Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Discussion on Negative Reviews

Recently I've come across several posts written by authors in which they expressed their frustration and disappointment over negative reviews of their books written by bloggers. In these negative reviews, the reviewers essentially mocked, bashed, and personally attacked the author, his/her writing, and his/her book. This is not the first time something like this has come up, nor will it be the last.

Now, this is not a debate in which I will take one side or the other. We have all formulated our own opinions about this tricky overlapping spot in the world of writing, publishing, blogging, reviewing, and befriending people. I think it's safe to say that everyone needs to have thick, porous skin: the thickness to let the ridiculous bounce off, and the porous to let in alternate ways of thinking that you might not have considered before.

Here's what I think:

I think it's absolutely essential that we all be honest, straightfoward, and open-minded. Do you realize how many conflicts that escalate into something much, much worse could be avoided if the opposing parties just had an open and civil dialogue about it? So if a book really didn't work for a reviewer, it is that reviewer's right (and I would say responsibility, but I'm not saying that you need to go shout from the rooftops, "THIS BOOK SUCKS. DON'T EVER READ IT" aka the "anti-recommendation") to express his or her opinion about it, and why that book didn't work for him or her. If the book comes up in discussion with a group of people, I think the reader/reviewer has the right to quietly and politely express that the book didn't work for him/her, and to let that influence the reading decisions of the other people in whatever way it may.

It does NOT, however, give the reviewer the right to mock or attack the story's elements or the author's decisions when it comes to plot, characterization, etc.

Sure, we're pretty confused when we find, say,  yet another dependent, breathless, helpless, luuurv-me-or-I-have-no-reason-to-live protagonist in YA paranormal romance. But we don't have the right to write something in our review along the lines of, "I have NO idea why the author would EVER create such a brainless, spineless character. Also, I don't agree with said character's [decision 1], [decision 2], [decision 3]!"

Readers and reviewers, it's not our place to question the decisions that the author makes for his or her book. Those decisions were made a long time before the book reached our hands. To question those things would be like us whining about why a book character has green eyes instead of brown, or why an actor's costume contains a lot of blues and not purples, or why the MC has a soft spot for bad boys instead of nice guys. Those are set in stone: they are not for us to criticize.

I think there's a difference between a character making stupid decisions, and a character making stupid decisions that feel artificial to us. It can actually be a good thing when we get emotionally invested in a story and want to yell at the character, "What are you doing??? Why did you just say/do/think that??? Auuughhh!" But if a character does something that just makes us roll our eyes, or blink and mutter, "What?", or--worse--not care at all, I think that's, for lack of a better word, critique-able. If the character does something that's supposed to make us want to yell at them but instead causes us to react differently (e.g. roll our eyes or, God forbid, laugh), that disjuncture between intent and effect is something I think can, and maybe even should, be noted in a critical review. It's a tricky distinction, the one between author's intent and actually manifested reaction from the audience, but I think it's the crucial one.

The authors who wrote the blog posts also mentioned that the reviewers who had written the negative reviews were aspiring authors themselves, and they warned that this sort of unprofessional behavior will reflect on them badly when it comes time for these aspiring authors to query and make connections within the publishing world. I'm not disagreeing with them: professionalism is all the more important now that the Internet makes things so informal and accessible, and things that get on the Internet typically stay there forever. So you do have to watch how you present yourself online. I have watched both authors and bloggers get slammed for poor online conduct.

However, I'm not discouraging you from writing critical reviews, as long as it's done professionally, and all personal attacks remain out of the discussion. I think that it's natural for aspiring authors to examine books from a writer's point of view. I'm an aspiring author myself, and I always try to look for logical consistency within a book: Are the characters' behaviors believable? If fantastical elements are involved, do they follow the "grammar" of their world and not violate their own rules? Does the writing effectively portray what the author intends it to do? These are what I write about when I have to write a critical review. In no way do I wish to make a personal attack on the author. Would it really be that hard to take an extra 10 seconds before posting and put yourself in another's shoes, think about how you'd feel if someone said those things about your writing? Yeah, not so great, I'd imagine. So there's no need to make disparaging comments such as "I have no idea how [book name]/[author] got published." What if someone were to say that about your book in the future?

Sometimes, an author's writing just won't do it for you. And sometimes, authors, a blogger's reviewing style won't do it for you. So then you just quietly stay out of one another's way. Know what works for you and what doesn't, and immerse yourself in as little negative stimuli as possible. Neither party has the right to spread around your opinion as The Gospel. Trying to force upon others your opinion that "This blogger sucks, avoid his/her reviews" or "This author sucks, don't ever read his/her books" is the most obnoxious invasion of the private/public sphere disjuncture that can be done. It's okay if you didn't connect with someone's writing, and it's okay to express that politely, as long as you make it clear that it's YOUR opinion. It is NOT okay to try to push your opinions at others, or to think that anyone who doesn't share your opinion is idiotic and not worthy of being heard.

That is all.


  1. I actually read a book review on GR earlier today where the reviewer did just that and even wrote in capitals DO NOT READ THIS BOOK. I was horrified and felt so bad for the author, even though I have never heard of her or the YA book she'd written before.

    I think it's just bad manners. There are much nicer ways to do things. It's like going to someones house for a cup of tea and being given a piece of home made cake. If you hated the cake would you spit it out across the room or politely put your plate down and explain that it's not really your taste?

  2. Ahem to that, sister. People need to learn that reviews, while personal, are also kind of professional. You are talking about a book that is in your opinion that other people would probably adore. That means taking that into consideration and saying why it didn't work.

    Although, I do think there is a bigger problem with too many positive reviews that don't really say anything. Negative reviews in the blogosphere are, for the most part, rarer than positive ones. At least in my reading.

  3. I write negative reviews every now and then, but I really try to never bash an author or say "oh my god, don't read this book, because it's HORRIBLE," because I understand everyone has different tastes and opinions. Just because I didn't like a book doesn't mean someone else won't, and it's definitely unprofessional to say something like "how the hell did this get published?" because of that fact.
    In fact, if anyone ever replies to a negative review of mine, saying something like, "I was excited for this one, and now I'm considering not even reading it," I always reply back, reminding them that their opinion on the book may be completely different than mine. Don't knock it till you try it, really.

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  5. I agree that is not up to us to question author's decisions about their books. By the time we write a review, the train has left, so to speak. However, I do think that if a decision the author made didn't work for us it is our responsibility to point this out. For example, in a recent book I reviewed, the structure the author chose for the narrative resulted in a frustrating reading experience for me and I suspect this structure could also pose a problem for other readers. Naturally, there are many readers that won't mind at all, and so I try to phrase my reviews in such a way that readers can determine whether a book will work for them, regardless of what I personally felt about it.

  6. I agree... somewhat.

    I read like a writer. Actually, I read like an editor. I've seen plenty of books that really shouldn't have been published. I'll try not to say, "How the heck did this moron get published?" But I will question how a book so desperately in need of editing made it onto the shelves. Bad sentence construction (grammar issues, spelling, punctuation, etc.), plot holes, and inconsistent character actions are all things that should be caught during the editing process. Maybe this is more of an indictment of editors (rather than authors)... but I'm getting a little tired of the seemingly common attitude (mostly among writers) that anyone can write a story, even if their grasp of the language isn't beyond that of a two-year-old, and that the editor will take care of any problems. News flash! Editing is part of an author's job. If you don't fix most of them problems, they're probably not going to get fixed.

    Many of the books I read are parts of series, so when I critique something, I do it in the hope that these sorts of problems will be corrected in future installments. That hasn't happened yet... but a girl can hope, right?

  7. Very well said. I'm always nervous about posting a negative review. I have a negative review looming around that I've been needing to post but I keep reading it over and over to make sure I'm not being harsh and am just giving my straight opinion. I find that negative reviews are always a sticky subject because as a blogger you want to stay true to your readers but on the other hand if an author personally gave you their book for review or you have a good relationship with them things can get hairy.. However, I agree with John that lately (probably because of this reason)there has been so many positive reviews on almost every review I open. I've also noticed that I seem to lose 1 or 2 followers for every negative review. I try to be as critical as possible without being flat out mean.

  8. You bring up a lot of good points. Thanks for the post.

  9. Love this. Absolutely, 100% luurrv this. I think you did a great job making a point on this matter. I'm gonna link up to this on my blog, because it's just so, so good.

  10. This is such a difficult issue. As a soon-to-be published first-time novelist, I have nightmares about bad reviews. On the other hand, through challenging remarks heard in critique groups and other types of editorial feedback, I feel that my writing gets stronger, so I guess I'm grateful for constructive criticism (not the plain mean stuff!). A nicely considered post on a tough topic. Thanks! - Stasia

  11. Really great post here. I feel if you wouldn't gush and recommend for a reason, you shouldn't recommend against for the same reason. Obviously I'm not perfect, I've posting things before and said oops, maybe should have edited again, but I try!

    For me I think posting negative reviews is as important as positive reviews. But don't bash the author, explain WHY it didn't work for you and exactly WHAT it was that didn't work. What I hate in a book will quite likely be something that another reader will love, so if the post explains why you didn't like it, others can still benefit from that!

    So whether it was a character, the style, the events, or anything else - tell me what it was and why you didn't like it... and then I'll make up my own mind :)

  12. While I really hate posting a negative review, I will but I make sure to do it as professionally as possible. After all, an agent liked it enough to take on the author and a publishing house liked it enough to publish it. So, someone in the target audience is going to love it (hopefully, for the author, many somebodies).

    I try to stress that it's MY opinion and give concrete reasons why I didn't enjoy the story. Both negative and positive reviews must be written as professionally as possible.

    A negative review sucks for the author. So, if you have to write a negative review (and, let's be honest, there are books out there that just don't resonate with us--not everything can be positive), be gentle. There's no need to bash or put down. The author worked hard on that novel, even if I didn't like it.

    Thanks for a GREAT post--I'm totally going to link to this on my blog and add in my take (which is very similar to yours). Keep reading! :)

  13. I hate having to write negative reviews - but if a book didn't work for me, then I try to be honest. I mostly try to focus on the reasons *I* didn't enjoy it, rather than saying nobody will enjoy it. That way, the reader of my review can see what it is I disliked and decide whether that would bother them or not. There was a book I was really looking forward to recently that I was *so* sad to write a negative review for, but the character's actions and thoughts in the later part of the book just did not seem believable given how the character felt/behaved at the beginning of the book and that nothing happened to show how such a huge change in a short time was believable.

  14. Totally agree. I always respect your reviews, and I find them very well thought-out -- especially the negative critiques. I think one of the most important things a book reviewer can do is pinpoint specific reasons a book didn't work for him/her in a professional way. "I didn't like this book" doesn't really help anyone -- neither the reader, checking to see if a book should be added to his/her TBR list nor the author/editor/agent, who could possibly get advice or perspective on an issue and use it to improve.

    Well-written post!

  15. I don't think anyone that is a book blogger.... enjoys posting a negative review. I want to love everything I read. I go into a book wanting to love it.

    I actually posted a negative review today... and now you've got me all paranoid!

    One thing I try to do is be clear about why it didn't work for me. Something that bother me, may not bother another reader. I always try to keep from getting personal.. there is no reason to bash the author, and I hate when I read reviews where that happens.

    Lovely post Steph.

  16. As a book reviewer you have the right to review the work, not say anything derogatory about the author writing it. That crosses a line. Authors put their work out there and they must have a thick skin, even if a reviewer may go as far as say the characters are horrible, the storyline is dull and has no excitement and that you wouldn't recommend this book to your friend.

    Look at People magazine, Entertainment Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. They all will review a book and come across scathing sometimes, including with movies and tv shows.

    I'm sorry, but you need to roll with the punches if you're publishing your work and having the masses read it.

    If an author is so sensitive about reviews, don't read them. And I say this as a new author who is published this year and a reviewer blogger of over 3 years.

    And if I think a character does something I may deem stupid or do not like, I have a right to say it in my review, especially if I spent my money on the book.

  17. Oh, and there have actually been negative reviews that made me WANT to read a book - because the reviewer said very clearly what things in the book didn't work for him/her - and the things that bothered the reviewer were things I actually like in a book! So a well-written negative review can be helpful in that way as well.

  18. I think of it like this:

    Once you send your writing out into the world, you no longer have control over it. You no longer have control over people's reactions to it. And you have no right to demand that others see it in a particular way.

    From the writing side of things, I need to stand behind what I write. On the Internet, if I allow comments, I open up to having a conversation with readers--and if not, then I open up to people talking about what I've written. But again, once it's public, I've ceded control.

    Outright bashing is...probably a waste of time, but that's more because it doesn't generally tell people why you disliked something. It sure feels good sometimes, though. I find that to be best shared with a smaller circle than the entirety of the internet, and I try to translate bashing into a more rational review. Though, that said, I think I've never bothered to review anything I was tempted to bash.

    I'll probably come back in ten minutes and want to argue another angle on the topic, heh.

  19. I'd like to see what these authors consider a bad negative review, just to have some basis for comparison. If they're totally bashing, like "this author is full of fail and should stop writing to save the rest of us the reading," then okay, I get that. But if it's a harsh yet supported negative review, I'd have to say suck it up. Everyone's going to come at a review differently and yes, I agree that personal attacks should be left out of them. I think that's a no-brainer. But what's construed as a personal attack differs from person to person.

    I posted a review on Goodreads that I, and many other people, felt reviewed just the writing, yet people still insisted on calling me mean-spiritied and attacking the author. It got to the point where the author actually stepped in in support of my review, saying that while it was harsh and her first negative review, she appreciated my opinion and how it wasn't mean-spirited. So when you have people reading your reviews that think a negative review of an author's writing is inherently a personal attack, you're kind of screwed.

    And I really don't think it's a bad thing to question the intent of the author, especially since the intent that a reader picks up on can vary wildly from the intent of the author at the time it was written. The author's subconscious tends to manifest itself in writing, or something they're innocently writing comes across as grossly different to other readers. Take Twilight or Hush,Hush, for example. Are we wrong to question the intent of the author to have a weak protag fall in love with an abusive stalker and make it okay? I think questioning intent in situations like this can help the reader to understand just what the intent is. No really, what WERE you thinking writing this? I want to know. Is this how you saw it when you were writing it? Is this what you really meant?

    WIth that being said, it all comes down to how things are said as well. Tone is everything, even in a toneless internet. There's a big different between "what the FUCK were you thinking?" and "I'd genuinely like to know why the author portrayed this situation like he/she did." So I really don't think anything's off limits in terms of reviewing writing. I really don't. But how it's worded does make all the difference. The train may have left the station, but you can still question why it took the left track when it took the right one the last time.

  20. I agree. I just read a book that I didn't really like. All I said was that it wasn't my cup of tea, but obviously many people enjoyed the book, it's not my right to tell people not to read a book. At least not on the internet. IRL, I tell people what I truly think of the book, but that's told in the confidence between friends. Things online can easily be found. Just because we have freedom of speech doesn't mean we always need to exercise it and say mean things just because we can.

    It just makes me wonder how these aspiring authors are going to handle unsavory reviews of their own work.

  21. I've written negative reviews for some books. I'm actually slogging through a series right now in which most of the books have gotten negative reviews thus far (I'm more or less obligated to read them after accepting a book via a reviewer program, otherwise I would have stopped after the first).

    But when I give a negative review, I always try to explain exactly why, and usually my negqative reviews are much more comprehensive than my positive ones. I also figure if you only give positive reviews, then it kind of diminishes the usefulness of your reviews, since then everything washes into an undifferentiated haze of praise, whereas if you give good reviews to good books, bad reviews to bad ones, and indifferent reviews to indifferent ones, the good ones stand out more.

  22. I agree with John and Girl on a Mission. I feel like I write a lot of negative reviews in comparision to most bloggers. Maybe not totally negative because I do try to weigh out the positives along with the negatives. However, I think too many bloggers are hesitant to be REALLY honest because they don't want to be blacklisted from ARCs and stuff like that.

    I think editing has gotten horrible lately. With the rise of self-publishing and these little boutique publishers that can't afford to serious copy editors it's like it doesn't matter anymore. I hate that! I call out books that have bad editing and I wish more bloggers would do the same. If we did, maybe they'd pay more attention to it and we'd get better quality product to review.

  23. You know, I always find myself scratching my head when I read negative reviews in which the blogger/reviewer makes assumptions about the editorial process that the book went through. E.g., "This book really should have been more closely edited." Or "Why did the editor let the writer do that?" These kinds of statements just seem odd to me because the blogger/reviewer is making assumptions about things they (typically) know nothing about.

    Every book goes through a different editorial process. Every writer makes 1000s of choices before a book is published. I think that maybe what Steph is trying to say is that these decisions are over and done with by the time the book is in reviewers' hands. I think a review is about analyzing (and criticizing) what's on the page. Criticizing what may or may not have happened between an author and her editor is ... well, I think it speaks to a reader's desire to know what goes on behind the scenes, but it says very little about what's actually on the page.

    I like to read reviews that engage with the story. The black-and-white words in the book. Did they work for the reader? Speculation about editing, or the author's intent (which is another can of worms) usually says more about the reviewer's desires than the author's.

    Thought-provoking post, Steph!

  24. Negative reviews are very difficult. I rarely write completely glowing reviews. I almost always include some criticism in my reviews, even if I really liked the book. I think it's helpful to readers to know what a book's flaws are and whether it's something you can deal with.
    But I can't imagine ever trashing a book. I'm so conflict averse in every aspect in my life that I tend to fall over backwards to emphasize that just because I didn't like something doesn't other people won't. And I try to find something good about every book, regardless of my rating.
    Another thing that's tricky is little snarky statements. I'm guilty of this. I've mentioned in my reviews that some aspects of a book (particularly those involving "mean girls") are silly for this or that reason. I don't intend to be overly mean or personal, but it's possible that it could hurt someone's feelings.

  25. I believe the reviewer has an obligation to the reader to be honest about the book, what they found good about it, as well as what didn't work for them. When I review a book, I know it may persuade someone to buy the book or not, so I want to tell them what I think. This is also my opinion, and the next reviewer may see it differently. But I never bash the author or say they don't know how to write or other such things. And I never say Don't buy this book.

    As an author I respect each review for my books and am interested in how others feel. When the reviewer personally attacks me, however, then I am crushed. Yes, writers must have a thick skin. So I put it aside and consider that this is not very professional of the reviewer, or maybe they were having a bad day.

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  27. First off, this was really well written and it’s a great topic to write about in a review blog that centres on books.
    I, for one, dislike writing negative reviews but I feel that since I have a blog where I review, I need to discuss the books that I read whether or not I enjoyed reading them. I do try and find something positive about every negative review that I write, though, just in case the author were to ever stumble across it. Even if it’s something as small as a nice cover or a great concept, I try to incorporate that into my review.
    While I don’t think that I’ve ever attacked an author’s choices with their writing, I can see where someone would get so invested in a review that they would. I’m not saying that it is right, but I can picture it happening that way. I personally never want to personally attack an author for what they have written (or have it come off as though I did), but with the internet I also think that some things can easily be taken out of context or not taken the way that they were meant.
    Sometimes honesty can be brutal and taken as such even when it was meant to just be purely sincere.

  28. Thank you for sharing this well written, thoughtful post. I agree with some of the sentiments already expressed. I like honest reviews. Tell me the good and bad points so I can make the decision if the book is right for me or not. The always gushing, everything is positive blog posts often leave me cold.

  29. great post. nicely written and thought provoking as always. and proof that we can be passionate in our opinions while still being thoughtful in how we present them.


  30. For the most part I agree. I don't know, I find negative reviews easier to write than positive reviews, because I find it easier to articulate what I don't like. I guess, I tend to be more emotional in my reviews, so if something provokes an emotional reaction, I write about it, as opposed to the technical things.

    I mean, you don't have the right to be a jerk and criticize the author as a person. However, if I don't care for a book, I'll straight up say it regardless. And I'm not about to go searching for positive things in a book I didn't like. For me, that's not genuine. Other people may do that, and it may be real, but not me. It is what it is.

    Whew, that's a super long response.

  31. What a great post! I agree with most of what you wrote and think your post was very well written. The line is so fine between a "reviewer's duty" and a "reviewer's right" and still respecting the author on the other side, because there's also a blurry space where something said in an "objective, critical" way can be interpreted as just mean.

    I personally hate reviewing books I didn't enjoy because of that. I try to put a lot of "I feel, I think", so that it's clear that my review is just a personal opinion, but I'm not sure how successful I am at that. And I always feel a bit bad when someone comment they'll pass on a book after a negative review because, who knows? It could have been their favorite book of the year!

  32. I agree with your general point that negative reviews should be respectful, but I think you go a bit too far, especially with the following bit: "Readers and reviewers, it's not our place to question the decisions that the author makes for his or her book. Those decisions were made a long time before the book reached our hands." I absolutely think that reviewers can question the author's decisions and say that they didn't work. The focus should be on maintaining a respectful tone, not on considering which aspects of a work are or aren't open to criticism. It's all open to criticism. The fact that the book was finished before it reached our hands doesn't imply that we shouldn't say negative things about it.

  33. I'm with Lenore-if I don't like a certain aspect of a book, even if it's a characters decisions or actions, I'm going to explain that. I feel like it's my responsiblity as a reviewer to write honest reviews-and that means there will times I write negative reviews. I always always try to explain why I feel the way I do, but there are times I just am not happy with the way the book is written or the storyline and I'm going to point that out. This isn't to bash the author, but instead pointing out what works and doesn't work for me as a reader. But just because I don't like a book doesn't mean someone else won't like it. I hate when I write a 2 or 3 star review and people say "oh, I won't read it now" Don't take my opinion on something as the final word-it's just my opinion and you might like it! But I'm going to share my honest opinion with people-negative and positive. I think there is an overflow of happy positive reviews in the blogging world and that can get very frustrating and very old. I think reviews need to be well thought out and if you're going to say something you like-explain why. If you're going to talk about something you didn't like-explain why.

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