A couple of months ago, I found two new reviews of The Death of a Smoker; one on Amazon.co.uk and one on Amazon.com (US). The UK review was two star and the US review was five star. Who doesn’t like a five star review, but we should not dismiss two star reviews. They are not comfortable but that does not mean they are without value. Most people who give one or two star reviews tend not to leave a comment. Yet even so they have some value. Firstly it does mean someone has bought you book, and let’s be honest, even people who give gushing five start reviews only buy the book once. Though there are some wonderful souls who are so impressed that they do buy more copies as gifts for their friends. When it comes down to royalties, a sale is a sale regardless of whether or not the reader enjoyed he book.
The second advantage of low star reviews, even without comments, is that they do demonstrate an authenticity that shows your book reviews are independent. There can be no doubt that friends and colleagues who like your work are more likely to give higher ratings, and probably won’t give any rating or review at all if they do not like the work. No matter how much we would like all five star reviews they do tend to look suspicious, especially for those of us who do not generate reviews by the hundreds.
Both of the reviews in question were by people I do not know and, yes, it is a boost when you read such things as ‘I thought - they just don't write books like this any more’ and ‘I immediately ordered his next book’. It was the two star review, however, that really caught my attention. Disappointing though it was to read that the reviewer did not finish the book (he missed the best bits. Honest!) he did not simply dismiss the book with some trivial comment or bland statement such as ‘not for me’. Not all books can appeal to all readers, I think I gave Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall a two star rating. I was driven to distraction by her persistence in always referring to Thomas Cromwell as ‘he’, which caused much confusion when more than one character was mentioned in a paragraph. The Man Booker Prize judges, of course, took a completely different view, but not even that persuaded me to continue with the trilogy.
This reviewer of The Death of a Smoker went to the trouble of explaining why the novel didn’t work for him. Some aspects of my writing style had not appealed to him; ‘lots of extended sentences that did not gel’. To be honest, though I might not agree with his opinion, when I look at the way I write he does have a point. One’s style, however, is one’s style, though it is not immutable.
Another aspect that hadn’t appealed to him was that he felt there were overtones of John Le Carré, ‘George Smiley references in a John le Carré way - spies in a Whitehall building bickering away with office politics’. Not literal references of course, but I can see where he is coming from having only read the first few chapters. I am not sure that it is a bad thing to be compared to Le Carré, and, indeed, a debut novel is rarely going to match up to the work of a master of the craft. I can also see where he draws the George Smiley comparison from. The main character, Harry Nevile, is a ‘gentleman’ MI5 officer though in truth he is partly based on my good self (or how I would like to think I might behave in similar circumstances) and partly upon a former colleague/friend who was a gentleman and also was an ex-spy. Which may explain why the reviewer felt there was a ‘Detail overdose of XXL spycraft’.
One can ask for nothing more than honest reviews. Disappointing sometimes? Yes, a two star review is a disappointment but it is also the kind of review from which an author can learn. The lone writer tapping away at his laptop keyboard on the kitchen counter is not ideally placed for constructive criticism and it is to be welcomed when it comes along. Criticism isn’t easy to take, it’s a bit like reading your own book after it has been published and finding the typo (or is that typos?) that you missed. And you can’t blame the editor either, it is your book and your typo!
So two reviews, one sort that I like to read and one with a bit of a sting. Some wounded pride? Yes, but I could not help but think the two star review was a good review. Perhaps I was swayed by the reviewer’s final comment, ‘Good effort tho’. A gentleman, just like Harry Nevile!