Why I Don’t Like To Negatively Review Other Authors’ Books

That tweet generated some interesting discussion on Twitter this weekend, but I feel like that discussion still needs a bit of unpacking in a space that lets me talk in bursts more than 140-characters at a time. (Twitter is good at starting discussions and not as good at finishing them or making them clear. Twitter is also most excellent at tweeting pictures of tacos, toddlers, dogs, as well as spreading Vine videos of apathetic twerking. USE IT WISELY.)

My argument (read: opinion) is that authors negatively reviewing the work of authors authors is not the best idea in the world. You can! You’re free to. But the value proposition there is a bit shaky. As my wife’s boss has been wont to say: “The juice ain’t worth the squeeze.”

(To clarify, when I say “negatively review,” I mean that in the strictest sense — a review that is, by its definition, a “pan.” I do not mean a positive review with critical qualifications.)

Here’s my thinking on the subject — and you are of course free to agree, disagree, or ragetastically headbutt your monitor into a sparking pile of glass and plastic. As always: YMMV, IMHO, and other fun acronyms that mean, “You do as you like.”

Be A Fountain, Not A Drain

Above all else, I find it’s far more interesting to everyone else — and more constructive to your own mood — to put forth positive vibes into the world than negative signal. Certainly not suggesting you be a robot shouting chirpy cherub-cheeked propaganda all the time, or always be manically happy happy eeeeeee, but negativity also has a seductive, multiplicative quality. It gets attention. In Internet terms, it gets “clicks” and it earns response. But that’s not always a good thing, and you’re probably better off trying to be relatively positive and further, writing your own stories than trying to tear someone else’s apart.

Losing Potential Fans

I say, “I thought Danny Flarngbaum’s newest novel, Whale Thong, was an exercise in sloppy characterwork, poo-bucket plotting, and narrative dick-punching, and I suspect Mister Flarngbaum’s time would be better spent working the Fry-o-later at McDonald’s than poisoning our library shelves with his toxic claptrap.” I go on and on in my review.

You read this review.

And then you say, as a fan of Whale Thong, “Gosh, I really loved that book, and Chuck is being really critical of it.” And then, you might think the next time you see one of my books, “Ehhh, he and I don’t really agree on what makes good story,” and so you pass my books by. Or, you’re more offended than that, and you counter my negativity with your own — maybe you negatively review my book, maybe you just say shit about me on Twitter, maybe you try to argue, whatever.

Again: what’s the value here for me as an author?

What’s there to gain?

Authoritative, Yet Subjective

I’m a writer. Or –

An author, said with nose raised in the air and a snifter of brandy swirling in my hand. And with that comes the illusion that I’m an authority on what makes good writing, good story, good characterization and plotting and cover design and publishing strategies, blah blah blah.

Again: total illusion. I’m not an expert. I am probably strongly opinionated on the matter but for every opinion I have about All These Things, I can surely dig up plenty of examples that exist in opposition of my opinions — and, in fact, that do so quite successfully.

And yet!

When I offer my review, you might take it more seriously than, say, one from Goodreads. Not saying that’s fair or reasonable, only that it’s possibly true. Which means my negative review — which sounds authoritative but is entirely subjective — carries more weight. And I have an audience, to boot! So I’m using my reach and my (again: illusory) authority to do what?

To do harm to another author and their work.

Food Outta Mouths

When I say “do harm,” what I actually mean is:

Potentially rob that author of one or many sales. I don’t want to do that. Writing a book is hard goddamn work. You’ve got rent to pay. Or a mortgage. You’ve got a food bill. And cats or dogs. Maybe one or several kids. I don’t like the thought that my review is going to take money out of your pockets, or snatch food out of your kids’ mouths. Fuck that. I’m not “Internet Famous” or anything, but I have a blog and a social media feed that gets a substantial echo. Do I really want to use my social media reach to drink your milkshake or piss in your cereal bowl? No, I do not.

I’ve Got Hurt Feelings

Some people say that writers don’t have feelings. We have feelings!

Ahem.

Point is, you write a bad review of someone’s book, how are they supposed to feel about it? The easy answer is: “They should harden the fuck up and accept it.” Which is probably accurate. But maybe they don’t. That’s how hurt feelings work — they’re not logical. You feel what you feel. So, you give someone a negative review, you maybe just burned a potential future relationship — and this is a much smaller community than you think. It’s still one based on those relationships, on authors helping authors.

Plus, it goes back to that authoritative thing — a negative review from a fellow author is going to sting more than a negative review from a book blogger, or a critic, or somebody on Goodreads.

(And never mind the fact that authors have been known to play dirty pool from time to time — purposefully writing negative reviews of books by authors they don’t personally like.)

Again, not saying this is fair or reasonable.

But that question again: is the juice worth the squeeze?

What are you getting out of writing a bad review that matches or exceeds the potential negative ramifications for doing so?  What’s the takeaway for you?

Go Write Your Own Thing

It takes energy to write a bad review. Energy you could probably use elsewhere. Like, say, writing more awesome books. Go do that. Contribute word count to your own fiction.

My two cents: that’s where you’re going to get far greater mileage.

Your own stories are a juice forever worth the squeeze.

 

125 comments

  • I realized I rarely write critical reviews. I used to be of the mind that if I started it – I MUST finish it. Then I started reviewing and I just don’t have the time to do that. Plus – why torment myself? And WHY torment that poor soul who put their heart into writing it. Criticism is still important though and I do think who better to offer up those things than someone in your field?

    I think I would enjoy reading ones an author I like has written. But I could see how that would be dangerous ground for the author. You’re in a public position. As of the moment it is put out there you are being published, everything you say and do has the possibility of being scrutinized.

  • Science fiction fandom’s fanzine community (for wont of a better word) refers to negative reviews as KTF reviews (i.e. “kill the f*&ker”). These reviews tend to pick apart the reviewed work, but also can contain negative opinions about the author. Many a fanzine book reviewer has insisted that their KTF review style forces authors to own their “mistakes.” This attitude, I suspect, is often used as a “reason” for pillaging a book (a/o author) when, in point of fact, the reviewer (consciously or not) seeks to be seen as superior to the author. There’s also the “fun” aspect (“I really hung that one out to dry, right?”). It’s always easier to vilify a thing or person when there’s practically no chance of coming in physical contact with either of them.

    My guide as a reviewer is “Review the work, not the writer.” As a reader, “consider the source” reminds me that reading one or two reviews of a book won’t give me a clear picture of how the work has affected others. Smear campaigns are easy to start, especially on “teh intarwebz.” Unless an author has a large group of readers/supporters with Internet access and the will to disagree, attempts at halting such campaigns can be quite difficult.

    KTF reviewing is, imo, another aspect of bullying.

  • Hi Chuck,

    As someone who writes reviews I have a basic policy… I review only books I honestly enjoyed… i also steer away from any of potential critical thoughts I have. None of these writers are honestly asking for my critical input and really what I am trying to do be writing anything about the books I do is to raise the signal noise to drive more people to trying out things I really dig. (I know totally self serving of me, I want you all to write more awesome shit for me to read and if you can live a little easier with more fans that is a great plus…)

    Also as someone who does NANOWRIMO regularly and managed to write a couple pretty bad, borderline unreadable short novels that im a scared of even trying to edit…. but well I get that even writing trash is pretty hard work….

    Now I will be totally honest in that i did write some rageish negative things about a certain comics company with the initials d and c recently and was pretty harsh toward editors but well i would be sorry if the events were not still pissing me off…. PTSD from bullying….. sorry…

  • I like the juice/squeeze lingo. I may well adopt that.

    My reason for not is ultimately self-serving. I used to write critiques about roleplaying games, but eventually I stopped because the return wasn’t worth it. Not only was I spending time and words on stuff I wasn’t being paid for (as it was just blog content), I wasn’t building anything that I could later use. And the more critical posts garnered equally negative attention — which was even more time away from writing my own stuff, as well as sapping some of my emotional bandwidth in dealing with uncivil respondents.

    Since part of an author’s job more and more these days is to be at least a semi-public/accessible figure (for whatever that means on the Internet), it’s easy to write something that people take umbrage that causes you more time and headache than it’s worth. And since critical things are more likely to have than happen than pollyanna shit, well, I’d rather be paid for that effort than do it for free. Otherwise, it’s solely a potential drain on my mental health.

    – Ryan

  • I completely understand all of your reasons except for number three. You have plenty of actual expertise. Yes some of your review would be subjective, but I think most rational human beings understand that reviews are always subjective to varying degrees.

  • Wonderful article! I decided last year that I would no longer review anything I couldn’t give three stars or more to because it is far more productive to promote what we love instead of bashing what we hate. The world is full of enough negativity as is. Not to mention good stories are subjective to the person reading them. When I bad reviews of a book written by a fellow author, I immediately find myself wondering if there are sour grapes involved.

  • I am an author and I also review books that I read. I don’t review books I don’t like or can’t think of something good to say about the book. I figure my not liking a book doesn’t mean there aren’t hundreds of readers who will love the book and write glowing reviews. That’s my policy, whether the book came from a friend, the author, or a publicist.

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