On the perils of writing book reviews

my booksI’ve been getting some reviews for my new book A Very British Murder this week, and I’m delighted to reveal that the Sunday Times, the Independent, the Evening Standard, Literary Review and the Express have all had something nice to say.  THERE, having got the real reason for this post (a bit of showing off) out the way, I can warm to my theme…

I used to write a lot of book reviews, but I had to cut back because I began to find that the people to whom I’d given a critical review (historians live in a small world) were refusing to come to be interviewed on my TV programmes!

And who can blame them?  When you’ve worked hard on a book, the last thing you want is some criticism.  But I would like to point out that it’s much harder to write a bad review than a good one.  If I’m writing a good review, I just sit down and write it.  If I’m going to pick holes in an argument or correct a fact, though, I need to be absolutely sure of my ground.  So I will have put in many hours reading other books on the topic, discussing it with colleagues, and honing my words extremely carefully.

I do this because I myself have been the victim of the ‘poor review’, which is even worse than the ‘bad review’.

The ‘bad review’ makes a point that takes the argument forward, and the author can see what’s meant even if he or she doesn’t necessarily agree.  The ‘poor review’, on the other hand, is just lazy.

Here are some examples of ‘poor reviewing’ (mentioning no names!) that I have myself experienced:


‘It’s extraordinary that Worsley doesn’t mention X’.

– Well, X was indeed mentioned twice.  As even the index would have told you.


‘It’s astonishing that Worsley fails to mention that George II did Y’.

– Well, that’s because George III did Y, not George II.


‘It’s incredible that Worsley misses Z’.

– Reviewer then trots out theory so discredited that it’s even discredited in Z’s Wikipedia entry.


What, one might ask, is the correct response to a ‘poor review’?  I have consulted widely on this issue and received the following advice from various people:

1. Close relative of mine: punch reviewer’s head in.

2. Courtly literary gentleman of my acquaintance: if you are male, write to editor of the publication in question and complain.  If you are female, get your agent to write to the editor of the publication in question and complain. (I rather like the old-fashioned gallantry of this!)

3. Literary editor of national newspaper: do nothing at all.

And I’m sorry to say, if you have ever been the victim of the ‘poor review’, that the correct answer is number 3.  The coolest and most grown-up thing to do … is to ignore it.

Or here’s another alternative you might consider: write a passive-aggressive blog post complaining about it years later.

That’s what I’ve just done, and boy, it feels great!

16 thoughts on “On the perils of writing book reviews

  1. Debs

    Dr. Lucy you are a hoot! That was the best rant I’ve read in a long time!

  2. Richard Bridgland

    By coincidence, AA Gill makes the same point of principle in the ST today re his restaurant reviews -“I know some of you think that writing disparagingly is easier and more fun than being complimentary, but it really isn’t”

  3. coulda shoulda woulda

    Some reviews may be valid and others not so but when it is a matter of factual critique I say to correct them. People like that need to be corrected because they seem to gorge themselves and think by silence you are admitting and conceding fault. I think only the Queen can just about get away with not commenting but sometimes it even got her into hot water…

  4. Stephen Thompson

    I agree Lucy, 3 is the proper grown up and emotionally mature response, however once after a poor review of my work in an Australian newspaper, where the slack arsed reviewer made an assertion of stylistic plagiarism that I thought went a bit too far, I could’t resist in creating a pseudonym and writing to the letters page of the publication in question complaining just how poor and a lazy the reviewer had been to myself and others, citing and examples of inaccuracies and beat-ups. Low and behold it got published! – it didn’t change anything but it made me feel whole lot better too!

  5. Richard Woods

    My favourite pithy review remains this “John Doe played Henry V. Henry V lost.” That was it. Toto. For years I thought (hoped?) it was Michael Billington but I think it pre-dates even him!

    1. Stephen Barker

      For pithy reviews Dorothy Parker’s review of a show called ‘Yes!’ where she wrote ‘No’ takes some beating.

  6. john honour

    I would go with option no.1! Family knows best.

  7. Andrew West

    Hi Lucy,
    It’s all too easy these days just to bash something off and hit the send button! Even with emails I strive to click ” send later”, just in case I have said something that makes me look an idiot!

    It strikes me that many reviewers have already made their judgement and are just looking for a peg to hang it on. And if the peg itself is spurious so be it!
    Treating such critics with contempt is by far the best ploy, though getting someone else to assault, maim or generally make their lives a misery would work too!
    Oh – I loved the book!

    Andrew West

  8. Ben Salfield

    Hi, nice piece Lucy…

    I’ve occasionally had poor reviews, though never, I think, a bad review that was not also poor.

    Once I received two reviews in a single week from the same reviewer for the same concert programme performed in two different places. The reviews contradicted one another, particular with reference to some modern music I played.

    My response was to highlight and number the contradictions and send them to the reviewer with a covering A4 letter that simply read: “?”

    He wrote back and apologised to me, saying he had been in a bad mood when he wrote it!

  9. Jerry W

    Hmm, one assumes that a bad review can affect sales somewhat, which is regrettable. But in the grand scheme of things, critics are annoying fleabites. In years to come, when it becomes clear that only Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, History of the English speaking peoples, and A very British Murder are the only history books worth mentioning, you will have had the last laugh Lucy..

  10. HarrisFreeze

    The most frustrating part about anticipating the public’s response to a review might be imagining readers fail to understand the difficulty of writing or “doing” history in general. But you, madam, do a brilliant job. Criticism from those in my field provides an opportunity to have a very playful go at the critic upon the next meeting. And unlike those who have refused you, I shall hope you never refuse an interview after criticism. Seems the opportunity to intellectually poke and jab, quite playfully, might be all the more fun and apparent!

  11. gary william beddoes

    dear lucy your thespian skills entertained me laughter ang crying please much more ! and a copy of your fingerprints please signiture a must x

  12. john harding

    Lucy, Thanks, an interesting – and as ever – stimulating article. I can well understand your frustration with Reviewers: one wonders if sometimes if they have ever actually read (rather than skimmed or dipped into) the book!
    Suffice it to say that we’re reading your book in tandem with your super TV prog (latter first then next chapters of book), Both wonderful history, full of info stimulating presented: first class, accurate history yet readable/watchable and fun. power to your elbow you are a superb historian as well as being able to present your findings so well. Thank you for all your work.

  13. Richard A Braeman

    Hi Lucy, you are a great writer. Courtiers and Cavalier are superb.

  14. Chris Hough

    I read Courtiers in three sittings and found it a most interesting read Not only did I learn new things I didn’t know about the first two Georges but I was deeply impressed by the humane way in which you dealt with the players in your drama
    . So often historians treat there subject as an object for examination and dissection rather than seeing the human being that existed with all the faults that humanity is prey to
    It is easy to look back with the benefit of hindsight and ascribe twenty first century sensibilities and mores to people who would have never acted in the way we do you always mange to avoid this heffalump trap and your writing is all the better for it Long may it continue

  15. Alex Walker

    Leave the criticism to family and ignore the rest who do not know the hard work and the long hours of research goes into what you hope will be a successful tv/book


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