Friday, January 26, 2007

Star article rant on my reviews

I wrote this for Star newspaper today about how I feel on being the receiving end for reviews:

On the receiving end
Pop quiz: You’re a first-time book writer and you get a slew of reviews. How do you separate the brickbats from the bouquets?

Nothing in my 12 years of writing newspaper and magazine columns and receiving numerous Letters to the Editor (some of praise, some downright scathing) prepared me for my first book review.

You see, I’ve reviewed books before. And I never thought much of the act itself: “Like it”. “Hate it”. “Jeffrey Archer has lost his touch.” “Stephen King is getting more verbose than Tolstoy.”

But what happens when you are on the receiving end?

It takes an incredible effort to write a book. You spend months on it, years even, toiling over every word, fussing, rephrasing. You want people to like your book, or at least to find something to like about it. And then you find out this is not grade school. You don’t get an “A” for effort. In the real world, book reviewers are as brutal as . . . well, you.

Nowadays, before any book is published, most established writers get what they call “endorsements” from their writer friends. You’ve seen them, even on foreign paperbacks.

“I couldn’t put it down!” Dan Brown screams from the front cover of a new writer’s tome.

But it was my first book. I didn’t have any writer friends then. If I wanted those little blurbs for my back cover, I’d have to do it the hard way – getting the book reviewed by every trade paper and magazine.

“You’re very brave,” one of my writer friends said with a shudder. Most Malaysian writers do interviews to drum up publicity for their book; no reviews “because most of our press has a reputation for tearing Malaysian writers apart.” Yes, even Tash Aw. Especially Tash Aw. No offence meant; really, they tear foreign writers apart too.

But I was a pseudonym. I refused photo shoots. No photo shoot, the press declared, no interview.

She likes it, she likes it not

I couldn’t sleep the night before my first review. I tossed and turned, wondering: “Will she like it? What if she doesn’t like it?” And when morning came, I rushed out to the petrol station to get my free newspaper copy.

“What, you don’t have it here?” I lambasted my way to the next petrol station, wheels screeching like sound effects from The Fast and Furious. “What? Not here, either?”

Finally, I managed to grab a copy and devoured every word.
“Ah, she liked it.”
And then, re-reading it: “Gee, I wish she had liked it more.”

You see, you always wish they’d liked it more. In fact, it’s every writer’s dream they should like it “ecstatically”, with accolades like “I was on the edge of my seat, I couldn’t put it down”. Or, “Hail the new Dan Brown”.  (Dan Brown, by the way, gets the most awful reviews from the high-brow press. Not that he cares.)

So far, in the six months since I’ve launched Dark City, I’ve had reviews ranging from the most excellent:

“The author . . . is a master storyteller, with a fine insight into the human condition. This is one of the best fiction books to come out of Asia in 2006.” –

“Why you should read this book: It’s really good, that’s why. Xeus has tapped into urban paranoia and everyday life in KL to produce situations that will leave you uneasy, yet are not too fantastic to be brushed aside as merely unrealistic.” – The Malay Mail

. . . to the “I liked most of it” variety:

“Overall, a good read. Some stories telegraph their ending but remain entertaining. Everything is familiar, yet not so. This is the KL you fear to imagine.” – The Sun

“Even though some of the characters are not so believable, Dark City is a fun read with plenty of thrills to keep you engaged.” – Galaxie

. . . to the downright scathing:

“Dark City was not quite the promised and in turn expected “howl”; in fact, it registered just a notch north of whimper. – The Star (Bookshelf)


You sail gaily with the bouquets. You are crushed by the criticisms, so crushed – in fact – you rant for days to anyone who will listen. There’s this insistent voice in you: “Why didn’t I please everyone? Why didn’t I please that critic . . . the one who mattered?”

Once upon a time, that critic was me. And I know exactly how I felt then about a book – nothing personal. It’s just my opinion about something.

“Look at it this way,” consoles my friend, “you can’t please everyone all of the time. Think of it as your personal Rotten Tomatoes ( Out of 11 reviews, you’ve got nine positive (juicy red tomatoes), one on the fence and one definitely rotten tomato.

“That would’ve been 82% on your personal Tomato-meter. A heck of a lot better than most movies.”

And of course, that – like all critical reviews and even this article – is just someone’s opinion in a sea of opinions.

o Xeus welcomes short story contributions from would-be critics to the Dark City sequel. For more details, visit



Yvonne Lee said...

oooh...oooopppssss....just remembered what I owe you!! Sorry for the delay.
Will email you the lines soon.

The full page article in The Star will do good publicity for your book, never mind some less flattering quotes.

Hope to see you at Lydia's book signing!

Xeus said...

Heh heh, you and Lydia both. So you are going tomorrow? I'm taking my maid to Tesco for some shopping, then we can both pop in.

When writing these kinds of articles, I have to balance the good and the bad :)

Dina Zaman said...

dear xeus

read your blog on and off :) i also read the star piece and thought, oh screw it, i'm not going to have my book published. it's too damned scary.

Xeus said...

But Dina, you are having your book published!

The idea is not to care what anyone thinks. Whatever you write, no matter how good it is, whether you are Tash Aw or Kiran Desai, there are always going to be divided opinions on your book. Some are going to be fair, and some are unfair. And some won't like your book merely for the fact it isn't their 'genre.' (Happened to me too).

And remember, you have to 'beg' reviewers to review your book, it doesn't come the other way around. So you don't have to give your book to any newspaper if you don't want to. Only about 4 of my reviews have been not from my own 'seeding.'

So you reap what you sow :)

Lydia Teh said...

Xeus, smart of you to write this article - more exposure.

Tunku Halim said...

Xeus - you are a very clever marketer indeed! More publicity = more sales. You have to be thick skinned in this business though.

Here's what one reviewer said of "The Woman who Grew Horns":

"However, the book for the most part falls flat, due to the tired rehashing of urban legends everyone's heard before and a simple lack of story telling panache. No true insight into the two-dimensional and cardboard characters' motivations and feelings..."

Makes you want to cry? No wonder I haven't written a short story for 5 years! Truth is, been busy with other projects but these bad reviews stay at the back of your mind. Just have to ignore them and continue writing!

Xeus said...

Lydia and TH, thanks for the compliment, I think :) Truth is, marketing is actually my day job, so it goes with the territory. And I can do a lot more marketing for myself if I were not a pseudonym. And you can't market yourself too much either - it's overexposure.

TH, you can't let bad reviews stop you from writing. Dan Brown didn't! Just think of critics as people who never have had a book published and are secretly envious that you did, so they just are compelled to tear us apart!

Then again, to be fair, it's a matter of opinion. Everyone else has one and critics just happen to have a wider audience than most.

Anonymous said...

Hey, hey, Xeus! That's just grand - getting paid for writing a piece about reviews (book marketing disguised).

Take a leaf, everyone.


Xeus said...

Hee hee, Argie Bargie :)

bibliobibuli said...

v nice piece, xeus

btw - you'll never get a 100% ecstatic review ... there is always a negative somewhere!

it's hard to criticise local writers. you have to be fair. you hope to be helpful and point out what they do that's not so great

“because most of our press has a reputation for tearing Malaysian writers apart.” Yes, even Tash Aw. as the reviewer who wrote the review for the star i tried to point out what i liked best about the book, and what i felt (and still do feel to be) the areas where the book doesn't work so well. i was caught between cheering for tash, and a need to give an honest idea of what i felt about the book to potential readers. my review was less positive than most of the major overseas newspaper reviewers, but not i'm sure unkind.

another local reviewer praised the book to the heavens. when i asked her "did you really feel that?" she said "no lah, but i knew i was going to meet him"

i met tash too and he didn't kill me as i feared!!! (v. nice guy)

what's important as a reviewer is integrity and when you review your first loyalty is to the reader. your book cannnot simply be "good for a local book" these days, it has to be as good as any of the imported books out there, or you are cheating your public.

Xeus said...

Bib, as a reviewer myself, I intend to 'help' local writers by getting a review on their book published in the newspapers only if it's mostly complimentary.

For local books I don't really like, I will not write a review for public consumption. (But if the author asks me to comment, I will do so privately so he/she can learn from mistakes.) But if I were to criticize him publicly, I might end up destroying his very meagre market forever. That would not be in the interest of helping promote Malaysian writers.

Of course, that's just my opinion. I have also learnt that one man's meat is another's poison.

But for foreign books, since their market is so big, anything goes.

bibliobibuli said...

agree with your strategy. there's little space for books anyway and why tell the public about books they probably won't like. but local writers need feedback ... what forums do we have? i keep meaning to blog more about local books but am so busy trying to keep up with the articles i'm writing.

interesting discussion though, glad you raised the issue and i think we will be coming back to it again before long!

Xeus said...

Bib, perhaps the forum can be the MPH writer's circle!

But everyone started out that way once. Even the British - they began publishing fledging articles in the newspapers (like Poe), then collected them into stories. So it's Malaysia's turn to start out now. There will be hiccups and we are really behind the world. But we will get there with a little bit of help from the public, the library and the press.