Red Button Publishing

Publishing and Consultancy

Even Shakespeare gets bad reviews…

There’s been a lot of discussion online about book reviews lately. It started a couple of weekends back when UK newspaper, The Guardian published an essay by a YA author, Kathleen Hale detailing her reaction to a book blogger who gave her a bad review on Goodreads. Hale’s contention was that the reviewer did not simply leave a bad review but orchestrated a full blown campaign against her. Whether this is true or not, Hale’s behaviour from then on was disturbing and bordering on criminal as she tracked down the blogger to her home and workplace.

The piece has not only sparked understandable condemnation of Hale’s behaviour from the blogging community but also highlighted a number of other instances of ‘writers behaving badly’. In a world of star ratings, everyone has a platform to say what they think and, frankly, sometimes that isn’t going to be good. I know many writers find themselves poring over reviews  of their work, obsessing over those reviews that aren’t overwhelmingly positive. Hale’s behaviour is the dark extreme of reactions and hopefully doesn’t happen often. But I have seen writers attempt to engage those negative voices, insisting that their reading isn’t correct for some reason, asking them to reconsider or even hurling insults. Nobody looks good when they resort to such childish behaviour. It can’t do any good for the writer or for the book.

I can understand the drive to defend one’s work though. As a publisher, the books that I work on are always close to my heart. I think they are brilliant – of course I do. When I see a review of one of our books that isn’t a ‘5-star-my-god-this-is-a masterpiece’ gush of enthusiasm, I inwardly question what on earth the reviewer can have been thinking. How can they be so wrong? So I have an inkling of the disappointment that writers must feel when they see those dreaded one-star reviews. It hurts. And not everyone can grow the thick skin it takes to look the other way.

But here’s the deal… even Shakespeare gets bad reviews. Let’s take a look at the Goodreads page for ‘Othello’. Earlier this year I engaged  in an animated Twitter discussion with someone who thought that Shakespeare should be removed from the syllabus because it made kids hate reading. They felt that the works were old hat and, frankly, not much good. I became a spluttering ball of indignation on behalf of Will. For me, and many others, speaking against the Bard is literary heresy. But there are 3,206 people who have taken to Goodreads to disagree with me. Here are some of the 1-star reviews of ‘Othello’

‘The language is so outdated…’

‘This was absolute CRAP!!!!’

‘This is an absolute MESS!’

‘overly dramatic’

‘flat out stupid’

‘Boring as hell’

‘Too stupid for words’

Even a literary giant like William Shakespeare has his detractors. So, my advice to our writers and all writers is this. A thank you for a lovely review is fine. But resist that drive to engage with the 1-star reviewer. Don’t try to insist that they ‘just haven’t got it’, that they have misread or misunderstood your masterpiece. Don’t hurl an insult. Don’t dwell on it. In fact, embrace those 1 star reviews. Embrace the 2 star, the 3 star and the 4 star reviews too (I’ve often argued that a 4 star review is a more convincing online endorsement than a 5 star review anyway). Your book is being read and that’s all you can ask for.

Caroline Goldsmith 

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