Reviewers Behaving Badly

20 Oct

I’ve caught a chest infection, which has slowed me down so updates are going to be a little delayed. But I just had to write about this.

Let me be blunt.

Reviewing a book you haven’t read is despicable. Reviewing a book that isn’t out yet is disgraceful. Reviewing – and slamming – a book for political reasons is contemptible.

Hard on the heels of The Black Witch controversy comes another one. American Heart – a novel that seems to be an updated version of Huckleberry Finn, with Muslims instead of runaway black slaves – has been hammered by online reviewers, even though the book hasn’t been officially released and the majority of reviewers almost certainly haven’t read the book (which probably explains why very few reviews go into actual detail.) Here’s an example from Goodreads:

american heart review

One of the fundamental truths of writing – and I speak as a writer – is that there will always be bad reviews. And there is nothing that can be done about them. Readers have a right to their opinions and if they don’t like your book, they don’t like your book. I’ve had my fair share of reviews that made me want to reach through the computer screen and strangle the reviewer, but I can’t (and I shouldn’t if I could). Honest bad reviews are the price we pay for honest good reviews – and a detailed bad review is often worth its weight in gold.

Dishonest reviews – and by dishonest I mean reviews that aren’t focused on the fundamental issue of whether or not the book is actually any good – weaken the system. A reviewer who slammed Netflix’s Death Note for being whitewashed may have a point, but it doesn’t answer the important question. Why should such reviews be taken seriously? And why should a review site that bows to outside pressure be taken seriously either?

Look, there’s a right way to handle controversial books. Put up a positive review and a negative review – a thoughtful negative review. Let the readers read both reviews and make up their own minds. Surrendering to an online onslaught, on the other hand, is nothing more than cowardly. At best, it diminishes Kirkus – rest assured I won’t bother to read their reviews in future – while, at worst, it encourages more online harassment now the trolls have scented blood. Showing weakness in the face of the mob is always a mistake.

What makes this particularly sad – and yet unsurprising – is that the author bent over backwards to try to avoid this controversy. She ran it past a Muslim friend, then the publisher sent it to the so-called Sensitivity Readers in the hopes of removing anything vaguely problematic. And yet, the book got slammed anyway. I haven’t read American Heart, of course, but I do wonder at readers who challenge a book that, on the face of it, insists that a minority group is human too. What’s wrong with that?

The simplest lesson of the whole affair, basically, is don’t feed the trolls. But there is a more important point.

A few weeks ago, I was reading Inside GamerGate. And one of the points the author made was that GamerGate started an anti-harassment patrol of its own, which was apparently highly successful. But none of GamerGate’s critics seemed inclined to recognise the patrol’s existence, let alone its good work. As the author put it:

“As a result, the effort began to fall away as their efforts weren’t being recognised and they were being blamed for harassment as well as being undermined from within Gamergate by the free speech extremists. Why labour so much on behalf of your enemies when they won’t acknowledge your effort or apologise for implicating you in mass harassment?”

American Heart was not written by a demented (left-wing or right-wing) extremist who thinks that everyone who doesn’t agree with him 100% should be sent to the death camps and exterminated. It was written by someone who meant well, someone who wanted to remind the world of our common humanity. (The same lesson Huckleberry Finn tried to teach.) And her reward for that was being savaged by her own side. Why should she – why should anyone – try again?

No one, least of all me, would deny that a book can be legitimately criticised. And there are certainly grounds for criticising American Heart (another here). But the legitimate criticism is drowned out – in this case and many others – by illegitimate criticism and reviewers behaving badly. Saying you don’t like the book is one thing, harassing reviewers, publishers and authors is quite another. And the people who lose are the authors, who don’t get thoughtful reviews, and the readers, who cannot trust the reviews.

Sigh. As far as I can tell, the only person who acted like an adult is the author herself.

If you can’t act like an adult, don’t read adult books.

21 Responses to “Reviewers Behaving Badly”

  1. Anarchymedes October 20, 2017 at 11:52 am #

    1. ‘Reviewing – and slamming – a book for political reasons is contemptible.’ Well, bearing in mind that the true reason doesn’t necessarily have to appear openly in the review, any more than the true reason why you’re being fired has to appear in the official termination letter, let me put it this way: I can’t think of any reviewer who’d be completely free of this sin.

    2. ‘Why should such reviews be taken seriously?’ Personally, I couldn’t have agreed more. But someone (who shall remain nameless) posted many a line on this very blog on the crucial value of feedback. And some people maybe simply put too much of themselves in their books, treating them more as confessions than a day job. A bad – I mean, really bad, scything, insulting – review can kill then, as surely as online bullying does.

    3. ‘Readers have a right to their opinions and if they don’t like your book, they don’t like your book.’ Guess what? So do authors. So, don’t like it, don’t read it. That simple. The author doesn’t have to listen to this excreta.

    4. That ‘example’ – is this a review? Or is it a f.-you? ‘I’ve had my fair share of reviews that made me want to reach through the computer screen and strangle the reviewer.’ Well, the feeling is sometimes quite mutual – and, once again, a certain space opera running way, way too long shall remain unmentioned (and unreviewed) – but isn’t that what being civilised is all about: to keep such feelings (or rather, their expression) under control?

    5. Can’t help saying that this whole thing has confirmed my deep scepticism concerning the value of trollback – oops, sorry, feedback. Also can’t help wondering: if honest feedback is so important for professional growth, how do the professional sex workers go about gathering it? Do they read the customers’ reviews of their performance regularly, trying to address the issues raised, and so on? You get where I’m going with this: some people make sex their profession; others – well, you know. So, some writers write for a living. Others -???

  2. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard October 20, 2017 at 1:20 pm #

    First, I won’t be purchasing “American Heart” as it doesn’t seem like something I’d enjoy.

    Second, IMO that Goodreads “reviewer” is an idiot and I suspect many of the other reviews are just as idiotic.

    Third, regarding my first & second comment, I’m a firm believer in “YMMV” concerning entertainment. IE my liking or disliking something, doesn’t mean that something is wrong with another person if they have a different view.

    Finally Chris, take care of yourself. 😀

  3. clbeam October 20, 2017 at 4:12 pm #

    it sound like the author showed a sign of weakness to the sjw crowd and they smelled blood in the watter

  4. Pyo October 20, 2017 at 7:07 pm #

    Mh, well. At least the review shows some information. And I could imagine that just maybe a member of a minority would say “urk, I’m not reading another novel where we need rescuing!” – like a woman (or, frankly, anyone ^^) might be fed up with damsel in distress plots.

    So this “review” (if it can be called that) at least gives any potential buyer that information. I’ve seen worse, I suppose.
    (of course it could be much more informative and one should never review anything they didn’t actually read/watch/use etc but that’s not my point here ^^).

    As for the dilemma (if it is one) the review goes on about: I think it’s unsolvable in way too many ways. And very complex. But also simple: it’s fiction. Anything should go in fiction. Except of course there’s good reason why maybe that’s not a good idea. So we’re back at it being complex and unsolvable …

  5. Matthew Stienberg October 20, 2017 at 8:10 pm #

    Bad reviews are a plague on the reviewing system. I admit that I have published at least two in my time (one because a book was so legitimately awful it deserved nothing but derision) and a second trying to encourage fan outcry about “seasonal rot” in one of my favorite series. That being said, when I see people who put no effort into their reviews or simply rumbling on about “something awful” in a book without specification, it makes me think the reviewer hasn’t even read the book.

    On the flip side people who write bland praising 5 star reviews without saying why the book is good are just as bad since they do nothing but make a book look good even if it actually isn’t!

  6. shrekgrinch October 20, 2017 at 9:15 pm #

    This is part of the bigger problem we have regarding the poor educating of the public in critical thinking & debating skills.

    In fact, the college ‘educated’ people are the more likely they end up being worse at those two skills before they even started their first day at college.

    Then there are the paid troll industry working wirh various groups.

  7. Dave Scheffer October 21, 2017 at 12:46 am #

    I’ve bought just about every book Chris has published for Kindle. I’ve grumbled a few times to my wife about his series as they start to get long in the tooth.

    We’ve all seen the famous takedowns of Robert Jordan and S.M. Stirling which frankly were often well deserved. Chris has walked over the line of template writing himself but I get it is hard to meet publisher/contract needs with time and creativity. I wouldn’t have bought nearly his entire portfolio if I didn’t get something out of it.

    So I’m happy to stand next to Chris on this particular molehill. Some reviews frankly come from places we already know don’t *just* have a bias, they a built in requirement because of their business model and demographic to simply be clickbait. To be short, they only know the provocateur.

    That said, why direct attention to the obvious troll review sites.

    The best way to counter a bad (not negative, I mean a truly badly intentioned review) is to write a well constructed review with honest critique based on valid reasons.

    I don’t see anything like that in the OP. So why I agree with Chris there are clearly bad intentioned sites with bad intention readers… wouldn’t it have been better to write an honest review based on merits and then slam others?

    And if the book isn’t available just yet, well delayed gratification is better gratification.

  8. Ann October 21, 2017 at 2:33 am #

    I pay almost no attention to reviews of anything non technical as personal opinion is just that and if it doesn’t come from someone that knows me and whose judgement I trust well its gigo..

    • FarWalker October 23, 2017 at 2:46 am #

      Agreed. Although I will say I pay absolutely no attention to anyone but a friend or family members critique of a movie, play, book or restaurant etc. In short, I don’t read reviews – they are not worth my time.

  9. PhilippeO October 21, 2017 at 4:52 am #

    Eh, fundamental weakness of homo sapiens. impossible to cure.

    in life, eventually you just must accept that “bad luck” can happen to someone for no reason at all. Review/Opinion/Rumour is like that. In Book Publishing, at least worst that can happen is book get cancelled and had to self-publish. in Middle School, occasionally internet cause suicide. Since all solution is worst than disease, accepting it as something that random and disastrous is the only answer.

    • Pyo October 21, 2017 at 12:23 pm #

      Well, it can be debated whether the 1-5 star review system is perfect.

      Obviously, no matter what you do, reviews will always be problematic (but overall still more helpful than not having them at all). However, there’s plenty of systems that don’t work like Amazon’s “5-star or it’s rubbish” philosophy (of course this also has to do with the fact that Amazon isn’t really about literature and their system might be better suited for material goods than fiction content ^^).

      • Matthew Stienberg October 21, 2017 at 5:38 pm #

        The Amazon system has less to do with the quality of writing I think (considering their five star review is for everything from board games to rumbas) and I’ve seen people who’ve left one star reviews purely to criticize the kindle format, not the writing, but the kindle format. Mildly mental I think.

        By and large a star rating on Amazon shouldn’t be taken at face value.

      • Pyo October 21, 2017 at 6:47 pm #

        Yeah, but the issue is this – the rating is very important for were products are placed in the various Amazon systems. So if you want to be so lucky that you pick up random readers, good reviews are fairly important. Even if you feel that the system is stupid and you shouldn’t worry about random trolling reviews, they’ll essentially influence your income.

        And indie writers don’t get lots of reviews. It’s still fairly OK on amazon.com. There’s usually a bunch at least.
        But internationally, where English publications are still sold, even in lower quantities, it’s often like 0 to maybe 5 reviews. So a single review quite easily influences the overall rating.

        Also, don’t know why or even if it’s true across the board or just for the stuff I read: one amusing thing I noted is that US reviews for indie novels are overall significantly more generous than German ones. Now, we could debate as to why that is so, but point is, the novels aren’t getting worse just by crossing any borders.

        Just shows how subjective the entire thing is, even when it’s many people involved instead of single reviews …

  10. Ron October 21, 2017 at 12:55 pm #

    A much better, albite negative review from someone who apparently did read it, can be found here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2153303926

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard October 21, 2017 at 2:24 pm #

      Nod.

  11. bretwallach October 21, 2017 at 5:18 pm #

    “No one, least of all me, would deny that a book can be legitimately criticised.”

    Well, we on this side of the pond still have that 1st amendment thingy meaning that all books can literally be “legitimately” criticized for any and every reason, including political trolling ones. And I’m absolutely positive that I don’t want anyone ever deciding what’s “legitimate” or not.

    “If you can’t act like an adult, don’t read adult books.”

    And how would you expect someone to develop “adult” thinking and acting if they don’t read adult material? That would consign them to be children forever.

    Besides, you pointed out that they probably didn’t read said book anyway.

  12. Wazman October 22, 2017 at 3:02 pm #

    Hope that you are feeling better soon.

  13. pokey42 October 22, 2017 at 9:07 pm #

    I have to agree with you 100%. This not only goes for book reviews but movie reviews, too. The real injustice in this is not necessarily the review itself but ratings they give turns prospective readers or watchers away. Many people are too busy to read the actual reviews and just go by the ratings to make decisions on what to occupy their time (guilty as charged).

    The real crime of trolls like these is that they are taking money out of pockets of good deserving people who works hard to put out good quality products for our enjoyment.

    That being said, it is our duty to rate a book or movie well if we enjoy it (or poorly if the work is a piece of crap). Good writers and producers deserve to be rewarded for their good works.

  14. Joe October 23, 2017 at 2:14 am #

    A couple thoughts, writing a trash review for a book that is not even out yet and not read yet is cowardly. The second, the length of your books are just fine, they are not too long.☺

  15. Dan October 23, 2017 at 3:17 am #

    Here is my take on reviews. I have been reading everything I could get my hands on for 55yrs and I find in general that reviews by readers and critics are unhelpful. On the other hand I feel that reviews buy authors whose work I have read to be very helpful.

  16. A Reader October 24, 2017 at 11:08 pm #

    I agree that it’s hardly fair to review a book you haven’t read. That said, I won’t read American Heart (and won’t review it). Sounds like another attempt to make Muslims into some kind of persecuted minority in America, which is patently absurd–at least so far.

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