We authors do, and not necessarily for the reasons that anyone would rationally think. We live in an irrational digital world, and with eBooks – especially when they are on ‘free days’ – ‘Digital Babylon’ takes place. Downloads go through the roof and ‘opinions’, as they say, ‘are like assholes. Everybody’s got one’.
Every author wants his or her book to be well received. For praise to heaped upon it after all those thousands of hours of labour bringing it from conception to birth. But I am constantly reminded of what the editor of my first book, John Blackwell of Martin Secker & Warburg, said to me as a newly published author. “DON’T READ REVIEWS, THEY WILL ONLY MAKE YOU MAD. BELIEVE IN YOUR BOOK.” He was right but not completely, for there are many reviewers and critics out there who are thoughtful, constructive and are genuinely appreciative of the author’s work and effort, even if they do not necessarily like or agree with said work. They are the one’s that make us better writers. Their criticisms are like gold dust. We authors need to understand that with every succeeding book we are learning and growing in our craft.
Then there are those reviewers who did not read the book properly at all. Those that read a snippet and base their review on five hundred words, less than half the amount of this blog. And then there are those reviewers who like the story think it’s well written but vehemently disagree with a political stance and therefore give the book a single star, for political reasons not literary. It is those to whom I focus my contempt, and it’s not just me who thinks this way.
There is a quote – from an extraordinarily gifted and world renowned author – that I keep with me at all times, just to remind myself that I am not alone in feeling upset and angry at idiots, and it sums up my feelings.
“No creator can like critics. There is too much difference between the two activities. One is begetting, the other surgery. However justified the criticism, it is always inflicted by someone who hasn’t, a eunuch, on someone who has, a generator; by someone who takes no real risks on someone who stakes most of his being, economic as well as immortal.” Fowles, John – Daniel Martin (p. 99).
This book is one of my favourites, along with The Magus and The Ebony Tower, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Collector. John Fowles is a towering figure in literature, and yet when I looked him up on Amazon and read the reviews of his books, I was outraged at some of the less than literate comments. Then it struck me. The readers who write such reviews usually do not put their full names, hiding their identities behind names like, ‘Brecon’ (one of my reviewers); ‘BobM’ (yet another) and ‘Caraculiambro’ who wrote of Daniel Martin “Lord I hate this book…” and finished “Still the uncontested champion of suckitude.” Gosh I never knew the word ‘sucktitude’ existed in the English language. Oh right. It doesn’t, I just checked my Oxford English Dictionary. So here we have a reviewer who claims to have read exceptional English prose who can’t even think of a word that actually exists in the language to describe his……. His what? Sucktitude?
I have had reviewer’s lambast me for not using a verb in a sentence. Well if you are writing a letter, or a business proposal, or a technical work then using the grammar tool in Microsoft Word might work for you, but creative writing is just that. Creative. And Microsoft Word’s grammar tool cannot cope with that. As an example, I direct you to another of my favourite author’s, JP Donleavy who wrote The Ginger Man, A Singular Man, The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, Meet my Maker the Mad Molecule, The Onion Eaters….. there are many more. In some of his books, particular the hilarious A Singular Man, verbs are almost non-existent. It is called ‘pushing the boundaries’. Creating a time, place and space with words and verb free sentences.
My first book, CONTACT, was written in a stream of consciousness style. It is a true account of my two tours in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. Before I submitted the manuscript for publication I gave it to several soldiers with whom I had served, and asked them to read it and tell me if they agreed with what I had written and that it was a true reflection of our experiences during those two tours. They read the manuscript and urged me to publish, which of course I did. Now this is what ‘BobM (Long Island NY)’ wrote on amazon.com about CONTACT:
“This book seemed more like a therapeutic exercise for the writer than a truthful story of what the British troops did in Northern Ireland and the way they conducted themselves, I hope putting all of this in writing helped the author. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone.”
Interesting. Now this is what another reviewer, a British Soldier, wrote on the amazon.co.uk site:
“i am an ex soldier who served in northern ireland during the troubles and this is an excellent account of what it was like. i only wish we had an officer like captain clarke.” (reproduced exactly as it appears on amazon.co.uk)
So one reviewer was someone who had no experience of soldiering in Northern Ireland, BobM; and the other, PM, a soldier who actually served there. Now I am sure that BobM probably has a political motive for his review, and if he does, he might like to know that I have met former terrorists on both sides of the conflict who read CONTACT while they were serving life sentences for murder (later released under the Amnesty Terms of the Good Friday Agreement). All said the book was a valuable addition to the history of ‘The Troubles’. I was also invited to visit Derry – the scene of Bloody Sunday – by the City Council, to take part in an Exhibition at the museum and talk to members of the public.
My point is that many people have personal opinions that, for the most part, have nothing to do with the veracity of the book they are reviewing. They simply want a chance to unload. That approach is not useful criticism to future readers, or to an author.
The beauty of ‘Digital Babylon’, is that now we authors have a way to respond to ridiculous reviewers through our own author websites and blogs. Devices that did not exist when I was first published in hardcover.
Lastly, reviews of eBooks are essential for sales. It’s a numbers game. Good reviews and bad reviews are equally important because bad reviews add credibility to good reviews. If every review is good, then seeds of suspicion are sown amongst potential readers. And this is where the irrationality of the eBook age shows itself.
But to those reviewers who feel they can happily bask in anonymity, Amazon also rates reviewers, a fact that those anonymous reviewers might heed next time they feel the urge to write inane comments that bear no resemblance whatever to the book they are supposedly reviewing. I can live with a bad review if it is written with intelligence, knowledge and humanity. What I cannot abide is ignorance, or spite. Two examples come to mind regarding my book AN UNQUIET AMERICAN:
“This political thriller is superbly written and for much of it the reader could be forgiven for thinking he or she had picked up the latest from Le Carré. Certainly the main character, Rufus Read, is pure Le Carré. His toying with his captors is brilliantly written and his reminiscences packed with fascinating and very disturbing facts. As someone who has spent many years in Hong Kong, I can certainly attest to the accuracy of the parts of the book located there…….” by David George Clarke. (No relation)
Then the antithesis:
“As I write I am only in the first quarter of the book, so it may improve. That said, I’m really having a hard time getting into the story as the characters are so vague and rambling. Hoping it gets better soon, or I’ll never finish. If it improves, I will revise review.” Lynda – Greensboro GA.
I wonder if Lynda read the same book as David. Interesting.
Having rambled on about this topic for long enough, there was also one other thing John Blackwell said, which I think is perfectly adapted to the eBook age. I had, in my youthful arrogance, questioned the importance of the cheap, badly written romance novels. John put me in my place. “The important thing is,” he said. “That those ‘cheap’ books invite people to read and the more people that read, the better.”
As a corollary, a friend of mine stopped reading years ago because, in this day and age, lugging heavy books around got tedious and expensive. Last year I introduced him to eBooks and he has regained his love of reading becoming an avid reader on his iPhone and iPad. So long live eBooks and ‘Digital Babylon’.