The first time I received a negative review of one of my novels I felt as if I’d been gut-punched.
I tiny wave of nausea surged through me. That was over six years and five novels ago. Since then, I’ve learned to roll with the punches. Thumbs-down evaluations of my works, I’ve come to understand, are part of the business. As the cliché goes, they come with the territory.
Happily, my more recent books get a lot fewer boos and hisses than my earlier efforts, but I’ve also learned that no matter how much I’d like to be awarded nothing but attaboys, it ain’t gonna happen. Even the finest authors/storytellers at the top of their games get one-star body slams from time to time: James Lee Burke, Daniel Silva, Reed Farrel Coleman—writers I consider among the best in the business.
Even Daniel James Brown, who wrote The Boys in the Boat, one of the best, if not the best, books I’ve read in the past several years, managed to get a few one-star zingers for his effort. This, despite the fact the book received a gazillion five-star ratings on Amazon.
Here’s the thing. Everyone uses a different measuring stick when they read. For instance, there have been a couple of mega bestsellers with great reviews that I just couldn’t get through. I like to be pulled into a tale quickly. Neither book, despite superb writing, did that. After fifty or so pages I was still wondering Where is this going? What’s the story? Why hasn’t something happened? Many other readers were obviously more patient than I. Different measuring sticks.
Another problem is that different readers have different expectations. Folks shouldn’t pick up a Buzz Bernard novel expecting John Steinbeck. I’m a “beach reads” writer. I like to create novels that are fun, factual, and fast-moving but with believable characters. (It’s always the characters, not the story, that carry a novel.) As NYT best-selling author Reed Farrel Coleman reminded me earlier this year, “We’re in the entertainment business.”
Here’s another example of disparate expectations, or maybe merely a reflection of what readers like. One gentleman said of Cascadia he “was hoping for a story about survival,” in other words, a sort of post-apocalyptic tale. I don’t do those. Sweeping disaster dramas don’t appeal to me. Instead, I prefer to focus my storytelling on how just a few individuals get through a really bad day.
The worst review I ever got? Well, it began, “The best thing about this book was its cover.” You know it’s going to be downhill from there. Kind of like having a 60 Minutes crew show up at your front door.
Then there was the one-star rating one of my novels got that ended with the reviewer stating: “Very likable and I enjoyed it.” Huh? How does that work? Did the reader think we rate novels like golf, low score wins?
Finally, apparently there are some readers who just don’t like me. One recent review started off, “Full disclosure here: Buzz Bernard is a terrible writer.” Then she gave the book three stars. So what would a one-star slap-in-the-face have read like? “Full disclosure here: Buzz Bernard probably couldn’t carve Cro-Magnon pictographs on the wall of cave”.
Onward and downward.