A sort of semi-re-blog of an old post this week, one which first saw the light of day some three years ago. Looking back over it, I see that much of it still applies – I still look at my Amazon and Goodreads reviews only very rarely, unlike many fellow authors. This isn’t because I can’t take criticism: remember that I was a teacher for thirty years, so I became well used not just to criticism, but also to personal abuse and every swear word in the book (and that was just from the Headmaster). It’s partly a question of time, partly the factors outlined in the post that follows, partly an innate scepticism about the multiple fallibilities of the reviewing process; let’s not forget, for example, that Pepys, Tolstoy, Tolkien, Voltaire and George Bernard Shaw all reckoned Shakespeare was absolute pants. But every now and again, a review comes along that’s simply impossible to ignore, and that’s certainly the case when you get your first ever review in a national newspaper, as happened to me in The Times last weekend. For those who don’t want to register on their website for free access (you can do this up to the limit when the paywall kicks in), here’s the text of the review-
Death’s Bright Angel by JD Davies
There is a welcome return, too, for Captain Matthew Quinton of Charles II’s navy. JD Davies is an expert on the 17th-century navy, and his series about a gentleman captain in the Age of Sail has won him keen fans. In Death’s Bright Angel, Sir Matthew, the master of HMS Sceptre, is fighting in the continuing wars against the Dutch but he is becoming ever more uneasy because his orders compel him to burn civilian homes.
On his return to a plague-diminished London, he is charged with finding terrorists who threaten the fragile post-Civil War peace. This is 1666, and a small fire in the heart of London is about to turn nasty. Naval fiction is a crowded sub-genre in historical fiction, but Davies knows his subject and wears his knowledge lightly. Death’s Bright Angel is the sixth book in a series of real panache.
Old Street, 288pp, £8.99
OK, I won’t repeat the corny joke I made on Facebook about thinking that Real Panache was a Spanish football team…but seriously, huge thanks to Antonia Senior for praising the book, and the series, so highly!
And now, gentle reader, let’s travel back to May 2013, when Nick Clegg (who he? ed.) was still deputy prime minister, Ed Milliband (who he? Ed. Yes, that’s what I said…) was leading the Labour party, and people were still wondering when a British man would ever win Wimbledon again.
One aspect of this deep-rooted aversion to what some might loosely term ‘the twenty-first century’ has been a reluctance actually to read reviews of my own books. Now, I know this makes me sound like some precious old stage lovey, as per the title of this blog, so I need to qualify the statement straight away. Obviously, I read what one might term the ‘big’ reviews – I was thrilled when Gentleman Captain got rare starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist, for example, and these naturally appear on my website. I’m very grateful when authors whom I respect hugely, like Angus Donald, Dewey Lambdin, James Nelson and Sam Willis [since joined by Conn Iggulden], provide highly complimentary blurb for my books, and few things are nicer than getting emails from readers who’ve enjoyed reading the Quinton Journals. But I’ve never gone in for avidly looking at the reviews of my titles on, say, Amazon, and – whisper it softly – I only signed up for Goodreads last weekend, following a prompt from a fellow author. Consequently, I’ve never actually quoted praise or criticism of my books from emails, Amazon or Goodreads on, say, Twitter, unlike many of my fellow authors, despite the fact that the majority of reviews of my books on Amazon, for example, have been four or five stars. Whether this reticence to blow my own trumpet has been false modesty or downright stupidity on my part is probably for others to judge…
However, going onto Goodreads for the first time proved to be something of a Damascene moment for me. Suddenly, I felt an overwhelming compulsion to see the ratings and reviews for every one of my books, and my initial reaction was one of crushing disappointment. What? Gentleman Captain only has 3.57 out of 5? Oh God, I’m a failure, I shall crawl back underneath a stone, drink a gallon of meths, sob gently and bemoan the injustice of it all. But then I started finding my way around the site, and realised pretty quickly that 3.57 is a perfectly respectable score. Some of my own favourite books from genres similar to my own have very similar ratings – for example, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s brilliant Captain Alatriste has 3.58, Robert Goddard averages between 3.3 and 3.9 for his many titles, while even Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander only just creeps above 4 (slightly below The Blast That Tears The Skies, in fact – although my score is from six reviews and his from 15,544…). Romeo and Juliet has 3.72, only just ahead of The Da Vinci Code, for heaven’s sake! Moreover, I remembered my teaching career and my reluctance to give any sixth form essay, no matter how brilliant, more than 18/25, on the grounds that [a] I didn’t want the young person in question to become over-confident and complacent [b] I’m a grumpy, miserly old Welsh Scrooge (for let’s face it, my fellow Cymry, we’re not a race renowned for our generosity). Similarly, as soon as I started rating books on Goodreads myself I found myself giving out four stars far more often than fives, so if others work on the same eminently sensible principle, it’s obvious that very many books are going to end up with three-point-something, given that some people out there are always going to give anything – even, say, Pride and Prejudice – one or two stars, just to be ornery (or, in the case of P&P, maybe because they’re disappointed that it turned out not to be the version with zombies).
I don’t intend to quote any of the reviews, not even the ones that say things like ‘What a great book! This brings the 17th century to life…perfect for the armchair seadog’, ‘Both more literate and more entertaining than the run of maritime historical fiction. Highly recommended!’, ‘Naval triumph…Probably the best “Hornblower” story I’ve ever read, including Hornblower. Deserves to be much better known and more widely read’ or even ‘Excellent…I’ve been an avid reader of naval fiction for ages and read many different authors. Many of the authors are inevitably compared to Patrick O’Brian, J D Davies is easily his equal in terms of erudition and storytelling. In fact in some ways he is better.’
Oops, sorry, guess I did just quote a few of them. Not quite sure how that happened…
To be balanced, though, I should point out that there are some less complimentary reviews out there too, although I’m still scratching my head over the one that lambasted my writing style (‘stilted’, ‘adverb laden’), my characterisation (‘some of them are simple caricatures, stick figures redrawn time and again’ – ouch) and pretty much everything else about The Mountain of Gold, yet this particular reviewer still gave it four stars and ended by stating how much he was looking forward to book three. I’m perfectly fine with the fundamental truth that no author is going to please all of his or her readers, all of the time, but in this case, I’d like to know just how badly I need to write a book to get five stars from this particular reviewer!
Of course, if any of my readers are inspired by this post to go onto Goodreads or Amazon to post additional five-star reviews of any of my titles, I’ll be eternally in their debt. No names, no pack drill, and above all, no sockpuppets.
Amazon reviews can be an absolute joy. Filter the “50 Shades of Grey” reviews for one star ratings and give yourself an hour of mirth. Or for that matter the five star ratings. I’m a bit of an occasional Amazon reviewer. I’ve been kind to Graeme Greene and George Elliot, (who are well beyond caring what I think) less kind to Peter Oborne and Michael Holding (who are probably nearly as indifferent). Of course, as a reviewer, your comments are further ranked by readers who rate their usefulness. Could that go on infinitely?