Today I am writing about book reviews. I am therefore approaching the writing of this post in the manner of a soldier picking her way across a field of landmines. I’m not even sure why I’m doing it. It’s just, well it’s such a BIG THING for me. The first thing I do when I switch on my laptop is to check out my Amazon page and if any of my books have an extra number of customer reviews I stiffen slightly and then scroll down and in my head I’m thinking; please be nice, please be nice. And if it’s a four or five star review I relax a bit and think, OK, good. And if it’s three or under my heart sinks a little and I gird my loins and if it’s a bad review I feel bad and if it’s a lukewarm review I feel bad and if it’s a patronising review I feel bad and if it’s a stupid review I feel bad and if it’s a really intelligent review I feel bad. I just feel bad.
For example: ‘Her books are readable … but this one bored me stupid.’ Now, this made me feel a bit bad. But not that bad because she liked some of my books, she just didn’t like this one. Her words were glib, but she wasn’t being mean or personal.
But sometimes reviews make me feel worse than that, sometimes they make me feel angry.
*Warning. From this point on there will be excessive use of capital letters*
“This book was written with ‘can i sell it to tv/film’ constantly in mind, its so obvious in every setting and every character that it was written to transfer to film well.
Jewell on her own web-site makes it clear she wants to make a film from her books ——– such a shame she feels this way and can’t be happy with simply producing an outstanding book.”
Ha! Ha! I was apoplectic at this one. I cannot tell you, as writer, how foul it is when other people second guess your motives and motivations. I do not know one writer who would not like a film made of one of their books. ALL of us would. That is normal. It does not mean that I am writing a book with a film in mind. I NEVER write with a film in mind. NEVER. I will confess that sometimes I try to imagine a new chapter as a scene change in a film, but that is to help me move things along in my head, not because I’m thinking; ‘I wonder if Working Title would like it if the next scene started this way.’
What else makes me cross?
“In the 2012 paperback edition Jewell confesses she does not actually like the writing process itself but she enjoys the flexible lifestyle and the career prestige. This explains why it might not be a natural fit; as if she is trying her hand at being an author rather than the real deal. That she insists on writing so many books is a mystery in itself. Or maybe not. The idea of being a scribe is obviously more attractive to her than the craft.”
Imagine you’d been working somewhere for fifteen years, doing a really difficult job to the best of your abilities and then one day a complete stranger came up to you, tapped you on the shoulder and said; ‘really, the fact that you come here every day trying your hand at this job is really quite confounding to me when you sometimes find it so hard to do’.
TRYING MY HAND?!
I have written eleven books! I have sold a million copies!
INSIST ON WRITING BOOKS?!
Top publishers PAY me to write books! Then they INSIST that I write them and give them to them to publish! Then thousands of people INSIST on buying them and reading them and thoroughly enjoying them!
I know I shouldn’t get cross. I am forty four years old. I’ve been doing this a long time. I should just shrug and get over it. Or, like my good friend Jenny Colgan, not read them in the first place. But I can’t help it. And if I don’t read the bad ones then I’ll miss the good ones and that would make my life substantially less rich in good experiences than it is when I do read them. I should also have some kind of empathy with people who get personal in book reviews. Because, my friends , I once did it myself.
A long long long time ago, when I was writing my first novel but was nowhere near publishing it, I read a book that irritated me. I went on to Amazon and I gave the book two stars and my review the horrid title; Goodness, what a silly book! I went on to use the phrase: “I just felt that Y**** was trying too hard to be cool, trying to impress the reader with how hard she is. I couldn’t shake the feeling that E*******e was Y****.” (I am using asterisks because the author of this book went on to write one of my favourite books of all time and if I was ever to meet her in real life I would like to be able to do so without her slapping me in the face). Oh how clever I thought I was being! Oh how valid I thought my opinion was! Oh how little I gave a thought to the possibility that the author might actually be reading her reviews! But she was. And she replied. And she sounded terribly hurt and confused. I felt absolutely horrible. Shortly afterwards I got my own book deal and karma came back to clip me round the ear.
After all my friends and family had left their five star reviews on the Ralph’s Party page (this is the LAW by the way, for first novels, thereafter it is called CHEATING), a cross girl from Italy came along and burst my bubble. She hated my book and gave it one star and a severe telling off . (You never forget your first one star review.) I wrote to her in a pathetic attempt to talk her round. She was very open to our dialogue and used it as an opportunity to point out further failings in my book. After a few mails back and forth we parted ways on good terms. But I don’t imagine she bought any more of my books.
Since then I have made it my business never to reply to reader reviews. No good can come of it. EVERYONE IS ENTITLED TO THEIR OPINION etc. So for years and years I went through the morning ritual; check, scroll down, read, feel good/bad/angry/happy, move on. Until THIS REVIEW:
Actually, NO. I have just gone back to it and reread the whole thing and really, nobody comes out of it well, least of all me. But in summary; the reviewer hated my book for a number of reasons but mainly because my child character did things that were unrealistic for a child of her age to be doing. This annoyed me more than her patronising manner and her assertion that because I had reviews from heat and Marie Claire in my books, that meant they were trash. (Neatly failing to mention the fact that I also have reviews from the Guardian and the Telegraph in my books. ANYWAY …) I wrote this book when my eldest child was the same age as the character I was writing about. I also had a child the same age as my character at the time that this reviewer made these comments. In other words her review was not just her opinion-to-which-she-was-entitled, it was a statement on the emotional, social and intellectual capacities of three year old children. And she was WRONG. So I broke my rule. I replied to her review.
(Oh God. So much went wrong, so quickly.)
In shock at my actions I went on to twitter to share (writers have nobody else to share with). I said “Oh God, I’ve just replied to an Amazon review!”
A lot of my followers on Twitter are other authors so there was a huge outpouring of oh-no-what-have-you-done-you-crazy-woman-I’ve-aways-wanted-to-do-that-but-never-had-the-nerve type responses. There were also a lot of people going to visit the review then coming back to Twitter to express their not-liking of the review and the reviewer. I got caught up in all this and well, to cut a long story short, I referred to the author of the review as a COCK.
And – cue maniacal laughter – it turns out that the reviewer was following me on Twitter! (It had not occurred to me for a moment that someone who hated my book so much would be following me on Twitter. I tend to follow only people I like and admire. But there you go.) So my well thought out and reasonably argued response to her original review was totally and utterly overshadowed by the fact that I’d called her a cock (I thought she was man) on a public forum and SHE TOTALLY WON.
I learnt my lesson. Read the reviews if you must, but do not take it any further. And besides, there are other ways of making yourself feel better about bad reviews. One of them is to check out the reviewer’s other reviews. For example see this:
1.0 out of 5 stars Just Horrible, 29 Aug 2011
By Reader – See all my reviews
This review is from: After the Party (Paperback)
This one I am giving away because it was horrible (and I keep all books that I would recommend to someone else), unreal, depressing, just terrible.
Well, in isolation that’s pretty damning. But put in the context of this:
then really who gives a shit? *whistles jauntily. Gets on with life*
Another thing I sometimes do is to go and look at the reviews for books I loved. For example, One Day by David Nicholls has 196 one star reviews. One hundred and ninety six! Seriously, and I’m getting upset about three. Actually, as I said earlier, it’s not bad reviews themselves that upset me, it’s the personal ones, the ones that prod the author in the face with a big pointy finger and snarl and say; oi, you, who do you think you are? YOU’RE NOT ALL THAT YOU KNOW.
I will play this entry out with some of my most hated quotes from over the years. Hopefully this will be CATHARTIC. (I hasten to point out that this is not a cry for help, or a rally call for a witch hunt, I’ve seen firsthand how easily these things can blow up and genuinely feel that people should be free to leave their opinions without being ticked off by legions of righteous fans. This is just me, talking about how it feels.)
So thank you thank you thank you to anyone reading this who has ever left a nice review of one of my books on Amazon or elsewhere. I take this pain for you … I hope you’re all having a happy January, leaping about in the snow and looking forward to a happy, healthy, brilliant year to come.
Lots of love (and thanks for letting me vent)
“I liked the author once, but I don’t think I’ll buy another of her books. She’s lived off her debut too long as it is.”
(Yes, fourteen years *is* quite a long time. Maybe I *should* stop writing now.)
“Clever author, clearly going for a Bestseller by appealing to the lowest common denominator, but I can’t see how any book critic in his right mind and deserving that title can call her “a great storyteller”. If Lisa Jewell is capable of complex thoughts or at least long sentences, she has hidden it well”
(Because of course, the foundation of *all* great storytelling lies in complex thoughts and long sentences)
“This book was on special offer and I should have been wary”
(Yes, and those 30% off pork chops you bought today in Sainsburys are full of listeria)
“I’m sad to say that I think there are authors out there who write really gripping novels about similar themes with more maturity and depth.”
(She’s sad and now I’m sad too. The ones where they might be right are the worst)
“Lisa Jewell likes all her ends neatly tied up at the end of the story – this made the stories seem less plausible because life is not like that.”
(The key word here being ‘stories’, I feel.)
“The illusion of prestige was helped along no end by the paperback’s `Sunday Times Bestseller’ endorsement. Now at least I know that might not be all it is cracked up to be.”
(Being a Sunday Times Bestseller is not an ‘endorsement’. It’s maths)
“A writer of mettle, nevertheless could have turned it into a meaningful exploration of what it means to be a family … But Lisa Jewell is not that kind of writer. `The Making of Us’ reads like it is written by a well-meaning but inexperienced author (Jewell has nine novels to her, ahem, credit)”
(Yes, thank you, I now feel approximately three inches tall).
“Brought for a friend of mine as a christmas present so can’t comment on it myself as i haven’t read it.”