A few thoughts on reviews, the good, the bad, the unfavourable, and what to do about them

As of today, The Green Man’s Heir has reached 100 reviews on Amazon UK, and is similarly gathering favourable ratings and reviews on Goodreads and elsewhere, like this appreciation in F&SF. So first and foremost, my sincerest thanks to everyone who’s shared their enthusiasm for this book.

Regardless of algorithms and suchlike, knowing that readers appreciate what we do is what keeps us authors writing. It’s great to see, and to share, a positive review, whether that’s a closely detailed essay showing that this reader really understood what you are aiming for in the story, or if it’s an enthusiastic ‘Loved it, a really great read – five stars’. Either is fine, because good reviews are an uncomplicated delight. What to do about them is simple for an author: be grateful and if the opportunity arises, say thank you.

Of course, not all reviews are good… and just to be clear, I’m looking back over twenty years and sixteen novels, as well as a lot of other writing. I’ve plenty of experience here, which is why I make a distinction between bad reviews and unfavourable reviews.

A bad review is one that is pointless. One that says nothing about the book. ‘Don’t like the cover – one star’. ‘Didn’t realise this was the second book in a trilogy – one star’. ‘Was buying this as a gift, but Amazon delivered it too late – one star’. You know the sort of thing I mean. A waste of everyone’s time.

An unfavourable review is different. It engages with the book. It says what the reader didn’t like and hopefully, gives some idea why. Sometimes this says a whole lot more about the reviewer than about the actual book. Back in 1999, you could find a review of The Thief’s Gamble condemning me as a ball-breaking, man-hating feminist, and a few mouse-clicks away, another one equally insistent that I was a patriarchy-enabling betrayer of the Sisterhood. That was an early lesson for me, demonstrating that the author has no control over the assumptions a reader will bring to a book, or their ability to read into it what they want to see, and which the author never intended.

But unfavourable reviews can also engage with exactly what the writer hoped to convey. They absolutely get it, and they really don’t like it. For instance, in The Gambler’s Fortune, a fair few readers had a real problem with the character Jeirran, who is deeply flawed, seriously unpleasant, and the leader of an oppressed minority. Readers who felt that such a leader should be a heroic figure were badly jarred, and some were thrown out of the story completely. Ten books later, and Zurenne in Dangerous Waters divided readers again. A widow in a paternalistic, patriarchal society, Zurenne is utterly unable to cope when a devious, manipulative man exploits and abuses her for his own gain. Some readers found her passivity exasperating, and that really doesn’t make for an enjoyable book.

But here’s the thing. For everyone who wished Zurenne would just grow a backbone and stand up for herself, someone else would comment that her plight made them realise even a benevolent patriarchy is ultimately no good for women, because when the going gets tough, they have none of the skills they’ll need to cope. For everyone who hated Jeirran so much that he ruined the book for them, someone else was prompted to ask why do we make assumptions about ‘heroes’ and the potentially dangerous consequences of doing so. So I learned early on that unfavourable reviews must always be seen in their wider context. Some readers may well not like a particular aspect of a story. That doesn’t mean the author wasn’t making a valid point by including it.

Writers should remember they can’t please all of the people all of the time. What’s way too fast-paced for someone can be a plodding plot for someone else, while it’ll be just right for a whole lot of other readers. Views on what’s too much violence, or too little action, or too much politics, or not enough depth of background vary similarly. The author has no control over any of these reactions, any more than the three bears could anticipate what Goldilocks might want in a bed or a bowl of porridge.

Of course, that isn’t to say that a writer should just ignore unfavourable reviews. If the majority view is that some aspect isn’t working, that’s something to look at more closely, especially with regard to whatever you’re writing at the moment. This is how we increase our understanding of our craft, and develop our skills.

What else should a writer do? Once again, that’s easy. Nothing. There is nothing to be gained by arguing with, or even debating, bad or unfavourable reviews, whether that’s in person or on the Internet for all the world to see. As one best-selling author explained to me, early in my career, and well before social media. ‘It’s starting an arse-kicking contest with a porcupine. Even if you win, the cost to yourself will not be worth it.’

So when I see someone didn’t find The Green Man’s Heir to their personal liking, I privately wish them happy reading elsewhere, and move on. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of good books for all tastes, after all. Meantime, I shall continue working on the sequel for all those who have enjoyed Dan’s adventures thus far, all the more encouraged by to those who’ve found a few moments to say so. As I said at the outset, many thanks for that.

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