I read Light in August by William Faulkner when I was in high school and remember not being able to put it down. It was unlike anything I had read before. The story was so dark. All of the characters led such bleak alienated lives in the unforgiving society of the rural deep South in the 1930s. Faulkner opened a window for me onto a place, time, and people that I was unfamiliar with, and I couldn’t look away. The disorganized narrative style was also new and interesting to me—like some new kind of atonal music.
Out of curiosity I went to Goodreads to see what current readers thought of the book. I was surprised to find 662 one-star reviews, with 7% of readers giving the book one or two stars. This for a book that is always included in any list of the best novels of the twentieth century, and whose author was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature!
The one-star reviewers described the book variously as “absolute torture to read,” “paint-dryingly boring,” and “puzzling and difficult.” One reviewer, Patti, wrote: “What a depressing read! I kept with it, expecting it to get better, but it stayed depressing all the way through and then they died at the end. What a waste of time for someone like me who reads to escape reality. If I want this kind of reality I can read the newspapers.” What Patti disliked about the book was one of the things I liked; it gave me a view into a depressing reality that I wanted to learn about.
Another reviewer, Kerri, wrote “I really disliked this book. The ‘stream of thought’ style to the writing is difficult to follow. I didn’t have the patience for it.” The “stream of thought” style gave me, on the other hand, a compelling new reading experience.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by the large number of one-star reviews. Everyone gets bad reviews. Patti’s and Kerri’s reviews might actually encourage some readers to read Light in August because these readers are looking to explore and understand reality’s darker corners, and are bored with tight plots and snappy prose. In the language of modern marketing, some people are in Faulkner’s target market, and some aren’t. That’s as it should be.
I’d much rather you get lots of reviews than all five-star reviews. (Light in August has 31,796 reviews, averaging 3.91 stars.) Lots of reviews means you are doing your job as a marketer and growing your audience.