Hazel McHaffie

Booker prizewinners

Rating and reviewing

It’s commonly said that a bad review is better than no review, but I can’t imagine any author enjoys getting slated by readers or receiving poor star ratings. Indeed some writers deliberately never look at the reviews lest they are derailed by them. But what a subjective thing it all is anyway. Your meat, my poison, and all that.

The Kindest ThingLet me illustrate. Last week I read The Kindest Thing by Cath Staincliffe. It was recommended to me as ‘your kind of book’, and the Kindle version was a mere 99p, so of course I snapped it up. And indeed it is my sort of book. It’s accessible fiction dealing with a thorny on-going medical ethical issue in a challenging way, leaving me asking, What would I do in these circumstances? Familiar? In fact it’s the closest thing to my own novel about assisted dying (Right to Die) I’ve seen thus far.

Basically it tells the story of 50-year-old Deborah who is on trial for helping her husband Neil to die rather than continue life with Motor Neurone Disease. Her own daughter reports her to the police. Her son’s precarious mental health is threatened. Prison gives her too much time to reflect on the repercussions of what she agreed to. Yep, my kind of thing definitely. And I enjoyed it.

As did many others. Most reviews I’ve seen are strongly approving: ‘beautifully written’, ‘pitch perfect’, ‘page turning stuff’, ‘sensitive’, ‘powerful’, ‘courageous’. The main protagonist is both likeable and believable, they said.

But a few folk, reading the same book, about the same characters, have slated it: ‘shallow’, ‘depressing’, ‘tedious’, ‘predictable’, ‘unlikeable cardboard characters’, ‘offensive and narrow-minded’, ‘cheesy’.

Oh dear. If someone said such things of my work, I’m pretty sure I’d succumb to a horrible sinking feeling. Possibly even go into a temporary decline. But why? One step removed, viewing these comments dispassionately, I can see quite clearly it’s a subjective opinion. The readers are free to express it. They might (or might not) even be having a bad day, or going through a rough patch themselves, or they may have a hidden agenda, or feel threatened by the author in some way.

In any event, it’s a known and accepted fact that we all like different kinds of writing. If you’ve ever belonged to a bookclub, even one made up of like-minded people, you’ll have experienced that reality. And haven’t you ever read a bestselling book that’s had rave reviews, and wondered what all the fuss was about? Be honest now, how many Booker prizewinners have you really enjoyed?

Me, I don’t care if everyone else loves a book, if I don’t, I don’t. End of story. OK, I might analyse the pros and cons more carefully if I’m decidedly out of step with respected opinion, but I’m not tempted to trot meekly along in the wake of the majority just to conform. Because there can be a myriad reasons in my life and belief system and experience and preferences why I personally feel as I do about that particular book. I am perfectly entitled to my subjective opinion.

So, what am I saying? Well, criticism feels very different when you’re on the receiving end.  But perhaps we authors are unrealistic from the outset. We shouldn’t expect to achieve unqualified 100% five-star ratings. Remember those famous lines from the poet John Lydgate, later adapted by President Lincoln:

‘You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.’

Cath Staincliffe’s ratings have given me new heart. From henceforth I shall not even attempt to appeal to all tastes. I shall concentrate on being true to myself. And if and when a poor review pings in, I shall pick myself up, dust myself off, and get right back on that writing horse. God willing. Oh, and if that fails, re-read this post!

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