Yesterday began badly. I woke up with a cold, and knackered to boot. Then I found two terrible reviews of Jubilee on Amazon. Normally, this would not faze me unduly; I’m a voracious reader, and passionate about my right – and everyone else’s – to love or hate any book we damn well want. I also feel lucky just to have my novel out there and being disagreed about like any other book. This is what the bad reviews said:
‘I found this book boring and unbelievable…Observations from 70s nostalgic but that’s about it.’
‘Sorry to say, but I didn’t like this at all. For me, it just rambled on, and I’m just grateful I’ve finished.’
I spent quite a long time looking up the one-star reviews on books I love and know to be wonderful, just to reassure myself a bit. I made some bacon brownies*. I checked Amazon again, to see whether something nicer had been posted in the meantime, or whether maybe I’d imagined those reviews or inflated them in my increasingly depressive state. Neither of these things had happened. Above all I hoped very, very much that nobody else would see them.
My agent asked why I was having a bad day, so I told her about my cold, but not about the reviews in case she thought I was being silly and thin-skinned.
So, here’s the thing: writers are often silly and thin-skinned. If our books are piled high in a shop, it’s because they’re not selling. If we can’t find a copy – it’s because they’re not selling. If we sell, we don’t sell as much as other people, and if we don’t sell it’s just terrible and the end of everything. If we’re on prize lists it indicates we’re not commercial enough (and therefore not selling), and if we’re commercial and selling, no-one’s taking us seriously.
Get a drink inside a writer – or just catch them on Twitter during an off-day – and you’ll see a glass which is always half-empty. Except it’s not a glass. It’s one of those plastic things which just look like glasses. They gave the last glass to that writer over there, the one who never gets a bad review.
And then, yesterday evening, something brilliant happened. Author Lloyd Shepherd, who is way less silly and thin-skinned than me, tweeted a bad review of his own (excellent) novel The English Monster ‘Just so you know I don’t only tweet the good reviews.’
Frankly, it was a quite magical moment. It occurred to me that bad reviews were inevitable and often funny, that I wasn’t alone and that it might be much more of a laugh to air them, than pretend they hadn’t happened. I tweeted a couple of my most mortifying, appending the hashtag #crapreviews, Lloyd slung in some more of his own, and writer Essie Fox (she of The Somnambulist) joined the fray.
At some point last night, #crapreviews started trending, helped along by the enthusiastic participation of Joanne Harris, Jane Harris and numerous other brave, funny, self-deprecating writers.
Here are the reviews that made me laugh the most:
‘At least I got your awful book from the library and didn’t waste my money.’ (This one sent direct to the author.)
‘I don’t know what to make of this book and I actually dread picking it up.’
‘I confess that my review is colored by, of all things, an economics-related anachronism.’
‘I live in hazlenut country and I can tell you that no-one is going to die passing a (bowel movement) that size. Don’t you think Mr. Levy would of (sic) just used his finger to dislodge that hazlenut instead of risking rectal prolapse?’
‘The third novel has a different sort of title from the first two. There is no excuse for this sort of inconsistency.’
[Of Chocolat]: ‘Unrealistic. The French do not eat chocolate.’
And this gem… ‘The reviewer disliked it so much we don’t think it would be in anyone’s interest to post a review.’
It ended up being a pretty hilarious evening. I came to the conclusion that a bad review was something which happened to the best of us, and my cold started to clear a bit.
Those brownies are beyond help, though.
*I thought these might be unexpectedly good. In fact, they were exactly as bad as you might imagine. Even my kids didn’t finish them. I’m taking the remainder into Conville and Walsh today, because Alex Cochran from Conville and Walsh suggested I make them, and he should bear the consequences.