Wednesday, 25 February 2009


You know how the Norwegians (I think it's Norwegians?) have hundreds of words for snow? Well, in Scotland we have numerous gorgeous words for the various things that we like a lot, such as insults. I notice we also have a lot of words for bad weather and being drunk, but I can't think why that should be - I can only think that an English person wrote the dictionary and was introducing outdated cultural stereotypes. But there's one beautiful and useful Scots word which doesn't fit into any of those categories: stushie. A stushie (sometimes also known as stromash) describes an argument held in public, which a whole load of people get themselves involved in. (This is something we never actually do but we often observe south of the border, of course, which is why we need at least two words for it.) It's the slightly more civilised equivalent of a street brawl. And there's one going on here right now

Essentially, a self-published author who was lucky enough to be reviewed in Scott Pack's blog but unlucky enough that the review wasn't 100% brilliant, (and why should it be? It's a review, not an advert) has not done the sensible thing (stay silent and understand that no one will notice, especially since it wasn't a particularly negative review ) but the unwise (but, I argue, very human and understandable) thing (react, thereby ensuring that everyone will notice it and only remember the negative bit.) Sorry, too many brackets there. (I think I have a serious bracket habit. There are worse faults.)

And while I agree with the general tenor of the messages, which are mainly telling him how silly he is, I actually want to do two things here:
  1. Sympathise with his feelings (although I would certainly have advised him not to respond) because it's horrible to get a negative review. It goes to the very core of oneself as an author and is the type of public humiliation which most other people don't have to deal with (though they don't get the public acclaim either.) My sympathy is limited in this case because actually it was a very anodyne and perfectly valid review - but I'm extending my sympathy to encompass all recipients of negative reviews, generous person that I am.
  2. Use it as a useful cautionary tale for you, to prepare you for that moment which is a rite of passage for published authors, and self-published ones if they are very lucky, when you read a review that is not quite as glowing as the one your mother would have written for you.
Sympathy for recipients of negative reviews
It is rawly, utterly, searingly gutting when the work you slaved over and made as brilliant as you could is received negatively, in public. The fact that the negativity may be slight cannot initially register with the author: one drop of lemon juice on a cut feels no less painful than five drops of lemon juice. The author in this case is also self-published - this means he is having to deal with "No one wanted to publish me" along with "and now a reviewer doesn't think I'm the bees knees either". You can't not take it personally. Rationality goes out of the window. People such as me telling you that you're lucky to get a review, that it's "just one opinion, right?", that there'll be good reviews, that no one will notice or remember - none of that makes sense in the early moments of reading that bruising review.

In the old days (ie before the internet) a bad review disappeared with the rubbish the next day; no one who hadn't read it would ever see it again. Now, of course, it's THERE FOR LIKE EVER. It is googlable and forwardable and printable and cut-and-pastable. Schoolkids will find it when they do a school project on you. People will blog about it and link to it and really they might as well just put you in the stocks and throw rotten tomatoes at you.

But, somehow, for your own sake and no one else's, you have to avoid reacting, at least in public. Oh, in private, no problem: stick pins in the review (or wax model of the reviewer), burn it ceremoniously while chanting ancient spells, flush it down the toilet. But in public ... rise above it. The moral high ground is a damned fine place to be and the view is spectacular.

The lesson - learn, remember and store up for future use:
  1. Be grateful for ANY review, especially on a well-respected blog or newspaper. MOST books get no reviews except when the author's mother writes a thinly disguised one on Amazon. (And it has been known for a publisher to do this too - don't trust Amazon reviews. Oh, and by the way - don't post any anonymously yourself: there was an incident a few years back when all the anonymosity disappeared from Amazon Canada's reviews, causing a few blushes amongst some well-known authors ....).
  2. Recognise that not everyone can like your book, or like the same aspects of it, and reviewers should be allowed to say so, as long as they do so with integrity. A good book will get a variety of responses. You can choose to ignore any review, especially if you don't respect the reveiwer or if you feel that his/her taste is simply different from yours, but you might actually learn something from the content. That's up to you. It's your right to ignore it or believe it, though there's a school of thought that says if you believe the good ones you should believe the bad ones ...
  3. Focus on the positive bits (supposing there are some) - I know an author who had a review which went something like, "this is an inferior book from the author of the utterly suberb *****" and she used the "from the author of the utterly superb ****" on her website and other places. A negative review is a bit like falling off a horse except that you don't break your arm. Pick yourself up and carry on. Perhaps someone else will leap to your defence on Amazon/wherever - fantastic. But if it's your mother, do give her some lessons in disguise.
  4. Don't react. I don't know: go and buy some shoes or something. Wine and chocolate are two other justified and proven strategies. Of course, you have the right to respond, but you'd be foolish to: it will get you nowhere. And for goodness' sake, if you write an email or blog post, don't click Send. Sleep on it and then bin it. I tend to stick pins in less than mother-like reviews and imagine the reviewer dressed in huge pink underwear with a tea-cosy on his head. This is very helpful, I find.
Everything's a phase. Believe it or not, your negative review will fade from your memory like a bruise. In fact, the person who gave me my only really bad review is now a friend - we never talked about it and I haven't a clue if she/he can even remember writing the comments that had me spitting tacks (privately, of course - moral high-ground, not clicking Send etc etc). And sticking pins** in a wax model doesn't seem to have done any harm either. Well, not that I can see. Mind you, the pink frilly underwear could be covering that up.

**PS For those of you who are sensitive to ideas of modern witchcraft, I am not nor have ever been a witch, nor have I never stuck pins in anything other than a pin-cushion, nor could I be bothered to. I was speaking merely metaphorically. I do a pretty effective line in cursing though.


Sally Zigmond said...

Great piece, Nicola.

I think the real problem the poor author had was that it was one of Scott Pack's Quick Flick reviews. Scott flicks through a book and reads a bit here, a bit there and then reports on it and if he thinks it's worth reading further will put it on his tottering to-read pile and maybe review at length later.

The author felt Scott had no right to write about his book if he hadn't waded all the way through.

I have news for the author. Not even those reviewers who say they've read the whole book have. They will read the first few pages or so and if not fully engaged will skim-read the rest. Life's too short and there are far too many books.

What saddens me the most is that this writer has made it even harder for the self-published to get a book read and reviewed somewhere as prestigious as the blog in question. I'm sure Mr Pack won't be the only reviewer to think twice before reading anything that's not been mainstream-published.

emmadarwin said...

I'm absolutely with you: there is nothing you can do except grin and bear it when you get a bad review. You put a book out in public, the public will react. There are always people on the planet who are not going to like your book, or deeply not understand it and, bad luck, some of them are writing reviews. Quite often they just didn't take to it, and then (as we all do) find reasons for their dislike. It's least painful when they can't see the point of something which everyone else gets: then I can usually manage to think, 'Well, you're just stupid.' Always, as Sally says, supposing they did read the whole book carefully, which, as Nick Hornby says in his book about reviewing, is often not the case. But they're entitled to be stupid, even in print, and there's nothing I can do about it. Though I do think it's wrong to accept a fee for reviewing a book and then not give it a fair chance by reading it properly.

I have read some reviews which were clearly malicious towards the author, which I think is unforgivable: a review should review the book, reasonably calmly, not the author's life/talents/morals, nor blame the book for failing to be something it was never trying to be. But some people do see reviewing as a blood sport, and I think that's as wrong as any other blood sport.

The only time I think I'd react in public would be if a review accused my book of saying something really bad, or really incorrect, which it clearly didn't, on an issue so serious that I felt it actually damaged my writerly or personal reputation. And even then I'd ask my agent what to do about it before I went public.

Phillipa said...

Nicola - excellent advice that all authors should take to heart - I shall bear it in mind over the next few weeks (quiver.)

Nicola Morgan said...

Oh, good luck, Phillipa! Mind you, you've had some great positive reviews (I just looked ...) so if you get any neg ones, just go back and read your own website to boost your self-esteem!

Anonymous said...

You are so right about the fact that writers should be grateful for any reviews. At least it shows someone read the book. I've resorted to begging my little sister to read my manuscript because am too embarrassed to let friends read my attempts at fiction.

Nothing wrong with some timely voodoo doll poking! It sounds like a good outlet.


Ebony McKenna. said...

What a great link. What a lovely cautionary tale. It's a great scroll down - his comments (in my head I'm saying 'stop now, OK, stop now') and then the chorus of "it was a good review, what's your problem? Consider yourself lucky."
Then I scroll down more and *ack! stop, for the love of God, stop* the author is commenting again ... scroll ... and again! What's that phrase about being in a hole ? Oh yeah. STOP DIGGING!