The other day, I saw a tweet recommending my book, Murder in Mumbai. As any first-time writer can attest, positive feedback is a validation.
Of course, there’s the positive feedback from friends and family. I think of those like the internal tracking polls that the Republicans and Democrats run for their respective candidates: Mostly positive (from an unexpected source: “Super!), but with some incisive critiques (My mother: “It would have been better if there were a love story at the center.” Mothers always cut right to it).
But it’s the negative feedback — the bad reviews — that have more of an impact.
Let me explain.
My thoughts on the matter could stem from the kerfuffle over mystery writer R.J. Ellory’s reviews on Amazon.com; or The New York Times story on the company that writes fake reviews (for a fee, of course); or because I visit Amazon at least twice a day to see my (steadily slipping) ranking and to read and reread the reviews of my book. Either way, despite what other writers may say, reviews do matter to me. Especially bad ones.
I spent the period before the publication of Murder in Mumbai worrying about what people would say. I vowed to be one of those writers who is so self-assured that (s)he doesn’t need validation. Of course, on the morning of the publication, I ran to Amazon.
There were two reviews: One good, and one — let’s just say it wasn’t flattering. As I read and reread it, instead of feeling rage or whatever you’re supposed to feel when someone has shredded your work to bits, I was amused. Amused because of how well written the critique was. I saw immediately that it wasn’t a personal attack (I’m just not famous enough for that). I didn’t necessarily agree with all of it, but there were bits in it that made me laugh in much the same way I’d have done if the review had been about another writer’s work.
Here’s my favorite bit:
“Calamur’s prose is competent but lackluster, the sort of writing found in the middle pages of second-string newspapers. Long strings of ponderous dialog carry much of the story.
Mystery fans with a special interest in India might be drawn to this story. While it is far from awful, it fails to rise above the ordinary.”
I could see it: cover blurbs that say: ‘Far from awful.’ ‘Second-string’ writing. (Actually, I found that particularly funny given my profession).
But unless a review is unreasonable — and there are plenty of those around — this sort of criticism is quite helpful. Much of it comes to mind as I work through my second book, trying to keep the narrative going. On some days, especially on days when I find myself staring at a blank screen, the words hit harder than on others — when words flow easily.
But I know reviewers have a tough task, too. Many of them, especially the ones on Amazon, are doing it as a labor of love. They’re making the effort to read books — some good, some bad, and some just OK. They have the right, just like everyone else, to have an opinion about a writer’s work. It may not be one you like, or flattering, or even fair. But it’s there. And it’s an opinion. And the fact that the good reviews are next to the bad ones reminds me of that old Kipling line about success and failure being the same impostors.
And to illustrate how fickle personal tastes are, I’m reminded of a review I once read for a promising writer. Here’s what part of it said:
“This is an awful book. … there is nothing of credit to his writing. It is devoid of any depth. Don’t waste your brain…”
You might have heard of the book in question. It’s called War and Peace.