The funny thing is, as a reader, I love the one- and two-star reviews. If I'm considering a book purchase, they're the ones I go to first. Because, let's face it, most books with more than a handful of reviews tend to average out at around four stars, so the overall star rating isn't much of a guide. And when you start looking at them individually, an awful lot of four- and five- star reviews don't tell you anything. You could lift them up and plonk them down on almost any other book, and they'd be just as meaningful. It's the negative reviews that tend to be specific.
Which isn't to say that I automatically take their word for it, of course. Pretty much every book has some negative reviews, so if I was swayed by them all I'd end up reading nothing. No, I use the negative reviews to get an idea of the kinds of things other people don't like about the book. Full of typos or historical inaccuracies? I'll give it a miss. Too much swearing, sex or violence? Bring it on.*
Now, I realise that a lot of those who don't like giving negative reviews are writers themselves. They know how much work it takes to complete a book and get it out there. They know how much it hurts when someone hits them with a single star. But the thing is, reviews of a book aren't for the author (though of course they have an effect on her). They're for other readers.
The reviewer doesn't owe the author anything.
If the reviewer hated a book, he has the right to say so. Even if he doesn't say why (ever notice how no-one ever complains that a positive review doesn't come with a side order of justification?). Even if his comments aren't constructive (funny how some authors expect negative reviews to be constructive, as if every reader has the obligation to behave as if he's part of a writing group or a critique site instead of, you know, a customer). Even if he appears to have missed the point of the book completely. As long as the review is honest, and not a personal attack or written with a hidden agenda (that would be getting into tit-for-tatting and bullying and various other nasty behaviour, which is a topic for another day) then it's valid. Moreover, it's necessary.
Because let me ask you this: what would be the purpose of readers only ever reviewing the books they liked? Of all books having only four and five star reviews? Doesn't that make the whole reviewing system meaningless? I can't count the number of times I've considered buying a book dripping with five-star ratings, only to find that the negative reviews tell a different story. Badly edited. Full of spelling mistakes. Loaded with anachronisms. Poorly plotted. No character development. You can't always tell these things from a free sample, which has presumably been polished to within an inch of its life. OK, the negative reviews might be wrong. I have no reason to believe them any more than the positive reviews. But at least they provide some balance. At least they acknowledge that one size doesn't fit all, and that what works for one reader is like a slap in the face for another.
Because the point is, negative reviews are nothing to be afraid of. They don't mean our work is bad. They just mean it doesn't suit everyone. And by identifying why a particular book wasn't right for a particular person, they help us find a better audience for that book in the future. If someone can read a one-star review and realise from it that they'd pick on the same flaws (perceived or otherwise) – well, that's saved us from disappointing a reader. Because that's the main thing, right? We want the people who read our books to be the people who will enjoy them. Since no book is universally loved, anything that can help readers work out in advance whether or not it's likely to appeal to them has to be a good thing.
Every author will be hit with a negative review in their time, and perhaps the trick is to take it as a positive. To that end, check out these thoroughly damning reviews. Each of them was written for a work that's widely regarded as a classic. They aren't meant to be perfect examples of the 'negative reviews help you find your audience' idea that I've just been talking about. But they are meant to cheer you up if you, too, have been hit with a one-star review. Take a guess at which works they're for; the links on the titles will take you to the answers ;-)
This is the single most appallingly overrated nonsense I have ever had my displeasure to read. It starts badly […] and just gets worse. The descriptions are turgid, the characterisation unbelievable and the use of language frighteningly dull.
The most laborious experience of my reading life. If you are looking for a display of naive romanticism then this is certainly the book for you. I found the motives of the characters shallow and the plot dull.
This book is awful. No description. No imagery. Can't believe people gave this a five star rating. If I could I would give it zero.
I wish I liked it
I fail to see how it won such mass adoration as an iconic book. I found the plot predictable and slow, the themes and style of writing patronising and overall quite surface level. There are no deeper meanings that can't be found in SparkNotes. The characters aren't original or dynamic in any sense and all seem quite cliché.
Having read some of this man's works I have to say I'm thoroughly disappointed. Considering most of his works have been made into blockbuster films I think it's important to note that this really is a case of the films being better than the books (in all cases). The language used is outdated and terrible for most people to understand. I'm surprised this man has become as successful as he is and I think he is massively overrated.
* Er ... within reason. (She adds hastily, not wanting to come across as a maniac.)
** I hope this one is a joke.