A ‘bad’ review and a right to reply


Reviews are important to writers. Although eagerly anticipated, they are feared. The views of a few – be they newspaper or magazine reviewers, or increasingly book sellers and book websites – guide the masses. Few outlets are as important as Amazon. I don’t know what percentage of my total book sales come from Amazon, but I imagine it’s a significant amount.

Prior to last week, Isles at the Edge of the Sea, my second book published in 2011, had been reviewed on Amazon five times. They are all generally positive, containing phrases like ‘a great read’, which cheer me no end. Such positivity ran out last week when a reviewer, called excile9, wrote under the headline ‘More fact than fiction’: ‘I read the three sections covering Lewis, Harris and St Kilda and I had to give up. Inaccuracies were peppered throughout and gave the impression the “diary” format was written from memory. In places it certainly lacked knowledge of the geography and history.’

Ouch.

One star out of five. If he/she could have awarded a zero, I imagine he/she would have done. A link to the review is here.

I don’t mind bad reviews. Honestly. We all hold different opinions. The Harry Potter books didn’t do much for me; I struggled with The Great Gatsby. Does my little judgement discredit Rowling or Fitzgerald? Of course not. It’s simply a point of view – like saying I prefer the colour green over blue. Moreover, I expect critical reviews. They show people are reading the books. They show that your words can provoke a reaction. That’s got to be better than passivity. Some people will like what you do. Others will hate it.

However, this ‘bad’ review left me puzzled. Admittedly, two of the last three chapters of Isles are potentially the most controversial. The Lewis chapter deals with the highly sensitive issue of Sabbatarianism; the St Kilda chapter focuses on the 1930 evacuation of the archipelago, an emotive and much-debated topic some 80 years on. Because of these factors, my greatest care was spent crafting these two chapters. My observations on Sabbatarianism were based on conversations with members of the Free Church of Scotland; I deliberately didn’t insert my own opinions in this section, because, frankly, I didn’t think I was qualified to do so.

As for St Kilda, the entire chapter was proofed by a professor of Scottish history (as were the details about the evacuation of Scarp in the Harris chapter). Indeed, it was on his insistence (and latest research) that I included the Scottish Office’s rejection of a proposal for regular steamship services to St Kilda as a key reason for its decline in the 1920s. If there are inaccuracies in this chapter (and anywhere else in the book), I’d be keen to know them, as would, I am sure, the professor.

I’m going to stop there. I’ve got excile9 off my chest. Except – suffice to say – the book was ‘written from memory’, with, of course, the aid of extensive diary notes, photographs and reams of researched material. Find me a travel book that isn’t written in this spirit.

It’s a too often quoted proverb, but it’s worth hauling out on this occasion: You can’t please everyone.

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