Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Week Twenty-Two: Criticisms, Mistakes, and Mosquito Stings

HOORAH! I'm off to the Romantic Novelists' Association annual conference in a couple of days. There will be wine, women and, very probably, song. Kitchen parties. Important lectures. Coffee and meal-time networking. Secret deals may be brokered, book ideas suggested, agents and publishers hooked, new writers inspired, and much booze will be drunk.

So don't expect any writerly coherence from me until at least a few days afterwards. You can follow the mayhem on Twitter though if you like: https://twitter.com/janeholland1

Meanwhile, here's a question.

Question: should novelists ignore critical reviews or take them on board if they seem honest (rather than, say, the venom of an anonymous rival)?

Allow me to elaborate on this.

Some writers resent readers who like to broadcast their opinions on social media and blogs or Goodreads. They may consider their feedback to be artistic interference or, even worse, wholly unimportant to them. These are writers who proudly do not read their reviews, and sometimes not even the novels of their peers. They may write in solitude, keeping their writing unpolluted by outside influence.

Other writers see publication as an open exchange of ideas, and embrace feedback, both positive and negative, weeding out responses to find what works best for them - and even changing the way they write at times in response to reviewers.

You can probably guess which side I would pick in a tug-of-war, given the nature of this blog.

However, while thorough and thoughtful reviews, either positive or negative, are always welcome, they are no longer in the majority. As places like Net Galley continue to grow, seeding free novels left, right and centre, inexperienced or hostile bloggers seem to have grown in numbers, and sadly some take free books for granted. They trash new novels without a second thought as to the damage they may be doing to a budding career, or even to an author's psyche. Who cares about such things, eh? Authors get paid, after all, so they deserve a good kicking.  (Erm, they get paid peanuts, in general, dear readers, and sometimes not even that.)

To add to this problem, a vocal minority of bloggers appear to hate authors and everything they stand for, I'm unsure why, but you get that vibe as soon as any unfortunate author is naive enough to announce their identity on Twitter or Goodreads when replying to their conversations about books. 'Live tweeting' books has become part of that trend, nearly always undertaken to crush an author by reading their new book and tweeting instant (nearly always hostile) reactions: 'OMG, I hate this heroine, that scene was totally shit!' and so on.

And even if you are not being given a kicking, but are merely dismissed as incompetent or boring, some critical reviews can be very difficult to swallow. Sometimes they contain nonsense best left by the wayside, like comments about the author's appearance or character, or views which indicate ignorance of the book's subject matter. This happens quite frequently with historicals, for instance, where a blogger decides they know more about an historical period than the writer who spent a year or more researching it. This is often based on the watching of a television series like The Tudors, which contained more errors and historical inaccuracies than you can shake a stick at, but is frequently taken for truth by readers who then complain your book did not contain the same errors!

I have had furious reviewers trounce my Tudor novels for not being respectful enough towards Queen Elizabeth II (sic) or for retreading the boring familiar territory of Henry VII (sic) and his nine wives (sic), and even listened to one expert blogger explain to her friends that she had given my book a lower rating because she had done history at college and I had used twentieth-century names for some of my Tudor characters. One was a medieval name, the other from ancient Greece. Oh dear ...

It can be particularly frustrating when hostile reviews are lauded by other readers and taken as an indication that the writer's research is flawed and/or her books not worth reading. When every new book is struggling for attention in a desperately overcrowded marketplace, and editors look at places like Goodreads and Amazon for signs that an author has a promising career ahead, enough of these uncomplimentary reviews could perhaps depress initial sales and get a writer dumped by her publisher.

So, as writers, should we read our reviews or not? Should we engage readers - as many publishers press us to do - or run like hell for the nearest exit? And do hostile reviews make any difference to our careers?

Having been foolish enough to 'correct' a mistaken reviewer in the past and have my head bitten off by dozens of her outraged friends, I now feel it is best to smile grimly at such mistakes and trashings, and move on. Perhaps even to join the ranks of those writers who disdain the reading of their own reviews and prefer to work in an ivory tower, considering the mosquito stings of blogger critiques as below their attention.

But of course my feet are firmly on the ground. No ivory towers for me, alas.

And there are still plenty of very lovely reviewers out there, doing their best for the writers and books they love. As writers, we have to focus on those people, and thank them for their efforts, and be grateful for what we are given. Otherwise we would very swiftly give up writing books and hide in a dark cave for the rest of our lives.

So I shall continue to muddle along, occasionally reading reviews of my books when I can't avoid it, groaning at the bad 'uns, smiling at the lovely ones, and trying not to be so swayed by all those differing opinions that I can no longer make my own decisions about the books I write.

And now for the gratuitous book plug.

My latest rom com as Beth Good, published five days ago by Thimblerig Books, is THE ODDEST LITTLE BEACH SHOP.

No historical characters, you'll be relieved to hear. Just a sexy ogre for a hero, plus plenty of Cornish pasty and sandy beach scenes, as requested by my friends on Facebook.

Why not enjoy the FREE sample available now on Amazon?


  1. I know a lot of book reviewers rave about the importance of negative reviews, but personally I don't know how people find time to read all these books they don't like, let alone having the time to review them and talk about them online.

    Surely the joy of reading lies in getting lost in a book you love, and then reliving it afterwards by talking to people about it?

    Those are the books I like to review. If I don't like the book I move on and leave it to someone else. My TBR pile is big enough as it is.

  2. My thoughts entirely, Martha. Life is too short for critical reviews, unless you're being paid to review. Most free books come with the necessity to review, of course, which is a similar situation, but so often you see people asking for books in genres they clearly never normally read or written in styles they must know will not suit them. I have lost count of the number of reviews of my Tudor novels that begin, 'I never read historicals, so this was a challenge for me' etc. Sigh. It's great to get reviews, yes. But when it feels as though someone has taken great pleasure in trashing the book they have just read - often for free - it becomes a blood-sport, and not one I particularly enjoy having to witness anymore. Books should be read for enjoyment, and if you don't enjoy them, just moving on without comment seems like the most stress-free option for everyone. But I'm sure the system will not change any time soon. Publishers are still hung up on reviews and word-of-mouth promotion, and the thousands of free books to bloggers and reviewers have become an integral part of that infrastructure.


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