Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On the Importance of Negative Reviews

A slight departure from sales today, mes auteurs. I've been discussing the virtues of negative book reviews with a few friends lately, and as we have differing opinions, I figured laying everything out in the Court of Public Opinion™ might help each of us see things from the other's point of view.

There are some people who subscribe to the "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all" school of reviewing. I am not one of those people. I've written my fair share of book reviews, a few of which were less than favorable (the word "scathing" has been suggested). Although I generally ended up reviewing books I disliked simply because they were assigned to me by an editor, I've occasionally written reviews of books I detested because I felt they were so flawed that they deserved public treatment rather than silence. And that's one of the principle reasons why, à mon avis, the negative review should be written: to help correct the bias generated by solely positive reviews, since such reviews are oftentimes met only with silence by those with dissenting opinions. The fact that we so often don't finish books we dislike only compounds the problem.

More importantly, though, is this: rarely do we question a positive or even neutral response to a book, but as soon as someone indicates that they didn't like—or even flat-out hated—that book, we immediately want to know why. What didn't the reviewer like? What worked and what didn't? Was it the writing? The pacing? The characters? The list is endless, and a well-written negative review is often just as illuminating as a positive one, if not moreso. Think of it this way: you rarely question what it is that makes your car or refrigerator or laptop work while it's running properly, but as soon as it breaks, you want the nitty-gritty on what's gone awry. The same goes for books: we don't know what makes good fiction until it's missing.

There are a couple of caveats here, though, and I hope they're somewhat intuitive. First, the review should be about the book and not about the author. As I've said before, a bad review is (or should be) an expressed opinion of a given book, not an indictment of the author's character. To cross the line and malign the author of a book for what he or she has written—even if it's clear from the writing that the author is a raging misogynist, a blatant racist, or worse, a member of Congress—is beside the point. All reviewers (myself included) have strayed from this point from time to time, but it's important to remember that book reviews are exactly that: book reviews. Not author reviews. Not ideology reviews. Book reviews.

Additionally, the review needs to explain why the reviewer didn't like the book. Going back to my earlier car/fridge/laptop example, it doesn't do you any good to simply know that your property is broken; you want to know what, exactly, is wrong. You can't fix something without knowing what's wrong with it, and authors can't avoid their previous pitfalls (or the pitfalls of others) without knowing what reviewers find lacking in their work.

I'm curious to know what you think, though, auteurs and... auteuses? (My French isn't as good as it used to be.) Do you think the negative review has a place in contemporary criticism? How would you react to a negative review of your own work?


  1. You just let us know when you change your mind about that marriage business.

  2. It's 'auteurs' for both males and females, actually. French is bizarre like that.

  3. I love scathing reviews by people who know the genre, correcting a public misapprehension. (For example, that Harry Potter is better than average.) Scathing reviews by people who are assigned books they wouldn't otherwise read are worse than worthless. If you're not the target market for a book, you've got no place reviewing it.

    My friend's middle-grade novel was slammed for not appealing to older teens. If you don't read romance, don't review Twilight. If you don't read sci-fi, don't review Revelation Space.

  4. It is often repeated, but this is a subjective business. The best reviews, good or bad, invite the reader to think about what they are reading. Bad reviews have their place. I've read books after reading bad reviews. Sometimes I agree, sometimes not.

    Any published author had already heard negative critique of his or her work on the journey to publication. A bad review may hurtful, but it could be viewed as an opportunity to improve. Or the author could simply to thumb his nose at the reviewer and carry on writing in the way he chooses.

  5. What about reviewers who are also authors? Does it hurt one's image or lead to possible ostracization in the author community if one writes a negative review?

  6. I agree with bingol that a review should be done by someone familiar with the genre, and who enjoys reading it. That said, negative reviews can be helpful.

    There are a couple of ways for an author to take a negative review. One is to take it at face value. Is the review accurate? Are there points that can help you improve? Use it to fix your writing.

    The other way to take it, is to realize you can't please everybody. There's always going to be someone who doesn't like your book. If you've determined that the review didn't bring up any salient points, then shrug and go on your way. Life is short.

  7. I *like* negative reviews. I often buy a book based on honest reviews, even negative ones, because if the reviewer says they didn't like the book because of X, and I happen to like books with X, I can trust that book to probably be a good one.

    I do NOT trust glowing reviews. From anyone, even my mother.

    Which is something I'm going to have to tell myself when my books are reviewed. Still, I'll probably cry like a baby.

  8. I have actually been finding the discussion lately on this topic pretty interesting. In the past I haven't done many (any) negative reviews since if the book wasn't good enough to get me excited about writing about it, I just didn't.

    However... with the discussion as of late I got to thinking that a negative review would really help me as a writer or author - even if I didn't agree or like what was said. Someone somewhere thought negatively and if they are able to give reasons, perhaps that is some missing insight to make the authors work better.

  9. As a reader I want honest reviews of a book. If the reviewer hated it, then he/she should say so and explain why. I have, more than once, bought a book because of a negative review -- either because I want to know if the book was really that bad or it was plain from the review that I would probably like the book because of the things a reviewer disliked about it.

    I discount reviews, good or bad, that are badly written or poorly supported. Attacks on the publisher and/or author are a reason to discount a review as well.

    As an author, I've learned my personal tolerance for reading reviews of my work. There are reviewers known for their snark and I do avoid reading them when they're talking about my work, particularly when the book is just out. I might go back 1-2 years later and read it, though.

    But I still want reviewers to say what they think, the good the bad and the ugly. If they dislike a book of mine, so be it. I am, however, under no obligation to read any review or take anything said to heart.

    I don't think a book review is the place for an author to learn anything about improving his or her craft. A critique and a review are not the same thing and they are not read or written with the same goals and intents.

  10. I agree with Beth. When I go to buy a book on Amazon I look at the negative reviews. The positive ones will all say the same things (mostly), but the negatives will give me the reasons the book didn't work for them.

    If I don't agree with their decision, or I do like that specific something they don't, then it's easier for me to hand over my money.

    In example -- Devon Monk's Magic in the Blood had bad reviews talking about the price of magic being a loss of memory and how annoying the continuation of that was to the reader. I found the idea fascinating, so I bought the book. I'm still waiting to see why it doesn't affect anyone else like that, but I found the limitation intriguing and so the bad review sold me on the book.

  11. It's easier to accept negative reviews. Positive reviews beg the question "Is this person's tastes the same as mine?" and a single review doesn't answer that question. Negative reviews often cite specific instances and you can tell whether those same instances would bug you too. Positive reviews focus on broader aspects or less tangible instances that don't necessarily convince you that you'll enjoy it unless you have an understanding of the reviewer's tastes and believe them to be similar to your own.

    I would be appalled at a world that only offered positive reviews.

  12. I don't trust reviews that are extreme in either direction. There are too many people trying desperately to sell schlock and they're not above stooping to create a false positive review about things; to them it's just another form of advertising. OTOH, someone who totally slams something has probably got an ax to grind. In neither case is the reviewer likely to be impartial, which is the whole point of a review.

    For reviews I do, I don't have time to review every little thing, so I do things I have stronger than normal feelings about. Usually, it's something I liked but had some gripes about and I want the buggers to take their almost awesome thingy and get the bugs out so that version 2 is perfect. I'm also quite fond of doing things hardly anyone does. Who needs yet another review of the Wii? Not me.

    When it comes to my stuff being reviewed, sure, I want the review to glow as much as possible, but I get that by putting my all into what I do, not by crying about being poorly reviewed. I don't mind getting an HONEST thumb down, as long as I understand why I got it and can figure out what I can do next time to keep from getting it.

    But at the same time, we have to remember that we can't please everyone all the time. What some people love, others hate, and ultimately, as long as I was honest and did the best job I could (and got paid ;) ), then I don't care what anyone says.

  13. I think it's okay to write a bad review on Amazon if there are lots of good ones. I often look at Amazon after I've read a popular book I didn't like to see if anyone else agreed with me. But I think if your review has the potential to decrease sales for the author, you should be very careful and perhaps not write a review if you hated the book. Some review sources have too much power (like SLJ for children's books--those reviewers can be so crabby and unfair).

  14. When I read a review, I only pay attention to what the book is about. And hopefully the reviewer states that! If it's something that interests me, I'll read it, whether or not the reviewer liked it.

  15. A negative review, if done well, can sell the book. I bought one once based on a scathing review, because it was obvious that what the reviewer hated was what I liked. And I did.

    If I got a negative review, I'd tweet like Alice Hoffman, grab my friends, hit the bars and cry into my margaritas, while my pals patted my back and told me what a genius I am and what an ***hole that reviewer was.

  16. Having just gone through the review process with my first novel I found, perhaps oddly, that what bothered me wasn't bad reviews (though, there were only a couple; if they had really piled up it would have gotten to me), but being reviewed badly, whether the reviewer liked the book or not.

    Mostly when the reviews came in, they "got" what I was trying to do and then assessed whether I'd succeeded or not. Even those who came out on the "not" side didn't bother me too much. I'd nod and think, Yeah, I could have done better there.

    But those couple people who completely misread the book and then judged it on an incorrect reading ... that bothered me.

    As a reader, when shopping on Amazon, I always start with the bad reviews. Often, as a commenter above noted, they'll absolutely HATE something that rather appeals to me, and the book gets bought.

  17. There is (obviously) a difference between professional reviews and amateur internet reviews. I mainly write commercial tie-in and branded stuff at the moment and I've had some stinking reviews for my Rupert Bear stuff on Amazon, which are blatantly from people who would hate my work even if it was gold-plated genius, just because they are wedded to Rupert’s post-war heyday. The trouble is that this fan base is far more likely to post reviews than casual readers – resulting in the false impression that I am, per se, crap.

    This worries me a bit, but there’s not a lot I can do except console myself that for writing tie-ins I’m not really looking to build a profile with the general public, but a reputation with publishers.

  18. Why no ideology? I absolutely agree the bulk of a review should be about craft points (pacing, characters, everything you mentioned), but I for one am a political reader, and I want to know if there's an overt politic in a given book, and whether that commentary is handled successfully or poorly. I think so long as it's the ideology of the book being commented on and not the politics of the author, ideology ought be fair game.

  19. Yikes. Isn't it the editor's job to publish the good stuff and only the good stuff? I never buy books without reading some portion first. That's my chance to get an honest opinion, and I know exactly what I like. No offense, Eric, but I've never found book reviews very helpful. A group of reviews is slightly more helpful, but it all comes down to the sample read and flip through.

  20. We should all remember that products with bad reviews sell better than those with no reviews. It's better to get reviewed and skewered than left out in the cold.

  21. Up till now I've avoided giving bad reviews. I guess my mom beat "if you can't say anything nice" into me too well! But after reading this thread, I'm thinking maybe I should do more honest reviews, at least at Amazon and GoodReads and my book club websites. I've bought books that had glowing reviews that I thought were absolutely terrible. I would have appreciated having an honest "this is why I didn't like this book" review to read, so I should start leaving some.

    I am a little chary about doing it with my pseudonym though. I mean, nothing looks more like sour grapes than a hopefully-up-and-coming author talking about someone else's lack of style or plot, even if it's just how you really feel.

  22. I definitely think that professional book reviewers should be honest about the merits of books--good, bad, and ugly. I think there is a need for honest discussion.

    However, as a blogger, I choose not to talk about books that I don't like. I'm an avid reader, but I'm not a professional reviewer. Someone's yuck is another person's yum, as my son's teacher likes to say.

    What frustrates me as book reviewers go, are the people who bash a book simply because it is extremely popular. Book elitists who claim that super-bestsellers have no merit, and anyone who reads them are just sheep following around the crowd. Those people, I ignore.

  23. There are some excellent reviews on Amazon, but there are also plenty of armchair book-burners out there.

    I've had bad reviews and it hurts, especially the first time.

  24. Negative reviews are definitely more entertaining.

  25. Matilda McCloud said: But I think if your review has the potential to decrease sales for the author, you should be very careful and perhaps not write a review if you hated the book.

    I understand the kindness behind this statement, but I diagree with the advice.

    It's not a reviewer's responsibility to help the author make sales.

    Also, if we avoid giving bad reviews to "bad" books, then we're censoring important information from future book buyers. Honesty in reviews leads to fewer people wasting their money on books that are not to their taste.

  26. A negative review of my own book would drive me to drink. But since I have one in my hand at the moment, fire away.

  27. I wondered if I should post a negative review of a particular book once. I didn't give it a horrible rating, but I wasn't sure I ought to say anything. I know a lot of people who live by "only review those you liked".

    Ultimately, I made sure that I explained myself fully, and didn't just slam the novel or the author. I detailed what I thought/felt was wrong, and sincerely hope that if the author ever read the review, that she may have found it helpful.

    Negative reviews without an explanation are like contest entries that get low scores without an explanation -- definitely not useful or encouraging. If people hate the work and feel compelled to dish about it, they ought to back it up with reasons why. Just as someone who loves it gushes about parts they liked.

  28. Speaking only from the unpublished writer point of view, I'm desperately praying for someone to have something negative to say. If I don't know what doesn't work...I can't fix it. Yeah, it's nice to hear "OMG, I love it!" But...I know things aren't perfect and I need someone who's not in my head to help me find the flaws/plot holes.

    I LOVE negative opinions...as long as they're not personal attacks (i.e. you're an idiot).

  29. I agree that:

    Someone should not review a book written in a genre with which the reviewer is not familiar/does not read. (same goes for agents soliciting mss from writers at writers' conferences). Chances are the writer may know more than the reviewer/agent re: the genre/subject which may make the review meaningless (or at least less valid).

    Negative opinions that are constructive and not personally attacking can be very helpful IF they point out specific things (writing errors/style/plot/etc.) that need to be improved.

  30. This is the most lucid thing I've seen on the whole debate. You're absolutely right on all counts.

    That said, I think the value of that negative review really depends on the placement of the book in the marketplace and the venue in which the review appears. If the new blockbuster from mega-author Busty McBlockerson is an obvious phone-in, or the Pulitzer nom is a case of emperor's new prose, or the gay vampire romance doesn't seem worth the seven figure advance -- sure. Blaze away. But if someone's literary fiction debut from a tiny press fails to amuse you, why not let it slip quickly and quietly below the waves? Are you really so certain that you are right and the editor is wrong that you'd go out of your way to tear that author's heart out? The "benefits" of negative reviews you mention above are real, but they don't come close to justifying the collateral damage in a case like that.

    And absolutely right on, bingol above: "Scathing reviews by people who are assigned books they wouldn't otherwise read are worse than worthless. If you're not the target market for a book, you've got no place reviewing it."

    I'd add to that, anonymous reviews are worthless. We should be allowed to consider the source, as they say.

  31. I enjoy reading most all kinds of reviews (and I tend to read negative ones first for the reasons stated by others--one woman's trash is another's treasure. What I DON'T find useful are the snarky reviews simply done to feed the reviewers ego rather than actually review the book. I've read some reviewers who take inordinate pride in tearing books up just for the sake of being thought of as amusing or smart. Um, notsomuch. They cause unnecessary pain (this happened to a pubbed friend of mine) and just make the reviewer look small.

  32. Hi bingol, Joni:

    I'm going to have to disagree slightly with you, albeit for different reasons. As She Wrote... well, wrote, it's occasionally true that a reviewer out of his or her element regarding a given genre may make errors or miss important aspects of the book that would be obvious to a veteran of said genre, but I don't think that makes the review "worthless." After all, each of us read a sci-fi/fantasy/romance/chick lit novel for the first time at some point, and a reviewer who is not totally immersed in the genre (s)he is reviewing may have a less tinted analysis for those of us just getting to know an author/genre. (Side note: just because I reviewed books that were assigned to me doesn't mean I wasn't the target audience—I very much was.)

    Second, I'd actually love to see a resurgence of the anonymous review (which was all the rage a couple of centuries ago). There are some literary circles (here I'm thinking of poetry) where writing a negative review of a more accomplished writer's book can effectively get you blacklisted in some markets. Honesty can come at quite a cost.

  33. I think, as some people have mentioned in their comments, that a reviewer should firstly be someone experienced in the field of literature - even a serious amateur reader of books will suffice - and secondly be reviewing a genre he or she enjoys. I read a review of an Alexander McCall Smith book (I really loved the book) which started out with the reviewer saying he hated this kind of book, and then he tore it to shreds. If a reviewer is comfortable in a genre then he is more likely to focus on the quality of writing and the story than letting everyone know he hates the genre. Yet one can branch out and try other genres and often be pleasantly surprised.
    I have not had any negative reviews yet (phew!)as an author, but I have had comments that ranged from personal choice (which I accept)to comments that indicate the person didn't actually read the book through (very irritating) to valuable pertinent remarks that made me take action in my next book to correct. Reviews are just people's opinions. It is advisable to learn from the comments that have value to you as a writer. People will still buy books or watch movies, in spite of reviews. I think the worst kind of 'literary fraud' is when bookshops tout a new book by an established writer as utterly fantastic, and the book is a load of rubbish. Now that's lying to the public. My mother is 74 and an avid reader - she'll read anything. The other day she asked me why almost every new book has "The Number One Bestseller" emblazoned across the top of the cover. After all, she opined, how do they know that before it's gone onto the bookshelves. Yes, I think we often end up being led by the nose and told something is good when it is patently awful. So, roll on the brave honest qualified reviewer.

  34. As a reviewer for Thomas Nelson, I posted a book review today of a book that disappointed me in some ways. I respect the authors and their experience. I think they have a lot of wisdom. But the book tried to do too much and thus lost the momentum it might have carried.

    It was painful for me to write a negative review. I wondered if it will come back to haunt me one day. Have I lost the good graces of those whom I respect? I found myself a bit depressed after writing it.

    But, in the end, I had to be honest. What's my word worth if it isn't real?

    Your post today is timely for me, and it is comforting.

  35. What drives me nuts is reviewers who do not like the kind of book you have written and assume the fault is with the book. Erotic fiction that (horror of horrors) does not end happily ever after is frequently slated by romance reviewers who have not twigged that its a whole different genre with different rules.

    It's pointless having someone review a book they are bound to hate. If you loathe (as I do) misery memoires, pass it on to someone who doesn't if you possibly can, and at the very least, start the review with 'I am not the right person to review this because I loath the genre' so at least eveyrone knows

    I come at this with both author and reviewer hats to wear. Bad reviews are fine, necessary, but its so important to be wary of personal tastes and biases. Me not being the appropriate reader does not make the book bad. No book should please everyone, after all.

  36. Reviews aren't there for the writer. They're there for the consumer. If you feel a book is not worth a potential buyer's hard-earned cash, say so; don't write a positive review because you don't want to affect that writer's sales.

    I used to write game reviews for some big websites and magazines (yes, folks, I got paid money to play computer games). No matter how nice the developers were when I talked to them; no matter how friendly and accommodating the PR reps were to deal with; no matter if a free t-shirt or some piece of swag came with the copy of the game, my review always kept the consumer in mind. The question I always asked myself was--would I want someone else to spend their money on this product?

    I don't write book reviews because for one, I don't analyze books the way I can analyze a game. For another, I feel it would come across as author jealousy to speak negatively about a fellow writer's work. But if you're going to review books and you want people to trust your word, do it honestly and keep the consumer in mind.

  37. Well-written reviews explain flaws that will be obvious to the target audience. If you can't offer solutions you may not understand the story or storylogue in general to be effective in a review. I wait until I have a solution for each problem I bring up.

    As a courtesy to the author, criticism works best as impersonal perspective in exchange for warning the audience of what they need to bring to the experience.

    Ever notice you can read a critical review and then like the story just fine? Good criticism helps the audience understand how to approach the story. Scathing criticism is usually an attempt to buffer a serious-to-fatal flaw with humor instead of direction. Sometimes people cannot be honest about their work because they use it to self identify. That's unfortunate.

    All the criticism to my work so far has been understandable to me, thankfully before publishing. Insight and appreciation are both rewarding to read. I'd rather know than not because I'd like to improve. I'd also rather not find out in a public review of a book that's already published. If it turns out to be accurate, I'd feel somewhat betrayed by my editor and publisher for not being honest with me in the initial development. For this reason I move my projects ahead with a lot of personal skepticism, very slowly. Perhaps I'm just the sort of person who would be hit hard if I found out my final draft was worthless. But I've yet to write anything that perfect.

  38. A negative review would of course have to be answered with all guns blazing. I'd also make certain I had additional clips so I could reload and blaze some more. Then I would stake out the reviewer's home, leave a bag of something rather odious on their doorstep, light it and ring their doorbell. Also, I would attempt to get a piece of hair or somesuch and make a voodoo doll and just have at it with pins. Then I would climb the highest mountain I could find, make certain behind me was a blazing red sunset, and my body in black silhouette, would raise my fist to the heavens and proclaim: "As sure as I stand here, I swear, I will never again write a book a reviewer will ever trash."
    That's pretty much, more or less, what I would do. Now, if you will excuse me, I'm feeling a bit tired now. I think I will get some rest.

  39. Eric, you mentioned that the fact that we can't finish a book speaks volumes. People often include that info in a review; sometimes, however, other people (usually ones who loved the book) respond and claim you can't judge a book that you didn't even finish.

    Normally, it's probably true that being unable to continue reading, once you've allowed a reasonable amount of time to connect with the characters and their story.

    However, as a personal example, I have never finished Fahrenheit 451. I have a valid excuse: the copy I was reading was missing the last 50 pages, and ended at a point where I was so disgusted with the story, I did not want to seek out another copy to finish it. (After over a decade, I may revise my opinion: my dad told me the other day that the ending is great and I should give it a second chance.)

    If I reviewed F451 today, I'd probably give it 2/5 stars. Is that a valid review? Probably not.

    On negative reviews of my work: I'd love to say the same "all guns blazing" full frontal assault, but I know myself—it would be met with muttering, mocking, self-loathing and appeals to friends and fans for ego boosts. Same way I handle criticism now, mostly.

  40. Absolutely, yes, negative crticism has a place in contemporary criticism today. It's done in every other kind of creative media, why not books. When you do anything creative at all - any form or art, writing, film, etc. - you have to have a thick skin. Nothing is perfect and when it comes to creative endeavors, I've yet to see a crative anything that doesn't bring on the opinions And they should be brought. This is ultimately how one improves, or one way at the very least.

    Some things can be overlooked if the positives outweigh the negatives, but I will usually still point out the negatives to give a more balanced view of the book. I'll speak up if a DNF prompted me strongly enough as well.

    I'm not a writer striving to be published yet but I would hope I'd be able to keep my cool in the face of crticism, constructively phrased or not. It's a completely different shoe and on another foot, though, having to be faced with said criticism as opposed to giving it. Really? Only time and experience can tell how one would react to it. And also maturity level.

  41. Negative reviews, when honest opinions (and not personal attacks), are essential. Would people rather reviews only be full of rainbows and unicorns? Saying there shouldn't be any pisses me off about as much as people who say you shouldn't keep score in children's sports.

    Treating people like fragile namby pambys only weakens them - and I don't know about other writers, but I'd like to be as strong as possible.

  42. I don't know - I tend to put more stock in well-rounded reviews that consider the positives and negatives of a work and which place it in a broader context. It makes me feel the critic is working harder, is better at doing his or her job, and isn't just a grump.