The Good Bad Review

Before I was a mystery author, I was a college professor, so I’m no stranger to reviews. We professors have end-of-semester student evaluations, as well as public websites that invite students to rate their professors on such criteria as easiness, helpfulness, and –Heaven help us—hotness.  Some reviews are more helpful than others. The negative ones can be among the most useful because they tell you something about fit. (A quick perusal of my own online reviews shows that among those students who have yet to master the spelling of “professor,”  few enjoyed my upper-division writing-intensive class.)

And just as no one class is right for every student, no book is a good fit for every reader.

On this point, it’s instructive to read the reviews for Sarah Caudwell, one of my favorite authors. Her books are very English, very mannered, and very funny. But Hemingwayesque, she is not.

Consider this opening passage from Caudwell’s first novel, Thus Was Adonis Murdered.

Scholarship asks, thank God, no recompense but Truth. It is not for the sake of material reward that she (Scholarship) pursues her (Truth) through the undergrowth of Ignorance, shining on Obscurity the bright torch of Reason and clearing aside the tangled thorns of Error with the keen secateurs of Intellect. Nor is it for the sake of public glory and the applause of the multitude: the scholar is indifferent to vulgar acclaim. Nor is it even in the hope that those few intimate friends who have observed at first hand the labour of the chase will mark with a word or two of discerning congratulation its eventual achievement. Which is very fortunate, because they don’t.

Here she sets up the persona of  Hilary Tamar, the pompous and not-so-self-aware Oxford don.  This paragraph isn’t a quick read, but in my opinion it’s a rewarding one.  It is definitely, however, not everyone’s cup of tea.

Favorable Goodreads reviews describe Caudwell’s first novel  as “very funny,” “an incredible plunge into British wit (second to none),”  “witty,” and “probably the most charming murder mystery that I’ve ever read.”

Now, let’s hear from the haters:

“If emotional involvement in a story is important to you, avoid this book at all costs…[a]smug, self-consciously witty, piece of tripe.”

If I’m looking for something mannered, witty, and not emotionally taxing, this one-star review wouldn’t necessarily put me off.  This is a review that does a service to potential readers, giving us a clear, if negative, perspective​. The next one is an even better bad review.

“Style-wise, I’d give it 5 stars–Ms. Caudwell is/was a terrific writer; very funny in a very British sort of way. But you have to accept the plot-style, which involves way more talk than action. The mystery is essentially sussed out via roundtable discussions and letters from the “suspect” (Julia) that, while incredibly enjoyable, aren’t a bit credible as letters. No one could relate verbatim dialogue in a letter as Julia is purported to do.”

This was voted most helpful negative review on the book’s Amazon page, for good reason. It tells the reader what the reviewer liked and disliked, and why. I am fully prepared to suspend  disbelief  for the sake of entertaining dialogue; others may not be.

Now, I have to give this next one-star review…one star.

“Couldn’t read more than a few chapters.”

This doesn’t help the reader at all.  Why couldn’t the reviewer read more than a few chapters? Was there too much gore? Explicit sex? Typos and formatting errors? Did the reviewer recently emerge from a bank vault to find that she was the last person on earth, and drop her only pair of reading glasses? Why couldn’t you read more than a few chapters, reviewer, why?

“Couldn’t read more than a few chapters” is a bad bad review.

I think there are two important lessons here:

  • you can’t (and shouldn’t) cater to everyone, and
  • a review says as much about the reviewer as about the thing being reviewed—and that’s a good thing. I don’t want to read the most popular book; I want to read a book that readers like me enjoy.

So when I say I appreciate honest reviews, I really mean it. But I should say that I mean helpful honest reviews.  If you have to leave a bad review, make sure it’s a good bad review.

And of course plain old good reviews are always appreciated.

 


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