A Primer on Reviews – the Good Review – the Bad Review in its Two Forms – the Regular Bad Review and the Bad Bad Review – and the Good Bad Review

This article deserves appropriate illustration. I wanted to present a sampling of truly awful book covers. I found many, some totally hysterical, but they were in use on books currently for sale and as such were very copyrighted. I had to settle for what was in the public domain.

I am treading on dangerous territory. Authors are cautioned everywhere: IF YOU GET A BAD REVIEW, SUCK IT UP. DO NOT COMMENT, EVER, NO MATTER WHAT. NEVER RETALIATE OR EXPLAIN ON-LINE OR ANYWHERE ELSE.

Why? This is the viral age. At times, authors have been so hurt, provoked, or rendered insane by bad reviews that they unleash on-line diatribes against the review’s writer(s). These diatribes show the authors as groveling, sniveling, rolling-on-the-floor crybabies with snot and tears all over their faces. Either that or they come across as fruitcakes. These reactions provide terrific fodder for those who love to see their fellow human beings quivering like the Jello-O molds your aunties used to make in the 1950s. (The green kind, with cottage cheese.) The author may explain, “I don’t do this very often, but what he/she said flipped me out.” Doesn’t matter: in the cyber age, an author’s worst moments can become the defining statements of her career, thus tanking it.

I feel pretty safe writing this, as NOTHING I’ve written has gone viral, including an important blog post about water allocation in California which should interest everyone in the state who drinks water. (Now, had it been about wine, that post would have covered the globe.)

Therefore, I feel at ease writing about reviews from an author’s point of view. I would like to do a bit of teaching, enlightening readers about writing reviews and some pitfalls they may leap into, only to feel silly/stupid later. I’m not going to teach readers how to band together in semi-feral groups, organize and attack authors with the intent of sinking books and destroying careers. Those of you prone to do that already know how to do it.


THE GOOD REVIEW: (Spoiler alert: This is an example of a good review, but it packs a spoiler.) “This brilliant novel illustrates what can be achieved devoting one’s life to studying invertebrates living in Iceland’s volcanic hot pools. Character development was superb, especially that of the heroine, a  Naegleria fowleri amoeba, who spent her entire life in the hot water of one pond. The way she infects the villain with  meningitis was amazing, killing him by entering his brain through the nasal passages.  This marvelous tale doesn’t bode well for Icelandic tourism, but man, it sure was a relief from those lousy vampire stories. Great plotting, pacing, use of language. An A+. I will read everything this writer produces.” (signed) A. ARTIFACT, #1 Amazon Reviewer in the Universe.

Authors scream in ecstasy when they receive reviews like this. I have only one question when I read such a review: How do I get a hold of A. ARTIFACT?

Hansi. What a gal!

BAD REVIEWS: Three types of bad review exist, the Regular Bad Review, which can be the basis of the Good Bad Review, and the Bad Bad Review:

“Stupid from it’s opening sentence to its final phrase, Fillydelphi Dreams, a period romance set in the late 1700s, is a loser. The heroine and hero are a rich plantation owner and her hot Jamaican slave. The historical research behind this book is horrendous. No rich, upper class woman would be seen traipsing around the barnyard clad in her “stays” at 2 AM, while trying to find her beloved Yorkshire terrier. Yorkshire terriers didn’t exist until the nineteenth century. That’s dumb. Dumber is the fact that the author mentions Victoria’s Secret as the provenance of the stays. Also, in an earlier dinner scene in her mansion, Her Ladyship is shown lacking in skills that would be possessed by any upper class woman in that day: she does not know an oyster fork from a pickle fork. She has nothing else to do but memorize silver pieces; she should know her forks. Back to traipsing around in the barnyard. She finds more than her dog, of course. The sex in this book is its high point, as the man Her Ladyship would have as her lover runs screaming, saying he ‘ll be flogged to death if he does what she wants. Besides, he has a wife and family and doesn’t want her. She says she’ll have him flogged to death if he doesn’t do what she wants. His whimpering cries as Her Ladyship has her way with him are the best part of this book. It’s horrible, one human being using an other so, but also realistic. Still, I’d rather read a vampire novel than this s***.”

This is a true Bad Review. The reviewer has read the book, formed articulate opinions about it’s various elements, and states them in the review. He does not personally attack the the author, only what she’s written.  Authors don’t like to receive reviews like this, but they can be a learning experience. (Victoria’s Secret incorporated in 1977 BTW.)

THE GOOD BAD REVIEW: This is a bad review, but it turns into having a good impact on the literary universe because of the author’s response to it. My first novel, Numenon: A Tale of Mysticism & Money, was greeted with wild, over the top positive reviews. It also won six national awards, including a Silver in the IPPYs and Silver Nautilus and four more, was #1 in Mysticism on Amazon for over a year and cruised at about 1,500 in the overall Amazon ratings. Yowser, wowser! The book had some problems, but many reviewers loved its spiritual authenticity.

Years later, the other reviewers found the book. Stating their comments more emphatically than I am here, these reviewers said it was too slow and had too much back story, plus the bad guy was underdeveloped, and the book ended too quickly, making it half a book. There were reasons for all this: it was my first novel and I didn’t know what I was doing, I had the sequel written and thought it would be out right away, not knowing that I would be paralyzed by writer’s block for years. That didn’t stop the other reviewers from ripping it to shreds.

What did I do? I pulled Numenon: A Tale of Mysticism & Money off the market. The folks who gave it bad reviews should rejoice at this. I began rewriting the novel, addressing the issues brought up by the reviewers. The part I rewrote was killer; far superior to the tortured prose and characters of the initial (now dead) version. But, when I started the rewrite of Numenon,  I the clouds of writer’s block that had prevented me from finishing Numenon’s sequel Mogollon: A Tale of Mysticism & Mayhem for six years thinned and disappeared. The right words appeared in my brain.

When that happens, you gotta write, because those words do not hang around. And then the novella Leroy Watches Jr. & the Badass Bull and the reissue of Stepping off the Edge burst into my consciousness. I had to work on them. But, if I ever finish rewriting  Numenon: A Tale of Mysticism & Money, it will rock. I show Will being a womanizer, instead of having his secretary tell you about it. Will is a major a slime bucket before he meets the shaman, Grandfather.  I’ve grown as a writer: earlier, I was too embarrassed to show Will’s nasty bits.

This is a case a bad review having a good outcome by provoking appropriate action in an author.

This isn't so bad a cover, but as I said, all the really bad ones were on books currently for sale. Some I checked out were ABSOLUTELY HYSTERICAL, and inappropriate for Your Shelf Life. "Games to Play with your ********," for one. Google "really bad book covers."

THE BAD BAD REVIEW: “Susan Wallawallawhoopsie is an idiot. She is so stupid that she wrote about a woman having a Yorkshire terrier in the 1,700s. Everyone knows they weren’t invented yet. And getting her stays at Victoria’s Secret? VS didn’t exist, either. Anyone who’s stupid enough to think she just went to VS to get undies is dumb. This author is so dumb, I’m surprised she didn’t say she got them at Costco, but that shows more brains than Susan’s got.And on and on.

This is a rant. Often, like-minded souls (called trolls by everyone but themselves) will band together and attack a book/author heaping one star reviews of this ilk on a book or books. I’ve read reviews of type. Some don’t sound like the above “Bad Bad Review.” Some sound reasonable, until you read the book, which is pretty darn good and bears little resemblance to the one-star wonder described by the reviewer.

We live in review wars,  Star Wars’ ugly cousin. Typically, reviews posted on sellers’ sites are permanent, smelling up the site on which they are written forever. Some review platforms, Amazon, I understand, allow authors to get such defamation down, if they work hard enough. Other review sites are bloody free-for-alls with no author recourse.

What triggers attacks by trolls? Success. If your head sticks up above the cyber-crowd in any way, swarms of virtual vipers may be attracted to your work and attempt to destroy your career. The situation is on-going and is so bad that I’m not going to say any more about it. I have a number of instances (that most writers know about) that I could cite, but the authors involved asked me not talk about them. What do these examples involve? Death threats. Professional destruction. Really nasty verbiage flung hard. Books sunk by coordinated attacks of one star reviews. Do you feel fear?  If you don’t, you’re not on the writer side of the aisle.

Those wishing to understand the behavior I’ve described can visit the Center for Internet Addiction, founded by Kimberly Young, PhD, the clinical psychologist who identified ‘net addiction in 1996. The Internet has created new forms of psychopathology: the attacks on authors are manifestations of the rage states that overtake some people on the ‘net. Flaming-–an individual or a group group exploding and heaping vitriol on a member–is one manifestation of these new mental illnesses. Dr. Young describes more. Internet addiction isn’t just piddling your life and money away on auctions. When I was writing the first edition of my book Stepping off the Edge around 2003 to 2006, I stumbled into internet addiction–my own, in the form of an eBay addiction. Dr. Young’s writings. particularly Caught in the ‘Net, really helped.

The anonymity of the ‘net fosters all sorts of behaviors that people would never indulge in person.

But if no one can see them … There’s no sanction of what they do … If they have a bunch of friends and egg each other on … A culture that says what they’re doing is  OK?

Let’s get to something more pleasant: The STUPID REVIEW, the topic of my next post.

Sandy Nathan

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Published on July 23, 2014 17:47
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