled in creative and critical reviewing coming up with a worthwhile review. The Vine people, who deal mostly with products for the home and the body, seem inappropriate bellwethers regarding products for the mind, if you will.

Luckily, Jennifer Weiner is around to offer some sensible words in response:

Howard frets that the Amazon attack hurt her book’s chances. There’s no way to tell if that’s true, but I’d give readers the benefit of the doubt. My guess is that they can sniff out a review that’s the result of baseless jealousy or an unfounded agenda, the same way they’ve learned to dismiss five-star fan-girling from an author’s BFFs, colleagues, or mom.

If the Amazon reviewers slammed Howard’s work without reading it, that’s a problem, and Amazon should address it. If they panned Howard’s book because they didn’t like it, that’s reality, and Howard need to figure out how to live with it, and to come to terms with publishing in 2014. Everyone is a critic. Everyone’s got a soapbox. And the worst fate for a writer isn’t being attacked … it’s being ignored.

Here, by the way, is a review that just popped up on Barnes & Noble about my novel The Distance Beacons:

Wow, Violet! This was great! Thanks so much for recommending it to me! (Haha, sorry for the typo) Your style is absolutely wonderful! Please keep going, and l will keep reading! <p> Thanks again for reading mine, Ring &infin

Huh?  Actually, there seems to be a random conversation going on between a couple of people, carried out via reviews of my novel.  Luckily, all their reviews are 5-stars.  At least I’m not being ignored.  I think.

 

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I get a two-star customer review on Amazon, and I brood about the nature of fiction

Here I described a review of Senator that started badly but it ended up full of praise.  I love trick endings like that!

But now I’ve got a review of Dover Beach that goes in the opposite direction.  Look:

Great plot…..excellent writing……FINALLY a believable private eye……interesting, unforgettable characters…..surprising twists……All this to say that I believe here is an author we will hear more from in the future.

So why did I give it only 2 stars? Because of his world-view. His main character is living in a destroyed world as a result of nuclear war — yet Bowker thinks humanism is going to rebuild it all????

Have long though[t] that good Science Fiction asks the right questions, but am afraid Bowker comes up with wrong answers. I don’t buy the humanist philosophy and if his next book has “Humanistic Science Fiction” on the cover I for one won’t be spend[ing] a dime on it.

I guess we shouldn’t have put that quote from Locus (“Humanist science fiction of a high order”) on the cover!  But anyway, I was brooding about that four-question-mark question in the review’s second paragraph.  Do I believe what the reviewer says I believe?  I do not.  But further, I have never even considered the question.  Even further, if the novel suggests that I have an opinion about the matter–or about anything, in fact–I’d consider that a flaw.  The purpose of fiction is to give pleasure, not to give answers–to strive for beauty, not for truth.  For me, the pleasure of Dover Beach was in plopping down a conventional literary genre in an unconventional setting, and exploring the tensions that resulted.  This may cause notions of humanism to creep in, because private eyes deal with human-scale issues.  But the private eye in Dover Beach isn’t going to save the world he inhabits–he is lucky if he’ll be able to save himself.

This gives me a chance to copy John Keats’s definition of negative capability, which we should all read every year or so:

At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously- I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason — Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

Words for a writer to live by.

Here’s a five-star review to make me feel better:

What a treasure. Amazing how smoothly this author leads the reader into his jagged, apocalyptic world to reveal what evil lurks in the hearts of men, and leaves you to decide if such a world is worth saving or even living in. I was particularly impressed with his skill at giving you his characters bit by bit throughout to let them become gems of many facets, like a skilled diamond cutter. This is one P.I. whom you will never forget.

 

 

Another bad review for Senator! (Also, reading a book on an iPhone)

At the risk of running counter to the purpose of this stupid blog, which is to persuade people to buy my stupid ebooks, I’d like to highlight a one-star review of Senator that just showed up on Amazon:

Too soon after the elections. Just one more book that proves that politicians are first grade liars, and will do anything to stay in power.

It’s easy to be snarky about a review like this. The obvious remedy for the reader’s problem with the book is to read it when she’s not sick of politics. It’s not the book’s fault that she read it right after the election!

On the other hand, this highlights something important about the fickleness of everyone’s judgments about books (and movies and music…).  We encounter them at a specific time and place, and our judgments about them are inevitably colored by those circumstances.  Sometimes you’re too young for a book; sometimes you’re too old.  The books I enjoyed before I had kids may not be the ones I’d enjoy after I had kids.  It’s impossible to be completely objective in your assessments of books, and an author shouldn’t blame a reader for not trying.

Based on a recommendation from one of my very fine readers, I recently read The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, which is number 30 on the list of the greatest English https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/13/The_Good_Soldier_First_Edition%2C_Ford_Madox_Ford.jpglanguage novels of the twentieth century.  (He changed the title of the novel, and also his last name.  Read Wikipedia to find out why.) Just for kicks, I read the book in the Kindle app on my new iPhone.  And I hated it!  But now I’m never likely to be able to fully disentangle my assessment of the novel from the modality by which I encountered it.  I thought that reading a book on an iPhone was pretty claustrophobic, with the small screen size giving you such a small view of the text.  And guess what — I found The Good Soldier to be claustrophobic as well, with the narrator’s obsessive telling and retelling of his story of the interactions among several decidedly unpleasant people.  So, what can I make of the novel?  Reading it was at best a two-star experience for me, but maybe reading a leather-bound critical edition of the book would have caused me to give it an extra star or two.  Maybe if I hadn’t read parts of it while waiting to get my hair cut, or during half-time of a Patriots game in which the secondary once again wasn’t getting the job done…

That’s why an author should be eternally grateful when he encounters readers who seem to understand and enjoy what he’s trying to do.  There are so many ways in which that can fail to happen.

Bad reviews: They don’t matter. Really they don’t. I’m sure they don’t.

One of my rules for writing, now cast in stone, is that you should get people to read your stuff.  But of course this applies before you have unleashed your creation upon the entire world.  After that, you don’t have much choice.  People will read your creation, or not.  They’ll like it, or they won’t.  And nowadays, they are happy to tell you what they think.

This is a new phenomenon.  I have received a couple of fan letters in my life, and there have been a number of reviews (almost all favorable), but mostly I haven’t heard anything from anyone about what I’ve written.  But now I’m up to 17 customer reviews of Senator on Amazon, there are several on iTunes, and there are probably some others lurking out there. My other books have also had a few reviews.  And, strangely, not every review is entirely positive.  I quoted from a really positive review of Senator a while back.  Now, in the interest of equal time, let’s take a look at a couple of two-star Kindle reviews (no one-star reviews yet!).  This one is titled “boring,” and the semicolon is there in the original:

I stopped after 50 pages, the book was too predictable. Nothing much new here. It was not esp;ecially well written or exciting.

And this person disliked the book so much he needed to tell the world in ALL CAPS:

THE BOOK IS VERY SLOW AND DOESN’T ACHIEVE THE STATUS OF THRILLER; IN OCCASIONS CHARACTERS DON’T HAVE A SPEC OF NOTION ABOUT THEIR INTERRELATION WITH THE OTHER CHARACTERS.

Of course, my initial reaction is to argue with these fine folks: my characters do too have a spec of notion about their interrrelation with the other characters.  That’s what the friggin’ book is all about, darn it to heck.

But that way madness lies.  It helps that far better novels than mine have gotten worse reviews than these.  But ultimately, great writers or not, we should all follow the advice of the immortal Rick Nelson: You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.

Great books, bad Amazon reviews

Here‘s a delightful article that simply quotes one-star reviews of great books on Amazon.  (I read about it in the Boston Globe this morning and assumed it was recent–but it’s actually from way back in 2005.)

Some of the reviews just kinda miss the point, like this one of Slaughterhouse-Five:

“In the novel, they often speak of a planet called Tralfamadore, where he was displayed in a zoo with a former movie star by the name of Montana Wildhack. I thought that the very concept of a man who was kidnapped by aliens was truly unbelievable and a tad ludicrous. I did not find the idea of aliens kidnapping a human and putting them in a zoo very plausible. While some of the Tralfamadorians’ concept of death and living in a moment would be comforting for a war veteran, I found it relatively odd. I do not believe that an alien can kidnap someone and house them in a zoo for years at a time, while it is only a microsecond on earth. I also do not believe that a person has seven parents.”

Some of them simply employ different critical standards from the rest of us. Here’s a one-sentence pan of Lord of the Rings:

“The book is not readable because of the overuse of adverbs.”

And some of them do have a point.  Here’s a takedown of Gravity’s Rainbow:

“When one contrasts Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five with this book, it’s like comparing an Olympic sprinter with an obese man running for the bus with a hot dog in one hand and a soda in the other.”

And this one pretty well sums up The Sun Also Rises:

“Here’s the first half of the book: ‘We had dinner and a few drinks. We went to a cafe and talked and had some drinks. We ate dinner and had a few drinks. Dinner. Drinks. More dinner. More drinks. We took a cab here (or there) in Paris and had some drinks, and maybe we danced and flirted and talked sh*t about somebody. More dinner. More drinks. I love you, I hate you, maybe you should come up to my room, no you can’t’… I flipped through the second half of the book a day or two later and saw the words ‘dinner’ and ‘drinks’ on nearly every page and figured it wasn’t worth the risk.”

I just love that last sentence.

I wonder if you could chart a book’s reputation over time by the customer reviews.  The Sun Also Rises has 621 reviews; On the Road has 811; Slaughterhouse-Five has 911. That’s getting to be a reasonable sample size.  In any case, writers can take comfort that you can’t please everyone; some people are bound to hate even the best books.  Everybody likes To Kill a Mockingbird, right?  It now has 87 one-star reviews in Amazon.  Here’s one:

i had to read this book in 9th grade. i heard that it was supposed to be this wonderful american classic, and i actually looked forward to reading it. well, all i’m gonna say is that it sucked. it was just like any other book, nothing special. yes, the prejudice part was good, i think it could show people that we need to accept our differences, but it just wasn’t that deep. i got bored after 20 pages. all in all, i was very disappointed and to whoever gets an assignment to read this, good luck.

Bad Reviews 2: The Alix Ohlin Story

Here we pondered a bad review of Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing in the New York Times.

The latest kerfluffle is about an especially scathing review in the Times of Alix Ohlin’s latest books — a novel called Inside and a volume of short stories, Signs and Wonders. I’ve never heard of Ohlin, but her books have A-list publishers — Knopf and Viking — and bunches of good reviews and blurbs.  The review is by William Giraldi, whom I’ve also never heard of.  He’s published a novel called Busy Monsters.  So what’s up?  The review is online, and here’s the first paragraph:

There are two species of novelist: one writes as if the world is a known locale that requires dutiful reporting, the other as if the world has yet to be made. The former enjoys the complacency of the au courant and the lassitude of at-hand language, while the latter believes with Thoreau that “this world is but canvas to our imaginations,” that the only worthy assertion of imagination occurs by way of linguistic originality wed to intellect and emotional verity. You close “Don Quixote” and “Tristram Shandy,” “Middlemarch” and “Augie March,” and the cosmos takes on a coruscated import it rather lacked before, an “eternal and irrepressible freshness,” in Pound’s apt phrase. His definition of literature is among the best we have: “Language charged with meaning.” How charged was the last novel you read?

That paragraph was written by a guy who is trying way too hard.  To all you would-be writers out there: Take my advice and never use a phrase like “the cosmos takes on a coruscated import it rather lacked before.”  Your readers will be forever grateful.

Giraldi’s complaint about Ohlin’s work is that it “enjoys the complacency of the au courant and the lassitude of at-hand language.”  And he gives plenty of examples.  She describes teeth as white; people’s hearts sink and sing; she uses clichés like “Nice guys finish last.”

So anyway, thanks to Amazon, I was able to take a look inside Inside.  And the

Alix Ohlin, apparently dreaming up banal things to write

first chapter was, well, pretty good.  She sets up an interesting situation and draws a couple of interesting characters.  A young female psychotherapist goes out cross-country skiing and literally runs into a guy who has apparently just tried to hang himself.  She takes him to the hospital; she takes him back to his apartment afterwards; she takes an interest.  The dialog is snappy and occasionally unexpected, and the language was cliché-free; no one’s teeth are white in Chapter 1.

So then I looked at Giraldi’s novel. It too has good reviews and a mainstream publisher.  But he tries too hard.  He describes someone as “heaving his psychosis our way, sending bow-tied packages, soilsome letters, and text messages to the bestial effect of, If you marry that baboon, I’ll end all our lives.”  Soilsome?  WordPress’s spellchecker doesn’t recognize that word, and neither do I.

His novel is probably fine, too — it just inhabits a different universe from Ohlin’s.  He will claim it’s a better universe; he’ll claim he has Thoreau and Pound on his side (neither of whom wrote any novels that I can recall).

So why would the New York Times assign Ohlin’s books to be reviewed by someone you can be reasonably confident is going to hate them?  Dunno.  Why bother?  And, if you’re Giraldi, why write a review that makes you look like a dick? How is this going to help your career?

Here’s a balanced article in Salon about how to write a bad review. It ends with this advice:

In the end, the literary world is basically a small city. We could maybe all comfortably occupy Madison, Wisc. And so a book review is not being read in a vacuum: when you angrily eviscerate somebody’s work, you are shitting where you eat. It is important both to support each other and criticize each other, and to find ways to do both, respectfully and constructively. This means thinking things through before you open your piehole, whether it’s on Twitter or in the pages of the Times. Is that so hard?

Sounds right to me.