19 February, 2014

Hatchets and Babies

Thinking about it, the title of the post may appear worrying. If anybody from social services is reading this, please don't call round until you've read to the end!

Today, I wanted to ask you about book reviews - specifically, whether or not you ever write scathing ones. That's not a very friendly subject however, so I thought I'd also give you the option of just following this link instead, to see a batch of photos of babies dressed up as famous book characters. It's much nicer than book reviews. I particularly like Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh.

If you've decided to stick with the book review option, you may like to know that there is an annual award in the UK for 'Hatchet Job of the Year', which was announced last week. This is a "celebration" of the nastiest and funniest book review of the previous year - supposedly drawing attention to the hard work critics do. While the writing in the review has to be funny and insightful, it essentially also has to be very, very scathing. This year, it was won by AA Gill for his review of Autobiography by Morrissey.

What drew this to my attention was this article on The Guardian website, hatcheting the hatcheter (I may well have made both of those words up). Alex Clark is convinced that AA Gill's review was "Less daring and less worthy than it thinks". And perhaps he's right. I wouldn't know, because I don't read book reviews.

Occasionally, I'll look up a book after I've read it, if I think I've misunderstood something - to see if it's the way the book is written or just me - but I never read reviews before reading a book. Do you? I also don't write reviews. I keep a reading diary where I say what I think of each book as I finish it, but I don't show it to anyone and, despite this, still feel bad if I thought the book was no good. I always try to find something positive to say. It was the same when I use to write theatre reviews for an online magazine - I found it impossible to be nasty. I always tried to sugar-coat the criticism.

Do you write book reviews on Amazon, or for something more formal? What do you do if you really don't like a book? I've heard it's etiquette in newspapers etc. not to completely destroy a debut novel. If you don't like it, you don't lie but you aren't scathing about it, as you could well destroy a new author's career before giving it a proper chance. With my first novel coming out this year, I'm really hoping this is true. I'm also painfully aware that whether my book sells could be hugely dependent on whether the first few people to review in on Amazon are nice or nasty. I don't suppose people who buy The Art of Letting Go online are going to have any such qualms about not doing a hatchet job on me. I find the thought of people reviewing my book quite terrifying. If you are published how do you deal with negative reviews?

So which did you pick - hatchets or babies? Please don't combine the two. Or at least, don't tell anybody you got the idea here first...


  1. I usually review books on Amazon after I've read them and tend not to beat about the bush regarding praise or blame - but I err on the side of generosity with the stars unless something's really bad.

    But I'm suspicious of many Amazon reviews. I recently read an awful book that I'd bought on the strength of several good reviews. When I delved into the reviewers themselves more closely I discovered that most of them had only ever written that one glowing review. Which is interesting to say the least...

  2. I love that you "delve into" the reviewers. I'd just assume we had different tastes and forget about it!

    Your approach sounds good - the star rating is so important and it's unfair to ruin an author through meanness, but there's no point lying in the review.

  3. Confession: When I feel bad about my writing, I look up one-star reviews of amazing, successful books to remind myself that no writing's ever going to be universally admired. Seeing people blast books like Skellig is a real eye opener that, at the end of the day, you can only do your best and write books YOU think are OK.

    1. Oh, I like that tactic! I'm going to start doing that too. Even as somebody from a science background, I find the idea of subjectivity somewhat comforting.

  4. Hi Chloe. I have what I like to think is a unique system for reviewing. I review older books or conventionally published books I've read by doing so on Goodreads,and I'll write a piece on my blog.
    If I write a review for something on a site, or perhaps for a novice writer, I write a praise sandwich review. Open with something good, slip in one or two things that could be improved, with a suggestion, and then summarise with a little more praise for the efforts of the writer.
    I never condemn anybody with a bad public review. If it's bad, I keep it short, and say very little, and then contact the author privately to spell out my concerns. I've done this twice recently. It's usually appreciated.

    1. That's the "two stars and a wish" method often used by teachers now - two things that are positive, one thing to improve. Seems to be a good method!


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