Critics – Be Kind

There are many critics in the world. And they have suffered some horrible comments in the past. Tynan said, “A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.”

Sadly, there are all too many critics around today. The advent of the internet has created an explosion of critical writing as much as it has a vast increase in fiction and non-fiction writing. The only sad thing is, that people who put comments up are often much like Trolls, throwing up rude, unkind comments just because they can.

I wonder, though, how many people pay any attention to them?

I know that critical pages in newspapers are declining. There’s little money in them, so the editors are not keen on them. It’s easy to cut a few pages of people talking about someone else’s books. In any case, how many people read a review in the Times or Telegraph with a view to seeing how good a book is? I think most of the time people read them because they want to be amused or entertained by the writer of the review. Publishers don’t advertise in the review pages so often – it’s expensive compared with throwing some free copies in the direction of some internet bloggers – so what is the point of the critic pages? At least, I imagine that’s the rationale behind the closing of so many review pages.

In all my years of reading, I can think of only a tiny number of books I’ve bought as a result of a review – and by that, I mean fewer than five.

Yet now more and more weight is being given to critics. People on Amazon and Goodreads put in scathing comments about books and authors without a second’s thought. And yet those comments could wreck an author’s career, especially an author who is new and trying to become established.

I know Sibelius once said: “Never pay attention to what the critics say … a statue has never been put up in honour of a critic”, but nowadays it is difficult to ignore the cruel, barbed comments. All authors can see them, appended to their work like tattoos of monsters designed to scare away the unwary.

After all, a newspaper comment would normally be checked by editors and proofers for accuracy and libel. Comments on Amazon go up unchecked, and even if libellous it is be near to impossible for the author to have the review taken down.

My personal favourite was a one star review for The Last Templar, which was scathing. The writer said he hated books like mine. It was the first person narrative that really grated, he said.

First Person narrative? There was none. To this day I don’t know whether he meant something other than first person narrative, or was merely thinking about another book and got mine confused with it!

Then there was the American reader who commented on one of my books, saying that it was so full of typos he couldn’t read it. Sadly he did not mention where the typos were, nor what they were. The book had been edited and copyedited, so I think the following comment from another reader hit the nail on the head. This kindly individual gently pointed out that I am English and the book used British English spelling, not American. Still, that sort of comment could have cost me sales. Luckily Act of Vengeance has gathered only superb reviews apart from that one, and I think the single comment won’t affect it, but someone else could have suffered.

Typos? No, not many!

Typos? No, not many!

My very first “fan” letter came after the Last Templar was published. It listed 21 separate errors or problems in the story.

As you can imagine, my editor, a delightful young woman who had just spent money on me and hoped to bring me on as an author, was a little anxious to read these faults. If these points were correct, it called her judgement into question, after all. She called me and asked whether I would like to comment on the points raised.

Yes, I would. The first point the (to me, anonymous author – I never saw the original letter and wasn’t allowed to know from whom it came) raised was that the siege of Acre was not in 1291: it was 1191. Rather than Christians being besieged by Muslims, the writer said, it was Richard Coeur de Lion’s men assaulting the city held by Saladin’s men.

Well, he was right about that history. King Richard did attack Acre and captured it from Saladin. However, it is not my fault that 100 years later the roles were reversed and the Mamluk armies threw the Christians from what remained of their toeholds in the Holy Land.

I took a strong line on that, and said that since the reader didn’t look up the history to confirm whether Acre was besieged or not in 1291, I didn’t propose to spend time on his other points.

Of course today that same reviewer would put his comments up on the internet and may well affect the sales of my book.

And that is why I have only ever written two unkind reviews of books. I tend to think that every book has something in it that will make it appeal to some people. It is my job as  a critic and reviewer to find those positive aspects so that the people looking for that kind of a read will find it. It isn’t my job to be amusingly unkind about someone else’s work to gain a giggle or two.

Two reviews I’ve written did go for the jugular, yes. But in both cases they were deserved, I think. One for a lack of research into her period, the other for – well, for the quality of the writing.

Both were some time ago. I now won’t review books that I find too crassly poor. There are some (very commercially successful) authors whose books I cannot read. Literally. Two spring to mind, whose books are mercifully unmarked after page 100. I struggled to that page, but didn’t find it possible to keep turning the pages after that. But others will love those books. It’s not my place to decide for others whether they should or should not read them.

Perhaps they’re just listening to the advice of Don Marquis. He said: “If you want to get rich from writing, write the sort of thing that’s read by persons who move their lips when they’re reading to themselves.”

Hmm.

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Comments
6 Responses to “Critics – Be Kind”
  1. tigers68 says:

    Excellent food for thought especially since I have begun writing reviews. So far I haven’t read a book that would garner a really negative review from me but should that time come I doubt I would review it mainly because I probably won’t finish reading it.

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    • Thanks for the comment, tiger68. I think it’s important not to review if you don’t like them. There’s no need to slate an author and his/her work just because it didn’t hit your buttons that day. Sometimes if you pick up a book and dislike it, you will like it in a month’s time. In any case, other folks may well like it. Why put them off?

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  2. Mike, I could not agree more. While the reviews for Veet Hair Remover for Men are national treasures, I would cheerfully obliterate most other Amazon critiques, good or bad, regardless of the fact that like yours, my books achieve a fairly high star rating.

    While there is value in product reviews that raise practical difficulties, I can find none in the thoughts of others on any intellectually created material.

    Genuinely, I do not understand why ‘book groups’ exist, or what their v alue might be. No two people read the same book. Every reading experience is a highly personal thing and what is a good read to one person may be close to excoriation for another. I do not believe that I have the right to tell other people whether they will like a book, and that any attempt to do so would be downright arrogance on my part.

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    • Thanks for the comment, Quintin – and yes! I have no right to claim to be a gatekeeper for what other people should read. And some of the comments you get … well, they aren’t helpful to anyone. Long may your sales keep increasing!

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  3. maaz247 says:

    I will take care of THAT sir.

    Like

  4. Old Trooper says:

    I can’t quite fully agree with Quintin. The fact that reviews exist, i.e. on Amazon, Barnes & Noble et al and that some are frustrated writers who offer up lengthy synopsis which is not a review, and not always properly descriptive, which can spoil a book for a potential reader, a little counter balance is good. If one tells of their personal experience with a given title — a few lines of why one liked it (primary source research, quality of story telling, etc.), it is hardly arrogance in play but a concise telling of why it appealed to a given reader. Other readers who may appreciate certain qualities in writing may then take a leap of faith and give a title a try rather than ignore it. It also helps to offset those so called reviewers who have a gripe with a vendor (didn’t like the packaging or didn’t like the delay in receipt) and vent their gripe on the review page rather than with customer service. In an event, I have never seen Jecks display hubris nor a supercilious attitude when he does make comment(s) about others. With that and his writing ability, I will continue to purchase his titles.

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