Reviews: The good, the bad, the ugly

After a 20 year career in the secular market, I’m no stranger to reviews. Over the years I’ve taken some  lumps along with the laurels. And I’ve noticed that reviewers fall into three broad  categories: those who are thoughtful and helpful and tactful,  those who are mean spirited and have a personal ax to grind,  and those who are careless and lazy and write reviews that do a disservice to the reader.

I have no problem with a thoughtful reviewer who points out where I might have done a better job. In fact, I welcome it. For example: “While the author obviously did her homework on the historical details, I would have preferred  more action.”  Okay! Good point. I’ll try to incorporate more action  next time. Or: “The main character was very well drawn, but knowing more of her backstory would have helped me identify with her.”   More insights into my characters. Got it.  Thanks! Unfortunately, this kind of review is rare.

More common is the reviewer who disses a cat for being a cat. A cat has pointy ears,  four paws, and a tail. You can’t  fault him for being what he is.  Likewise, genre novels are expected to have a certain set of characteristics. A murder mystery has a victim, a perpetrator, a detective determined to solve the case despite red herrings, witnesses who stonewall, and other complications. Eventually, a piece of physical evidence, a new witness or a brilliant piece of deductive reasoning brings the criminal to justice and the mystery is solved. Similarly, a romance novel features an attractive heroine who meets and falls in love with the Perfect Man…only they both are burdened  by internal and external forces that threaten to keep them apart. A romance reader buys the book in order to identify with  the heroine, fall in love with the PM right along with her, and find out how these two people will overcome their problems to find the promise of happiness.

I have never read a review of a murder mystery in which the reviewer said, “I didn’t like this book because  the case was solved in the end.”   I have however, seen many reviews for romances  that say, “This was a typical  romance–the hero and heroine argue and then fall in love and get married. ”

Of course as writers we should look for ways to make the tried and true formula as fresh as possible–an unusual setting, an atypical hero, for example, but just as a murder mystery requires a killer and a victim, so a romance novel requires two people who find love despite the obstacles standing in  the way. A review that disses a romance for being a romance is not helpful to anyone.

Worst of all  is the smug, snarky reviewer who for whatever reason gives a book only a superficial read, makes false assumptions based upon a skimming of the book, and then proceeds to criticize the author based upon the false assumption. Over the years I’ve had reviewers who got the names of my main characters wrong, the setting wrong, the period wrong with never a thought to how misinformation does the writer a grave disservice and can mislead readers and cause them to bypass a book they might have enjoyed.

Not too long ago, someone online criticized author Ann Patchett for writing about a vaccine for malaria and said that because “there is no such thing as a malaria vaccine” Patchett’s entire book failed, and asked what happened to “writing what you know.”  The trouble is, there is indeed an effective vaccine for malaria, a fact that took  all of five minutes of online research to confirm.

As authors we can’t respond to reviews without being accused of being thin skinned and defensive. Never apologize, never explain—so goes the conventional wisdom. I don’t think it’s being thin skinned to stand up for a book that took years to research and write when the review in question is just plain wrong or when it results from an ignorance of even the most basic tenets of storytelling.  But all we  can do  is to hold true to our creative vision, glean what we can from those thoughtful reviewers who understand the elements of story, and let the rest go. Oh, and chew a handful of Tums. How about you? How do you handle those stomach-churning reviews?


9 thoughts on “Reviews: The good, the bad, the ugly

  1. Deborah Maone


    This is a great post and very timely for me. My first book has just been released “Death in Dahlonega” a cozy mystery. My very first review was a 1 star and the poster said there was no plot and no suspense (don’t know how I got a publisher if this was true). I was devastated until I realized the person didn’t even read the book by something they said. It had to be someone who did it to be mean. I will never understand why!
    All my other reviews are 4 and 5 stars, but this being my first review it was terrible. Thank you for posting this I really needed it.

    1. dorothy Post author

      Debbie, I know how it feels to get a bad review right out of the gate. My first novel for preteens got a terrible review that cut me to the quick. But that book stayed in print in hardcover for nearly 9 years, was picked up for a very lucrative paperback edition at Random House, was nominated for three state literary awards and featured in a national educational magazine.

      Unfortunately we are subject to some reviewers who have their own agendas that have very little to do with our books. And to reviewers who just dash something off after a cursory read that misses the point of the book. Just focus on those good reviews, keep working to improve your craft and don’t let some mean-spirited person rob you of the joy you find in your work.

  2. jude urbanski

    Dorothy, I enjoyed this review on reviews! My book, Joy Restored by Desert Breeze Publishing, just came out and I know anything can go as far as reviews, but you’ve given me insights to keep in mind. Thanks.

    1. dorothy Post author

      Jude, I’m happy this post provided some insights for you. I received one of those uninformed reviews a couple of weeks ago, and it was quite irksome. Writing this post helped me to regain my perspective on the whole issue of reviews and reviewers. When I began publishing 20 years ago, reviewers were mostly professionals who worked for national or regional review journals. Now, with the advent of the internet, anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection can evaluate our books whether they know anything about storytelling or not, whether or not they have even carefully read the book. They can post a snarky review on Amazon or B and N, knowing the author can’t respond. It’s the literary version of cyber bullying and something we all have to accept to stay in the game. Good luck with your new novel. Here’s to a ton of great reviews!! But just in case a bad one slips in…keep the Tums handy!!

  3. Leanna Ellis

    Great post, Dorothy! So, so true! Not sure I have an answer, but I do think authors can stick together and support one another emotionally through these trials. Bad reviews can be very painful. Pass around the Tums to those who need them, because we all do at one time or another. Thanks for speaking up!

    1. dorothy Post author

      Leanna, thanks for your note! I do think we have to support each other when the slings and arrows hit. And correct errors when we are in a position to do so. 🙂

  4. Eva Coppersmith

    I am not a writer; but I am a reviewer. I can certainly understand where you are coming from. I have read some reviews that are absolutely vicious. Reviews are supposed to be helpful; not vindictive. I read a review on a Nora Roberts book who gave it a two star because it was so predictable. Hello! I thought romance was supposed to be happily ever after. I don’t like everything I read; but I do try to be fair. As you said, you have to wonder if the person is reading the book. How can you say a book is fantastic and give it two stars? Beyond my comprehension! Anyway, I hope I am fair when I review and continue to be so in the future.

    1. dorothy Post author

      Eva, thank you so much for weighing in. I appreciate reviewers like you!! Not every book will appeal to every reviewer and reader. Most authors understand this and want only for a review to be reasoned and respectful, even if the book has faults, or was not that reviewer’s cup of tea. If I review a book that is not my favorite, I try to recommend it to others for whom it might be a better fit—for instance, I am not a big fan of stories set in WW2, but there are millions of readers who love that time period. And yes, readers of Nora’s books, and of most romances expect a happy ending, so it’s frustrating for a romance author to be criticized for being “predictable” when it is that very predictability that appeals to the romance reader. 🙂

      Thank you for bringing your sense of fairness to the process. May your tribe increase!!

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