Thursday, September 2, 2010

Unconstructive Criticism

by Ashley Lister

I’m going to veer off topic this week. Only slightly off topic. And I feel I’m able to because I picked this week’s subject and everyone else seems to have said pretty much what I would have said about this subject.

So, instead of talking about constructive criticism, I want to talk about unconstructive criticism.

Or, as it’s more commonly called, Amazon reviews.

I remember reading my first Amazon review and being stung by the vitriol. The words waste of money and crap were bandied around in there. Obviously everyone’s entitled to their opinion (even twunts) but it’s disheartening when the only words written about your hard endeavours are the words ‘waste of money’ and ‘crap.’ It’s not exactly the sort of thing editors look to use as strap-lines for future titles.

More recently I’ve noticed my titles are what we in the UK call Marmite titles – people either love them or hate them. The five star reviews sit next to single star reviews (which invariably complain that there is no option for delivering a no-star review). These are two example reviews from the same title:

A wonderful piece of erotic fiction set around the workings of a SM club. I was unable to put this book down - reading it from start to finish in one day. So good to read a book that explores Male Domination and female submission without a hint of abuse. The story also touches on Fem Dom/ fem sub - read it to find out more!

and

This is one of the most boring and predictable pieces of fiction from this genre that I have come across. The characters are wooden and stereotyped. I found it impossible to care what happened to any of them. Don't waste your money.

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it before, but one of my favourite low reviews came with the words, “You can tell this book was written by a woman, because she takes 100 pages to get to the story.

I dearly wanted to post a message underneath saying, “You can tell this review was written by a sexist sh*t because it was written by a sexist sh*t.

I also had a book reviewed with the words, “If you like to read about old priests shagging young lasses, then this is the book for you.” Just to mess with my head that reviewer gave my book five stars.

I continue reading new Amazon reviews when they’re posted even though the criticism is seldom constructive. Good or bad, the story either works for a reader or it doesn’t. The point is, if someone’s taken the time to read my work, and then taken the extra effort to post an opinion on Amazon, I ought to read it and see whether or not I’m doing my job to the reader’s satisfaction.

22 comments:

  1. Ash,

    I actually did a post on this very subject a few weeks ago. I experienced a range of reviews for a story that appeared in a collection at US Amazon.

    It's always good to know what readers are thinking and to accept that we'll never connect with every reader.

    I guess this comes to the heart of being good at receiving criticism constructively -- culling the pertinent from the impertinent in our own eyes.

    Great post.

    Craig

    ReplyDelete
  2. A lot of authors I'm in contact with have the same feeling about Amazon reviews. My take on it is that (1) a tiny percentage of readers bother to post reviews, and will do so usually because they dislike rather than like a book, and (2) those who do post reviews will often write like they're trying to start a flame war in a chatroom, or in the style of a gangster in some computer game. I frankly doubt many people read Amazon reviews in order to get an accurate view of the book.

    My 2p worth.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Craig,

    'culling the pertinent from the impertinent' I wash I had been pithy enough to say that.

    Best,

    Ash

    ReplyDelete
  4. Fulani,

    I think you're right about the negative comments taking precedence. I've left negative comments on electrical items that I thought were below standard, but I've never left positive feedback for the good gadgets.

    And, thinking about books I've read, I suppose I should go on Amazon more to give the thumbs up to those titles that have given me genuine pleasure.

    It might just have been 2p's worth, but I think you've just given me excellent value.

    Best,

    Ash

    ReplyDelete
  5. Ash -

    I can only give your post three stars, because you used the word twunt, while I prefer the word twatwaffle.


    My "favorite" reviews are the ones that say something like, "I hate BDSM, so I bought this clearly-labeled-as-BDSM book, and what do you know, there was BDSM in it! I'm outraged! I hated it, hated it, hated it. I was tricked! 1 Star, because they won't let me give it zero."

    ReplyDelete
  6. Kathleen,

    I've made a note to use twatwaffle in future. I think the character in my next book will have a pet cat called that.

    And I know what you mean about those reviews. I've just finished reading the autobiography of Frankie Boyle. He's a Scottish comedian renowned for a very dark and confrontational sense of humour. The strapline on the back is from another comedian who says: 'If you like Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code, why the hell are you even looking at this, you retard?'

    Don't you wish our publishers could be so honest?

    Ash

    ReplyDelete
  7. Ash - Bwahahaha! I am so going to steal that book blurb. BTW, twatwaffle isn't mine. I stole it from this guy I know. I think pancocks were also mentioned that that conversation.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Pancocks and Twatwaffles, oh my!

    My sister-in-law has outdone you both. She's inserted twattle into my mom-in-laws brain to mean that hangy down thing under an old woman's chin. Now, we all spend time trying to get her to say it then straining not to laugh out silly a$$es off.

    Yes, we can be very juvenile when we want to be, AND we love every moment of it.

    Ash, the reviews that confuse me are the ones given for anthologies where they rave about the stories, but say they're all much too short. I have no idea how big a book these nits think a publisher is going to put together.

    Great post sir!

    Hugs
    Jude

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hi Ash

    I don;t think I could do reviews unless I was really fired up about a book. I just wouldn;t want to. You can see what happens in my case. Not all Amazon reviews are crap, though granted many are. I met Mire Uno, the Japanese lady who guided me through "The Color of the Moon" because she had posted a review of Lafcadio Hearns book "Kwaidan". Of course Hearn was dead a hundred years so he didn;t care what she said, but I knew I had to contact her. That was back in more innocent times when such things were possible.

    Good post.

    Garce

    ReplyDelete
  10. I almost wish I could complain about all my negative reviews, because then it would at least mean more people had bought my book... ha.

    A number of my friends who said they liked my book also said they didn't want to publish a review because their amazon account contained some or all of their real name, and they didn't feel like changing their account just to review my book. Which makes sense.

    I got "reviewed" on Scribd, though, or rather, the lowest rating and a deathwish to my inbox calling me a "dirty sand nigger." And the excerpt there is free, so I didn't even get any royalties. :(

    I've left reviews on Amazon, but I follow the same policy as on my blog--if I don't like a book, I'm not going to finish reading it, let alone take the time to write a review. If I'm going to write something, it's because I liked the book. Otherwise, I'm too busy to bother.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Jude,

    The Grip is certainly broadening my vocabulary this week - in the funnest way possible.

    I wonder if other genre writers suffer this same Amazon curse? Children's writers getting the complaint: 'This book was aimed at kids.' Horror writers getting the criticism: 'This book was scary.'

    Best,

    Ash

    ReplyDelete
  12. Garce,

    I know reviewing isn't for everyone. A colleague and I are currently selecting poems for an anthology. One idea for selecting the poems was to grade each one out of 10 and pick the ones with the highest overall score.

    My colleague gave every poem 10 out of 10 because she thought they all deserved a high grade for having made the effort.

    I sometimes feel that way about reviewing. Even if it's a book I didn't enjoy reading, I can appreciate that the writer has made the effort and put some considerable time into producing a MS.

    Of course, that doesn't stop me from being a bitch if I've got to review a copy for one website or another :-)

    And if Amazon reviews helped you produce something as enjoyable as Color of the Moon. then they have to be creditted for being responsible for some good.

    Best,

    Ash

    ReplyDelete
  13. Shar,

    Whilst I was writing my blog this week, I considered pointing out that there was a time when I would have killed to be in receipt of a book review - mainly because that would prove I had written, published and been read.

    The hate mail you received is despicable. Scum that send out that sort of filth need to have their computers taken away from - preferably through their anus.

    Best,

    Ash

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hey Ash,

    Coming in to this discussion a bit late...I think maybe all the good words have been taken!

    I don't pay much attention to Amazon reviews. I hardly ever go look at mine. Why? Because there is no quality control, no guarantee at all of objectivity.

    This is as bad on the plus as on the minus side. I know an editor who offered to give free copies of her book to anyone who agreed to review it on Amazon. Now, she didn't come right out and specify that the individual had to produce a positive review, but self-selection basically guaranteed it. Only people who were interested in a book on this topic would have taken her up on the offer in the first place, and of course they were grateful for the free book.

    I am not saying anything at all about the quality of the book. (Well, okay, I will. It's an excellent book! It even contains a story by me...;^) ) But I'm not really very comfortable with the methodology even when in some sense it benefits me.

    It's like the messages from fellow authors I see everyday on the romance lists - "I'm up for best book of the week at so-and-so's romance reviews; vote for me". Personally, I am not going to vote for a book I haven't read. Sorry. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned.

    Great post, Ash. And some outright brilliant comments!

    Warmly,
    Lisabet

    ReplyDelete
  15. Lisabet,

    The 'best book' element you mention is one of the things that really annoys me.

    My wife (as I've probably mentioned in the past) makes dolls. (www.artfulbabies.co.uk) She no longer enters her dolls for competitions because it's never about the quality of the winning doll: it's always about who has the greatest number of online friends who are willing/able to vote for their friend.

    When I see the same thing being done with books, I know that the authenticity of that award is totally diminished. It's not about the best book. It's merely a prize for the person with the most friends.

    Best,

    Ash

    ReplyDelete
  16. Great exploration of the Amazon-review issue, Ash, as only you could do it!

    This bit got a double LOL in our household (me and my wife):

    So, instead of talking about constructive criticism, I want to talk about unconstructive criticism.

    Or, as it’s more commonly called, Amazon reviews.


    Hilarious!

    Granted, not every negative review by Amazon users is ignorant and irrelevant. But a lot of them do seem to boil down to "I don't like erotica with explicit language" or "I don't like erotica in short-story form," etc. To which my answer is always, "So, then, why do you think your feelings about this book that's geared toward people who do like those things holds any value for anyone?"

    ReplyDelete
  17. Jeremy,

    "So, then, why do you think your feelings about this book that's geared toward people who do like those things holds any value for anyone?"

    It's a shame we can't just paste this after every irritating Amazon review :-)

    Best,

    Ash

    ReplyDelete
  18. I seem to have no rhyme or reason to my reviewing process, really. I write one when the mood strikes or when the book inspires me to. If the rating that the book got is fair, I probably won't bother to write a review. If a book I would give 1 star to got a 5? I'd feel morally obligated to post. Then again, if a book I felt deserved a 5 only received 1 star, I'd have to post then, too.

    Not being the author of the books in question, I also feel confident in confronting the reviewer regarding their rating. I read a book that I felt was, for the most part, average. It was an author I generally like, and the book wasn't her best, but it was decent. I was completely put off, however, by the 1 star review, not as a reader, but as a reviewer. The reviewer gave the book a low rating because she didn't like the fact that the book was part of a series. The author in question rarely writes stand alones, and there was no reason to think this would be an exception. The rest of the review went on about how good the book was, but... how she liked the book, but... I felt much better after commenting. Didn't change her rating, but it made ME feel better, AND my response is there.

    Sadly, if you do that as an author, you risk pulling a Candace Sams and becoming (deservedly) a laughing stock. So, the rule is, get your friends to do it instead. ;)

    ReplyDelete
  19. I hadn't heard of Candace Sams before. I'm now going to lose a weekend finding out more about her.

    I also get offended by unfair reviews. I was recently dismayed to read someone give a single star review to a book that I had thought was brilliant.

    The reviewer criticised the book with words along the lines of: "I haven't read this book, but my girlfriend didn't seem to enjoy it."

    My thoughts were, if you haven't read it, you've got no right to review the f**king thing. Nevertheless, having a girlfriend read a book seems to be sufficient qualification for someone to be an Amazon reviewer.

    I'll stop sounding off now before I come across as bitter.

    Best,

    Ash

    ReplyDelete
  20. Amazingly, some of the people I've observed passing along secondhand critiques from a friend or significant other to whom a review was "outsourced" had obtained the books for free through the Amazon Vine program. I sorta kinda woulda thought these elite reviewers would have been honor bound to, y'know, read and review the materials themselves.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I won't say that if you're not a writer you have no right to review books. Everyone has a right to their own opinion, but if I didn't like something about a book I'd seek out the writer and send them my opinion - as another writer - in the hope that they can use it to make their next work better. What I won't do is go and post a crap review for all to see. This person has taken the time and effort to write and get a book published. Do these cretins who post on Amazon who have never written a book know how hard that is? The writer of this work you hate should get a medal just for getting it out there! I do state that some books by popular writers are not always as good as their earlier works, because the big earners need to be rattled occasionally so they don't become complacent. But if I really hate a book I don't bother finishing it. I just get rid of it to some charity shop and vote with my wallet by not buying another by that writer. I hope that as a fellow writer my reviews will encourage others who liked my work or feel they can trust my opinion to go and buy that hard working writers book. I hope that they will in turn look favourably upon my own humble efforts, and be encouraged to try them. But I never write crit with that foremost in my mind. I do write reviews on Amazon and I hope that buyers read them, but I don't crit on Amazon it is not the place.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Tracey,

    That strikes me as a fair approach. If I get shitty service in a cafe or shop, I don't go back there. If I get good service I either tip or I mention the good service to the appropriate grown-up.

    (I actually did this last week when I saw a lorry driver stop his truck in the middle of the road - blocking traffic - so he could climb out of the vehicle and help a lady in a wheelchair cross the road. It was an uncommon act of gallantry that deserved applauding).

    So I think that voting with your wallet is probably the best solution.

    Ash

    ReplyDelete