A question about accuracy in reviews

Reading a negative review of a book that you’ve written feels like dunking your face into a vat of battery acid. Painful and dumb.

Reading a positive review doesn’t hurt, but I still find it to be unsettling. Usually I’ll read a review once, be grateful for anything positive, try to learn from any constructive criticism, and if the review makes me sting, I soothe the pain with liberal applications of comfort food. Mashed potatoes work especially well.

I would never, ever, ever respond to a review. Reviewers are allowed to have their opinions, just like readers, and it doesn’t make any sense for me to get on my high horse and defend my work just because a reviewer didn’t like it.

But what to do when a review gets the major facts of the story wrong?

This just happened.

The Times newspaper (of London, England) online version now has a joint review of Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Chains, by me. The review of Chains is at the end of the article and is brief and positive. Normally I would be completely thrilled by a mention like this.

Except. But. Er……

The reviewer says the book is “Set in the South at the time of the civil war…”

It’s not. The book covers events in Rhode Island and New York City from May 27, 1776 – January 19, 1777. The dates are mentioned at the beginning of each chapter. The whole point of the book was to examine slavery in the context of the Revolutionary War not in the context of the Civil War as has so often been done.

For a moment I thought perhaps people in Britain called the American Revolution a “civil war.” There is an argument that could be made for that interpretation. But I double-checked and all of my sources say that Brits refer to it as “The War for American Independence” or “The War of Independence” as in this BBC article.

I’m not angry, just a little bummed at the missed opportunity. I had hoped that folks in Great Britain might be interested in the book because the Revolutionary War and slavery were a part of their historical experience, too.

I don’t plan on writing to the newspaper because I don’t see that it will make much of a difference. In the grand scheme of things, this is a storm in a teacup. (And I am sure the tea is wonderful because the Brits are much better at brewing it than we are.)

Has anyone else had experience with this? Any thoughts?

21 Replies to “A question about accuracy in reviews”

  1. Oh, dear. Possibly more disturbing than the reference to the Civil War, which indicates a lack of research or a bit of confusion on the reviewer’s part, is managing to declare that it’s set both in the South and in New York! What a pity some editor didn’t spot that, at least.

  2. Reposting so you can just ditch the anon version:

    Oh yuck. You’re doing the right thing, though. I just blogged about a similar issue the other day, and my conclusion is that no author, however well-intentioned, can respond to a negative review without looking like a jackass. It seems like this phenomenon could extend to incorrect reviews as well.

    I believe I’ve only responded to one review. Betsy Bird included some objective questions about Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller in her review, so I answered them on my own blog.

  3. This is when your fans get to step in and be advocates on your behalf! Because those who’ve read the book know better and will immediately, on seeing the review, think, “Oh, that’s a shame” and submit a nice polite comment to the Times people suggesting a correction.

    And now I look at ‘s comment and see that this has already happened. See? πŸ™‚

  4. One of the major review venues had a review of one of my books the reviewer didn’t bother finishing. They extrapolated details, and wrote a crummy review.

    I mentioned this to Orson Scott Card, and he responded. “Been there. Had that happen. Still have a great career.”

  5. This seems like the sort of thing that ought to be corrected but not by you. Maybe your publisher can send them a friendly little note — as one might if the newspaper misspelled one’s name — I bet they’ll print a correction.

    1. That was my first thought, too–that a publisher letter might come across as a simple correction of fact, and might seem less personal to a reviewer than one written by the writer.

  6. This is probably not going to be helpful, but this– set in the South at the time of the civil war…–made me cringe.

    That this story was set in the Northeast–in what we are taught in grade school, is a place of refuge for escaped slaves in the civil war–and during a time fueled by a rhetoric of freedom and the inherent, equal worth of all human beings, and the ensuing tension and hypocrisy of a nation of free Americans who still function on slavery, is exactly why I picked up this book. I had never encountered a fictional, narrative text that sought to explore and share the experience of slaves during the Revolutionary war. It is was an unfortunate mistake in that review.

  7. If it makes you feel better, the illustrious Amanda Craig also:

    –misspelled Stephenie Meyer’s name
    –gave Arnold Schwartzenegger credit for Running Man when it began as a Stephen King story
    –compared GW Bush and Tony Blair to Hitler
    –started two sentences in a row with the word “yet”

    I sent a polite comment as well. We’ve got your back!

    jake-the-girl
    http://www.ggpreviews.blogspot.com

  8. I really hate when reviewers get the little things, like oh say the date and location of book. It just shows that they didn’t really read the book or didn’t read the book in a comprehending way.

    The same thing happened to the book The Tequilla Worm by Viola Canales. The book is actually set in my home town, but every reviewer save the professionals said the book was in Mexico instead of the United States. I was like, “Mexico? Did you even read the book?”

  9. Thoughts? I think that reviewer should have proofread. She even said Isabel was trying to escape from her owners in New York!

    And isn’t it Suzanne Collins? Yes. The book is sitting right on the table next to me (I’m about to finish reading it). It’s Suzanne, and yet the article’s title says it’s Susan. And the cover is not idiotic.

    How irritating.

    Chains was wonderful, by the way.

    -Q

  10. From a some-time reviewer

    Hi Laurie,
    I have to agree with you (and most posters here) that an author’s best response to reviews is silence. As a reviewer myself (although not so much these days) I have always taken the position that just as I hope not to be attacked by an author for a critical review, nor can I look to be thanked for positive ones (it’s the non-celebrity version of not reading your own publicity!). However, I think there’s definitely a difference when a review makes an error of fact, and I think it is well within your rights to point it out. I think as a reviewer if I made such a plain error I’d have to suck it upβ€”it does make one look as if one hasn’t read the book! However, it may be a good idea, as has been suggested here, to have your agent or publisher do it.
    And just a small aside: 19 Jan is my birthday, and while I wasn’t exactly born in 1777, it kinda feels like it today!
    All the best,
    Judith in Sydney, Australia

  11. Just a question

    Although I feel guilty for asking a personal question, I was hoping you could tell me who did the cover art for your new book Wintergirls? My sister looks EXACTLY like the person on the cover and I was wondering who the person was, or if there was a particular stock photograph that might’ve been used for the cover. I also have even more of an interest because my sister and I are identical.

    I do feel frustrated about the review getting the basic elements of your book wrong. Hopefully the article will get fixed soon.

  12. (I just finished Hunger Games today and I’m still in wow.)

    I think the reviewer missed the mark on both books, and the errors are striking. (Misspelling author name’s? That’s just horrible.) That said, I don’t trust her opinion, since she really doesn’t explain her opionions like the cover. I think the cover is great. And besides most authors don’t have control over their covers, right?

    Looking forward to Wintergirls in March.

  13. Speak

    I don’t know that you’ll ever get around to reading this. You have lots of fan mail. Just wanted to let you know I just read Speak in a YA lit class I’m taking in preparation to teach english to adolescents. Books like this might be the fare to bring young people back to reading. Your work is important. I look forward to more of your writing to read and to present to the readers you intended.
    By the way, Fantastic Hook! And the Voice is very convincing. Here’s wishing you well.
    R. Murphy

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