Thoughts on the Epically Long Bad Book Review (by a confused reader and slightly nervous author)

Picture the scene.

You’re browsing the internet. You find a page of reviews for a book you loved, or perhaps fall down a book blog rabbit hole. You spend a delightful tea break reading all the posts from people who, like you, find this book FANTASTIC. You are warmed in your soul; you feel connected to these reviewers, these strangers across oceans; you’re joined by the thread of mutual appreciation.

And then.

Snuggled amongst the posts, like a wee moth in a dresser of comfy jumpers, is a two star review. Not just a two star rating. There’s prose. It’s five paragraphs long. It runs to hundreds of words. It’s an Epically Long Bad Review.

You’re devastated. Well. Displeased. Perplexed. DID THIS PERSON READ THE SAME BOOK YOU DID? Maybe they were born without good taste. That’s not their fault. But, you think, five paragraphs and hundreds of words? That’s quite some commitment when you consider edits. Why? Whyyyy?

Okay back to first person. We all knew I meant ‘me.’

I am, obviously, writing this now not because I’ve only just discovered book reviews but because I’m spending a lot of time on Goodreads and engaging with the #bookstagram tag as part of the promotion for The Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes (blog tour ongoing!), so reviews are very much on my mind. I’m also using Goodreads to keep track of my reading and share my thoughts on some books (my reviews are either very earnest or your drunk auntie at a party, no five paragraphers from me unless it’s a Read, If You Like). Thus, a lot of time on Goodreads. I’m also trying to focus my energy on things that either feel productive or are genuinely enjoyable, because if 2020’s legacy is anything, it’s ‘let’s try to enjoy this tyre fire of a world before the planet dies completely…’

So, yeah, I’m perplexed by the existence of the Epically Long Bad Review. Why would you put so much care into a blog post or Goodreads entry explaining why you hate a book? It feels counterproductive at best and, at worse, like you’re wallowing in bad feeling. You didn’t enjoy a novel, it wasn’t worth your attention… so why are you telling us about it? Why, when, according to the internet, you will only live for 40,000,000 minutes? It’s not the author’s time you’re wasting, you know?

In the interests of balance, because I used to want to be a journalist

I’m not against negative reviews in general. It’s good to tell potential readers, ‘don’t read this book if you don’t like memoirs written by a famous person who is not naturally an author, whose prose feels a little like walking through mud.’ Or ‘I didn’t love the arguably unnecessary violence in this novel and you might not either.’ That’s useful. I want to know if a book deals in heavy themes with all the nuance of a sledgehammer. But who are you really serving by spending paragraphs and paragraphs talking about each and every terrible aspect of the book when you could say the same thing in a couple of sentences?

Maybe I’m overthinking this. One reader’s five star review is another’s one star, after all. ‘The prose felt childlike and the plot moved too fast; this is a juvenile waste of my time,’ is another reader’s ‘the writing was direct and didn’t faff around. The pacing was so fast, I was on the edge of my seat and couldn’t put it down.’ I think I’m really just in awe of the length and detail of some of these Epically Long Bad Reviews. It’s the love that goes into them that bemuses me.

Kermit the frog typing manically from Giphy
from Giphy

Time to declare my conflict of interest

Obviously I’m biased about reviews when it comes to one particular writer over all others. I’m a newly-published author who needs good press. At time of writing, I’m organising that blog tour for The Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes and crossing my fingers for good, or at least neutral, feedback. At the moment, as there are so few reviews up for the book, I’d rather none of them were less than four stars. If they are less than four stars, I’d prefer there wasn’t a five paragraph explanation of everything the reader hated about it. Not because I’m personally offended by the review or the reviewer – I know they aren’t being personal. I also know I wrote a book that stands up with, if not the best of them, than at least not the worst. I feel reasonably confident in saying that because I’ve read thousands of novels in my life and watched thousands of films and TV shows: I can tell the difference between a well executed plot and a badly executed one. I can identify good prose versus prose that just needs a bit of polishing versus prose that’s genuinely terrible. I know the next novel I write will be better, because I’ll have had more practise and read more books. So although I may spend a few precious seconds of my 40,000,000 minutes reading that Epically Long Bad Review, thinking ‘god that reader has no taste,’ I’ll survive.

Plus, in ten years’ time, if The Princess and the Dragon has hundreds of four-plus star reviews, reports solid royalties and remains a piece of work I’m proud of, I’m not going to give a shit if Briana from Nottingham found the writing immature and the sub plots boring. I might get drunk with my mates and read Briana’s review out loud when we have a get together, because I’m drinking a gin and tonic purchased with those sweet royalties (you would too, don’t pretend otherwise), but I will be fine. And I won’t nurse a grudge against Briana for her honesty.

That’s ten years’ time, though. While I’m getting this book off the ground and trying to recoup some of the publishing costs, I’m mindful that Briana and her Nottingham-based book-themed Instagram could impact my burgeoning reputation. Does that mean Briana shouldn’t post her honest opinion? Of course not. Free speech, man. I might curse you and the potential damage to my gin and tonic money, but your time’s your own to do with what you will, and freedom of expression is as important when you disagree with that the thing being expressed as when you agree with it (it might be more important when you disagree). If you think my work should be thrown in the proverbial bonfire, you’re more than welcome to tell people that. But what do you really want to achieve by it? Do you want me to see fewer sales? Do you want to dampen some of the noise around my book’s release?

I respect that if you also think that I should be thrown in the proverbial bonfire – maybe we disagreed on Twitter once, or you don’t like how I run my businesses, or I stepped through a door you were holding and didn’t say thank you. If that’s the case, I understand that telling people to avoid me and avoid lining my pockets is something you might want to spend time doing. (I especially respect that if you’ve had experiences with an author who’s been racist towards you, or you saw them being rude to fans at events, or they’ve been accused of plagiarism by a credible source, etc. There’s another conversation to be had about the line between a creator and their work, and how much one can be considered separate from the other, but if you think a person’s actions cause another person harm, you arguably have a moral duty to do your level best to talk about it.)

But if you just didn’t click with the book I wrote? I’m not sure what you’re aiming to do in five paragraphs that you couldn’t do in five sentences or less: ‘this book wasn’t for me, because of [reason]. I also didn’t like the way [something] was portrayed and I thought the prose was [something else]. If you do like those things, you might have better luck than I did.’

Alice curtsying
From Giphy I believe

Just saying. You stretch your free speech muscles, woo. I’m glad that you didn’t feel like you had to lie about how you felt while also feeling relieved you were reasonably objective. My sales and reputation can continue growing, woo.

When it comes to my own reviews or recommendations, I don’t review anything on Goodreads that I consider anything less than four stars. It doesn’t feel necessary. Not when my three stars is another person’s five. Not when I know how long it takes to write a novel, and how much soul goes into each draft and edit and late night hunched over the computer. It feels like I’m being a bad author by talking shit about another author. We all earn peanuts at the end of the day, we all do the work because we love it and we all want the publishing industry, book selling industry and reader communities to thrive. Like I said, I’ve got better things to do with my 40,000,000 minutes.

What are your thoughts on the Epically Long Bad Review? I’d love to hear your thoughts, whether you’re a vivacious reviewer, a causal reader, an author or a mix of the above. Do you write long reviews? Do you write short reviews? I think that, as a reader, I’m still perplexed. As a writer, I’m definitely slightly nauseous every time I see there’s a new review for The Princess and the Dragon. I don’t think that will go away any time soon, even if I do figure out the point of the five paragraph bitchathon.

Look after yourselves!

Francesca


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Review: ‘About a Boy’, Nick Hornby

This review  is the first that feels a little like cheating because I had actually seen bits of the film on TV, about 10 years ago. All I could remember before starting the novel is that Hugh Grant’s in the film and so’s that guy who went on to be in Skins (I think?). So my memory didn’t spoil it for me and I won’t spoil it for you.

My copy of About a Boy is courtesy of a university I considered attending long enough that they sent me free things. The parcel contained a letter from Nick Hornby advising that every misstep is not, in retrospect, a misstep (coincidentally I have been clinging to this notion since I decided not to go to university). The book itself follows that concept, predominantly through its two protagonists, Will and Marcus. Will has a life most of us live at the weekends. 30-ish and unattached all but the Countdown schedule, he spends days inside cafes and hours in front of the television, and has a work/life balance of pretty much 0% work and 100% chilling out. Marcus, a 12-year-old boy who’s just moved to London with his mum, has a happiness/life balance of about 30/70.

I can’t tell you how Will and Marcus meet, because it’s one of the funniest parts of the story, and I can’t really tell you too much about the supporting characters, because a lot of them hinge around the plot too. I can tell you that the novel contains a dead duck, Kurt Cobain, Christmas songs and some hilarious one liners that made me miss being 12. (Petition to start allowing adults to say exactly what they think just as much as children.)

Review: 'About a Boy' by Nick Hornby

 

The story takes place in the 1990s, and it would be quite different if it were set today (who are the 2010s equivalent of Nirvana?!). It was nice to read something that didn’t mention Facebook, actually, but my favourite thing about the book is that the two protagonists are about as different as two people could get while having quite a lot in common, and it was the alternating of points of view that turned the book into a very gripping story. There are a lot of ironic moments, and a lot of sad moments, because Will is judging Marcus at exactly the same time as Marcus is judging Will. All the characters are quite normal people you would expect to meet out and about, so of course they are actually all bonkers and more fun to read about than most superheroes. So go read.


 

My previous reviews are here; you can support my work by funding me on Patreon every time I review a book here.

Review: ‘Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe’, Benjamin Alire Sáenz

This is a spoiler-free review except for the bits you can guess from the title.

Oh look, something else I originally saw on Tumblr, probably courtesy of feistiest. You know how they say you should never judge a book by its cover, but we all do? With this, the cover – by  Chloë Foglia -made me want to get the book. Look at that typography and those colours and those illustrations this is going to be a beautiful novel.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe from Wikipedia.org
I couldn’t find a cover that wasn’t covered in award stickers. This is from Wikipedia. Look at that night sky.

It is a beautiful novel.

Like the best books, the action starts from the very first sentence, so I can’t tell you too much background information without spoiling the story, but the title pretty much implies the premise: a guy called Aristotle meets a guy called Dante and together they discover the secrets of the universe/survive their teenage years. Set in El Paso, Texas, across a couple of years in the 1980s, the novel is a lot like The Perks of Being a Wallflower in that it could have been set last week and will be devoured by teenage readers for decades to come (it was actually published in 2012).

I had never heard of Benjamin Alire Sáenz before I read this – and I am definitely pronouncing his name terribly wrong – but I think he is a writer I would like to read more of, because Aristotle and Dante, and Aristotle and Dante, are wonderfully written. Some topics are quite hard to cover without sounding like a textbook or news story – again, I can’t really tell you what they are without wrecking the plot – but it’s funny, occasionally irreverent and often slightly uncomfortable. The whole book is just like seeing inside someone’s head, which is so hard to achieve as a writer and so satisfying for the reader.

It also won a handful of awards, which is nice because it’s quite rare to find a critically acclaimed novel that’s also fun – I finished it in an evening. If you liked The Perks of Being a Wallflower, if you’re interested in what it was like to live in Texas in the 1980s (I wasn’t but now I am), if you’re interested in Mexican culture, if you like scruffy dogs (it is not a spoiler to tell you there is a scruffy dog), if you like boys with long names and books with pretty covers, go find a copy and curl up for an evening with Ari and Dante and watch them discover the secrets of the universe.

None of them are about the science of life on earth, by the way. I did originally wonder if it was a story about physicists.


My previous reviews are here; you can support my work on Patreon every time I review here.

Review: ‘Persuasion’, Jane Austen

If you are aware of Jane Austen’s work, you may have noticed a trend of intelligent women, social comedy and weddings. I will not be spoiling this particular novel by saying that Persuasion is no exception.

Turns out I have a reading list, and, weirdly, quite a bit of what I’ve read so far is on it. I thought Persuasion was too, but it turns out that it was actually Sense and Sensibility. I’ll do that one too.

Persuasion starts with the lovely if socially-ambitious Elliot family, whose daughter Anne is the main character. Eight years before the novel starts, Anne was persuaded by well-meaning relatives to abandon her engagement with a lowly (read: neither rich nor titled) gentleman named Frederick Wentworth.

When we meet her, Anne is 27 and basically preparing for life as a spinster. Because who would marry a 27-year old god look at those wrinkles. Within a chapter or two, Anne’s family have been forced to move to Bath and rent out the family home to an Admiral, because they have approached their finances with the air of ‘spend for the person you want to be, not the person you are’. Some things never change, huh.

But wait. Who should be acquainted with the Admiral and his family but Frederick, whom Anne has never really stopped loving despite trampling on his socially-inferior heart… What’s more, has Frederick been bumming around these past eight years claiming benefits? No, he joined the navy and rose to the rank of Captain.

I think that is a big deal.

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Anne spends the next few hundred pages despairing of her hypochondriac sister, her accident-prone in-laws and her mangy cousin, and tries not to freak out about how hot Frederick still is. Which is hot. Plus he knows how to drive boats across the Atlantic wearing a funny hat. (That’s not a direct quote.)

Do they get married? Does the mangy cousin stop being mangy? Will I have to read the novel again, as I did Pride and Prejudice, to fully absorb Austen’s sharp humour? Should you read this novel if you’re a fan of that Colin Firth Mr Darcy scene which isn’t even in that novel?

Oh, the literary questions.


 

My previous reviews are here; you can support my work on Patreon every time I review here.