I’m sometimes asked how I take reviews of my work. It’s a valid question; people wonder if I take criticism personally. I always reply by saying that a bad review of a book or story, which I might have taken weeks, months, or even years to write – and which was written with integrity and as much ability as I possess – naturally hurts. But I’ve always maintained that as a writer you really must be philosophical about reviews. When a bad notice comes in, you remind yourself that it’s only one person’s opinion; likewise when a novel or story gets a good notice. The view I take is that a you finish a novel or story, it’s published, it’s read (hopefully), and then perhaps reviewed. In the natural order of things, some people will love your book, some people will hate it, and others will have an opinion somewhere in between. It’s pot-luck who you get reviewing your work. I always comfort myself with the thought (probably erroneous!) that there is someone out there – at least one person – who will get something from even my poorest work… whichever one that might be.
In my years of being a freelance writer, I’ve had stinking reviews, extremely complimentary reviews, and many mediocre ones.
I’ve always made it a policy never to reply to a reviewer, whether the review they’ve written is good or bad. (Though I must admit that I’ve been tempted to negative reviews, a few times.) Who wants to read a whinging writer castigating a reviewer for criticising their work? Even when the reviewer is plain wrong, or misguided, or when they’ve misread something, or chosen to interpret something in the text that manifestly bears no relation to the writer’s intentions – keep silent. I’ve had instances of all the above in reviews of my work, and I’ve had to quell the initial burning impulse to submit to my rage and pen a hasty and – no doubt – intemperate reply.
In my time as a reviewer, I’ve handed out my fair share of stinkers, to books I honestly deemed to be cynical pieces of rubbish. And I’ve been lenient with bad books where I’ve thought the writer was trying to do their best, but for whatever reasons didn’t achieve it. We’ve all read bad books which we’ve enjoyed, which were written with honesty if not great skill. Why hurt the feelings of a writer who’s tried their best?
But a real stinking review which I had no guilt in penning a few years ago was of a terrible book entitled Spiral by someone called Suzuki. That book angered me more than any other I’ve read: it was bad in every department, a piece of hackwork that should never have seen the light of day. But Mr Suzuki, for his part, deigned not to respond to the piece, and I respect him for that. (He probably couldn’t give a toss, anyway, even if he did see the review, as the book went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies on both sides of the Atlantic – on the back, no doubt, of the film made from its predecessor, Ring. Which is probably why the publisher, HarperCollins, brought out the book: they must have known it was a stinker, but knew also that it would sell. Publishing these days isn’t about putting out the best possible product, but shifting units – and some publishers are more cynical than others.)
It’s nice, however, to be able to lavishly praise a book that you think is good. I’ve had many experiences of reviewing for the Guardian over the past few years when I’ve come across books I’ve loved, for various reasons: The Fade by Chris Wooding, Pirates of the Relentless Desert by Jay Amory, Angelglass by David Barnett, The Accord by Keith Brooke, Dark Eden by Chris Beckett, and many more. They’re fine novels, and if you haven’t come across them, I’d advise you to seek them out and enjoy.
And if you’re a writer, remember: even the classics have received bad reviews somewhere down the line.