Since I review every book I finish (and even a few that I do not), I’ve learned to speak my piece to my own peril. State the truth—that this author should be barred not only from a keyboard, but possibly from pens, pencils and paper, as well—and one risks incurring the wrath of the Beta Readers. These are the half-dozen or more reviewers, probably drawn from the author’s own family and friends, who have written gushingly positive appraisals of the book. Contradict them to your own dire jeopardy, I’ve discovered.
I particularly recall a review I wrote of an especially trite novel. I had plowed my way gamely through about three chapters of this book (which included, god help me, talking pets!) centered around a retired schoolteacher turned amateur detective. Unfortunately for the reader, punctuation, as well as plotting, was hardly the author’s forte. After the umpteenth incorrect use of quotation marks, I gave up on the book, which was growing increasingly more clichéd.
I included all of these criticisms in my review of the story, awarding it only one star. Bam! In fewer than 24 hours, I received a comment on my review, one furiously criticizing my own grammar. From the tone of the comment, one could almost visualize the incensed tears through which it had been written.
I sighed and forbore to ask the Commenter if she was the friend, daughter, granddaughter or other relation of the author—or even the author herself–and merely asked that she specify exactly which rules of grammar I myself had broken.
There was no reply to my question from the Commenter, although some days later another person joined the discussion, to quibble over whether or not a period should always be enclosed in quotation marks. We got into a very lively debate on the subject, courtesy of the grammar lessons as I had once been taught based on the definitive work, The King’s English, in which this question was determined by whether the period punctuated the entire sentence, or the quote only. But that discussion is neither here nor there.
Writing a book–even a lighthearted novel–is, as I have pointed out previously, a serious business, and should not be undertaken by those unequipped for the job. But, having committed to the work, writers must be prepared for the simple reality that not everyone is going to like what they’ve written.
Three of my own favorite novels, Katherine, by Anya Seton, Desirée, (in the original translation only) by Annemarie Selinko, and Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier, have literally hundreds of reviews on-line. These are books that I first read at about the age of 17, and have re-read dozens of times since. I can quote entire passages from each of these novels. I’m absolutely passionate about them. And the very age of the books makes them fall into the “Classics” category.
But, according to the on-line reviews, many people hate each of those novels with a loathing just as strong as that I bear for Moby Dick and Lord of the Flies. I despise both of those books, and not just because I was forced to read them in high school. I have nothing good to say about those books—nothing at all. If I were to be required to write a review of each of them, it would not be pretty. Yet these are classic novels, about which professors and the educated rave.
It doesn’t matter. I simply can’t stand them.
And so it is with lesser literature: the books written merely to entertain and to garner a living for the authors. Some people will like them. Some will enjoy them, dreadful grammar and punctuation notwithstanding. And others of us will totally despise the books the authors had such fun writing–and we won’t refrain from saying so.
Yes, writing is hard work; witness these essays. Each post takes me a minimum of an hour to write. Hours more work go into rewriting multiple drafts and editing. Yet still, I miss many of my own errors; hell is well-paved with my best of intentions. And sometimes people don’t like what I’ve written. They don’t like it at all.
But, if I can’t stand the heat, I should stay out of the kitchen. And so it is with book authors. If they dislike negative reviews, they should not be writing. And they certainly should not respond with vitriol and reproach when their work is criticized.