Assassinating Tolkien

Sometimes my books get one-star reviews.  It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.  Every once in a while, I manage to disappoint a reader so badly that he (or she) feels the need to lay out caution tape and road flares to warn other potential victims away from my work.

I’d like to pretend that I’m indifferent to some of the more vitriolic criticism, but the truth is I’m not.  It bothers me that I can’t quite deliver the bacon for all of my readers.  I know it’s impossible to please everyone.  Or at least I understand that on an intellectual basis.  But the knowledge doesn’t do much to lessen the sting when someone does a hatchet job on one of my books.

I’ve tried ignoring the really nasty reviews, but that doesn’t work.  (They call to me in the night, the same way that jelly doughnuts can sing to me from the Krispy Kreme all the way on the other side of town.)  I’ve tried looking past the venom, to learn from whatever errors put me in the crosshairs.  That might help me avoid repetition of certain mistakes, but it doesn’t make me feel better.

In the end, I’ve only found one useful tactic for coping with one-star reviews.  I go looking for others.  Not in my own work.  I can probably quote some of my own nasties by heart, so I trudge off in search of stinker reviews for books that I like and admire.  Why?  I’m glad you asked.  We’ll talk about that in a minute.  First, let me hit you with some examples.  Ready?  Okay, here goes…

Fellowship of the Ring — J. R. R. Tolkien

One-dimensional characters set in a ludicrously detailed, needlessly complicated environment (and lousy maps to boot).  A classic?  I’ve read soup can ingredient lists more interesting, and product warranty cards more expertly written.

The Hunt for Red October — Tom Clancy

The story displays complete ignorance of Russian military culture; the dialogue is unworthy of cartoon characters; the “action” is a far-fetched excuse for long pedantic discourses on weaponry lifted from the pages of Jane’s and Aviation Week; and the author is a draft dodging hypocrite right-winger who somehow elected not to fight in Vietnam and spent the rest of his life becoming enormously rich lecturing fellow cowards on the wonders of modern warfare.

The Stand — Stephen King

This is the only book to have the distinction of being hurled down my back yard. In frustration. I’ve never been beyond chapter 5 in four attempts although I have flicked through and read parts to see if it improves and it just DOESN’T !! It’s turgid from beginning to end and instead of adding all the edited bits they should have hacked another 300 pages out of the damn thing.

A Prayer for Owen Meany — John Irving

I had to literally FORCE MYSELF TO FINISH THIS BOOK! I found the book to be tedious and as slow moving as a glacier. The ending is foretold and there is no quality or depth to the characters. Mindless. This was a huge waste of my time. No more John Irving for me.

Heart of Darkness — Joseph Conrad

Make it stop! I am finding myself having to constantly re-read many paragraphs just to find out what Conrad was even talking about.  In fact, it is getting so painful, I now know the meaning of torture. I’m sure they would use this in police interrogations if it weren’t for the fact that it is just as painful for the reader as it is to the poor soul who would have to suffer from hearing it read aloud.

To Kill a Mockingbird — Harper Lee

This is not great literature, and I avoid teaching it at all costs. It’s not even good. The characters are black and white two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. The rednecks are evil, the blacks are victims, and the self-righteous Atticus is too good to be true. There is nothing here to examine or explore. Critical thinking skills need not be applied for understanding. Moreover, if the lack of complexity and verisimilitude doesn’t stick in your craw, then the insipid narration of the androgynous Scout will.

Raise the Titanic — Clive Cussler

Completely unbelievable plot. Total lack of understanding of anything remotely connected with science. Abysmal characterization, junior-school dialogue, this book almost completely drained me of the will to live. I regret deeply the afternoon I wasted reading this turgid excuse for a novel, as I will never be able to reclaim it.

Neuromancer — William Gibson

People who tell you they like this book are LYING TO YOU. Gibson is credited with blending styles. What he is actually doing is sticking a 50’s dime store crime novel and a computer engineering textbook in his MixMaster and playing dadaist cut-up poet with the resultant confetti. It makes me wish he’d stuffed his head in as well.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — Stieg Larsson

While reading, I would often put the book down and wonder to myself, Why are we supposed to care? What character were we supposed to connect with? Even the scenery is flat.

Dune — Frank Herbert

I can only say I’m glad it was a $5 second-hand copy, because it’s a total waste of money. I’m not too far in, but the boredom factor is taking over fast, and skimming ahead isn’t encouraging me to pursue it. Herbert reads like he’s some undergraduate who’s overdosed on the more miserable philosophers.

Alright.  Had enough?  Yeah, me too.

I could trot out at least a hundred more literary assassinations of the same general stripe, but those ten are enough to make the point.  I love every one of the books I’ve listed, and I disagree with every snarky little barb you’ve just read about them.

For me, the lesson in this is simple…  It doesn’t matter if you’re Tolkien or Tolstoy; some people are going to hate what you write.  If Harper Lee and Tom Clancy can get blasted this hard, why should I expect my books to be an exception?

I can’t.  I remind myself that—while I’ve read Frank Herbert’s Dune at least a half-dozen times—some readers absolutely loathe it.  As much as I’d like them to be, my books are not a magical exception to the rule.  Some people are going to hate my novels.  I can’t stop that, but at least I can remind myself that I’m in good company.

And when that doesn’t do the trick, I can always drown my sorrows in a nice box of jelly doughnuts.

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3 Responses to Assassinating Tolkien

  1. Dr Joseph ZIka says:


    I know what you are saying. It hurts, but not all people interpret the exact same words in the same way. Odd as it may be, there seems to be a reading problem. Something happens as the words are read and understood in the brain and the picture that forms in the mind. Not all people can get a running narrative from the words that are read. Some people require speech to get the understanding narrative working. Then there are life experiences, moods, general attitudes and of course jealousy working against you as the author. A lot of the times people pick up books to read and don’t understand the basic premise behind the writing and fire off vindictives in a review, when it’s their misunderstandings that are to blame.

    Jeff, I found this a lot in trying to educate people. Many have predisposed prejudices and are close minded. Others are just ignorant and no matter what you try, they fail to grasp the basics of understanding a novel. The conveyance of thought through writing is a tenet to our intelligence, not all people can grasp this and are considered remedial. But, they may excel in other areas where reading isn’t needed to interpret a thought. Just, a picture or an observation leads to insight.

    Jeff, let me give you an observation that my mother told me. My mother taught English composition in high school for 30 years and she left me with this thought, “you can’t put two quarts in a 1 quart container and expect it all to be there.” So, the next time you get some one star, tawdrily tacky tripe, just remember what my mother said.

    If I don’t like what I read from an author, I will write that author an state what my objections are and why, and most of the time I’ll get a positive response with further explanation of why that author chose those words. Otherwise, it’s better not to write anything or a bland or non-committal review.

    I hope that you and your family are well and I’m waiting for your new book, but I know it can only come as fast as the thoughts come and can be written down. My cats are enjoying some classical music… chamber music to be more specific Anton Reicha’s Complete Wind Quintets. If I’m reading or writing and not paying really close attention to the music my cats will let me know it’s time to change the CD.


  2. Jeff,

    Thanks for putting this up. I got some real stinkers (and a lot of genuine 5 star) reviews for my first novel. Some of them had basic misunder-blabberings, as Joe pointed out.

    It helps to know I am in good company too. I will look out for your next. Tweet me when it comes out @LPOBryan and I will RT to the world!


  3. I read the 1-star review of your book. The only one compared to 50 5-star reviews.

    Yes, that was a Troll. Believe me, I know Trolls. They launched a flame war against me and my work last March. Have yo visited STGRB to see if this troll is listed there?

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