Reviews: the good, the bad, the ugly

Isaac Asimov once listened to someone giving a lecture that explained in detail his personal theory of what one of Asimov’s stories meant. After the lecture, Asimov came up to the man and kindly pointed out that while the man’s theory was ingenious, it was also completely off base regarding the story. When the man asked why he was so sure, Asimov said “Because I wrote it.” I loved the man’s response.

“… tell me, what makes you think, just because you are the author of ‘Nightfall,’ that you have the slightest inkling of what is in it?”
-Gotthard Guenther

The other day, I read a blog written by an author who, some years back, wrote a critical review of a book. It wasn’t nasty, there was good and bad in the review, but now he is wondering if perhaps he should not leave the review up. Other authors chimed in to agree, saying less-than-positive reviews aren’t helpful for the author.

I have to say that I don’t agree with that point of view. I don’t think the point of a review is to be helpful or hurtful to a writer. It’s written by a reader and is helpful to other readers. Reviews are opinions and as such as wholly subjective and not designed to be anything else.

Reviews are not written about what the author put into the book; they’re about what the reader got out of the book. Just because I wrote a book doesn’t mean that I know what’s in it. Not, that is, from the reader’s point of view.

Reading a book is a joint effort between the author and the reader. What I get out of a book is not necessarily what the author put into the book, because my experience of reading it is shaped by the mood I’m in, my past experiences, etc.  There’s no point in an author getting upset about a review, arguing with the reviewer, saying “you just don’t understand.” What they got out of the book is their experience, not yours.

I have bought books based on one-star reviews that I read in Amazon, because the reviewers mentioned why they disliked the book, and the things they called out would not bother me. On the other hand, I’ve read five-star reviews that deterred me from buying the book. If the reader thinks the book is wonderful even though it’s riddled with grammatical errors, I know I will be too distracted by the poor writing to enjoy the book. That’s just me.

Note: when I’m talking about a review, I’m talking about someone’s honest opinion about what they liked and what they didn’t like. I am not talking about one of those reviewers who enjoys being witty at someone’s expense. That’s someone who enjoys being cruel. It’s got nothing to do with whether the book is good or bad, often I suspect the person skimmed the book if they read it at all.

I’m coming from the perspective of someone who’s spent the last 20+ years writing books. Granted, they were non-fiction and usually only reviewed by engineers, but I wrote ’em,  my livelihood depended on them, and I got the equivalent of some one-star reviews. Not fun. However. As a professional writer, I considered it part of the job not to get upset or argue with someone’s opinion. If I write a book, I will sweat over it, bleed over it, angst over it, but then I will let it go. If you don’t like it, that’s your prerogative. You probably love books that I can’t stand. And that’s okay.

P.S. Blog posts are also subjective. The above is my opinion. I won’t feel hurt if you give this post a one-star comment.

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