Monday, March 8, 2010

Rerun Week

I'm going to be out of the office this week, cats & kittens, so I've set Ye Olde Venerable PMN to post a few reruns for you. Laura will be back with a fresh round-up this Friday; until then, enjoy! — E

Episode: "On the Importance of Negative Reviews"
Originally aired: Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

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. I don't generally like writing negative reviews. It just feels too mean. I don't mind publicly loving something, but publicly not liking something it's my style.

    If I read a negative review of something I'd written, I'd probably not like it at all, but I'd keep my mouth shut about it. Trashing the reviewer or whining about the review doesn't help anything, and it's unprofessional.

    I think the feminine of auteurs is femme aurteurs, like une femme medecin is a doctor who is a woman.

  2. I think negative reviews are important. Not raging hatred, but a reasoned discussion of what the reviewer liked or didn’t like can be very useful in helping me to decide whether to buy a book or not. And some negative reviews have induced me to buy books, where positive ones have not. So don’t knock the negatives.

    Personally, if I read a negative review of my work, I would go through the same process I do for negative critiques: supernova-like rage, detachment, analysis, personal conclusion which I would keep personal.

  3. the "the author is a raging misogynist, a blatant racist, or worse, a member of Congress" bit made me laugh out loud.

  4. I'm not a fan of either an exclusively positive or negative review. I often find that a well balanced, pro and con approach helps me more than anything. I think that an overly negative review actually turns me off to the critique unless backed up by specific, point-by-point reasons they’ve eviscerated a book. Sometimes they’re right, and I thank them for the heads up. Often I buy the book anyway to see what all of the hubbub is about. Glowing reviews tend to make me arch my eyebrows and wonder about kick-backs. I’m sure that every piece of work has room for improvement, as well as examples of artistry. As far as a negative review of my work…I’m not sure how I’d handle that. Hopefully with grace.

  5. I have been in both positions, I was a book reviewer for a major newspaper for several years and have been at the receiving end of both positive and negative reviews of my own mysteries. I have to say that the ones I recall are the insanely negative ones, the ones I forget the positive . . . what's really sad about that is that I only got two negative reviews and many positive ones so go figure.
    As for when I was reviewing books, I just discarded most of those I hated, although some seemed to be so egregious I did write a negative review, these were mainly books being pushed by the publisher, I never took apart a book when I thought that it was not going to basically see the light of day with me, or without me.

  6. This is interesting. I think bad reviews are just as important as good ones, but I often find the bad review's SHORTcomings, in most people's minds, is that they sound angry. I don't like reading a review stating how brilliant a book is and then I read it and hate the book. Similarly, I would not like to read a review telling me to avoid a book that I end up reading and loving. I like reading reviews by authors, like John Green and Stephen King. They sound very neutral, but point out the points of the book and whether they were or were not well-made.

    As a writer, a bad review is what you make it, just like a bad critique. Are you going to learn from it or sulk and start a feud?

  7. I agree with everything that you said. I think negative reviews are as important as positive ones. But I think writers, both aspiring and published, need to tread carefully, because you never know who you might end up needing a blurb or a favor from. I'm always a little fearful a negative review might come back to bite me.

    Personally, I'm very sensitive to them. When I got my first 4 star review (instead of 5) on Goodreads, I nearly burst into tears, even though the reviewer said she loved my book. I need to toughen up. O_O

  8. I think that negative reviews are fine. They're "reviews" afterall. It's either got to be good or got to be bad. It can go two ways.
    I think it's important for a writer to know what exactly IS wrong with their book. It's definitely necessary to have a thick skin, though.

  9. I'm always nervous about writing negative reviews. It all depends the way it is presented, though: flat out saying a book is awful without any reasons why is a poor way to write any review. If somebody were to give me a negative review, I think I would thank them for their honesty.

  10. I'll be honest in my reviews at some place like Goodreads. But I'm just not into giving a bad review on my blog, which isn't a book blog. Especially a negative review on a debut author. But I do see that honest reviews have their place.

  11. I won't write bad reviews. It just goes against my personality, but I'll welcome them someday when I'm published. Conflict of opinion is more intriguing, to me, than a book that gets nearly all good (or bad) reviews.

  12. I, myself, just can't write a bad review. I can critique a manuscript, but I do admit when I do that I say, I like this and this, but this needs work to soften the blow.
    I do think an honest, negative review is okay as long as it doesn't bash the author and it is done diplomatically and intelligently.

  13. I think bad reviews are important if they are respectful and constructive. I wouldn't want to see a review of my work that said, "This book sucked!" I would be less inclined to read one that started out that way as well. Instead, if it is respectful (i.e. I did not enjoy this book and here is why...) I would be more open to it. As an author, I wouldn't even bother with a scathing review if the reviewer couldn't tell me what they didn't like about it. But if you put yourself out there, you should expect that not everyone is going to love what you've done. After having said all that, I would never be a book reviewer. I'm just not cut out for it.

  14. I look to reviews as sign posts to what to read. Knowing where to go, for me as a reader, is more helpful than where not to go... Silence takes care of that. For a writer, negative feedback is enormously helpful, but shouldn't that be done in private?

  15. I think that constructive criticism is always useful. I do agree it needs to be about the book and not the author. When I don't like something, I know why I don't like it. I always want to know why others don't like my writing. You can not write for everyone, so if a person is reading in their genre and finds a book poorly done - I say share. How does a writer improve, if not through constructive criticism - from their critique group, agent, editor, publisher, friends, etc... so why not the paying public as well. This is a service industry in that we are selling a product. If people don't like it, please tell us why so we can improve that product.

  16. As a writer, I would hope that I could learn from a negative review, keeping in mind a writer can never please everyone. As a reader, I respect the critic who can be both positive and negative. Again, keeping in mind critics speak for themselves and the craft and may have tastes different than my own. The only review that every bothers me is the glowing review of a mediocre work, merely based on its commercial success.

  17. Three things:

    In my experience as a theatre reviewer, it's much easier to write a negative review than a positive review. Much like happy families, positive reviews are all the same, but negative reviews are way more passionate w/ infinite variations.

    As a book reviewer, I try to go for balanced as opposed to either/or. I find it hard to believe when someone claims to have gotten through an entire book that he or she hated. Then why read the whole thing? Most books have good and bad.

    That all said, when trying to decide what to read on Amazon, I only read the negative reviews and decide if I want to read from there. The way I figure it, if I still want to read your book after reading all of your negative reviews, then it's definitely worth my time!

    BTW, send a thank you not to Carleen Brice. She's how I and I suspect many other readers this week found your site. :)