The Single Star of Shame

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I knew it was only a matter of time, but when it came it felt like a knife plunged into my beating heart. My first one-star review. True, it wasn’t Amazon, but still, a humbling experience.

My first thought? How is this possible? Me, the perfectionist. All that hard work, all that proofreading, all that re-writing. The years spent tightening it up, killing darlings, trying to make every word count. And then in one fell swoop – boom! I’ve produced a one-star book. No explanations, no examples, just a lone, cold symbol of disappointment and distaste parked next to my little baby. Fuck. Me.

Granted, The Beauregarde Affair is not for everybody. If you have no interest whatsoever in the 70’s, then it might just not belong on your recommended reading list. If you are rabidly anti-dope, anti-hipster, it might infuriate you. Maybe you don’t care for slacker humor. Worse yet, perhaps you suffer from  acute ophidiophobia. Nevertheless, I’ve gotten wonderful reviews (not bragging, just saying) from readers who say, for example,  that they usually read almost nothing but science fiction. People who weren’t even close to being born when Mr. T was chronicling his longhaired misadventures claim that they could really identify with the characters. So the demographic is fluid.

 I am completely prepared for four-star reviews; in fact I would like to get a couple as soon as possible. Having exclusively five-star reviews on Amazon practically screams out Reviewed by friends and relatives only. So a couple of four-star reviews are a sign of health. It indicates that people other than your mom are actually reading your book. Here’s my take on the literary ratings:

©Brian’s Concise Guide to Literary Star Giving:

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ – You cheated; there should only be five stars. Nice try, though; you get points for initiative.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★  – You have an excellent book and/or willing friends, colleagues and relatives. And your mom still loves you.

★ ★ ★ ★  – You have a good book but there was something off about it that kicked that fifth star out. Too many typos? A minor glitch in plot logic?

★ ★ ★  – You have an okay book, but something about it doesn’t work for me. Better luck next time.

★ ★  – You don’t have a very good book (or I am reading out of my preferred genre/I didn’t get it.).

★ – Your book sucks (or I am your ex. and you shall pay dearly for it at every opportunity). Otherwise; keep your day job. Forever.

I’ve actually seen reviews where the reviewer lamented that they can’t give zero stars. That’s just plain nasty, but hey, I’ve read some books where I seriously wondered if the ‘author’ needed some definitive feedback; please find another hobby. Or else.

I just finished reading —imho—a phenomenally good book entitled The Sister Brothers, by Patrick deWitt. Now I wouldn’t call it a work of genius, but it truly is an amazing read, with an unbelievably solid and unique voice, intriguing off-beat plot, 3D characterization, vivid scenery, and best of all, a slathering of humor in the darkest, blackest vein. My kind of book. Hell, I would have given it six stars. It was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize in 2011. Mr. deWitt has to date garnered 109 reviews on Amazon US, 85 of them awarded four or five stars. And deservedly so, if quality has anything to say. But then there were the eight one-star reviews. How is that possible, I again asked myself (btw – I am in no way comparing my humble talents to Mr. deWitt’s prodigious ones). Ok, a wacko here, a fool there, maybe even an ex-wife or two; but eight one-star reviews? None of the single-star reviews read like wackos or fools. I went through them again. And then I got it. It’s just the way things are. When people create stuff, others evaluate their creations. For whatever reasons, some people will like it and some won’t. Clearly with all the rave reviews, from the New York Times Book Review to the Washington Post, the 85 top ratings, there is something in The Sister Brothers of high value. And just as clearly, eight people thought there wasn’t. That’s the way it goes.

Back to Beauregarde. I had to know why this particular reader gave TBA one miserable star. So I mailed her and asked. Perhaps I was overstepping my role as anonymous author; nevertheless, she promptly mailed me back and explained that she ’could not engage with any of [my] characters’. Fair enough that, and if she believes that constitutes a one-star review, that’s her business, isn’t it? Do I have to like it? No.

So, to my point. Putting your creative soul out there for the reading public’s scrutiny can be an exhilarating experience. It’s somewhat like the rush performers get when standing on stage and hearing the roar of a satisfied audience. My stuff out in the world! But no matter at which level you write or perform there will always be those who don’t care for your work. You can’t write for everybody. And at some point you are going to get booed off the stage. Even J. K. Rowling got 82 single stars for her first Harry Potter book. Just listen to this one-star review:

“I am 14, I love reading, and this is probably the most boring, unoriginal and derivative story I have ever read. It is not interesting and was a waste of my time. Can someone please respond to my review and tell me why people like these books?”

Apparently that review didn’t stop J. K. Failure to please comes with the job; if you find the heat bothersome, best to exit the kitchen forthwith. Because sometimes it gets pretty hot. And sometimes your night sky shines dimly with a single lonely star.


5 responses to this post.

  1. Why bother writing a review if it’s not 4-5-or 6 stars – hell why even finish a book if it isn’t interesting? I swear I am not your mom, we have never met, I was not paid, I have never lived in the deep south of the US and I never inhaled…love the T-shirt, it deserves a star of it’s own!


    • Thanks, mom. And i know you didn’t inhale that time …

      Jest kiddin’. I actually appreciate one-star reviews, if they are intelligent and enlightening. In fact I often go to the one-stars first to see if there are any major [perceived] flaws in a book.

      Interpreting reviews has become an art. If a book has only five-star reviews, I check if the reviewers have written about any other books. If not, that tells me these are probably just family and friends and I must tread carefully. However I think that if someone dumps a single star on you that they should have the courtesy to explain why. Otherwise it won’t tell anybody reading it anything, other than that the reviewer didn’t care for the book at all. I’ve also seen several cases where people actively write sabotage reviews for personal reasons unrelated to the book.

      One of the great things about Amazon is the ‘Click to look inside’ function, and the ‘read the first three chapters free’ offer for Kindle books. Whereas the stars may lie, the truth lies in the reading.

      Yeah, I want one of those T’s …


      • Well Son, I guess it all depends on why you are reading and why you are reviewing in the first place. Personally, I read for pleasure (which encompasses non-fiction – but NOT reviews) so for me, if a book isn’t appealing to me, I put it down. I have stacks of books I want to read and little time to waste in that regard. Furthermore, sometimes I find books appeal to me at different times of my life and something I would not have enjoyed years earlier, I do now, so I reserve my opinion in many cases.

        I get where you are headed with the positives of a ‘one star’ review, although (from my own perspective) I have to wonder why they bothered finishing the book in the first place – which to me rather invalidates their comments. However, I do not review books for a living. BTW, you can keep the five-star reivew or from now on relate to me as Mom, you choose. 😉

  2. Posted by Garth on 23/03/2012 at 20:58

    critics: some peole do it and some just talk about doing it.


  3. We so want to be appreciated, we claim to want constructive criticism (preferably the type that begins “I would like to publish/represent you”) but do we? I know I want feedback on my writing (and my dress sense/innate style/wit/cooking/family etc etc) but would prefer it not to be of the negative variety. Which makes said feedback rather pointless other than to feed my tender ego.

    I’ve only failed to read two books. (White Teeth – if only Archie had succeeded in chapter one we wouldn’t have had the rest of the book inflicted upon us and some dreadful book written from the POV of a dog about to be put down for a crime he didn’t commit …) I think it’s the parsimonious git in my that has to get to the end so I don’t feel I have completely wasted my money, only of course to discover that I have wasted my money and my time of course. But I rarely write Amazon reviews. I don’t know why, perhaps I will. If I ever make it there myself I suppose good or bad I would like to know somebody cared enough to say something.

    On autho I’ve written quite a few, but recently the direness of some of them have made me (a) feel it’s cruel to be honest and (b) wonder if my books are equally crap.


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