One Star

Every writer wants five stars reviews of their novel, and understandably so, but those one stars can be quite insightful and are well worth playing close attention to as a novelist.

I recently finished reading Max Brooks World War Z and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Sure, it’s not Shakespeare, it’s not Hemingway, but it’s a bloody good read (if you’ll pardon the pun). Max has an astounding 971 reviews, 597 of which are five stars, and then there’s the 46 one star reviews.

The one stars are quite varied. Some people were clearly hoping for more blood and guts, others felt the characters were one dimensional, while others felt it was a good idea, poorly executed (did they read the same book I did?). One astute reviewer labelled it “Yawn of the Dead,” which I think would have brought a smile to Max’s face, whether he agreed with it or not. But the common theme through all these reviews is that he needed a more convincing change of narrative when switching between characters. I’ve been criticised for a similar lack of depth in characterisation so there’s something in that both Max and I can learn from.

Another classic example of this is Ender’s Game, a science fiction novel I thoroughly enjoyed, and the twist got me hook, line and sinker. With well over 2900 reviews and a phenomenal 2300 five star reviews, you’d wonder how anyone could find fault with the book, and yet there are 79 one star reviews. And there’s a lot Orson Scott Card and I and anyone else who’d cares to look can learn from these reviews. Particularly, the review by Arteminism.

Very disturbed by central themes
I find it hard to understand how people cannot notice the deep themes of child abuse that run through this novel. From the struggle within Ender (the abused) to avoid becoming Peter (his first abuser), to “Uncle Graf” isolating Ender by removing him first from the protection of his family and then from friendships with his peers…

Graff… plans to convince Ender that no matter what, no adult will ever come to his rescue. Interestingly, Graff is later prosecuted for his treatment of these boys; he is fully acquitted and offered a promotion.

There are a bunch of comments associated with this review that suggest the reviewer “doesn’t get it.” Oh, he/she gets it all right, better than we do, as he/she is able to clearly separate the appeal of fiction and the suspension of disbelief from reality.

Graf’s comment, that no adult will ever come to Ender’s aid, is chillingly similar to the ploy invoked by paedophiles to control and contain their victims in a state of helplessness. And as for fully acquitted and promoted, well, that too is (unfortunately) all too true of child abusers in our world. I don’t think the author realised quite what he was unveiling.

The reviewer finds it hard to understand how people cannot notice the deep themes of abuse in this novel. And that is a valid point. I find it hard to understand how I could overlook something so obvious until it was pointed out to me in this particular review. In hindsight, I was aware of a sense of distaste at what unfolded, but I suspended that for the sake of the story.

The term for this is selective attention (or it’s counterpoint, selective blindness). We tend to become so engrossed in something we enjoy that we drop our guard mentally and morally, and so we’ll watch the movie Die Hard or Saving Private Ryan or Lord of the Rings without batting an eyelid at the horrific waste of life that occurs in these appalling battles, so long as the heroes are safe.

In Ender’s case, we see all that he endures as his rite of passage and we lose sight of the reality of how brutal and abusive the novel actually is, making this review an astute observation.

So far, my novel Anomaly has dodged one star reviews, although you wouldn’t know it from the tone of some of the comments.

Not just juvenile: actually puerile
…paper-thin and sickeningly sweet… it was so mercifully short

Science fiction or political, moral and religious lecture
…the story line as a science fiction work is weak, unfulfilled, and lacking depth… The writing was a bit too simplistic also; it felt pedestrian. Relationships were rushed and unnatural… I would rate it “Pleasurable-not memorable”


But, as a writer, these comments help to temper the natural enthusiasm and excitement there is in receiving positive reviews. They give me some direction, areas to work upon and address in future novels.

One star reviews… they’re not all that bad as there’s always more to learn

Update 15/11 – Opps.., there it is… one star to lighten my day. BTW, I’ve update the book with US English and US terminology.

Update 21/11 – And the floodgates have opened with ones and twos coming in droves. I once read an autobiography of a special forces soldier who, on parachuting into a combat zone in the dark, crashed into a tree. He noted that the sting of a branch, lashing against his face, gave him a sense of being alive. I know what he means.

8 thoughts on “One Star

  1. Hi Peter. Great post. I agree with what you say about the value of negative reviews. As authors we need to prepare ourselves and spend some time working out their value and how to position them without letting it freak us out etc. Also, I think that from what I’ve seen and the evidence shown in ‘War Z’, for example, even a bunch of negative reviews isn’t enough to stop a book from disseminating and becoming popular: it’s the proportion that counts, of course. If the novel has some good qualities and is basically solid, however, it will be recognised by readers and reviewed as such, so the rating will end up being fairly decent regardless of the scathing one star review that comes along here and there, perhaps inevitibly as we can’t cover everything. Thanks …

    • Yeah, as a writer it’s easy to become too precious with your baby… Anomaly has sold just over 4000 copies and is #2 in Amazon’s High Tech Science Fiction, so it can’t be all bad… but it’s no Wuthering Heights, so I’ve got plenty of room to grow.

  2. Congrats on being on the Top 100 list! That’s gotta feel great! I’ve noticed that, ratings-wise, a lot of books that don’t sell in high quantity will have, on average, higher ratings than best-sellers. It seems getting criticized is part of the price to pay for reaching beyond your circle of fans.

    Still sucks to read those low-star reviews.

  3. I agree people can read a book like Ender’s Game and miss something as disturbing as the child abuse. And then others can notice that and not notice that it’s fundamental to the story (I love the book but found it deeply disturbing). It’s like people who don’t like the movie Blade Runner because “it’s too violent”, not understanding that the violence is fundamental to the way the movie asks a very profound question – what is it that makes us human?

    Anyway as an ex-Brisvegas lad now living in Colorado, having stumbled across your new book as an Amazon recommendation, I’m off to download it to my Kindle. Hoping I can give it more than one or two stars!

    • Yeah, it’s a balancing act… I hope you enjoy Anomaly and look forward to any insights you have to share. Enjoy your white Christmas in Colorado. I once went hiking in the national forest up there, just outside of Gunnison. The scenery is spectacular.

      • Well I gave it three stars on Amazon. As an examination of a possible first contact with aliens and our reaction to that I thought it quite original and insightful.

        I think it could have been longer which would have allowed you to spend a bit more time giving the characters more depth. We didn’t get enough into the main characters to understand what really drives them. Why would a guy as smart as Teller end up as an elementary school teacher? What in his story made him ready to be the guy who could look at this differently from everyone else? Why did Cathy turn out to have more substance than the typically pretty face that ends up in front of a TV camera?

        I remember reading an interview with Isaac Asimov where he was asked what aspect of writing he found most difficult and he said creating fully rounded characters, so clearly it’s not easy.

        Actually I’ll be in Hobart for Christmas and Brissy for New Year!

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