A few weeks back, in her post, A Hazing Ritual: the bad review, my fellow WU contributor, Alison Winn Scotch, feelingly described the agony of a bad review. It’s a thing all writers dread, and all writers have experienced at some time in their writing career. And I think I’m on safe enough ground in thinking that every one of us suffering under the sting of a cruel, vicious or even patronising review has felt tempted to make voodoo dolls of the reviewer, and thought about the cutting put-downs we could administer to them if ever we’ll meet them.
But do book reviews really influence readers? And what makes a good review? I’ve been on both sides of the fence, both as reviewer and reviewee, as reader and writer, and over the years have reflected on both questions. As far as the first one goes, it’s a pretty mixed situation. There have been books of mine, for instance, that have been really well-reviewed, in all kinds of newspapers and magazines, and yet have not done as well as others that hardly got any reviews at all. Vice versa has also been true, however. There seems to be no hard and fast rule.
There’s no doubt a book review can influence people, though they’re not certainly not as crucial as theatre reviews are to the life of a stage show, for instance, where a bad review in the ‘right’ sort of publication can basically kill a production stone dead.
Sympathetic publishers and publicity people often tell writers unhappy about bad reviews that the readers don’t take any notice of whether a review is good or bad, they just remember that it was reviewed. That’s mostly true—as far as it goes. You’d be surprised by how often people are impressed by the very fact your book has been reviewed in the local newspaper of note, rather than by what the reviewer says. But it depends–sometimes a bad review, wittily written and devastatingly demolishing, can in fact affect the reading public’s perception of a book, especially if the review is by someone they trust. It does not work in the same way if the reviewer is unknown to them. Similarly, a good, glowing and intelligent review can work in the same way, especially if the reviewer is able to show just why this particular book excited them so.
And then there’s the ‘wet-noodle’ kind of review–the limp kind that recounts the blurb with only a limited opinion expressed, if any at all.
That’s a lazy review, and it reads that way–it also reads as though the book wasn’t worth bothering with, and so probably isn’t worth seeking out and in my view, though it’s less hurtful to the writer’s self-esteem of course, it can be worse in its effect on reader interest than the truly bad review, which, especially if it is savage, can perversely evoke curiosity in readers to check out for themselves what provoked such unseemly passion!
What makes a good review? The ideal review, from a writer’s point view, is the intelligent, thoughtful one that takes your book seriously, doesn’t damn it for not being something it isn’t trying to be but engages with it on its own terms. It shows the reviewer ‘gets’ your work. It doesn’t just recount the blurb. It engages with the characters, story, themes, atmosphere(though not at length). It doesn’t focus on the reviewer’s own idiosyncracies. If it’s a novel, the reviewer does not attempt to make the author’s life-story or background into some sort of lazy pass key to what is after all a work of the imagination. It should be a nice piece of writing in itself–elegant, succint and gripping.
That’s even if the review is critical of your book—for even if he or she doesn’t end up liking it, they should be fair to it and still see its merits. Good criticism is worth its weight in gold–though a writer will still feel stung by an unfavourable review (this is a thin-skinned business, putting your inner self on the line!), if you feel that the reviewer has truly considered your work, then you don’t feel as hostile as when it’s obvious they’ve gone in with a pre-conceived opinion and contemptuously engaged in demolition for its own sake.
But a good and favourable review should have the same sense of intelligence and understanding as a good critical review–no gush or mush, but a sense of excitement and of making the reader feel, I really must rush out and get this book! Transferring a sense of literary excitement is a real achievement, and it’s wonderful when it happens, one of the best experiences of the literary life.
Image by fat-turkey.