Rotten Review

Authors are  constantly advised  not  to respond to negative reviews.  I fully agree; you  simply cannot argue with another person’s opinion. It is  worth remembering that many literary  classics suffered a hatchet job when first published. I particularly love this example;

Here all the faults of Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Bronte) are magnified a thousand fold, and the only consolation which we have in  reflecting on it is that it will never be generally read..” James Lorimer, North British Review, 1847, on Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Poor Charlotte, poor Emily!

There have been well documented  cases where aggrieved writers have engaged with a negative reviewer and lived to regret it. But what do you do when a review contains glaring  factual inaccuracies?

My narrative non-fiction book  The Water Doctor’s Daughters (Robert Hale, 2013)  was reviewed   by  Boston academic Diane Greco Josefowicz, for the    The Victorian Web.  As a debut author I erred in submitting my book  to this scholarly on-line site, as it was never intended as an intellectual  treatise. However, Josefowizc later explained;    ‘We don’t ordinarily review  books in non-scholarly genres  because we are overwhelmed with demand for reviews of scholarship that is our first commitment. I made an exception for your book, which meant. among other things, leaving other books unreviewed. Nevertheless, I believed your book to be of substantial interest to readers of the Victorian Web, and I hoped to link your work to its larger historical context in a way that would not simply promote the book, but would stimulate scholarly interest in the Marsden case more generally.’   

Yes, well  that  was  all quite flattering I guess.  Nevertheless,  it was reviewed  (rather unfairly ) as a scholarly work.  It was fully  indexed and referenced, but little wonder  Josefowicz complained of  ‘scant footnotes.’   To be honest,  I  think there are only three.



I wasn’t actually aware of the review for some time, and when I did  read it I was  shocked to find serious errors.   The most  incomprehensible  example  referred to Mary Campbell,   a patient who became the water-doctor’s second wife, Josefowicz wrote;

Upon her instalment in the household, moreover, Campbell seems to have devoted herself to torturing Marsden by making him jealously lovesick.’

This was a complete  invention.  On the two pages  referred to  (62-3)  there is not a hint of  Mary Campbell  attempting to make Dr Marsden jealous; nor is there any mention of it elsewhere in the book.

Further on, she commented that one of the doctor’s daughters murdered her sister. This too, was incorrect. Worryingly,  I received an email from someone familiar with the story who read the review and questioned the accuracy of my research.  However,  I was  still reluctant to pursue the matter. Fortunately,  other reviews appeared, and I   simply tried to pretend  that the Josefowicz piece  did not  exist.

The following year the book was long-listed in the prestigious  literary award, The Nib,  awarded for excellence in research. It  reached  the final fifteen from a field  of over 150 entries, and was a wonderful validation of my work.  By now I was feeling more confident. When friends asked why I did not protest about the errors I decided that perhaps I should.

Josefowicz  somewhat reluctantly acknowledged (and rectified)  her mistake over the ‘murder’. However, I have never received an apology.  To my astonishment, she simply  refuses to admit to her more  serious error regarding Mary Campbell.

Oddly enough, when I searched on-line for other examples of   factually incorrect reviews I could find very few.  No doubt  we are all  afraid  to protest publicly,  for fear of being labelled defensive and thin skinned.  However, as I commented  in an email to Josefowicz,   authors are  called to account for their errors, and reviewers should be as well.   Furthermore, once a review appears   on-line  it is virtually impossible to have it removed.

In a slightly different scenario, a  fellow writer told me a horrifying story about a publisher’s reader.   Her   children’s book  was rejected, and when the manuscript  was returned  the reader’s comments were inadvertently attached.  One read;

‘How disappointing that the author has chosen to portray the only Aboriginal child in the story as a slow learner.’  In fact, the complete  opposite was true.  The Aboriginal child had been portrayed as very bright, helping to coach a struggling non-aboriginal classmate. Clearly the reader had been tripped up by  her own subconscious  prejudice. As a result,  the author was wrongly accused of perpetuating a stereotypical  image of Aboriginals. .  Was this the reason  the book was rejected? We will never know, but it would certainly not have helped.   I was incensed on my friend’s behalf, and asked if she had addressed the matter with the publisher. Of course she had not. No-one wants to be ‘blacklisted’ or considered a trouble maker, especially if they wish to submit future work.

One interesting  case where a publication was forced to retract a review  involved The Economist, and   Edward Baptist’s book, The Half Has Never Been Told; Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.   In part, the anonymous reviewer wrote; ‘Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery; almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains….this is not history; it is advocacy.’  The Economist issued a public  apology to Baptist, a Cornell history  professor. The whole story can be read HERE

Publishing is an increasingly competitive world  for writers. Anything that damages our reputation or unfairly represents our work is a serious issue.

For a more lighthearted piece on the writing world, click here to read about  A NOT SO SECRET  LITERARY AGENT.


  1. Dear Pauline, some reviewers love being cruel and developing a ‘following’ by agitating. She probably – no, obviously – did not conscientiouly read it, or she would not have been so erroneous. Do not give it a second thought. Your writing is wonderful. Ms. Josefowicz can not even punctuate correctly. One example of this is, ” … it’s larger historical context …” (sic).

    • Pauline

      Thanks Roberta. I suspect she was too busy airing her views about Freud etc. There was a lot more I could have said, but I restrained myself! For instance, she commented that I presented a stereotypical view of the French governess when I was merely reflecting the view of the British public at the time….quoting from newspaper reports of the trial!! Very frustrating.

  2. Dear Pauline,

    I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to see errors about your work in the public arena. At least you have your blog to air your views.

    For the record I love all your writing and look forward to each post. Interesting historical stories and something to make me chuckle! I apologise for not commenting for a while. Ill health (of both myself and my computer) has held me back.

    Kind regards,

    • Pauline

      Thanks Christine, I really appreciate your support. It took a lot to make me speak out, but I do hate unfairness of any kind. Do hope that you (and your trusty computer) are recovering well.

  3. I enjoyed your post, Pauline. Illustrates exactly the problems authors face when submitting work to public scrutiny.
    Reminds me of a patronising review for my novel about Capt Smith of the Titanic. Patronising I could just about cope with, but some comments were infuriating. ‘The real weaknesses in this work lie in Mrs. Roberts ignorance of the actual working of ships; of who does what and why aboard ship…’etc. Not only have I spent what amounts to years at sea with my sea-captain husband, I’d had everything checked by my resident expert.
    I gritted my teeth and resisted the urge to reply. However, a friend saw the review and (foolishly) took this retired cargo-surveyor to task.
    Well, his response was lengthy and unpleasant, and finished by calling my defender, ‘an ignorant and self important Pommy.’
    I knew from an email via my website that he was a New Zealander, and tried to get the comment removed on the grounds of racial abuse (!!!) (No chance – it’s still there)
    But I had his email address…

    • Pauline

      Oh dear Ann, I can imagine how incensed you must have been. Yes, We writers are so vulnerable. Criticism is one thing, but inaccuracy and factual errors are unbearable! Thanks for taking the trouble to respond.

  4. I applaud you for speaking up. We are witnessing a world where lies are blatantly represented as facts and spread as news. People who don’t take the time to investigate, ( Let’s face it, who has that kind of time?) We are at the mercy of manipulators and charlatans. Thanks for speaking your truth.

  5. I can completely understand your frustration and disappointment, Pauline, and as many have said in the comments above, writers are the victims of opinions; not the most reliable source of judgement.

    I had a one-star review once. The reviewer’s opinion was based on the title of my work. He said, quote: I knew the ending from the title. I never made it past chapter one. There we have it, the answer to the problem. Ban reviews!

    • Pauline

      Yes Danny, as writers we leave ourselves open to all sorts of stuff we never dreamed of when we set out.

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