Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Some thoughts occasioned by recent 1-star reviews

Every now and again I listen to a fellow writer ranting about bad reviews, or telling a funny story about bad reviews, or just rolling her eyes at the mention of same, depending on where they are on the recovery curve. Because all writers get bad reviews, and we're all stung by them.1 Oh, perhaps not a high percentage of them, and perhaps not for long—it takes three or four minutes to get past my indignation, usually—but the more skilled the reviewer, or the more clearly they have laboured maliciously over their work, or the wider their audience, the more it stings.2

This recent 1-star reviews of Hild on sent my blood pressure up for five whole minutes. It's very carefully constructed and only just (maybe) skirts ad hominem attack:

Reading Hild is a lot like being cornered at a party by someone who has just finished listening to a bunch of educational podcasts, and they're going to tell you everything they know. Problem is, they refuse to make eye contact and thus never detect the increasingly panicked expression on your face as you wonder if a cocktail weenie is useful in a murder/suicide kind of situation.
The amount of research that went into this book had to have been staggering, but a good writer would have made that nearly invisible in service to the story. Instead, I spent the whole time cornered at that party, wishing Nicola Griffith would go away and let me enjoy myself. [, no verified purchase]
Note that he did not even have a verified purchase, a fact which added 30 seconds to my indignation: he didn't even pay for it! So then I couldn't resist taking a look at other 1-stars for comparison, and was struck by this one, which made me sigh for them:
This book, while based in historical fact, is laborious and dull. I slogged all the way through it, and have little more knowledge of early Irish history than I had before I began! [, verified purchase]
And then I was struck by how both stuck doggedly to the book: 124 pages and 535 respectively. That seems like a lot of leeway to give to a book you don't like. Far more than I'd give. (I tend to abandon books that aren't working for me by page 2—whether I've paid for them or not—because life is short and the TBR list long.) Perhaps because of that both reviewers came across (to me) as readers yearning for a particular kind of book and resent the author when she doesn't reward their persistence by giving them what they want.3

That made me wonder if this might be a cultural thing, so I checked
I'd love to read this book, but the price which its publisher/author have chosen for it has put it way outside my reach ... what's happened to the pricing of kindle books, Amazon? Very sad when money gets in the way of the accessibility of promising literature. [, no verified purchase]
Hmmn, I thought (after I'd finished rolling my eyes). Here's a review of a book the customer didn't even buy: no dogged persistence in evidence (though evidence points to them not knowing much about the publishing industry). I pondered.4 Is this a UK vs. US cultural response, or one based simply on the different signals sent by the book's packaging (which, of course, is itself based on publishers' knowledge of their book-buying culture)?

To answer this, I checked two other English-speaking countries, Australia (selling the UK/Blackfriars version) and Canada (US/FSG and Picador editions).5

In Australia, where sales until recently have been brisk, there are zero reviews. In Canada there are three reviews, all of them 5-star.

What does this means? Let me muse on this for a while. (In our house Kelley calls this telling myself a story: at it's best I think of it as serious play, a kind of exploration. Others might consider it spin and plain old bullshit. You've been warned.)

The story I tell myself based on this flimsiest of evidence is that the 1-star review behaviour is all down to culture. Americans (don't forget I am one now) feel entitled to vent our spleen against a person we don't know. Why? Because we're used to space, and less diversity (I've never lived anywhere so segregated—in terms of class, colour, religion, age, sexuality etc), and less community, and so fewer immediate consequences for antisocial behaviour. Also, those of a certain age attended schools where they were rewarded for things like attendance or tidiness, and, if they pestered their parents enough to make everyone's life (especially the teacher's) miserable, got themselves an inflated grade. They were raised to think everyone's opinion is of equal worth, especially theirs.

Britons are willing to let rip, too, but only against the publisher or retailer: the faceless corporation whom the community finds acceptable to gang up against. Why? Because we're raised with an Us v. Them attitude that's rooted in class.

Canadians are apparently (I am not a citizen) willing to say only nice things. Why? I don't know. Perhaps because they're, well, nice (hey, all the Canadians I've met are lovely people). Hurtling up the ladder of assumption, this might be because it's a big country, sparsely populated, and you never know when you're going to need your neighbour.

Australia is big, too. But there the citizens seem (again, I'm not one; I'm just making shit up) have either no time or no urge to discuss such things. Why? Well, maybe (if you believe their movies) they're too busy enjoying the great outdoors, or battling crocodiles and wildfires, to bother with anything less exciting. 

As I say, I'm just telling myself a story (having fun with cliché, basically). Gotta do something when I'm on break from the seventh century...

1 If we read them. I have met writers who will not read, listen, or watch a single comment about their work, in person or via mass media. Sometimes I marvel--the time they must save!--but more often I shake my head: there are times when it's a real rush to read a review, times when the praise is heady, or I learn something about my work, or--joy of joys--both. I always read my reviews, as many as I can find.
2 This stuff is not rational. The oddest things get through what (for me at least) is now a very thick skin. I don't review anymore because of that and the power differential. Relatively Famous Name dismembers Beginner's work is not a dynamic I want to involve myself in. It feels like hitting a fly with a sledgehammer: overkill, not to mention mean. (I would never set out to demolish another writer's work but, as I say, writers' response is not always rational, and some writers--not me, of course--are insanely touchy. There are writers whose work I admire but wouldn't write even an adulatory review of because they will find something in it to get angry about.) I'm just as uninterested in pissing off someone with seriously more heft than me. Once you're a published author with an established readership, you're between a rock and a hard place. So I just don't review. These days when I like something, I tend to mention it here.
3 I am of course making myriad assumptions here, just so we're clear. Something like a Bernard Cornwell novel: historically accurate adventure fiction with predictable outcomes and straight-forward prose. I am not knocking Cornwell here--I've bought and read all his Uhtred books and enjoy them hugely. But if you're expecting Uhtred, Hild might be a bit of a shock.
4 Why, yes, now that you mention it, this deliberation probably is avoidance behaviour; in my defence, a writer can't live in the 7th C all the time...
5 I stuck to English because seemed less like comparing apples and oranges than, hmm, apples and pears.
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