Reviews: To Read or Not To Read

A while back I wrote this about reviews and how authors should react to them. Today, I thought I’d expand a bit – largely because I’ve been noticing a growing number of comments from more established authors advising new authors not to read reviews.

“Don’t ever read your reviews. If they’re good, you’ll get complacent. If they’re bad, you won’t be able to write for the rest of the day.”

My advice is not to obsess over reviews but not to ignore them either. I’m probably biased as my first reviews were on Del Rey’s online writer’s workshop. They were more critiques than reviews and it was the first feedback I’d ever received on my work. At last I could find out what other people thought of my work!

I soon found out that not all reviews are equal. Some reviewers appeared to be talking about a completely different story. Others really got it. And others saw something I hadn’t. The latter two were the most valuable.

The other thing I learned quickly was to develop a hard skin. Writers have to. No book, however brilliant, will be universally adored. Someone, somewhere will throw it against a wall after twenty pages, and then proceed to tell everyone on Amazon, Facebook and LJ that the book stank so much it even stuck to the wall.

It’s easy to use a bad experience like that as a reason not to read reviews. But my feeling is that that’s a way to lose touch with your readership. Using a musical analogy, it’s like the rock star who spends all their time in the studio and refuses to tour. Or only demo their songs to hardcore fans. Sometimes you learn some unexpected lessons by touring live – that certain songs, or types of songs, go down a lot better than expected, or that certain arrangements don’t. Not all critical reviews are mean-spirited or wrong.

I’m sure all of us know of a book series that started out brilliantly but then went rapidly downhill. Sometimes it’s because the series didn’t grow – book 7 was basically the same as book 2 with a few names changed. Sometimes it’s because the series changed too much – all the tightly-plotted suspense replaced by gratuitous sex scenes. Sometimes it’s because the publisher was making so much money out of the series they farmed the writing out to less talented co-authors to churn more books out. Or sometimes, perhaps, it’s because you changed.

In an interview with Gerald Clarke, P.G. Wodehouse was asked if he ever read reviews.

He did.

“I always read them really carefully. You do get tips from them. Now, that last Jeeves book of mine, Jeeves and the Tie That Binds, I forget which critic it was, but he said that the book was dangerously near to self-parody. I know what he meant. I had exaggerated Jeeves and Bertie. Jeeves always reciting some poetry or something. I’ll correct that in the next one. I do think one can learn from criticism.” *

P.G. Wodehouse was around 90 when he said that.

* copyright 2011 The Paris Review


Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf

Out Now!
An Unsafe Pair of Handsa quirky murder mystery set in rural England charting the descent and rise of a detective on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Which will break first? The case, or DCI Shand?
Medium Dead – a fun urban fantasy chronicling the crime fighting adventures of Brenda – a reluctant medium – and Brian – a Vigilante Demon with an impish sense of humour. Think Stephanie Plum with magic and a dash of Carl Hiaasen.
What Ho, Automaton! – Wodehouse Steampunk. Follow the adventures of Reggie Worcester, consulting detective, and his gentleman’s personal gentle-automaton, Reeves. It’s set in an alternative 1903 where an augmented Queen Victoria is still on the throne and automata are a common sight below stairs. Humour, Mystery, Aunts and Zeppelins!
French Fried true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.
International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth.
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Reviews: To Read or Not To Read — 4 Comments

  1. Sometimes even a very confused reviewer can be helpful. If, frex., someone criticizes a scene on page 168, saying that your protag had declared earlier that he’d never-ever do anything like that, but here he is doing it with no explanation or even any reaction from the other characters and it was totally OOC, you might think the reviewer is just an idiot. Or you might look back to page 46 where the protag said with a perfectly straight face that he’d never-ever do whatever it was, and all his friends nodded. Maybe you thought it was clear that this was meant to be sarcasm, but obviously the reviewer didn’t read it that way. That gives you a chance to check in with some friends to see whether they got it, or whether maybe they were a bit confused on page 168 as well. Sometimes they were and just didn’t want to say.

    Of course, it’s most helpful if it’s your editor who gets confused on page 168 and squawks the OOC bit, because then you can figure out the problem and nudge page 46 before publication. I’ve had that happen before, where my editor was wrong about what needed to be fixed, but the wrongness pointed out the real problem. Even if something like that sneaks into the published version, though, it’s a heads-up to watch for maybe-too-subtle bits in future work.

    I read all my reviews too, BTW. Sometimes I agree with them and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I disagree but see where the reviewer was coming from. It’s all data, and it’s up to me to sort out what’s useful from what’s not.

    Angie

  2. I was touched by that comment of PGW – one of my favourite authors! As a reviewer, I am always please when an author writes to thank me for a review, and especially pleased when they say they’ve learnt something from it. That means I’ve done at least one-third of my job properly.

    The other two thirds depend on my having given the potential reader some idea of whether or not s/he might like the book, and having given the publisher a neat little quote to use in publicity blurbs. And as I don’t review for payment these days, it means I don’t have to review any book I threw across the room after twenty pages. Hopefully, another reviewer will see in that book something lovely that I failed to see, and will give it a review that is useful to the author, the publisher and the potential reader.

  3. There always comes the point at which you have to decide that the reviewer is not — part of your target audience, but it’s wise to decide this as little as possible. Large target audiences are good.

  4. I read reviews. The ones that I treasure are the ones where the reviewer really understands the story, sometimes understands it better than I do and can explain the story to me.