But they tried so hard

There's a quite serious and, I think, important debate about how writers should treat other writers. It's an easy kind of debate, in that the answer is we need to support each other. But, somehow, alongside this necessary point, a question keeps coming up about whether writers should judge each other's work.


Everybody else judges everything, and we are all inescapably the subject of reviews whether you've just had a book published, or you've just stepped away from the restaurant table to go to the loo.

You can at least hope that a writer would understand another writer's reasons for doing something, whether they agreed and whether this something was ultimately done well or not. I think the crucial part, though, is that what we must judge is the work.

Not the person.

It is difficult to separate yourself from your work, but everybody else should be able to do it easily. If your opinion is that my last book was dreadful, that does not make me a bad person. It makes me sad, but I'm not going to take it personally – unless you make it personal.

That's a problem. Reviewers and judges can get deeply personal and call into doubt the parentage of a writer. I'd like to think that it is because reviewing is no longer done by a handful of journalists and instead is done by absolutely everyone on everything from blogs to Amazon. But it isn't. It was always like this, we just see it so very much more now because there are so very, very many more reviews.

All you can do, if you're a writer, is ignore it. All you can do, if you're a reviewer or a judge, is stop doing that.

Yet if poorly-written, personally-insulting reviews are a problem, they've led to a solution that is at least as bad. Over the last couple of weeks I've been in conversations with writers who are intractable about how you should review poor books or scripts or films. A recurring adamant point was that you simply shouldn't write bad reviews. If you can't say something nice, don't review it at all.

And there's an idea I keep hearing that you should be nice about a piece of writing because the writer worked really hard on it and it's only fair to remember that.

Oh, bollocks.

What are we, children? Writing is not about two seconds of crayon and a fridge magnet. Writing is hard work, harder than it looks, and if you didn't put any effort into your piece, you shouldn't expect an audience to do so either.

Writing isn't fair and I cannot see a reason why it should be. You don't give someone a good review because it's their turn to have one. And the amount of effort matters only to the person who put that effort in.

This is a side point, but writing this to you, I'm suddenly minded of Carrie Fisher. I remember her saying something on Twitter, complaining really, about how long it would take her to write a sentence. You understood her, you got the point, but still, I'd spend a week per sentence if it meant my sentences were as good as hers.

It's my opinion, of course, that her sentences were a marvel and you might disagree entirely, with no ill feeling between us, just a moment's effort as I delete you from my Christmas card list.

That's the thing about reviews. We treat them as fact, and reviewers often think they are, but they cannot be.

Reviews have to be opinion, it's not physically possible for them to be anything else, but they're also unique, I think, in how the opinion in them works.

Any review of anything at all is automatically going to be coloured by who is writing it. I can't conceive of any way that I would be able to write a useful review of a football match, for instance, because I wouldn't know one end of a football from the other.

Even if that weren't inevitable, though, I would still want it because what I'm looking for in a review is help.

Help me decide whether to read the book, watch the movie, or whatever. There is so much competing for my attention, a review is not some academic formal analysis, it is a service – or rather, it is part of one.

What's unique, I think, is that reviews have to have an opinion, they have to be your own genuine reaction to the thing you're reviewing, but you don't matter. Nobody does or should give a damn what William Gallagher thinks of their work, yet any review that I do has to be my perspective.

If you read me a lot, then, okay, over time you'll come to know how often my opinion matches up with yours, and then you could use me as a quick guide to whether you'd enjoy that football match or not.

Usually, though, we all take a sample. From the myriad reviews, we gather whether something is worth our attention. That isn't fair, we should gather this from watching or reading absolutely everything ourselves, but if there is now a cacophony of reviewers in the world, it's still less than the amount of books and films that there are.

If you put something out there, it will be judged. And so it should. If you got no reaction, if you made no connection with your audience, it's tricky to see why you bothered.

Even if you worked really, really hard.