Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Writer Ponders the Negative Reviews...

Every writer has felt the pain—indeed, the excruciating wound—of a bad review.

A bad review is not just a personal assault. It is potentially a professional liability. I mean, you've spent thousands of hours creating this product, and now someone can just flippantly crap on it in Amazon and the chances of it being purchased again have just officially diminished!

Bad Reviews in History

Now writers far better than I have received such treatment. Note, for instance, reviews of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass:

"A mass of stupid filth." Rufus Wilmot Griswold, The Criterion, November 10, 1855.

“It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.” Thomas Wentworth Higginson, The Atlantic, “Literature as an Art,” 1867.

Bad Reviews and Bad Reviewers

In this post I will examine some of the bad reviews my books have received. I will discuss which I thought were reasonable differences of opinion and which, in my opinion, are simply unfair.

Now, regarding the practice of reviewing, I personally follow the principle of "First, do no harm." I've bought and read plenty of things I didn't adore. But I know that long hours of work and craft went into a literary creation. As the Romans would say:

De Gustibus Non Disputandum est
"Concerning tastes, it must not be debated." (I.e., to each their own)

I would not file a negative review unless I sincerely believed that the work somehow represented a fraud on the reader—that it utterly failed to deliver what it promised or that it was truly unprofessional in its construction.

But there are others quicker to judge. There are also just some nasty haters out there, people who spit venom from behind anonymity on the internet. And they are allowed to sit in judgement on the creative products of others.

And so, here are the negative reviews I have gotten for my efforts.
Intermediate Arabic for Dummies

I wrote this book for Wiley Publishing. I worked as an Arabic linguist for the NSA for four years after 9/11. I did my best to cover the grammatical topics in the book. It has received good reviews, such as:


[Five Star Review] "This book is a tremendous resource for anyone attempting to tackle Arabic grammar. The table of contents is very clear and it is easy to reference anything you need help with. This isn't a book for beginners, but it is simple enough to educate without intimidation. If you need a quick reference resource, this is a quality book"

But this book, on which I spent thousands of hours of work, also received the following review:

[One Star Review] "This book did not turn out to be what I expected. The section on handwriting especially is useless.Arabic letters are written with parts above and below the line and it's impossible to figure that out from the information given because the letters are not written on lines. The rest of the sections are also very basic. I think this book would be best for travelers to the middle east. It is not of much use for students wishing to learn formal Arabic grammar." (firsttimemon)

I don't know what you expected, firsttimemom (whatever your name really is). There was no section on handwriting at all, because this is an INTERMEDIATE level book. Even so, all the Arabic included English transliteration. I systematically covered every aspect of Arabic grammar (as the other reviewer noted); I totally didn't write a book of use for "travelers to the middle east" (which I have been and I suspect you, firsttimemom, are not). Place of Brightness

This is a novel I wrote about a Romanian family, members of a guerilla movement called the "Haiduci," who fought a generational war against tyranny--starting in the times of the Ottoman Empire, and down through the times of Communism and the modern day.

It has gotten very good reviews, such as:

[Five Star Review] "Such a wonderful book! I finished it in a day because I just couldn't put it down."


But it has also received the following negative review:

[Two Star Review] "The story of a family of Haiduci fighters against the communist regime, devolves into a trite spy thriller with little historical background or insight. The characters are wooden, the plot is not all that complicated to figure out, and the dialogue is stilted." (Susan S.)

In my opinion, this is an entirely reasonable negative review. While I did my best to craft characters who were alive for me (and I succeeded for others who reviewed), I clearly did not connect with Susan S.

I'm grateful that she gave me two stars and not one...

De Gustibus. Saecula Saeculorum

This is my Time Travel/Espionage Adventure novel in which four young people are unwittingly prepared to undertake a dangerous mission in Ancient Rome on a mission to save the modern world.

It has gotten some great reviews, such as:

[Five Star Review] "In Saecula Saeculorum is an exciting adventure that has had me thinking back again and again on the journey. Now I'll admit that I'm crazy about time travel fiction, and this story satisfied my highest expectations. The character development is particularly strong, and the reader comes to feel very close to these characters. Ancient Rome comes to life in all its intrigue, glory, and grittiness. The dialogue is at times funny, at other times deeply emotional, a roller coaster of experience that makes you forget its fiction. For anyone who loves history, time travel, languages, or just a great story, read In Saecula Saeculorum!"

And it has gotten the following negative review:

[Two Star Review] "It felt like I was reading a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys novel, featuring extremely capable teenagers who were very respectful of their elders - it was completely unrealistic. As I was reading, I kept thinking that had I stumbled upon a book for pre-teens... (If this *is* a pre-teen book, I'd say that it's for unsophisticated pre-teens.)" (ogecko)

Mirabile Dictu, in a novel about a trip back in time to save the modern world, the reviewer claims that my presentation of young people's respect for their elders is an "unrealistic" point.

Maybe, like me, the reviewer has taught high school for the last ten years and has the lived experience that young people are all simply horrible and a book in which they are presented as decent is "unrealistic."

I wrote the book from the perspective of a high school teacher who finds today's young people to be generally decent and respectful.

And so, ogecko (whatever your name really is), if you have encountered horrible youth in your abundant teaching experience, I am truly sorry and understand your review.

If, however, you have no authentic experience of today's youth, I don't care about your negative review of my book. I reject your negative review of them.