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Does A One-Star Review Really Define A Book?

Negative reviews are inevitable. Every writer gets them and that includes the greats. The article “10 Bestselling Books with More Than 80 One-Star Reviews”, written by Jason Boog and published at Mediabistro, illustrates this perfectly. It’s such an interesting read, I decided to share the details here, along with a few of my own discoveries.

Since Mr. Boog’s article was published on January 23, 2012, I updated the one-star review counts:

But wait, there’s more!

Even classics like The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck get negative reviews. One reader began with the following:

“There are few early 20th century books that are more self-important, ponderous, self-indulgent, and overexposed than John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.”

Another reader of the same book wrote:

“I think he is a boring writer. He spends too much time on describing inconsequential details.”

No one would ever pan a classic like Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, right? I mean, it won the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature!

Wrong! Many readers found it “boring”. One person titled her review as “The Old Man and the Zzzzs”.

A reader of The Color Purple by Alice Walker titled his review “Boring drivel by a lunatic”.

As I continued reading, it was apparent he had a problem with her personal views. I find a lot of people enjoy leveling personal attacks upon the author, rather than write an actual critique of the book.

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One book to which I contributed had an interesting one-star review. It was the very popular Chicken Soup for the Soul in Menopause: Living and Laughing through Hot Flashes and Hormones. The reader wrote:

“I was looking for useful, practical information that could be applied to my current symptoms and life stage. This book was therefore a complete waste of money. It is a collection of stories that I found vague and rather pointless.”

Chicken Soup for the Soul is the best-selling and most successful book series in the history of publishing. Known for being an anthology of stories on a variety of subjects, it made me wonder what she expected when she bought the book.

Today, I received my first negative Amazon review of my e-single Oh sh!t, you’re black! It wasn’t a one-star, although I’ve received a few them on my other books. This time, it was a two-star. It originated at Amazon’s UK site.

I read his critique, hoping to get some insight into his thoughts. It began with “Pointless” and off he went! However, one line was quite interesting.

“He keeps getting mistaken for a white guy over the phone, and people show surprise when he turns up and is black.”

My first thought was:

By George, I think he’s got it!

When we hear a voice over the phone. our minds create an image for that particular voice. If it’s sexy, we draw a body and face to match. If it sounds strong and powerful, we don’t expect to meet a short, balding, chubby guy. But how many times does the voice fail to match our reality? A lot! And what is our reaction, especially when we throw race into the picture?

And no matter how much we try to deny it, the color and ethnic make-up of the person is a part of it, especially in a multicultural  society like America. Just as the color of his hair or the size of her…eyes, it’s all involved.

The particular reaction I receive is where the humor lies. In Oh sh!t, you’re black!, I examine how we see each other, especially through the prism of race and culture. I do it with a wink and a sly grin, because I want the readers to laugh along with me.

Not with anger. Not with guilt. Nor with any discomfort. With humor, mixed in with honesty and trust.

If we did this more often, maybe it wouldn’t be such a dangerous subject.

I wish my UK reader would have understood the the story more like one of the five-star reviewers:

“I appreciate how he wrote in a non-judgmental — we are all human beings — compassionate and humorous expression and yet ‘told his story’.”

So, if I could meet my one-star reviewer, what would I say to him? The same thing I’d say to my five-star reviewers:

Thank you!

I’m a writer and I want people to read my words. You may not always like the story. Or the theme. Or the plot. But you read it and for that, I can only be grateful.

I’m not comparing myself with such great authors as Steinbeck or Hemingway or Rowling or even Walker. I’m not in their league. Very few writers are and that’s why they’re great!

But if these great artists can’t escape negative reviews, then what chance do I have?

You can’t please everyone. As writers, we have to face that fact and allow the reader who spent their hard-earned money (not to mention their valuable time) on our work to put in something extra: their two cents.

As long as it’s not personal, it’s okay. And even if it is, who cares. I refuse to allow someone’s opinion of me to define me.


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