Why I don’t rank fellow-writers out of five

February 9th, 2012 | Category: books, writing


Since I’ve had one book published, and have another in train, the idea of sitting in judgement and ‘scoring’ a fellow-writer’s work makes me queasy.

It’s got nothing to do with being annoyed by the limitation of five-star ratings: they are, perforce, reductive, but we’re all accustomed to living in a cultural space that spits out these summary assessments of theatre, films, music, books, aren’t we? Apparently we might not be able to attend for more than a nanosecond. Grab that rating and run.

I read widely, I have my own taste, I’ve got a decent critical platform on which to base my opinions. I’ve served as a judge for the AWGIES, the writers’ guild awards, a couple of times. I’ve been in a reading group for twenty years, at which we have full and very frank discussion about everything we read. So it has nothing to do with having a critical by-pass.

It has everything to do with knowing how hard it is to write a book. Each person who manages to get a book published deserves a hug and a cup of tea and possibly a garland of some sort. It is heroic and painful and difficult and often under-appreciated or taken for granted, a bit in the manner of childbirth. And it’s definitely under-remunerated. In other words, it is hard enough, so to write about the limitations or the less-than-five-star-ness of a fellow-writer’s work in a public forum is something I just do not want to do. Whereas I do occasionally blog book love. So I’m guilty of inconsistent practice; I’m happy to sing praises, but don’t want to dis. With no logical reason really other than some sort of raw, amplified empathy.

Overall, I think a forum like Goodreads is a wonderful idea – a big public conversation about books and reading. What’s not to like? But it still gives me such a WTF smack in the forehead – sit down, strong beverage, shoulder massage, palm frond creating calming breeze – when I go onto Goodreads and see people throwing Lolita, A Visit from the Goon Squad or Pride and Prejudice three stars. Or fewer. Be still, my horrified heart. I do realise there are people in the world who don’t like the same books I do, but to see them out there in their zillions does my head in some days.

The idea of people rating my work is one of the things that didn’t even occur to me before my book was published. Coming across a dud rating is depressing, but I’ve found that if you avert your eyes really quickly, it’s sometimes possible to pretend you didn’t see it. The same strategy can work during scary movies. On the other hand, I love it when people give ‘Six Impossible Things’ a five-star rating. I will nevereverever get sick of finding out that it really hit the spot with an individual reader.

But I won’t be rating other writers out of five. Not while we’re out there in the arena together and they’ve just released the lions.

27 Responses to “Why I don’t rank fellow-writers out of five”

  1. Cath says:

    I love your raw, amplified empathy. Great post

  2. Gabrielle Wang says:

    Great post, Fiona. I so hear you.
    Just to let you know that you and your books will always rate five stars in my eyes!

  3. [...] blog (she of the wonderful YA novel Six Impossible Things) to read her article entitled Why I Don’t Rank Fellow-Writers Out Of Five. You should read that first. I’ll wait [...]

  4. Emily says:

    Blog post – fab.
    Coffee – yes please.

  5. DoctorDi says:

    Yeah, it’s interesting, Fiona, isn’t it? I used to write occasional book reviews for a women’s mag (until they just about stopped reviewing books altogether), which I absolutely loved at the time but which I certainly feel differently about now I have tried and failed to write a decent novel of my own. I always tried to bring my vast reserves of respect and empathy to the task of reviewing another writer’s work, but that did complicate the review process. And I am reluctant to ‘review’ a book on my blog now unless I unequivocally loved it. Basically I just can’t bring myself to judge anyone else’s writing anymore – probably no bad thing!

  6. Robyn Bavati says:

    Fiona, I feel exactly the same way, possibly because my mum always taught me: If you have nothing good to say, say nothing.

    • fiona says:

      Congratulations on finishing and delivering your new ms btw, Robyn! I look forward to reading it when it hits the shelves.

  7. Ida says:

    Fiona, not sure I understand what your post is trying to say – how is a bad ‘rating’ different from a bad review? If people rating your work didn’t occur to you before your book was published, did you ever consider that it might get a bad review?
    Some of the responses are a bit naive – Robyn Bavati quotes her mum, but did she forget her negative comment on her blog regarding a recently published novel. She doesn’t identify the author, but we can probably guess who she’s referring to :

    “In some of the novels I read last year, the characters’ voices were so similar that I found myself constantly reading back or skipping forward to figure out which character was currently narrating the story. This happened even with stories that were told by characters of different sexes, and was particularly apparent where the narrators were of a similar age.

    In some of these books, as if in anticipation of this very problem, each chapter had the name of the narrator at the top of the page. While this is certainly useful, it’s more of a cop-out than a solution, since the narrators should sound so different that the possibility of confusion should never arise.”

    Just a few thoughts…

    • fiona says:

      Hello Ida,

      I have somehow not made myself understood.

      I was utterly thrilled to be reviewed in local metro and national print media, on radio, and by many lovely bloggers and readers. There is so little space given to book pages in our media, and so many books published, it is by no means certain that any new release will get this attention.

      The only point I am making in the post is that I, as a writer, do not have the heart to judge other writers in any public forum, knowing now how difficult it is to write a novel, any novel. It’s a personal choice.

      I am by no means advocating that other writers should not review books. Far from it! In fact two of my very favourite book reviewers, Colm Toibin and Jenny Diski, are writers (whose fiction I adore.)

      Robyn might want to respond to what you say, but like all writers she reads very widely across a range of imprints from here, the UK, the US. I don’t know which book or books she is referring to and I very much doubt she intends to be ‘understood’ to be referring to a particular book or books. Her point is valid though; it is always a challenge to give characters of a similar age distinctive voices.

      Once again, apologies for not making myself plain!

  8. Matt Armstrong says:

    Hi Fiona,

    Just looking at your TV section. I was wondering how you make the title pages for the Home and Away and Neighbours scripts. And how are they formatted?

    Cheers,
    Matt

    • fiona says:

      Hi Matt, All cover pages for tv shows are owned by the producers and are only put by the script department onto finished, commissioned scripts.

  9. Ida says:

    Hello Fiona,

    There’s a ‘group hug’ feeling about this blog that makes me feel uncomfortable – a bit like an uninvited guest. Don’t think I’ll be visiting again.

    • fiona says:

      Hello again, Ida,

      I’m not sure what you mean about a “‘group hug’ feeling”, but nonetheless, you are very welcome if you do ever feel like dropping by again.

  10. Robyn Bavati says:

    I find Ida’s comment interesting, given that I wasn’t referring to any one specific book. I wasn’t in fact reviewing books at all. If I remember correctly, the comment was made on my blog in a ‘writing class’ about voice. I do feel quite strongly that distinctive voices are required in alternating first person narrative, though others may, and possibly do, disagree.

    As for the ‘group hug’ feeling Ida associates with this blog, she’s probably referring to the fact that most of the comments are supportive, which I think is a wonderful thing. Sure we all have our critics – why not support each other when we can? If anyone wants to read nasty critiques, I’m sure there are plenty of other places to find them.

    • fiona says:

      I do agree, Robyn, and it’s one of the things I love about the Oz YA community of writers – even when we don’t see each other often, there is a terrific camaraderie which is a comfort in the world of writerly isolation and insecurity!

  11. Yes, I have noticed this supportive feel. Everyone promotes everyone else’s books and is thrilled when someone else is nominated for an award, even if they weren’t ‘t. Heck, children’s writers in general are nice to be around. It must be because we’re such a small community. That said, I do review books as a form of support and to keep my eye on what’s coming out. I din’t do ratings and I don’t usually review anything I hate, which may be a cop out on my part, but life is too short…

    • fiona says:

      Hi Sue, Yes, I really appreciate our community of writers here in Melb, and I thought Leanne spoke beautifully about it at her launch the other night, too! I think lots of writers share your general attitude to reviewing; I think I am in the minority. (I’m looking forward to reading Queen of the Night – I loved This is Shyness.)

  12. Braiden says:

    “But I won’t be rating other writers out of five. Not while we’re out there in the arena together and they’ve just released the lions.”

    Sorry if I sound abrupt as I am just trying to wrap my head around your philosophy Fiona, is this because other writers have rated your own novel less than five stars on goodreads?

    • fiona says:

      Hi Braiden, thanks for dropping by. I will try to clarify what is, no doubt, at least in part, fuzzy logic: a difficult task.
      1.
      The view I’m expressing is a personal one; I’m certainly not advocating it as a ‘right’ way to look at writing/reviewing.
      2.
      I love to the point of hero-worship certain writers’ reviewing, as a reader of reviews. I think I mentioned Colm Toibin and Jenny Diski in one of my other comments. Sublime reviewers. Sublime writers.
      3.
      When I talk about ‘the lions’ – it’s just a metaphor for things being really tough in the book publishing industry at the moment. It’s a hard time to be trying to make anything that resembles an income from writing. Conditions like this tend, in my experience, to create a strong solidarity between fellow-workers. Even though we are all working alone.
      4.
      Anyone is welcome to review whatever I write, and allocate however many stars, or spuds, or whatever the review currency is, to my work.
      5.
      Some of my most lovely reviews have been from other writers.
      6.
      The reason I (just me) don’t want to write criticism of another writer is because now, at the end of manuscript number two, and at the end of more than ten years of tv writing, I am so aware of the sheer hard work and mountains of self-doubt that are part of every writers’ working day, I (just me) don’t want to give any writer (whether I know them or not) another reason to feel that they somehow haven’t hit the mark.
      7.
      I’m not anti-review, or anti-rating, or anti-writers-as-reviewers, just anti-me-as-reviewer-of-other-writers.
      8.
      Some writers are great at wearing different hats, and switching roles; I’m not one of them.
      9.
      I warned you it was a case of fuzzy logic, but I hope that answers your question.
      10.
      Nah – I’m out – just wanted to round it off to ten.

  13. Braiden says:

    Thanks for the detailed response, I appreciate you giving your time to answer your readers.

    But surely if you rate other authors like Austen it doesn’t make a difference because obviously they are not around to be offended? But I don’t think your article is trying to say that you just don’t write reviews/give star ratings – the heading is making it clear you are making a clear statement of loyalty to your author *friends*. Obviously something must have sparked you to write this post? Am I right?

    And like commentor Ida said above, it does feels clique-y and uncomfortable.

    But I do respect you for not pointing fingers and at least being civil about it all.

    • fiona says:

      Howdie, Braiden,

      I’m still feeling list-y, but I’ll give you some mad letters today, for a change of scene.
      a.
      I’m so sorry I have somehow unwittingly created a space that feels ‘clique-y and uncomfortable’ to you and Ida. I’m all about comfort. And very un-cliquey. In fact, anyone who knows me will tell you I am a compulsive includer and introducer. I introduce myself to strangers if they look lonely. I’ve even been known to introduce friends of mine to each other even though we were all at university together but I had a mental blank and thought they didn’t know each other.
      b.
      In general, as I wander through life, trying not to trip over my feet, I find most groups to be pretty welcoming, but none more so that the YA community here in Australia. I am a relative newcomer, but I could not have been made more welcome, I feel, by the writers who’ve been around for a while, by the newer writers, by the bloggers, by the teachers and librarians and by the readers I’ve been lucky enough to meet at festivals and school visits. Clique-y-ness is about exclusion; but this group is a group of chatters and includers. Any of the writers who visit this blog would happily talk to you and Ida and every other visitor about books and writing. Till the cows come home.
      c.
      I’m going to tell you an enormous secret now, no one else listening? What prompted the blog post is what prompts all my blog post – a little light-bulb: oh, here’s something I can write about. Because I’ve elected not to write about family and friends, and not to post reviews – I really am casting about sometimes for stuff to blog about. And this topic is writing-related as well as being an issue other writers are interested in. Next week I’m blogging about things on footpaths and walls, or maybe about an extremely good almond meal biscuit recipe I have. To be honest, I’m not even a writer who wants to blog about writing tips and how-tos very much, because I’m frequently confused myself about what are the best ways to do writey stuff.
      d.
      I do love and admire my author friends. There is something very special about them as individuals, and as a group. They are people with whom it’s possible to have a great conversation. But they’re certainly not just friendly to other writers – you must notice this at eg book launches! They are very friendly generally. Writers in fact are sometimes manically friendly when they do let us out, because we spend much of our lives in total isolation.
      e.
      Do you know something I don’t know? (“Obviously something must have sparked you to write this post”) What was it? IS there someone I should be pointing a finger at? (Actually, don’t answer, because I’m not a finger-pointer. As well as being bad manners, it kills fairies. And I’m not about to start doing that. Not if I ever want to write a middle grade book. Which I do.)
      f.
      I always try to be civil – except sometimes in the traffic, if someone does something really rude or dangerous.
      g.
      Please feel welcome to visit the blog any time. The whole point of a writer blogging is so people can drop in to say stuff.
      h.
      Thanks for saying stuff. But I’m going to let my whole review policy thing speak for itself. I’ve written enough about it.
      i.
      Except to say (again) my (just and only me) policy relates to writers whether I know them or not, so it’s not about loyalty to author friends, it’s the solidarity thing – that I already yarped on about.
      j.
      I would never give Jane Austen a star rating.
      k.
      She is god.
      l.
      Funny, light, sharp and wise. The galaxies would run dry before there were enough stars for her.

  14. Braiden says:

    Fiona, I take my hat off to you.

    You have answered me with a level of humour, humanity and grace that I didn’t expect, as I read this article thinking it was another one of those posts bashing reviewers, but you have made your personal intentions true.

    I did a quick skim of Goodreads out of interest and it looks like the first page of reviews for your book is filled with 4 and 5 star reviews, only a couple of 3 star reviews. All from readers.

    None of those cruel negative reviews from fellow authors you are so fearful of in sight.

    Actually, where are the “dud ratings” of your book which you speaketh of? Unless you consider 3 stars a dud. 3 stars on Goodreads means “I liked it”

    You have done amazingly well. This is an amazing result for Goodreads, EVERY other book has at least one 1 or 2 star rating.

    I would like to reveal that I have read your first book and would definitely read your second. That was why I came to your site in the first place, to find out about the second book. I never expected to be caught up in this and in hindsight I kinda regret it, but at least I know you are a great person.

    • fiona says:

      Thanks, Braiden; that’s very generous. Yes! Goodreads has been kind to me indeed. Some of the reader reviews are absolutely gorgeous. I won’t go on about the post any more, other than to say it was really about how I feel about reviewing writers, not being reviewed by writers. As I said, some writers are terrific at switching between the two hats, reviewer and writer, but I’m not one of them. Emily Gale wrote a terrific blog post about the same topic in response to mine, and her philosophy is a bit different again; she sometimes review, but writes about how the process has changed a bit since she published her first novel.

  15. Braiden says:

    I will visit your blog again in the future Fiona, but not right now. As a form of feedback, I generally like to read posts by authors for their readers, not for their friends cos I think that is the wrong audience. The comments on this thread by other authors (despite their intent – good or otherwise) have done nothing it seems but drive one reader away and making this one feel uncomfortable. Just a thought. Anyway, good luck for book 2.

Leave a Reply