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Thursday, 2 November 2017


Although it might be presumptuous of me to speak for other writers, I think I can safely say that the vast majority of authors love getting reviews for their books. The sad statistic is that only about two out every thousand readers take the time to write a review on Amazon about a book they have read. That constitutes about 0.2% of readers.

Harold MacMillan, publisher (and once Prime Minister of the UK) once said that a writer wants naught but praise for his work. There might be some truth in that, but it is not all of the truth. I know that I, and many writers of my acquaintance, tend to very quickly skip over complimentary reviews and spend more time with the critical ones. It is, of course, gratifying to hear words of praise for one’s work, but in those words, as well as the critical ones, the author always wants to know, “Why?” Why was it that you liked it? Why was it that you didn’t like it?

Answers to these questions by reviewers who appear to have some idea about writing and prose, are often very helpful to a writer both in terms of how he approaches future work, and in terms also of whether he feels he should rewrite parts of already published work. I received many reviews for my last mystery book, close to 90% of them between four and five stars. But there were some criticisms that hit home, and I contacted my publishers with significant rewrites and corrections of errors pointed out by readers. The book has benefited enormously from these changes.

However, does that mean authors jump to attention at all critical comments (or, indeed, complimentary ones)? Some reviewers are articulate and take a lot of care to structure their reviews and present them to Amazon (or wherever) error-free. Such reviewers command respect and writers would tend to take careful note of what they say. Other reviewers present lazy, poorly expressed reviews that often attempt present the author’s work in a poor light. I never quite understand why they do that, particularly when these reviews tend to indicate that the reviewer has limited awareness of what the author was actually writing about. I have had a couple of reviewers downgrade my rating because they had to turn to the dictionary too many times, while others compliment me on the clarity and simplicity of my prose. Who does one believe? And what do both critiques say about the people who wrote them?

Indeed these contradictions turn up quite a bit and leave the writer sometimes scratching his head. I have had a number of reviews on my most recent book (mostly complimentary, thank goodness) but how am I supposed to react to direct opposites like the examples below.

One reviewer, whose aim seemed to be to tear the book to shreds for whatever reason, said this:

What to say about this book. Honestly, from the title and its raving reviews on Amazon, I was expecting it to be mind-blowingly amazing. This was not the case. I found the plot to be strong and that it could be a brilliant, unfortunately, the story and style of writing let it down. I found it hard to keep reading the book, it didn’t draw me in and I found it hard to connect with the characters.

Yet, the very next day, a reviewer of the same book wrote this:
For all of the above I will rate this book with 4 out of 4, really questioning myself, why despite having this unique ability to evoke such accurateness in people’s expressions, and marvellous writing skills, Brian O’Hare has not become one of the names that we immediately mention when we talk about crime and mystery novels. I really became a fan for his works after this book and cannot wait to take a look at them. Finally, I wish who ever will read this book after me will enjoy as much as I did.

And to push the point home, I offer two more comments, each from the opposite end of the critical spectrum. The hyper-critical reviewer claims that:

Suspense, in my opinion, is paramount to a good murder mystery and was something this novel was lacking. I felt as if the storyline progressed rather slowly and it wasn’t until the last 35 pages (of this 371 page novel) that suspense began to build. I wish Mr. O’Hare had incorporated suspense throughout more of his book rather than just at the very end. I enjoyed the little bit of suspense and intensity we were given, but was disappointed in how fast it had come to a grinding halt and transitioned to a “happily ever after” type of ending. This, I might add, was written about a book that was clearly labelled as a ‘police-procedural’ and a ‘whodunnit’. I can’t help thinking it is a bit like writing a negative review about a book that offers hints about painting houses and fences because there is not enough instruction about art in it.

Getting back to the critique above, a reviewer from the same stable wrote about the same book:
To say this book is interesting, captivating and entertaining is actually an understatement. For a mystery lover like me, there is everything to love about this novel. Some of the things that caught my attention in this novel are; firstly, the writer's style of keeping the reader in suspense. Each chapter leaves the reader so eager to read the next chapter immediately. The book has a way of captivating a person's interest and leaves him wondering and eager to know what happened next. My advice to anyone interested in reading this book is, don't start reading this book if you are busy with other things because you won't stop till the last print in the book.

The Americans have a lovely phrase for situations like this: Go figure!

So what constitutes a good review? Does it matter whether the author likes it or not? Are there objective criteria that can ensure that a review is good (or bad) in its own right? I have seen lengthy reviews which spend most of the time simply retelling the story (and generally not very well). Some book clubs have affiliated reviewers who seem to have been trained to go through the plot first, then characterisation, then writing style, etc. It all looks very obvious but such reviewers are generally okay so long as the review doesn’t spend 90% of its time on plot and the other 10% on the aspects that would be of most interest to the author and future readers.

I have to confess that as a writer who reads all of his reviews, I skip all attempts, however lengthy, at retelling the story. People who have read it already know it; people who have yet to read it want only a brief indication of what they are about to read.

I suppose my advice to anyone writing a review would be to ask themselves two simple questions. Did I enjoy this book? What was it about the book that made me (or did not make me) enjoy it? Was it the story, the writing, the characters, the excitement, the sub-plot(s), the humour, the climax? A couple of these? All of these? Such thinking will give a reviewer something specific to focus on and write about. The review doesn’t have to be very long. A paragraph or two focussing on what most appealed to you about the book and/or about some glaring faults in it that hampered your enjoyment. But your paragraph(s) will have to be well written, free of errors, and free, too, of unnecessarily harsh and destructive comment. Be fair to the writer. It takes a deal of time, effort, and sweat to produce a book. Make sure your criticisms are justified and offset them with some remarks about the areas of the book that did appeal to you.

There are loads of essays available on the net about how to write reviews, so I am not going to spend any time on that aspect of the subject. I will confine myself to one final comment that will resonate with many writers: Review the book that you have just read, not the one that you wish the author had written.

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