As part of my occasional and hopefully instructive series of entries in which I try to make the point to writers that negative reviews are part of the territory and ultimately not something to get too worked up about or to let scar one’s psyche, I would like to present you excerpts of one star Amazon reviews of every single Hugo-winning novel of the last ten years (of which there are eleven, due to a tie in 2010). I would note that while I quote only one for each novel, in every case, there was more than one to choose from.
In chronological order:
2004: Paladin of Souls, Lois McMaster Bujold:
I hate it when I see an awesome author seem to get worse as they move on and write other series. I pushed through the first one, and did finish this one, but had to complain about the writing and slowness at least once per reading session.
2005: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susannah Clarke:
I just stopped reading this book on page 721. That’s right I stopped with only about 60 pages to go, after having read every footnote and every word up to that point. Why? I just couldn’t spend another hour of my life on this book.
2006: Spin, Robert Charles Wilson:
This book was boring and without a doubt a great waste of time. I stuck with this because I felt that just around the corner, or next page, a something of consequence would happen. No, nothing happened, page after page after page of nothing.
2007: Rainbow’s End, Vernor Vinge:
It’s just one of the most bland, uninteresting books I’ve read in a long time. The future world state is mildly interesting, but it’s nothing compared to the future worlds that Vinge has created in his other novels. And the character development and storyline is just atrociously uninteresting.
2008: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon:
I found the book to be completely nonsensical, overbearing and tedious. I nearly put this book down several times, but felt compelled and determined to finish. In the end, I didn’t think it was worth the time; it was an extreme disappointment.
2009: The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman:
I am amazed that this book has won awards — I wonder about the judges who voted for this completely unsuitable book. The book revolves around graveyards, murder, ghosts and a child called Nobody. Being called nobody certainly would not improve self esteem. This is a horrible, highly negative book.
2010: (tie) The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi:
I can’t recommend this book. It was one of the worst I have ever read. The only character in this book that I cared the least bit about was Mai and she wasn’t even in it very much at all. I felt sorry for her but I really could have cared less if the rest of them died.
2010: (tie) The City and The City, China Mieville:
I thought this book would be amazing, instead it was tedious and boring. What was an interesting murder mystery story was wrapped up in a boring, vague, repetitive story. I understood, the cities were geographically together but politically separate. Interesting in theory, but would never work in practice. But I didn’t need to be reminded of it every 5 sentences.
2011: Blackout/All Clear, Connie Willis:
This is very little reward for a long and tedious read. The three main characters are all very like, tiresomely guilt-ridden and apparently unable to think new thoughts very quickly, even when their lives depend on it. I would not drop this lot off in a mall parking lot far from home and expect them to live.
2012: Among Others, Jo Walton:
Most of the book is filled with angsty recollections by a teenager caught in a (mildly) unpleasant situation, and pages and pages and *pages* of tepid one-line reviews of every golden-age sci fi and fantasy writer. I don’t know why I read this book to the end–it kept promising something interesting, but never delivered.
2013: Redshirts, John Scalzi:
This is an onanistic shallow and very disappointing book. Little or no character development. What should have been an interesting short story based on a somewhat interesting conceit has been puffed out to novel length and suffers hugely from the increased exposure. Don’t waste your time or money… The only interesting element was the coda about writer’s block which, I fear, seems to be very close to home for him as reflected in recent work.
And should you be of the opinion that all this means is that the quality of Hugo winning books has declined in the last decade, I’d note that just about every Hugo winner has its share of one star reviews, including Starship Troopers (“a VERY dry read with nothing to grab your attention”), Dune (“Prose that would make a Dungeons and Dragons novel blush”), The Left Hand of Darkness (“I cannot avoid the feeling of its uselessness”), Neuromancer (“tedious and pretentious writing, unnecessary to illustrate intellectual concepts.”), Ender’s Game (“Most likely the worst book I’ve ever read”) and The Diamond Age (“it drags on and on and on with little concern for plot or characterization”). We could likewise do this for every Nebula, Locus and Clarke winner, as well as every Booker, Pulitzer and National Book Award winner. Or, to be honest, just about any book nominated or winning any award, from any time, anywhere.
The point is: there has yet to be a book — no matter how well-regarded or awarded — that does not suck for someone. No matter what is nominated for an award or wins, there will always be someone aghast at its presence on the list or its author at the lectern. And as this is the case for the award winners — all the award winners, every one of them — you probably shouldn’t feel too bad when inevitably your book starts racking up negative notes.
Likewise, should your work be nominated for an award, and then you see someone huffing and puffing about how your presence on the ballot is bizarre/outraging/proof of the decline of humanity, you can recognize that this makes you just like every single other person who has been nominated for or won an award, ever, in the history of the whole world. And that’s a perversely comforting thought.