I recently read a (published) book that I found awful. It was a book I rejected a number of years ago, and the intervening years had not improved it.Trite, poorly written, terribly plotted... and with about 100 four- and five-star reviews on Amazon. And yet, among the raves, a couple of dozen one- and two-star reviews were interspersed. These were the reviews that made me think: Ah, I am not alone. There are other astute readers who saw what I saw, felt what I felt.
I think all of us who toil in this business have been enraged by one-star reviews every now and again. I advise all writers to prepare for them, to avoid reading them until they are emotionally ready to do so (which, in some cases, is never), and to hold their tongues and avoid whipping off an angry response. It's an unpleasant fact of the creative life that by putting work out there, you are opening yourself up to criticism from anyone who feels like giving it. Getting uptight about bad reviews is akin to Hollywood celebrities punching out the paparazzi. You want the fame, you want the recognition, you want the sales - you have to put up with it.
Of course, some of this is easier said than done, particularly when you are dealing with reviews that spread misinformation, mislead others, and/or seem based on a personal vendetta. So, I thought I would offer some of the joys of one-star reviews.
1. They give your book credibility. I think many of us have seen books with (say) ten reviews on Amazon, all five-star. I think most savvy readers know that most or all of these five-star reviews are from friends and relatives. Once you get a few 1- or 2-star reviews in there, you know that the world at large has started to read your book, and that not everyone liked it. That's OK... reading fiction is a subjective experience. I personally gravitate toward reading 3-star reviews first, as I find that those reviews often offer pros and cons about the book. Those reviews often also have an objectivity about them that I respond well to.
2. They show that you've challenged your readership. If I had to make a list of the top three things that bug me about modern publishing, this would be one of them: In our effort to publish books that will be all things to all people, we homogenize them and remove the elements that (in previous generations) made for provocative reading. Think about the reasons one often sees for a one-star review:
- The political point of view made me sick! This is a goddamned liberal/conservative book written by a jerk/idiot/right-winger/left-winger. 1 Star!
- I didn't like the main character. I want someone just like me as the protagonist. I didn't agree with the choices s/he made and I am really irritated that s/he chose Suitor #1 over Suitor #2. 1 Star!
- This book made me uncomfortable. It raised questions about serious issues like teen pregnancy/same-sex marriage/war/the environment. I just wanted a fun read, and instead I got all this heavy stuff. 1 Star!
- This book was too light. I like books with heavy characterization and intricate plots. This cozy was downright silly, with not fully developed characters. 1 Star!
- The book was all right, but it would have been better if it were told in third person rather than first person. I don't like 1st person narratives. 1 Star!
Now imagine that you are a publisher and you attempt to publish only those manuscripts that will pre-empt all of the criticisms in the bulleted list above. What do you end up with? Pablum. Schlock. Defanged, milquetoast, dull-as-dishwater books by committee. And, my friends, I think you would agree that we are seeing a lot of that these days. (I spent a few hours at a local B&N yesterday. Don't get me started on the books displayed on the tables near the door.)
3. They make the good reviews that much sweeter. I remember my philosophy class at university many years ago, and the idea that we can know something only by its opposite. So, a few 1-star reviews make that thoughtful five-star review all the sweeter.
Case in point: A few years ago, one of my authors sent me a review that had been published in a small literary journal - not the type of publication that would normally review a mystery or suspense book. This particular book was one of my problem children: I loved it and published it enthusiastically, knowing it was going to be a tough sell because it was so challenging. And we did get our share of 1-star, puzzled and angry reviews. However, the author was over the moon with delight about this particular review, which amounted to a rave. The author said to me, "Agatho, with all the reviews I've had on this book, I feel that this reviewer is the only one who actually understood what I was attempting to do, who heard what I was trying to say."
Yes - yes - yes. I would never publish a book without knowing consciously what the author is trying to do or say. This is not to imply that every book has a serious purpose: The goal might be, simply, "I want to take people away for a few hours and give them a heroine they'll love." But the best writers know what they are trying to accomplish; and the more serious the writer, the more often there will be more to it than that. For the book I'm talking about, the writer was challenging readers to examine their own assumptions on a few matters - and this reviewer saw that and responded to it. For the author, and for me, this helped us continue to think about the book as a minor triumph rather than the not-so-successful (commercially) book that it was. Of course, we are an independent publisher and can look at books this way from time to time (though we wouldn't want it to happen too often).
This gets at the different review journals and what they mean. A good review in PW means that the book has a good chance of succeeding, and merit is not necessarily a part of that success. A good review in LJ means the book will likely appeal to the typical reader who patronizes libraries. A good review in Kirkus means the writing is good and the book will likely pass muster among difficult critics. A good review in the New York Times means someone, somewhere, has tapped into the network.
4. They can make us feel superior. I don't advocate developing a sense of superiority over reviews as a general course of action, but occasionally - being able to laught at the foolishness of certain reviews can help the development of perspective. When a review is written in all lower-case - composed in sentence fragments - when it reviews based on the first ten pages - These are all reasons to think: This is America: The Stupid are allowed a voice, and they are exercising their right.
5. Sometimes they're right. There are a lot of good books published, and a lot of bad ones. Well-written, cogently argued one-star reviews can help readers spend their money in better places.