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On Writing

Filtering by Tag: book reviews

Writing an Amazon book review: worse than a root canal?

Stephen H. Provost

Note: With reluctant apologies to J.K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, I following is a lighthearted look at why most writers not bearing those names find turning readership into Amazon reviews more difficult than transmuting lead into gold. Difficult, but not impossible: I’m immensely grateful for readers who take the time to leave reviews of my books. You are a rare and precious breed. I love you eternally.

The Amazon book review. Authors covet them nearly as much as Gollum longs for his precious and Wile E. wants that Roadrunner. Short of the New York Times bestseller list, they’re the Holy Grail for writers. And they’re just as elusive, too.

For the longest time, I wondered why so few readers bother to leave them. But then I hit on something during a recent trip to France that I think explains it all better than even Clarissa could. I’ve never been to France, but that didn’t stop me from traveling there in my mind to visit the abode of famed alchemist Nicolas Flamel. As it happened, the door was unlocked and the place was empty when I arrived, which afforded me the chance to do a little snooping. And, while rummaging around in Flamel’s credenza, I made a notable discovery.

How did I obtain access to the famed 14th century alchemist’s credenza, you ask? Have you ever heard of the phrase “suspending disbelief”? Well, Flamel figured out how to do it: When I arrived in his domicile, I found disbelief suspended a good three feet above the aforementioned credenza. Its arms and legs were flailing madly in the air, a look of, well, disbelief on its face. My point is this: If Flamel can suspend disbelief, literally, you can, too!

“Why a credenza?” you ask? Because the word sounds damned cool, that’s why, and because I don’t believe I’ve ever used it on the printed page (or unprinted screen) before. So, if you would be so kind, please stop asking irrelevant questions and try a query that gets at the heart of the matter. Like – repeat after me – “What did you discover?”

Yes. Now that’s more like it. I think you’re getting the hang of this.

Within said credenza, the alchemist had deposited a caisson – another word I’ve never used in print – and within this caisson was a parchment scroll in a most delicate condition. Upon this scroll was written the following. No, not in English, in French, silly. I could decipher it because I had four years of high school French (actually three, but I skipped ahead to French 4 halfway through my senior year). Or perhaps because I’m making this whole thing up. I’ll let you figure out which. You might derive a hint from the fact that modern French is probably as different from 14th century French as modern English is from Beowulf. You know, that epic poem about the first werewolf that exhorted its readers to “be a wolf!” Talk about inspirational! I will tell you this much: I really did skip ahead to fourth-year French.

Flamel’s plot

However any of that may be, here’s my translation of what Flamel allegedly wrote: “I have discovered the key to immortality, the famed elixir of life!” This elixir, Flamel continued in scrawled, archaic French script, was in fact no elixir at all, but the written word. “It is through the written word that man shall transcend death and vanquish mortality! Thus shall his mind be known throughout eternity!” Flamel knew this, he said, because the philosopher’s stone (not the sorcerer’s stone, you dumbed-down Americanized Potterheads!) was inscribed with, yes, written words!

The stone was the source of all ancient wisdom and treasured lore. Kind of like the emerald tablet of Hermes or the collected scripts of Star Trek: The Original Series. If its secrets were to become known, anyone who might read them could live forever!

Flamel, however, didn’t want that. He was a jealous sort who coveted immortality for himself and himself alone, so he destroyed the philosopher’s stone and made it his sacred mission to limit the spread of the written word thenceforth, in perpetuity.

Being able, like Nostradamus, Agnes Nutter and Grandmama Addams, to see into the future with uncanny accuracy, Flamel deduced that, at the dawn of the third millennium (common era), a “river of words” would begin flowing from something called “the Amazon.” Flamel, like most men of his age, was a bald-faced chauvinist, so he dismissed the idea that this prophecy might refer to a powerful woman, such as, say, Diana Prince or her alter egos, Lynda Carter and Gal Gadot. There had to be another interpretation.

This being the 14th century, no European had yet visited the New World (which was really no newer than the Old World was old). Nevertheless, Flamel, foreseeing the future, knew that this would occur when, in the midst of a prophetic reverie, he penned the following: “Therefore shall the Amazon be dammed up, that no man may review its course, denying all men access to the font of eternal life!” (the “font” in question being Times New Roman).

Flamel did, in fact, speak of “men” repeatedly because he was, as noted above, a bald-faced chauvinist. (Whether the top of his head was bald, too, is unclear, as his famous portrait shows him wearing a hat.) Despite being an alchemist, he wasn’t particularly enlightened. But then, the Enlightenment was still a few centuries away back then.

It should come as no surprise, when this is considered, that no evidence was found in his credenza, the caisson therein or anywhere else that he foresaw the equal rights movement. Even prophets see what they wish to see. Moreover, Flamel was not, by any means, perfect (unlike Agnes Nutter, who was not a man and who was considerably more accurate – and nicer – in her prophecies). But he was accurate enough, if not very nice about wanting to hoard all of immortality for himself!

Yes, indeed, he was accurate enough, even though his prophecies had nothing to do with a then-yet-to-be-discovered river, as he imagined. For at the dawn of the third millennium, a river of words did, indeed, begin flowing from “the Amazon.” A virtual river, to be sure, but still a river, it must be admitted. And that river became dammed – or was it damned? – by Flamel’s curse so that men (and women) had a devil of a time reviewing the words that flowed from “the Amazon’s” digital headwaters. Swimming against the current, so to speak.

I speak, naturally, of the aforementioned book reviews on Amazon, which readers are so hesitant to provide that it became quite clear to me something supernatural was afoot – Flamel’s curse being the most rational explanation. Without even the most curse-ory reviews, fewer books would sell, and a greater share of the eternal pie (or pi) would be reserved for Flamel, who, even though long dead, would continue to benefit (don’t ask me how; I haven’t figured that part out yet) even in the form of his formless specter.

Testing my theory

It seemed a reasonable enough conclusion. Still, I had to be sure. So, seeking confirmation of my theory, I sought to interview a few random readers who had failed to post reviews even though they were known to have purchased books from Amazon. Here are some of the responses I got.

  • “I decided I’d rather clean the toilet.”

  • “Oh, my significant other offered to do the dishes, but I realized that would leave me no excuse for reneging on my promise to post a review. So, I did the dishes and two loads of laundry on top of that!”

  • “I spilled cod liver oil on my hands so I would have an excuse not to gum up my keyboard! Don’t ask me why I was drinking cod liver oil. I had my reasons. Besides, it was better than posting a review!”

  • “I got a written excuse from my doctor. Or nurse practitioner. Or next-door neighbor who happened to be wearing a white T-shirt that would pass for a hospital uniform if you saw him from the other end of a football field. It’s all the same.”

These responses were suspicious enough, but what really got me were the next few:

  • “It’s against my philosophy.”

  • “Dude. Chill. I was too stoned.”

  • “I decided I’d rather reread the last four chapters of my philosophy textbook.”

  • “I was afraid authors of competing books would stone me.”

  • “I’d rather have a kidney stone that write a review!”

  • “I got stuck at Phil and Sophie’s house.”

A definite pattern was emerging around philosophy and stones, and that could only mean one thing: Flamel’s curse was working. And it was working so well that readers would rather do anything except write a book review! Eat kale. Have a tooth extracted or even a root canal. Watch endless reruns of The PTL Club. Beat – or be beaten by – a dead horse. Anything!

(Among the excuses offered, tooth extraction seemed particularly apropos: Extracting reviews from readers can feel like pulling teeth!)

I looked at the parchment again and wondered: What if I were to burn it? Would that remove the curse? I struck a match and held it to the corner, which I was about to set ablaze when it occurred to me: This might be exactly what Flamel was counting on! I would be burning words on a paper, the very instruments of immortality he was trying to destroy (even if they were in French). I would be doing his work for him! I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. Or dammed. Probably both.;

Dejected, I returned the parchment to the caisson and the caisson to the credenza, hung my head and departed. It was plain that I would have to go back to begging and pleading for reviews, crawling to readers on my hands knees like some penitent medieval scribe, for all the good it would do me. Flamel was simply too accomplished an alchemist. I was beaten.

But I vowed, even so, that I wouldn’t stop writing. I’d even thumb my nose at old, dead Nicky Boy and write a little philosophy now and then. That would show him! I might not be able to beat him, but I could still grab a few crumbs from his precious pie of immortality for myself. Reviews or no reviews, I’ve still got a little bit of Harry Potteresque magic in my pen … er … keyboard, and I intend to use it!

Amazonus Scriptorus!

That’s got a nice ring to it. Now if I could just get J.K. Rowling to review one of my books! Who am I kidding, though. I may be a philosopher, but I’m no sorcerer!


Why I don't write negative book reviews

Stephen H. Provost

I have a simple policy when it comes to reviewing books: If I like them, I give 'em props. If I don't, I keep my mouth (or my keyboard) shut.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First off, reactions to books are largely subjective. Some books are more popular than others, and that can speak to quality, but it also can speak to successful marketing, name recognition and other factors. A few highly praised works have bored me to tears, and some obscure volumes have been, to use my wife's term, "unputdownable."

(This is a great word, even if you won't find it in the dictionary, because it has two meanings: The book's so engaging you can't stop reading it, and it's so enjoyable, you can't find anything to criticize.)

Secondly, I like to support other artists. I know how hard it is to sell a book, and I also know how tough it can be to deal with numbing criticism from strangers who seem to take almost perverse glee in dismantling a work you've spent months or years creating. You put a big part of yourself into it, and it's hard not to take it personally if someone reams you over it. Having been on the receiving end of slow sales and (only occasionally, thank goodness) critical reviews, I know what it's like to feel that sting, so I strive to follow the Golden Rule and spare other authors any scathing rebukes from my pen.

From my close observation of writers... they fall into two groups: 1) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review.
— Isaac Asimov

The Grammar Hammer

What about more objective issues? What if the book contains a ton of misspelled words, switches tenses in the middle of a chapter or treats subject-verb agreement like it's a temporary truce at best?

As an editor, these things drive me nuts, but what's even more galling is a review that consists largely or solely of grammatical critiques. Such reviews come off as holier-than-thou, and they tell me nothing about the plot or the characters. Reviewers: I want to know what you think of the story. I won't give you a gold star for digging up the most errors in some fanciful literary scavenger hunt. 

So, I won't blast an author by name in a public forum for using "it's" as a possessive or "comprise" instead of "compose," even though I may grind my teeth and roll my eyes when it happens. Those things aren't as important to me as the story, and no author can catch every mistake. (In fact, we tend to read right over our own typos, seeing what we think we've written rather than what's actually on the page. That's why we need editors. And it's why I'm more likely to hold an editor accountable for a slew of errors than I am to blame the writer.)  

If I have a criticism of a book that I believe is worth sharing with the author, I do so in private, not in a review. I may poke fun at grammatical mistakes on line, but I don't attribute them to particular writers. I like to say, as a professional editor, that I'm not getting paid to do that, but the reality is, I don't find shaming writers to be either fun or noble. I'd much rather encourage them.

Ask yourself: of all the jobs available to literate people, what monster chooses the job of “telling people how bad different books are”? What twisted fetishist chooses such a life?
— Steve Hely, How I Became a Famous Novelist

What makes a good review

So, how do I go about writing a constructive review? Here are a few things I try to include:

  • What's special about the story? What makes it stand out from the crowd?
  • You'll enjoy this book if you've enjoyed ... (fill in the blank with one or more similar titles you've enjoyed.)
  • Who was your favorite character, and why?
  • What did you like about the writer's style? Did the description stand out; if so, how? Was the dialogue crisp and realistic? Was there a twist you didn't expect?
  • If the book was "unputdownable," say so!

If I do include any critical info, I build it on a positive foundation. For example, "I enjoyed this character so much, I would have liked to see more of her. I hope the author considers telling readers more about her in a sequel."

And, of course, no spoilers.

But wait, you may say, "If you never leaves a negative review, how will potential readers know if the book isn't for them?"

That's easy. The descriptions you give might be positive, but if you mention elements of the book that appeal to some readers, these same ingredients might not interest others. If you describe the story as fast-paced, readers who don't like to feel rushed through a story line might pass. If you highlight a passionate relationship between the two main characters, that might flag those who aren't into romance to steer clear. If you label it "dark and brooding," that might not appeal to readers in search of an uplifting tale. And so on.

Believe it or not, eliminating readers who wouldn't be interested in a particular book benefits the author, too. It means that those who do read the work as the result of a review are more likely to enjoy it ... and leave a review of their own.

A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.
— Iris Murdoch

A lousy review isn't the end of the world, which should come as good news to authors and bad news to self-important critics who think of themselves as king-makers and book-breakers. S. Kelley Harrell calls online review sites "the slushpile of feedback," and Iris Murdoch said, "A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia."

If you're an author with a leaky roof who happens to live in Patagonia, that might be a concern, but otherwise ...

A positive review probably won't make you a bestselling author, either. Still, I love getting them; most authors do. If you don't have time to leave a review, but you like a book, just rate it. That's great, too. It shows that you've read the book and (hopefully) that it kept you interested enough to reach the end. 

Speaking of the end, I've gotten there myself. At least for today.

Thanks for reading, and happy reviewing!