When you put your work out into the world, you open yourself up to criticism.

An Amazon customer/reviewer named Vivian Wang had this to say about The Bark of the Bog Owl, my first novel: “I dont like it because there are parts in the book that are obviously fake and the author just wants us to believe it? NO.”

One doesn’t know what to say. It’s true that there are some fake parts in this work of fiction. I was counting on a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. Vivian wasn’t having any of it.

Lest you think that Vivian was just unusually hard to please, here’s a partial list of the products that she absolutely loved and gave five stars to:

  • Minimal Stainless Steel Double Wall Insulated Water Flask Bottle
  • All Natural Sulfate Free Eco Friendly Shampoo for Men, Women, & Kids
  • Mavel Top Cool Rubber Dog Chew Toy
  • JAM Legal Booklet Paper Plastic Envelope with Button and String Tie Closure – Legal Booklet 
  • Jack&Pup Premium Grade Odor Free Dog Treats (Value Pack)

In fact, besides The Bark of the Bog Owl, the only other bad review Vivian dished out was for Reign Total Body Fuel Orange Dreamsicle-Flavored Fitness & Performance Drink (“The taste is not good, period.”) There’s no accounting for taste.

When my book about Saint Patrick came out in 2010, a couple of one-star Amazon reviews came in back-to-back. One reviewer was mad because my approach to Patrick was insufficiently Catholic (“it is an attempt to deconstruct the mythology surrounding Saint Patrick and reconstruct that mythology in a manner which makes the Saint into a 5th century Martin Luther figure…”). The next reviewer was mad because I was way too Catholic (“My conclusion is that the author is so thoroughly steeped in Roman doctrine that he believes every good prayer is in Latin…”).

In fairness, each of those reviews voiced some legitimate criticisms about my book (the reviews were both quite long; they included lots of criticisms). But the fact that the two reviewers hated my book for opposite and irreconcilable reasons felt like a little gift. Taken one at a time, each review hurt my feelings, but together they sort of canceled each other out. That episode was a reminder to hold loosely to negative reviews—and to positive reviews too.

Here’s an even more uplifting story about a negative review. A few years ago, somebody on Twitter said something ugly about my Flannery O’Connor book. (Interestingly, this person’s complaint was also related to my being insufficiently Catholic.) I Tweetered something back and was thereby embroiled in my one and only Twitter beef. After we had gone back and forth a time or two, a third tweeter butted in. He knew both of us, he said, and he was pretty sure we would like each other if only we went to lunch. Since my antagonist and I both lived in Nashville, we met up and had a lovely lunch. 

I’ve been thinking about reviews and criticism since the most recent office hour meeting in The Habit Membership. One of the members asked for tips on writing a helpful review. It’s a great question; online reviews are exceedingly important these days. Buyers depend on reviews, and they’re a great way to help the people who make things we appreciate. Also, bad and thoughtless reviews can really hurt people who are doing their best to make a living. 

I was traveling a couple of weeks ago, and I thought I might pop in at the Irish pub near my hotel for some fish and chips. I checked out the reviews on Yelp, and I noticed a two-star review (out of five). The food was good, the reviewer said. The atmosphere was good. The service was good. But the bartender, Colin, wasn’t flirty enough. I went in anyway. Colin the bartender was on duty that evening, and he was a perfectly decent (though, admittedly, un-flirty) fellow.

A two-star review is genuinely a liability for a business (or a writer or podcaster or producer of other creative work). It’s a strange world where a person who feels under-flirted-with can leave such a mark on another person’s permanent record.

The consumerist elevation of personal preference creates some strange dynamics—like the dynamics in play in this book report:

How then, does one move beyond personal taste when writing a review that might be helpful to others? Here are some general principles.

The best five words in an online review are “Here’s what you can expect.” 
Online reviews can be a great way to love your neighbor. To go online is to run a gauntlet of marketers energetically manipulating our hopes, fears, and expectations. It’s such a relief when a fellow pilgrim says, “Hey, friend: here’s what my experience with that book/podcast/restaurant/odor-free dog treat was like.”

If it weren’t for the guest reviews on Airbnb, I don’t suppose I could ever work up the confidence to rent a place. I don’t trust the pictures (fish-eye cameras and clever angles can make any room look good). I don’t trust the owner’s descriptions (“Walk to coffee shops and restaurants!” Ok, but I could also walk to Kentucky if I had enough time). But a few users saying “Here’s what you can expect”—that’s something I find helpful. And, of course, those user reviews also keep the owners a little more honest in their descriptions.

Think of your review as a way of continuing a conversation that you didn’t start.
There’s a kind of user review that seeks to shut down conversation. Vivian’s review returns to mind: “I dont like it because there are parts in the book that are obviously fake and the author just wants us to believe it? NO.” There’s something about that all-caps NO at the end that feels, I don’t know, kind of final and un-inviting of further conversation. 

Speaking as a person who has received negative reviews, I don’t so much mind the negative reviews from people who have taken my ideas seriously enough to disagree with what I actually said. I mentioned the Twitter critic who thought my treatment of Flannery O’Connor’s work was insufficiently Catholic. Unlike me, he actually was Roman Catholic, and he had some insights about O’Connor’s Catholicism that I didn’t have direct access to. His critical remarks contributed to the conversation that my book was a part of, and they provided others with an additional entry point for the conversation. I’m sorry his remarks are lost in the mists of eleven-years-ago Twitter.

Corollary 1: You don’t deserve the last word.
Sorry, but the mere fact that you bought a book or listened to a podcast or ate at a restaurant doesn’t make you the final authority. 

Corollary 2: When it comes to online reviews, “Here’s how I feel” doesn’t usually add much to the conversation.
I see a lot of online reviews in which the reviewer seems to be just venting spleen. I often see Amazon reviews in which people give a book one star or two stars because the book (which they bought second-hand) arrived damaged. I don’t think I need to tell you not to do this.

Engage the reader’s judgment with concrete specifics.
An effective review doesn’t just articulate your judgment; it engages the reader’s judgment. It gives the reader’s judgment something to work on. As I have often said in this letter, using concrete specifics is a way to engage the reader’s judgment. 

Let us return for a moment to the Irish pub. I mentioned the two-star review from the patron who thought Colin the bartender wasn’t flirty enough. That’s a dumb reason to give a restaurant two stars. But I do appreciate the fact that the reviewer gave a specific reason for the bad rating instead of just giving the place two stars and moving on. That specific detail engaged my judgment: I didn’t want to be flirted with anyway, so I disregarded the bad review and had some fish and chips.

On the other hand, I would have appreciated it if a reviewer had given some concrete details about the fish and chips—specifically, that the fish had that thick, spongy kind of breading that I suppose some people like but I don’t.

Show some humility, will you?
Finally, I’ll just say that I’ve written books, and I’ve reviewed books. Writing book reviews is a whole lot easier than writing books. I’m not suggesting that people don’t have the right to criticize, but it’s easy to be glib about other people’s hard work. Running a restaurant or any other small business seems like an outlandishly hard way to make a living. A facile and ill-considered review can do a lot of damage. Love your neighbor, even when honesty compels you to write a bad review.

Speaking of loving your neighbor, writing reviews for your favorite books, podcasts, music, restaurants, local businesses, etc., is an excellent way to help people make more of the things you appreciate and enjoy. It’s a great habit to get into.

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