Friday, March 5, 2010

Death and the Poison Pen

by G.M. Malliet

The subject of mean-spirited reader emails was discussed here recently, along with Amazon "reviews" that barely reach the level of incoherent hissy fit. Coincidentally, a well-known writer just blogged about receiving a nasty email from a reader, and making the mistake of replying, of engaging—just what the emailer may have been hoping for. The exchange got weirder and weirderer, and the author ended up posting the exchange on her blog--but two years later. It bugged her off and on for two years.

In truth I haven’t read the exchange, amusing as it may be, because I am sure it is also utterly depressing to see the contents of the mind of someone who would flail away at an author in this fashion. Even hugely successful authors have feelings. (This happens to be a nice author, too, but that has nothing to do with it. It is a shame to harass someone who is really just trying to make a living writing books, which is akin to opening a lemonade stand hoping to make a killing.)

It got me to thinking, though. Is there anyone out there who would be/could be mean about a long-established master of the mystery genre? An absolute genius? Could they possibly diss my all-time hero, Agatha Christie?

Sure they could! The world is full of all kinds of people, including people who don’t love everything about Dame Agatha.

Here are some reader comments from about some of her books. I have chosen these books more or less at random (they happen to all be set in Devon), but they are acknowledged classics, every single one.

And yet: All these readers gave Agatha one or two stars. When you realize they are talking about the great, the immortal Agatha, you could just weep:

* The ABC Murders: “While the book is not badly constructed and is amusing, it is definitely uninspired.”

* Five Little Pigs: “Though I do not know Agatha Christie's work, but by judging from this book I would think that she was not such a good writer.”

* And Then There Were None: “This book was my first foray into Christie, and will almost certainly be my last.” [NB: This is probably Agatha's best-selling book ever.]

* Evil Under the Sun: “I think that Christie has several novels where the deadline was shortly approaching, or she had just run out of ideas. That's certainly acceptable, but don't bother with a less-than mediocre book!”

* Peril at End House: [Poirot] was excessively demeaning and cruel to Hastings throughout the novel, to such an unreasonable extent that I was mentally urging Hastings to tell Poirot where he could shove his mustaches, and get the heck out of there. [Is this like telling him to put his head up—oh, never mind.]

* The Body in the Library: “….be prepared for a complete disappointment when a potentially great book fails.”

See what I mean? Don’t you feel better knowing how arbitrary this whole “You have a computer, so you too can be a reviewer” thing is?


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head, Gin. The thing is that these are NOT professional reviewers. They're not book bloggers, or newspaper critics. They're readers.

I've heard some writers get incredibly hurt by comments on Amazon. I try not to read mine...and I'd never respond back. I just don't think anything is gained in an exchange.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I do read my online reader reviews, every single one of them, no matter where they are. And I often find the constructive criticism valuable. But hateful reviews, whether they be "professional" or not, are just spiteful bile from unhappy people. Those I shrug off.

And I feel that constructive input from readers is just as valuable, if not more so, than that from the professionals. These are the folks I write for; the people who plunk down their hard earned money to read my work. They have a right to voice their opinion. Again, it goes back to hateful and mean vs. valuable feedback.

And, Gin, I often go back and read Amazon reviews of the heavy hitters like Sue Grafton, Stephen King, etc. I find it quite amusing and often comforting.

G.M. Malliet said...

Here's a one-star Amazon opinion of Little Women, for example (I'm picking on dead authors since it's likely they don't care any more):


This is really kind of an interesting exercise...

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Let's play GUESS THAT BOOK -

"There isn't a single insightful moment in this overrated piece of drek"

"THIS BOOK IS BORING!There's no other word to describe it."

"lack of any real depth ... about as inspirational and moving as "The Cat in the Hat".

"This book is lacking creativity of chacters and of imagination of plot."

"writing style is horrible, thank goodness she only wrote one book"

The above are Amazon reviews of Too Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It's my favorite American novel.

Keith Raffel said...

I am open-minded about the reviews I receive. I believe the 5s, am skeptical about the 4s, figure those who post the 3s and 2s can't read, and count on the Almighty wreaking vengeance on anyone who posts a 1.

Darrell James said...

It never fails to amaze me, the diversity of attitudes in the marketplace (in life). It makes trying to predict what readers will like akin to the "monkey with the dart picking Wall Street winners".

I've said on author panels, many times, that my goal when I sit down to write is to tell myself a story that *I* will love. I can only hope at that point that there are others like me out there who'll love it too.

When it comes to the bashers, however, I get the feeling their rantings have more to do with them, than with the book or the author.

Hagelrat said...

As a book blogger I basically have to be prompted to remember to post a review on amazon. It's not that I don't want to shout to everyone I know if I love a book, but I just don't think of amazon comments as reviews. It's slightly unfair, I believe some bloggers to habitually cross post. On the other hand, you can visit my blog, read a variety of reviews asses how much opur tastes are similar and whether my opinions have any value to you. Much harder to do that on Amazon.
I also don't think much of reviewers being unkind, it's possible to be honest about a book you didn't like without attacking someone.

Alan Orloff said...

The Internet sure has lowered the barriers to entry for a lot of endeavors, book reviewing included. If you can read and type, you can review! Now that's not to say they aren't some great reviewers on-line, but...

Shel said...

This is exactly why I do not write reviews. I'm not an expert at literary critique, nor do I pretend to be one. Heck, I'm not sure I even *want* to be one.
I tried writing a few reviews, but figured out pretty quickly that I know whether or not I liked the book, but I usually don't know *why*.

G.M. Malliet said...

Shel - I'm glad you brought this up. I am a terrible reviewer - I can never articulate why I like a book. Maybe I'll say it's well-written or funny - going way out on a limb there! But it is absolutely true that book reviewing is a special talent and I can say without hesitation I do not have that ability.

G.M. Malliet said...

Blogger Hagelrat - If you see this would you post a link to your blog please?

G.M. Malliet said...

Darrell - Amen, amen. Agree completely with what you say here.

G.M. Malliet said...

Sue Ann - This is hard to believe! Who could not like that book?

I think some of what is going on with the classics is that some kids feel forced to read them. The backsplash from that can be ugly.

Cricket McRae said...

I was invited to review for and jumped at the chance. The author of the ARC they assigned was unfamiliar to me but apparently had been a best seller in the past. But in the end, I simply could not praise the book in any way that didn't sound faint enough to damn. Or at least fence-sitting enough to damn. I chose to opt out altogether instead.

James Lee Burke once stated in an interview that he would never say anything bad about another author because he knew how hard it is to sit down and write an entire book. I've read some dreck, but at least the author actually wrote instead of saying, "I've always wanted to be a writer."

G.M. Malliet said...

Beautifully put, Cricket.

A distinction has to be drawn (and I just realized I did not draw it clearly here) between the Amazon reader who feels his comments, however destructive, are somehow beneficial to the world at large, and the person who tracks an author down - a perfect stranger, mind - to send hate mail, as happened in this famous-author case.

Theresa Milstein said...

The good thing about Amazon is that regular readers can voice their opinions. The bad thing about Amazon is that regular readers can voice their opinions. It doesn't matter if they're ill-informed, haven't read the book but have some grudge, are annoyed that shipping took too long - they can leave a mean comment and a small number of stars.

I love the picture book, Fireboat, which covers 09/11 in such a perfect way for children (In my opinion). Did everyone agree with me? Not according to Amazon reviews.

I'm not yet published and my blog hasn't gotten any negative comments, so I can't imagine how it feels to get negative reviews and mean letters.

G.M. Malliet said...

Theresa - For what it's worth, there is a lovely spirit behind what you've written here, which indicates to me a writer worth reading - a writer who will break through that not-yet-published barrier soon. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

Karen said...

I think there might be a good mystery book to be written on this subject . . .

G.M. Malliet said...

Karen - Oh, so very true. Working on it now...

Julia Buckley said...

Great point, Gin. And how interesting that the most critical reviews are the most poorly written.

Olorin said...

"They're not book bloggers, or newspaper critics. They're readers."
Wow. I simply couldn't stop myself from commenting on this.
Yes, we're readers. The same readers who cough up OUR money to buy YOUR books- we have a far bigger right to voice our opinions than any critic or blogger- more often, reviewing is their JOB, so, of course, they'll review.
But when an ordinary, supposedly 'pathetic' reader takes the time to actually comment- it's a valuable piece of criticism, more often than not.
If someone sends out a flame- the "ur story sux" type, there is no point in counting that as a valid review.
However, it's extremely immature to rubbish an honest reader's opinion- a person may just NOT like a book, period.
Thomas Hardy is a literary genius. I can't stand him. So sue me.
As a reader, I'd like to say this to an author who can't swallow negative feedback- Grow up, please.
So I didn't like what you literally sweated over and bled onto for who knows how long- deal with it.
It's a package deal of having the rest of the world read your work.