Claire King


Whatever You Love, or feel vaguely ambivalent towards…

Posted on: April 26th, 2011 by Claire - 16 Comments

I’ve just finished reading Louise Doughty’s novel, Whatever You Love. It was amongst my Christmas presents (oh, I’m not even half-way through that To Be Read pile yet) and came on the recommendation of my lovely agent.

Well, what a recommendation. As I’ve mentioned before, what with small children and writing my own novel, my reading time has been spare and this was the first book of Louise Doughty’s that I’ve read. I truly loved it. I galloped through it in a way that is rare for me and all along the way saying ‘Wow!’ and ‘Yes!’ The kind of book where i go out and buy the entire back catalogue. *THAT* kind of book.

Honestly, I loved this book and wholeheartedly recommend you buy it.

I try to write reviews on Amazon for any book that really rings my bell. (I don’t write negative reviews because I rarely feel passionate enough about a book that just didn’t quite do it for me). Of course I read the other reviews up there while I’m on it, and was quite shocked by the polarity of the comments. As an author on the brink of receiving my own reviews, this sort of reception, especially for a book I would rate so highly, terrifies me. I’m sure I would take it to heart. What do you make of it all?

Amazon 1/2 star reviews:

“absolutely HATED this book”

“The story is drawn out unnecessarily”

“Faber & Faber, get your act together and use some decent copyeditors and proofreaders. The book was littered with spelling mistakes and typos”

“…she was waffling”

“…this novel unfortunately failed to reach me, as the grief the protagonist felt over the loss of her daughter seemed one-dimensional and failed to encourage any sympathy.”

i’m aghast; each to their own and all that, but I just can’t even begin to see where these comments came from. The book was tight and meticulous…wow. If I had been on the receiving end of these I would be reaching for…what? My husband probably. But then look at these:

Amazon 4/5 star reviews:

“I found these scenes almost unbearably moving in their honesty.”

“Wow. I didn’t expect this! This book is so powerful and insightful. I was blown away to be honest”

” compulsive reading! I could not put it down”

“simply one of the best novels I have read in a long time”

“a genuinely captivating read”

“A book that tugs at the heart, draws tears and still manages to surprise right to the end.”

“…I could not put it down…”

“300 pages of insightful and expertly-crafted story-telling.”

Yes! Yes to all of these comments.

So what is it about a novel that can divide readers this way, and how are we, as writers, supposed to digest this kind of reception to our work?

16 Responses

  1. Hello – how odd – I’m sure you would have noticed if it was ‘littered with mistakes and typos’ so it does make me wonder what that reviewer was reading?!

    However. The most interesting thing I’ve read in the last few days has been the mixed response to Anne Enright’s new novel. I’ve read two reviews, one glowing (Irish examiner) one bad.

    And also in The IE – Enright herself admitting, in an interview, that she used to write ‘for the critics’ – and realised, after wining the Booker (STILL getting a mix of good and bad) that she ought to focus on the reader. So thats what she does now.

    “I wrote this book for the reader, and I used to think I was writing for the approval of the critic. And you can’t get that. I won the Booker and various critics howled.”

    Her reader is generally female, one assumes, well most buyers of books tend to be, and most readers of women authors tend to be other women – so its a fair assumption…and the male critic I read somewhere slated it , seeing it as a thin, ‘wimmins’ interest’ book I think – with a very indefinite main character who couldn’t quite be positive enough for him.

    ‘Cant please all the critics all the time’ seems to be the message.

    • claire says:

      Hello! I honestly didn’t notice a single missed edit. Once I thought I did:
      “I won’t belong” should have been “I won’t be long” but it turned out the character had misheard the comment…
      It does seem to be that not all critics can be pleased, nor all readers. And perhaps there’s something to be said for writing that draws reactions in the same way Marmite does.

  2. Pete says:

    If you stand in a gallery for an hour and listen to people talk about a painting, you’ll get just the same divergence of opinion. Music is the same, photography too. Why do we like particular TV programmes and not others?
    It’s a creative process and that means some people will like it and others won’t. All you can do is develop a thick skin for the bad comments and hope that a sizeable proportion of critics and readers do like your work.

    • claire says:

      I guess so, and put like that it sounds so easy! It’s not like the comments are ‘I didn’t see why people thought this was so great’ or ‘just not to my taste’ though…they are really critical of her writing skills. As you say, though, a thick skin seems to be the way forward.

  3. Trish Nicholson says:

    These may not be genuine reviews of people who have read the book. I came upon a website the other day (sorry, can’t remember it: didn’t want to remember it), but it was encouraging people to write ‘hate reviews’ just for the hell of it – to be noticed, to be different. They gave examples similar to the ones you quote. Sick. But just remember that if you ever see comments like that for your work, they are more than likely to be fantasy creatures not critics.

  4. Martha says:

    We write for people, complex and unique individuals, and every time a story (book or short) is read, it is filtered by the senses, experience, and predilections of the individual reader. I see reviews as reflections of oral tradition — remember the folk tales your mother told you, and how if you went to a friend’s house, a few details changed… and if you walked a thousand miles, every few steps you’d find a different detail or translation? We are all subject to our personalities and cultures. I bet there IS a book that pleases everyone; I love that thought, but even if there is, readers will still translate the original text in different ways.
    How will you react if you receive a bad review? Professionally, courteously, and kindly of course. They’re not telling you that your kids are ugly, they’re only saying what we already know: we are unique creatures; all incredible and all fallible. And let’s face it, if we weren’t, books would be boring — because we’d all write the same story.

  5. Tara Bradford says:

    Grammatical and spelling errors immediately put me off a book, no matter how good the plot. Whether or not this particular book had them, in practically every book I read these days, I find spelling mistakes or wrong words that should have been caught by proofreaders and editors. But it seems many publishers are no longer employing proofreaders and editors, which does readers a disservice.

    I personally don’t write book reviews on Amazon, as there seems to be no moderation whatsoever and I am astounded at how mean-spirited some reviews can be.

    A blogger who recently co-wrote a book sent out a message asking people who bought the book to go to Amazon and write a review – I think that was asking a bit much – not only did you pay for the book, but are expected to write a review too? I know that publishers’ marketing isn’t what it once was, but must readers take up the slack?

  6. Katja says:

    People are different, and if the work of fiction rises strong feelings, it’s a good thing. Because people experience the world so differently, feelings are not the same for everyone. I understood this is a book about loosing your child? It’s expected then, that the opinions are divided, because there’s not one way to react to such experience, and people who either have had a different experience about it or they’re just imagining it differently, will find it hard to relate.

    But getting strong reactions from the readers – good or bad – means that you’ve moved them somehow. “Meh” 3 star reviews only mean, that the book is probably mediocre and boring.

  7. Mike Clarke says:

    Amazon reviews were once really useful and a good idea. (The rise of online, peer-involved communities were part of the hypothesis of an MBA dissertation I did about ten years ago).

    Now, unless there are a really massive amount, they’re not much use. People are paid to write some of them. Others are obviously by friends and relatives and others by enemies. Nevertheless I still get lured in by the star ratings.

    (Ever looked at the wildly differing opinions on other sites like TripAdvisor — they’re often such poles apart they’re mystifying.)

    One interesting book to read the reviews on is ‘One Day’ by David Nicholls — not so much to get an opinion of the book but to see what motivates the reviewers. The very bad reviews tend to be analytical and technical whereas the gushing ones are predominantly from readers who got very caught up in the story’s imagined world — identifying with the characters and so on. It seems to suggest imho the book was cleverly marketed and was read by people who wouldn’t normally pick up what’s basically a romance.

    • claire says:

      Those reviews are really interesting and you raise a great point about marketing – many of the people who gave low reviews to Whatever You Love were disappointed that the novel did not live up to the cover blurb. They were expecting more of a thriller – revenge based – whereas that’s not really what it was about….

  8. […] Mingling in the great halls of internetdom, sipping virtual fizz and gulping imaginary canapés, I spotted a post discussing the potential diversity of reader reviews. How can the same story command Amazon ratings […]

  9. Rufus Evison says:

    I was tempted to give you a bad review now for three reasons:
    1) You know I have not read your book and so you could not take it to heart.
    2) It might help prepare you to look at any bad reviews and smile as they could not possibly be as bad.
    3) there was no three but people like to think in threes so I thought there should have been.

    If you would like a bad review for these reasons or just because it would be funny let me know and I would be happy to oblige.


Leave a Reply