Getting a bad review

Waiting for reviews of your book is rather like lying down - naked - on a railway line and waiting for the train to come along. Sometimes it stops and you can breathe a sigh of relief, get up , get dressed and go home for tea. Sometimes it just goes straight on.

I suppose I should feel flattered to get a whole page in the Guardian from no less than Hermione Lee, but the mauling I got more than cancelled out the plus factors. I’m used to reviewers who don’t like what you do - if they say so fairly and frankly with respect for the author and the work they’ve put in, that’s fine. But I’m not used to unkindness and I did feel that this review crossed the line.

My CV of well respected and sometimes award-winning biographies, is swept aside. I am apparently the ‘biographer of an assortment of women writers’. And then there’s the way I’ve written this one. Ok, so Hermione doesn’t think my structure works - that’s fine. And I can even accept that a style of narrative that a dozen other reviewers have found ‘enthralling’ doesn’t appeal to her. I'm willing to defend my choices. But I thought her final blow was just an inch or so below the belt. She ends:

Kathleen Jones's relation to her subject reminded me of Ida Baker, as perceived by Mansfield: faithful, attentive, true as steel, flat-footed, and unbearably irritating.’
Ouch!! But I’m determined not to let it get to me - I’ve had fabulous reviews from authors such as Helen Dunmore, Jacqueline Wilson, Lyndall Gordon and Vincent O’Sullivan - most recently Pamela Norris in the Literary Review. I just don’t think Hermione has really understood what I was trying to do and it wasn’t her sort of book. But I could wish that she’d said it a little more gently.

I hope this doesn't sound like sour grapes - every author has to accept bad reviews with good grace.  You just have to carry on putting pen to paper.    


  1. I read the article also-I thought the last line about Ida Baker was a cheap shot

    I thought the two risks you took with the book-telling part in the past tense and part in the present and the detailed treatment of the subsequent wives and children of John Middleton Murry was really brilliant and brought Mansfield to life for me-

  2. Thanks Mel! I fear there may be a personal element to this review - I was told by an American colleague that HL had been going to do a KM biography until she found out that I was already working on it. But in the end I write for the readers not the critics, and so long as the readers are enjoying it I'll keep on writing.

  3. Kathleen-please keep on writing!-I hope I can be in a position to read A Passionate Sisterhood one of these days-

  4. How disappointing.
    Well as one reader I can certainly say your book hit its mark down here.

  5. That is a terrible way to review a book. I'm a book reviewer and often I don't like the books that I review, and say as much in my reviews. But I always try to acknowledge the craft and effort of the writer. I also try and acknowledge that it is just my opinion and a matter of taste. A review should help a reader figure out whether or not they would enjoy reading the book - that is the purpose of a review. Too many reviewers lazily think a review is there for them to air their own opinion.

  6. Thanks for your supportive comments everyone. I don't think a review should ever be personal, but firmly focussed on the book rather than the writer. But maybe we're entering a new 'tabloid' era of criticism. Should be exciting.!
    Mel - I will send you a copy of the Passionate Sisterhood as I have one or two floating around.

  7. Cheap and lazy and perhaps deliberately cruel is how it sounds to me Kathleen - and it's simply not good enough (no matter if it is Hermione Lee.) For me it's just not acceptable to review in a personal, damaging and hurtful way. It's interesting to me that you mention there may be a personal interest here. My first novel was utterly ridiculed by a reviewer in the Financial Times (I've forgotten her name Emma something - best forgoten for me) Why bother I asked myself but then I knew she was given the copy by someone who was unhappy about any success I achieved?

    BUT You have received such wonderful reviews from all other quarters that it leaves H. Lee where she belongs - out in the cold!


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