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September 30, 2012

Novels with Publicity or Controversy Often Get Bad Reviews

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The more attention and/or sales a novel generates, the more likely it is to get bad reviews driven by political zealotry, personal envy/malice, and/or sheer stupidity (among other possible causes that may have nothing to do with the merits of the book). In the case of my novel, there have been at least two reviews that faulted my story for its grim ending on the ground that such an outcome contradicts Biblical prophecy, even though I obviously wrote the novel not as an accurate divination but rather as a cautionary tale. The fictional (rather than predictive) account was clearly intended to jolt world leaders out of their muddled and divided impotence and into a more effective policy on Iranian nukes precisely in order to avoid the scenario my novel describes. Yet some readers apparently thought that I was claiming to prophesy the future. Another “reviewer” (who showed no sign of ever having purchased or read “The Last Israelis”) simplistically concluded that my novel is a “pro-war” book — despite the strong anti-war voices and themes within the novel — and decided to sabotage it with a one-star review as part of his pacifist campaign (a political agenda that is abundantly evident from his Amazon review history praising all things related to Cuba and anti-war movements). Had my novel been about Iranian cooking rather than Iranian nukes, he would have probably been too indifferent about the topic to bother posting a review of the book. Bottom line: the Internet is a very big place, and when you put your novel out there, you’ll inevitably run into all types of people and motivations.

A novel also risks incurring bad reviews for the cardinal sin of genre-busting. Fiction readers tend to like certain types of genres and often grow impatient with substantial diversions from the conventions that define those genres. If you’re writing a light comedy that suddenly waxes deeply philosophical for too many pages, those who bought your book for an amusing escape (rather than profound ruminations) may get annoyed by the contemplative digression. In the case of my novel, I wrote an action thriller with elements of character study and intellectual debate. Those who purchased the book expecting Tom Clancy-style action and suspense on every single page were probably disappointed to discover that the first third of the book explored some of the key characters, their inter-personal relationships, and other topics/issues that weren’t directly related to submarine warfare. They were probably also disappointed by some of the philosophical discussions interspersed throughout the novel.

Thus, to the extent that you can adhere to the conventions of a single genre, you will have an easier time marketing your book to and – more importantly – pleasing fans of that genre. Genre-busting fiction may be more original, variegated, and interesting (particularly for readers seeking a fresh approach or voice) but it carries a certain risk of disappointing those readers who buy your book with a very specific set of expectations regarding how it will be written.

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