Maybe You’re Right and the Reviewers are Wrong?

As an author who’s done hundreds of readings and signings around the country (and abroad) I’m often asked about books on the best seller list and books in the news.  I learned a long time ago to be very careful how I answered those questions.  At the beginning of my career, a well-known author had warned me to watch what I said.  He’d made an unfortunate remark about one of his peers when he was starting out, and it had hurt him.

So I often turn the question around and ask what my audience member thinks.  Usually the response is: “I didn’t like it.” That’s why they asked the question in the first place.  They wanted the opportunity to express it publicly, and with an author present; somehow that makes it all more official or permissible–or both.

Everything is Illuminated is one novel I remember many people at various venues saying they found frantic and phony one year when I was out on tour; The Lovely Bones was another book people complained about a different time I was touring.  I didn’t like either one for various reasons, but all I said in either case was that the writing didn’t draw me in. That’s the territory I stake out: technique.

Disliking popular and acclaimed books has been on my mind lately, given the rapturous reviews for the movie of Gone Girl, which have pretty much followed the whole reviewing world’s take on the book. Seriously, is there a newspaper in the country that isn’t crazy in love with Gillian Flynn’s novel?

Friends whose opinion I respect have urged me to read it, and I tried more than once.  Really.  I never got very far.  I found the writing off-putting.  I tried her other books to be fair, and they didn’t work for me either stylistically.

But this isn’t the first time a universally acclaimed book hasn’t passed my smell test.  I reviewed for the Detroit Free Press and other outlets for over a decade and I often found myself at odds with the reviewing consensus.

So If it helps any of you out there who didn’t like Gone Girl, or found it boring, you’re not alone.  Take a closer look at the Gone Girl Amazon page.  The last time I checked, for the 14,000+ readers there who gave it four or five stars, 7,000 gave it only one, two, or three.  You’re not alone, and it’s okay.


Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie and 24 other books in genres from memoir to Jane Austen mash-up.  You can read about them here.

Not So Crazy About Gone Girl?

A mystery reading friend recently asked me what I thought about Kathy Reichs’ Déja Dead.

Why bring up a book that came out sixteen years ago? Because a line from my Detroit Free Press review was in the paperback with other review quotes: “As good as Patricia Cornwell at her best.”

So my friend wanted to know what I thought, since it was being read by her book group. I told her I couldn’t remember. I reviewed hundreds of books for the Detroit Free Press back when I was their crime fiction columnist. Reviewed hundreds, and started and abandoned hundreds more searching for ones I thought my readers would enjoy.

I couldn’t recall anything specific about Reichs’ thriller, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t good. It just meant that better books had eclipsed it in my memory. And that might have been a question of timing. Sometimes a book that people told me was great seemed dim because the book I’d reviewed just before it was amazing. Sometimes a book might have struck me as better than it actually was because I’d read a number of turkeys in a row.

Whatever I felt, I tried not to be steamrolled by the media juggernaut, because now and then I’d be hit with massive waves of PR telling me that this book was going to rock my world. If it didn’t, I’d skip a review, unless I felt I wanted to issue a kind of consumer warning, a service to my readers: People say this book is brilliant, but don’t feel there’s something wrong with you if you don’t agree.

I found that recently with Gillian Flynn’s best-selling Gone Girl, whose movie version was just released. The whole galaxy seems to be in love with this thriller. Check out the Amazon page–you’d think nobody had ever written a thriller as amazing as this book, that Gillian Flynn, in other words, was as good as it gets. Is there a newspaper or magazine in the country that isn’t in love with her book?

Friends whose taste I respect urged me to read it, and I tried more than once because I hadn’t read a good thriller in a while and was looking for something gripping. Each time, though, I didn’t get very far. Though I made some progress, the thought of spending any time at all in the company of a voice that obnoxious was painful to me. Overall, I found the prose uninviting.

As for the huge twist people raved about? Well, when they told me the set-up, I guessed at how the twist would unravel and I checked Wikipedia. I was right. That’s not because I was especially clever, but because other writers and screenwriters had done similar things before Flynn and it was fairly obvious.

I’m on a mystery readers’ and writers’ discussion list where almost everyone thinks this book is dazzling, and when I disagreed, I got grateful comments off-list. Why is it that when the media raves about a book and Goodreads and Amazon seem to rubber stamp that opinion, people are often embarrassed to dissent?

Well, if it helps any of you out there who weren’t wild about Gone Girl, take a closer look at its Amazon page. The last time I checked, for the 14,000+ readers there who gave it four or five stars, 7,000 gave it only one to three stars. You are not alone. Maybe it’s time to think about a support group….