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.

 

129 comments

  • I do it. I was asked to give my opinion from a writer’s point of view. If every writer says no, that’s a valuable resource gone. I don’t review books from my publishers and I don’t review books from my friends. And I don’t talk about anything but that particular book.

  • As an author, you have just as much right to express your opinion about a book, whether or not you like it. As a rational human being, you ought to be able to do so without being an asshole. That’s the magic of constructive criticism, which, I think, would have a bit more weight if it comes from a fellow author. If a review is just plain scathing, then that implies some sort of more personal hate is going on and just looks poorly on the reviewer.

    • I’m not suggesting authors don’t have the right, of course. I’m just asking if it’s worth it. I mean, the actual value of writing a negative review — not just a scathing review but a constructive yet purely negative one — is (for me, at least) pretty close to zero. I get nothing out of it beyond attention, and the attention earned isn’t going to sell MY books, and might actually help UNSELL someone else’s. It’s purely ego to say, “Well, I feel strongly enough about the importance of my review that I want other people to listen to it and heed it.” And I can’t be that guy. I have the right to be, sure. And I like to *think* that I could do it in a way that was constructive and not pissy. But even still, I have no idea how well it’d be received, and further, what I would get out of it.

      Might be a different story were I a paid critic, mind. Then you start to cross over into genuine critique, which is a somewhat different animal than reviewer.

      • I am very confused by the idea that payment is what distinguishes ‘genuine critique’ from ‘review’. Are you suggesting that, for example, academics who write journal articles (which are almost never paid) are not offering genuine critique? Or that people who write paid reviews for newspapers always are? Because that seems bizarre to me. Surely what determines the kind of critique or review you are offering is its content?

      • That was a general “you,” but as you said, it comes down to your personal decision to do it or not.

        Personally, I would like to have an author critically review my book, assuming they do so in a positive way and offer the constructive criticism. If they honestly don’t like my book, then I have to be a big girl and accept that and step back and take the advise they offer for future works. I would value this opinion far more than a paid critic.

        Hmm…I’m not sure how I feel about the idea of an author’s negative review unselling someone else’s book or selling/unselling their own. You also speak of the attention it would give you. These are important considerations, but unless you are running around waving an “I read this and hated it! Read my review!” flag, I don’t think it’s a problem. An author is still a reader who is entitled to their opinion and there are likely to be other reviewers who agree or disagree to allow potential readers to make a decision. Perhaps the answer is, if an author chooses to negatively (or positively) review a book, to do so on a social site like Goodreads where the review can be balanced with other reviews.

        • And that’s entirely reasonable, mind you. I’m just saying, I can’t quite figure out the value proposition. It’s a path potentially fraught with some peril, and further, one of little (or no) reward.

          • Reward for you, as the author reviewing? Or reward for the author being reviewed? For the latter, the reward I would hope for is constructive criticism to help for the future. For the former, the reward would be helping that author. If the concern is only about book sales, then I guess it’s not worth it … but then, I don’t think that should be a factor on whether or not I respectfully review a book or not.

            What if an author specifically asks that you review their book and you don’t end up enjoying it?

      • Well said! My personal mantra, when I love a book I am only too pleased to let everyone know about the book and will gladly promote it. If a book doesn’t work for me, I move on and there is no need or nothing to gain to mention my dislike

  • I have been working through a NF book that I didn’t particularly care for the first time around, doing a chapter-by-chapter “discussion” on my blog. My goal in doing it isn’t to being mean or complain about the author (I’ve got loads of respect for her), but to point out some weaknesses in her arguments and offer alternatives. I think novel reviews are different, though. I just reviewed an entire series (I think it’s up to 15 now) by a prominent author, and I was positive, even suggesting that others should read them. But I had a couple minor criticisms, though I said they weren’t enough to keep me coming back. I tried to think “how would this author feel about my words if she came across my review?” and wrote my criticisms and analysis as respectfully as I could. Because authors do have feelings, just like everyone else, and I think we should ask that question anytime we offer criticism, especially online. People may not like what we have to say about them or their product, but the least we can do is say it with respect if we choose to say it on the internet.

    • “People may not like what we have to say about them or their product, but the least we can do is say it with respect if we choose to say it on the internet.”

      That, definitely that.

      — c.

    • Abby, I agree with you about non-fiction being different, because the criticism is generally about the idea(s) in the book. A book on spanking children as a gold standard could be interesting to me, but I’m likely to disagree mightily with the premise, and probably be able to tear a few holes in the arguments with some well-placed research findings from elsewhere. For fiction, the story is the story is the story. Ditto the characters. Ditto the plot. A reader may dislike that a heroine always needs to be rescued by the hero, but they can’t argue that “the author shouldn’t have the heroine be a dishrag because [insert research here.”] They can really only argue that they don’t like it “because [insert emotion or research here.”] Non-fiction we read (mostly) with our minds; fiction we read with our feelings.

  • Several months ago I reviewed a debut novel on my blog. Now, my blog is new-ish, and my cat is probably more internet famous than I am. I could say anything about any book, really, without impacting sales one way or the other, I think. And this review was fair. It wasn’t a pan. It was “this book was good but.”

    Still … it felt squicky to me. I happen to know the writer read my review, and the thought makes me cringe, because EVEN THOUGH the review was fair, it could still be considered discouraging. I hope not. I hope I’m just embracing somewhat unearned guilt as I am wont to do. I hope he either got some good from it or blew it off and kept on doing his thing. But. Squicky.

    I haven’t made a hard rule about what I will or won’t say about books, but the next time I read one that I give three or fewer stars to on Goodreads, I’ll think long and hard about whether to just skip blogging a review.

  • I was a paid reviewer for about two years or so – back when magazines actually PAID you to write a review.

    It was a REALLY cool gig. I got paid ten to twenty dollars for waxing loquaciously for about two or three paragraphs on a book that I hadn’t actually had to pay for. I don’t know how much per word that boiled down to – but it was still a REALLY cool gig.

    But then I came to a book that I couldn’t find much nice to say about.

    “This person paid for advertising,” the publisher told me. “Can’t you find ANYTHING nice to say about it?”

    “Well,” I said. “I like that it had two covers – front and back – with pages in between – although it could have done with a few less of those pages – like all of them.”

    Well that flew about as far as a solid concrete fart.

    Another time I kicked a book hard in a review and three months heard back from an editor of an anthology that I had submitted a story too – and he wanted to know just why the hell I had gone and kicked his book so hard in print for?

    Was he being unprofessional? Hell – I don’t know. I was just the guy who had kicked his book.

    So if I’m reading a book and I don’t like it I just throw it in the corner and let the cat pee on it for awhile. I figure that’s criticism enough for my needs.

    I still write the occasional Goodreads and Amazon review and the like – stuff that I don’t get paid for. And I’ve given up on EVER writing reviews on books that just plain toilet-bowl sucked.

    The fact is we writers read DIFFERENTLY then honest-to-dewey-decimal-system readers.

    A reader looks at a book it’s all about – well, I liked that.

    Or – well, that book sucked worse than a toilet bowl clogged in the heart of a Texas black hole.

    A writer looks at a book – well he’s looking at how it’s put together.

    It’s like talking to a cabinet maker. He sees a table and he’s looking at the joints and the choices of wood and how much goat was thrown into that cabriole – while somebody else is just thinking “Gee, my beer sits really nicely on that table. It doesn’t even spill.”

    Besides – my momma told me a LONG time ago that a fellow ought not to say ANYTHING if he can’t think of anything nice to say.

    That’s my two bits. Anyone doesn’t like it can get that quarter changed with the bartender.

  • I have to admit that I have come to the conclusion that most writers won’t write bad reviews about other writers. It seems as though the philosophy of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” is the best for authors. However, when I read a strictly positive review of a book that I personally found boring or flawed, then I lose total respect for the author who gave the review. I just feel like they wimped out. My preference as a reader is to always hear the truth. You say it takes money out of the author’s pocket? Well, it takes well earned money out of my pocket too when I buy that awful book. I understand your feelings but I just can’t agree. There is another philosophy that I think works better – “If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say it.” That I can respect. Thanks for a great article. I have brought this subject up with my friends many times.

    • For me it’s less about “We’ll scratch each other’s backs” and more about, “Just don’t shiv me, please.”

      I think an overly positive review can have the affect of sounding mawkish and artificial, but for the most part I just assume those reviews are authentic and simply unable to contain their admiration of the book. Which isn’t a bad thing.

      — c.

      • The way I always see is we’re all in the same canoe – so we might as well learn to paddle together.

        What it all boils down to is any review ANYBODY cares to write is nothing more than one person’s opinion – so why in the world would I go inflicting my opinion on someone else’s reading habits?

        Of course – I guess I am attempting to inflict my opinion just by commenting on this blog!

        Shit, life is hard sometimes…

        🙂

    • “Well, it takes well earned money out of my pocket too when I buy that awful book.”

      Exactly. Why is the author’s income more precious than the reader’s?

    • I’ve read positive reviews of books and still come to the conclusion the book wasn’t for me. A good review can still point out weaknesses that were minor as far as he or she were concerned, but that would be more of an issue for me (like, say, weak female characters), or things about the plot that appealed to the reviewer but might not appeal to me. A review that says, “A fast paced, irreverent romp that makes many of the genre’s silliest cliches entertaining again” tells me that this book isn’t for me if I’m the sort of reader who takes epic fantasy and its cliches more seriously, and if I prefer longer, slower-burning tales.

  • I will talk about a book (or, usually, let the author talk about a book) on my blog, but not in a review way. I consider true reviewers to be pure readers who are good at articulating their reasons for liking or not liking a book to other readers. I’m not a pure reader, because as a writer I’ve spent decades making stylistic choices that are not the same as other authors, and I think that makes me stylistically prejudiced, even if I don’t want to be, and not a good reviewer for readers.

    I will say I loved a book, though. Love always shines through 🙂 Just recently loved Gone Girl. Amazing book. Amazing language. I listened to the audiobook while taking a long car trip and it translated so well that I decided I had to read it, too.

    When it comes to receiving reviews on my books, my policy is “The Reader Is Always Right.” So if someone loved my book, she loved it (yay, a reader groks my story). If someone hates my book, he hates it (sob, a reader spent time on a story he didn’t grok).

    Even though I’m not a pure reader, I am a reader first. I read plenty of books I love, plenty I hate, and plenty that leave me meh. Because I’m also a writer, I learn from everything I read (especially the stuff I don’t like and other people love :-). But I can understand the disappointment of a reader who read my book and didn’t grok it. After all, they could have been reading a book they did grok.

    Someone needs to invent a Match.com for readers and authors. LOL.

  • A friend of mine reviewed a cover for an indie author. She is, herself, a new indie author. Not the book… JUST the cover.

    The person whose cover she reviewed got REALLY nasty. He stalked her blog for months while she worked on her debut novel, and naturally, the first thing he did when she finally published was write a blistering, almost completely negative review, including some asinine cuts about her cover.

    In short, her review earned her nothing but bad will. It wasn’t that she shouldn’t have done it (honestly, I saw the cover in question, but it ended up not being worth the time she took to write it, and she’s since decided cover reviews aren’t worth it, for much the same reason. It’s got momentary entertainment value, but it ended up biting her in the butt in the long run.

    Was she right? Absolutely. The cover in question was AWFUL. She even gave constructive criticism on how it could have been improved, it was polite, constructive, and even detached. She just expressed why it didn’t work for her.

    But it wasn’t worth it, in the end. The damage was slight, thankfully (we hope) but the loss of even one sale for a first-time indie author can be devastating.

  • I get where you’re coming from, who doesn’t love a good review and, yeah, writers gotta eat. But I do kinda think authors need to suck it up a little. I’m a musician and people give me grief all the time. Sometimes right in the freaking middle of playing a song (hello, beer bottle!–not really, that has not happened to me…yet.).

    I know people who purport to play music who are awful, objectively awful, musicians. They sing off key, they can play 3 chords if they don’t strum all the guitar strings–you get the picture. But for various reasons–repertoire, setting, age–some people love them and will never tell them they suck because those things that matter to me don’t matter to them.

    But I’d sure appreciate knowing musicality is not a band’s strong suit before I fork over my time and cash for an evening of disappointment. So a review that tells me, “If you love this schtick, this is your band, but if you have an ear for music, it’s not for you (IMHO)” does me a service. Sorry if it hurts the band’s feelings.

    You know what else? Those crappy musicians never get any better.

  • I’ve been struggling with this. On fiction books I really dislike unless I feel it needs a trigger warning I’ve stopped reviewing. If I feel it needs a trigger warning “rape” or similar my review usually says it wasn’t “my cuppa tea” And the trigger warning. Non-fiction books in areas I have specialized knowledge in I will write what I agreed/liked and what I disagree with. Right now I am somewhat of a book reviewer as the trad publishers consider me one but since I’m working on writing my own books I’m aware of the pitfalls.

    At the same time a well written negative review can encourage people to buy a book. I know a number of readers that look to negative reviews, myself included, as frequently what someone did not like in a book is what I do like but is rarely mentioned in the positive reviews. The well written negative review can also help make sure that people don’t buy the book who shouldn’t. A number of books have explicit/erotic sex scenes in them not mentioned in the description or in the positive reviews its only in the negative reviews that you can find that information. This would fall into my “warning” category as I’m a bit of a prude, if I’m warned ahead of time I can make a decision on whether the rest of the positives outweigh the explicit sex/violence/profanity, but if not warned it leaves a bad taste in my mouth and affects my reading experience.

    I love that your books come with warnings. So I know what I’m getting into, I wish more authors did this.

    • See, I’m not against negative reviews overall — I’m happy anyone expended time on a review, negative or positive. And sometimes, yeah, the negative reviews are clarifying in a lot of ways, both in terms of selling the book and also turning off the right people (not everyone will like a book, after all).

      This is really just about writers of fiction negatively reviewing other writers of fiction, particularly writers that are in their wheelhouse already. (Do people still say “wheelhouse?” TOO LATE, did it.)

  • Great post, Chuck. I agree with absolutely everything you had said.

    But there is one thing missing – reading is a valuable part of the writing process, and as authors we have a LOT to read. Whether it’s books we’ve been sent to look at for blurbing, or books we need for research, or books from writer friends we’ve been DYING to get our hands on, or even our stuff as we write and rewrite and edit and pitch and propose and edit and write and rewrite (and so on for eternity!).

    So for me, the question is not whether an author posts a negative review of another author’s work or not, it’s why that author bothered to finish reading a book they didn’t like in the first place.

    If you read because it’s your job, or you are reviewer or critic, then hey, you have to do it. I know a lot of people who will never give a book up, even if they are not enjoying it, because they want to know how it turns out, or because they just hate not finishing a book. All good.

    But for me personally, my reading time is way, way, way too precious to spend reading a book I don’t like. Once I’ve figured out I don’t like it, I’ll stop, put it away, and find something else to read. I don’t count it as a book read. I probably won’t read another by the same author, unless I get a strong recommendation from someone. But I also know that because it’s all subjective anyway, that book just wasn’t for me. So no problem. I’ll find something else to read.

    If you look at my Goodreads bookshelves, which I use primarily as an online list of stuff I’ve read, you’ll see it’s all four or five star ratings. That’s because I’ve really enjoyed all the books I’ve read. Sure, there are plenty of books I haven’t enjoyed, but then I haven’t finished them either. More to the point, I don’t really consider them to be read anyway. They’re just not for me.

    So… why would I spend time not only finishing a book I didn’t like, but then post about why I didn’t like it? There are more good books in the world right now than I will ever read in my lifetime (hell, I suspect there are more good books in my HOUSE that I won’t get to!). And as I writer, I fight for my reading time as hard as I fight for my writing time.

    Besides which, like I said, it’s all subjective. Like a book? Cool. Tell people about it! (I certainly make as many recommendations as I can). They might like it too! Don’t like a book? Oh well, it’s not for you… but that doesn’t stop it from being right for others 🙂

    • September 15, 2013 at 3:31 PM // Reply

      This. I worry sometimes that my reviews all are 3stars or better, and people will think I pander or just won’t ever say anything bad. But the reality is, I seldom bother with a book I hate. Anymore. For years I felt obliged to finish anything I started, but I’ve gotten smarter 🙂

    • I was waiting for someone to say this. I very rarely post negative reviews because if a book is that bad, I won’t finish it and I won’t review a book I haven’t finished. My time is far too precious to spend reading books I’m not liking.

      I never understood my friends who said that they had to finish it because they had invested so much time in the book. My answer was that from the time they put that book down they could salvage that time with a book they actually enjoyed. I have never felt obligated to finish a book and I don’t understand why someone else would feel that. Its their time and they can waste it however they want but I don’t get it.

      • This is so true. I rarely post reviews of less than three stars for this reason. To me, two stars would be “meh,” and I don’t have time for “meh” books anymore.

        People definitely differ here, though. To me, three stars is decent enough to finish, but not super memorable (or very good but with a serious flaw that wasn’t a deal breaker), four is very good with few flaws, and five is excellent. I have a lot of four star reviews, some threes and a reasonable number of fives. I noticed a friend on goodreads, though, who has almost no five star reviews, precious few fours, and a fair number of twos and threes. Some of the twos are books I know he liked. I asked him why he was being so hard on books he liked. For him two stars is decent enough to finish but not earth shaking, three is quite good, four is excellent, and five is reserved for those “few in a lifetime” books that changed you forever.

        This is where the written part of the review becomes important.

  • I like what Steve Vernon said: “The fact is we writers read DIFFERENTLY…”

    I agree. As a writer, the reasons I might dislike a book, many readers wouldn’t even notice. Or care about.

    I’ve thought long and hard about this topic. There have been MANY times I’ve been tempted to write a negative review, times that I was absolutely furious with the writer and how badly they mangled their story and wanted to let everyone know about it. Could barely restrain myself. But I haven’t given in to the temptation and hope I never will. Partly, it’s due to that whole “if you can’t say anything nice…” thing. That’s a strong influence from my mom, and not just when it comes to reviewing books.

    And partly it’s because I’m not a reviewer. I think they operate under a different set of “rules.” Or expectations. Whatever. I’m just a writer. No one expects me to write reviews regardless of whether I liked a book. Or, frankly, cares all that much when I do write one.

    But here’s the thing I felt frustrated that I was unable to say in 140 characters on twitter earlier (thanks for unpacking it over here, Chuck). One of the advantages of ebooks is that if I find a writer whose work I like, I can usually access their backlist. Sometimes this is a delightful payoff and results in many happy hours of reading. But several times it has been an eye-opening revelation of just how far that writer has come since their first few books. The fact is, many of those first few books, especially by comparison to the newer ones, are either unremarkable or just plain awful. Had I read those early books first, I might not have read any of the subsequent ones.

    What pings my conscience, and stops me from writing negative reviews, is the uncertainty of not knowing whether a scathing negative review of those early books (at the time they were published) might have stopped that writer from going on to produce the remarkably good books they eventually did write. Because the more you write, the better you get. Almost without exception.

    Much of good writing and a compelling voice, IMO, is due to the confidence of the writer. And the fact is that words have power. As a writer, I like to think mine are especially powerful (whether it’s true or not, that’s my conceit). Why would I use the power of my words to undermine or squash the confidence of a fellow writer, one who is only going to get better with more time and practice, one who might eventually become a favourite of mine? I wouldn’t.

    I’m not saying other writers shouldn’t write negative reviews. It’s an individual decision. But I won’t do it.

  • I’ve given negative reviews to two books in the past. Both were “romances” in which the “love scenes” involved the women being abused and raped. In this instance, though I had no positive feedback to offer, I felt I was responsible for pointing out the content. For survivors, those books would be horrifying reads. I still tried to be respectful (“If you like rough sex where the woman is forced into submission – sometimes violently – you’ll probably enjoy this book. Otherwise, you probably want to give it a pass.”)

    These books were not about dealing with rape, surviving rape, or denouncing rape. The abusive emotional and physical situations were simply presented as an acceptable way to love each other. It’s a romance, they fall hopelessly in love and live “happily ever after” in the end.

    I feel these situations are perhaps the exception to your advice. There was nothing good to say about those books, but I feel that staying silent to avoid negatively reviewing another author would have been irresponsible.

    • I was actually thinking of Fifty Shades when I read this blog post, and how some bad reviews can be considered a public service. When a book has content that could be considered a crime against society, then I agree with you that the juice is totally worth the squeeze.

  • I’ve been struggling with this as well and I really respect your take on it. Yes, is it worth it? Probably not. So thanks for this well-considered take on the subject.

  • I would probably only leave a negative review if I think it would be actively helpful to future readers. Mostly I think that would be most applicable to non-fiction books, which are less subjective and not usually as variable and which people usually buy for a purpose other than entertainment. I also read extremely critically, and, while I’m perfectly capable of enjoying a book as I simultaneously catalog its faults, mentioning things to other readers sometimes “ruins” a book for them. I’d never want to do that.

    Plus, I always think of Anton Ego in the movie Ratatouille, when he says, “The average piece of junk is probably worth more than our criticism designating it so.”

  • I worked as a newspaper theater and book critic in the ’70s. I never met a subject of my book reviews but I ran into performers I’d critiqued all the time, and I also met people who’d seen the same shows I did.

    Later I ran an agency that had local competitors I saw all the time at professional meetings. We probably had much more incentive to trash each other’s work, but for the most part, we didn’t.

    Now I’m a novelist asking others for blurbs…

    It’s helpful to think about how you fit in the entire ecosystem. Are you a consumer advocate? A critic bound to raise and explain standards? A fellow member of the guild? A pal returning a favor? Or just a hack making a living?

    There’s no single right answer, but some are better than others.

  • IN 1996 (I know, 17 years ago), when my traditionally published novel “Gasp” was released, paid reviewers from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and Library Journal decimated the book. I mean decimated it. “Save your money,” “not worth your time,” and “snoozy” were some of the kinder phrases. “Gasp” was about a dying journalist who wanted to get back at the tobacco industry by poisoning cigarettes with sodium cyanide to discourage people from buying the product. My publisher was sure the reviewers all must have been smokers. Wishful thinking. Anyway, Amazon chose those terrible editorial reviews (as opposed to customer reviews) to display, and it’s hard to believe that that didn’t have a huge and horrible impact on sales. Other reviewers loved the book (for example, the Associated Press said “If a movie version turned out to be as riveting as the book, it would be a big winner.”) but Amazon buried them. One movie studio executive told my agent that when he read the Amazon reviews, it turned him off. Never read the book, just took the reviews and ran with them. Thanks. Now — what’s this have to do with your terribleminds post? This: negative reviews can be violently destructive, and while they may or may not be valid, is there any tangible value in destroying a novel that someone else may have actually loved, especially in light of how subjective reading fiction is?

  • If I can say anything nice about a book, I don’t say anything at all. Well, online. In conversation, I have no problem with saying, “I tried reading that and, ugh, it was awful!”

    Though odds are if I don’t like a book, I simply stop reading it anyway.

    I don’t mind leaving a *critical* review that points out the good and the bad, just as I don’t mind receiving critical reviews. But saying flat out “This book sucks” is something I just don’t do. Because, honestly, if it sucks, why am I reading it?

  • I will not write a review of any book I cannot honestly give at least four stars. Period. Whether we are good writers, or crappy ones learning to get better, too much blood, sweat and tears are invested in authoring a book for me to dis it in a public way. So, fellow authors, if I didn’t review your book that you know I read, now you know why:-)
    Let’s face it, someone out there is going to hate your book, your characters, your cover art, or your name. Learn from those gibes (if they have merit) and ignore nasty for nasty’s sake. Write on!

  • I think one thing that distinguishes a negative review from a helpful (if somewhat negative) critique is that with reviews, the book is already written and published, or about to be. At best, the “constructive criticism” of a bad review can only be applied to future novels. The publisher isn’t going to pull the book from production and have the author completely rewrite it at this point. Chances are, they’ve already been through several rounds of beta reading, critiquing, rewriting, editing, tightening etc. and have made it the best book they thought they could.

    A lot of the time, overwhelmingly negative reviews (as opposed to positive reviews with a few nits) are over things that are not really fixable anyway. The reviewer may claim that the whole premise is faulty, the plot is implausible, the characters unrelatable, the underlying themes or messages trite or pointless, that the writer’s voice is shrill and annoying, or that it’s a pretentious piece of crap. Strongly negative reviews tend to be more along the lines of “I dislike the sorts of stories, worlds, voice, characters and themes that are important to you as a writer.” I’m not sure that sort of thing is ever terribly useful unless it persuades the author to abandon their own taste and start writing like someone else.

  • I absolutely love this post and have shared it on Facebook. I hope it goes viral. I post about books I love – that’s it. My job is to be creative, to write the best novel I can write, keep learning the craft, and support other writers. Others can do what they want, but I have limited time and energy. I must focus on the positive, protect my creativity, and keep moving forward.

  • As someone who’s just started both using GoodReads and blogging, I’ve been wondering about this issue a lot lately – especially since to the kerfuffle over at Nathan Bransford’s after he wrote a post seemingly equating critical, one-star reviews on GR with bullying. I am…skeptical of his assertion. But it did make me stop and think that, as a someone who wants to write professionally, it might be important for me to avoid even the *appearance* of being a negative person. I decided that I’ll only recommend books on my blog, and that any book on GR I think deserves less than three stars, I’ll simply not review. (Chances are, if I thought that badly of it, I didn’t even finish it – and even if I did, writing a review of something I so adamantly disliked is not worth my time.) I’ll leave critical reviews to the book bloggers.

    That being said, what about discussing the content of a book in a negative way – not as a review, but as a spotlight on troubling uses of language/themes, and the controversy generated therein? The reviews Nathan shamed in his original blog concerned the YA novel “The September Girls;” the majority of each negative review was dedicated to discussing misogynistic language used by the characters, the sexism of the protagonist, and how off-putting those things were to the reviewer. While the gif-filled reviews were snarky at best, I thought that the basic thesis – the apparent misogyny in this book is troubling to me as a reader – was something that potential readers should be made aware of, and that reviewers should be comfortable bringing up.

    Is it inappropriate to bring up negative portrayals of race, religion, sexuality, et. al. in a specific book, as an author? I hope not. I’m very uncomfortable with the idea that I am not allowed to call out or comment on perceived misogyny in a book (which – I don’t *think* was Nathan’s idea when he wrote his post, but I and more than a few other people picked up that implication). That’s a bit close to “nice girls don’t” for my taste. I would never bash an author – or comment on an author *at all* – because I understand that what someone writes is not always indicative of their world view. But I *would* critically discuss the content of a book – both as a warning to potential readers who may be upset by such content, and as a jumping off point for a dialogue with readers about said content in a broader cultural, social, and/or historical context.

  • September 15, 2013 at 6:40 PM // Reply

    Regardless of what I say, good or bad, the truth is I dont want anyone’s work to be better than mine. Bottom line, take it all with a grain of salt.

  • This sounds like the same bland, inoffensive philosophy that has guided the publishing industry into the fringes of modern culture. You’re more worried about possibly losing a future sale than you are about your readers wasting their time on crappy books.

    Hundreds of thousands of books get published every year, even avid readers only read 50. If nobody writes negative reviews, how are we readers supposed to find good ones?

    You don’t see the value in writing negative reviews, I don’t see the value in praising bad books. Obviously taking out frustration or grinding axes through scathing reviews is unhelpful, but so is withholding half of your critical arsenal.

    If nobody calls bad books bad, we wind up with a morass of bland criticism, more people not liking the books they read, and fewer books being read.

    The fact of the matter is that you want people to read your books more than you want them to enjoy the books they read, and that’s the essential cancer of the publishing industry.

    • You’re laying out what is known as a “false dichotomy.”

      Me choosing to not put negative reviews of other writers’ books into the world is not the same thing as me getting on the horn and root-tooting somebody’s shitty book I didn’t actually like.

      Just because I’m not the Paragon of all Reviews, the Adjudicator of all Literary Taste, doesn’t mean I’m the “essential cancer.”

      Everyone else can write all the bad reviews they like. I’m not doing it, and that blog post above explains why.

      *shrug*

      • If I’m laying out a “false dichotomy” you’re evincing “objectivity bias,” when you think your reviews can remain objective despite the alterior motives you’ve just enumerated.

        If you’re worried about your sales, you will be overly positive, just as if you got paid more for positive reviews.

        In other words, you nailed the net effect of your reviewing: “shrug”

  • iPad won’t let me respond to individual comments. @Charlotte the kind of things you are talking about are things I would put in “warnings” at the end of my review. I might pull out an example or two to support the warning in the main body of the review. I warn about any “isms” as well as things like rape and abuse that might trigger survivors. But I try to keep it short and to the point and not go overboard on dissecting it or bringing the author into it. I have started including “the overused rape trope” or similar if I’ve just read 5 books in the genre by different authors who all used the same “sexist/rape/racist” trope. I know on the one hand I probably shouldn’t do it on the other hand if they can’t be creative could they at least not be bigoted?

    I know my editors will be going through my books with a fine tooth comb for overused tropes because I’ve made the complaints in my reviews. I’ve tried to find the good, write about what bothered me in a way to help readers in making an informed decision, not to hurt the author. I never write a review when I’m angry. If I really hate a book I leave it unrated and unreviewed unless it requires a content warning.

    I’ve always been an oddball when it comes to what I like. I prefer B movies. I rarely like whatever everyone is raving about. I mention in my reviews that I’m a bit of an odd duck so the only way to know if my reviews will be helpful is to compare my books to yours or try a few books I like. I can tell you I liked the book but as my publisher says about my taste in books “there’s no accounting for taste and yours are unaccountable”.

  • I’m so jealous of those of you that can put a book down without finishing. I’m 46 and just learning how to do it. I’ve noticed that more men I meet than women seem able to do this. I wonder if this is part of are socialization? Or for me it might be that I had so few books available to me and read so fast that if I put it down I ran out and over time it became an unbreakable habit? But then a number of books get better halfway through and a number of authors improve by their 2-3 book. I’m not sure the ratio of those that get better and those that don’t & those that my friends insist get better so I keep reading because so many of my friends can’t be wrong.

  • I also don’t do reviews. Definitely not negative ones, but very few formal reviews at all. I think an author writing reviews, especially in the genre in which she writes is veering into potential conflict-of-interest territory. It’s also weird when you’re friends with a group of writers and you pen a negative review. The time for critical commentary is when you’re beta reading.

    What I do instead is gush over books I love and want someone else to read. I do a feature in my newsletter about every other issue with recent reads I recommend.

    • This discussion is veering into strange territory – trolling and mobbing aren’t reviewing. I don’t think I’ve read a review recently that is about the author and not about the book. And if it takes sales away from that author–perhaps that’s because the book is a bad one?
      I review books, I don’t review authors. I’m also a published author. One of the reasons I’m an author is because I read so much. I was also an academic, a long time ago, where peer reviews are part of the system, and vigorous debate is expected. Otherwise, how is the discipline to be improved?
      It’s quite possible that I’ll love a book and then hate the next one from the same author. There’s one author who writes tremendously risky books, so I’ll sometimes love them, sometimes not. It doesn’t stop me wondering what’s next. I try to be as honest as I can in the review. So I might not be in the mood for that kind of book. I’ll say so.
      As for conflict of interest – lay down the rules for yourself. Don’t review books from the same publisher as you’re with, or the same line, if it’s a huge publisher with lots of imprints that don’t have any internal communication. Don’t review books from friends, or if you do, state upfront that the person is a friend. Reviewers are now required to say if they got the book for free, bought it or had an ARC of the book sent to them. Why not state the biases and then give the reader the intelligence to make his or her own judgments?
      If someone only publishes positive reviews, how can a reader trust them? The bad and the good have to be there to be balanced.
      So do it or don’t, but if you do, make sure people see the whole picture.

      • In terms of whether an author is comfortable enough to leave negative reviews is on them — some do it, some do it very well — but this comment:

        “If someone only publishes positive reviews, how can a reader trust them? The bad and the good have to be there to be balanced.”

        I don’t agree with. I’m not a reviewer, but when I do make a recommendation, it’s an honest one. I don’t have to point out books I don’t like for you to believe that my recommendations are genuine. Writing bad reviews is neither a requirement nor a responsibility.

        — c.

  • Thank you, Chuck. Negative reviews are part of the territory, but it isn’t necessary to flay a fellow wordsmith when constructive criticism can be applied. If I absolutely HATE a book, I simply do not review, or leave a star rating at all, publicly. I review the books I enjoy and review them honestly. I’m glad to know that I’m not alone in my preferences. Respect, Sir.

  • Absolutely.
    There are so many books. If you don’t like the one you’re reading, pick another one. Keep picking until you find one you like. Read that. Enjoy it. Review it.
    The goal of a reader is to find a book she’ll enjoy reading. If you can help reach that goal, help.
    And yup about the positive mind-set thingy too.
    Good article. Thanks for writing it–like that…

  • Wow. It looks like things happened while I was sleeping. 😛

    Thanks for your clarification, Chuck. Great article and I definitely see your point.

    I do run into writers I once reviewed quite a lot lately and some of them are now friends or crit partners.

    Luckily for me though, the few whose books I reviewed and gave reasonably positive but critical reviews to were nice enough people not to hold it against me and often I legitimately loved some of their other work.

    Might have been different if I had completely panned their books before I started writing though (one author in particular holds a grudge but I doubt I’ll ever meet them in person).

    Now that I’m spending the time I used to spend reviewing on writing my own fiction I’m reading differently and not spending much time on finishing books I don’t enjoy. So at the moment the question is mostly theoretical.

    A lot of book bloggers probably write and hope to sell their work eventually so it can be hard to know when you cross the line between being perceived as a reader to being seen as primarily a writer. In my mind it still feels arrogant to think of myself as an author when I haven’t been writing that long and have only sold a few things. However, I’ve noticed that most other writers I meet or talk to now consider me a writer rather than a fan. As I don’t plan to quit writing anytime soon this question had been playing on my mind.

    I would never write a falsely positive review or lie if someone asked, and I’d hate to think I was no longer entitled to my opinion on books (also, my job pretty much consists of sharing opinions on books and matching books and readers), sadly I’m also not sure that if I completely ‘ripped a book or a story a new one’ (especially if it was by another emerging writer) it would be seen as a reviewers opinion and not as someone trying to elevate their own work above others or the result of various other ulterior motives.

    Why I’d like to think I can separate the writer me from the reader me, and idealistically critical opinion would be separate from other motives (ie. not having the community hate me) I’m just not sure that it would be wise to go out of my way to tell people I hated a book.

    I think I’d still review a book I had some concerns about. And I wouldn’t leave them out or the review would be pointless. But for books I completely hate but for some reason wanted to review, I’m not sure what I’d do.

    Hopefully, this is coherent. I stayed up a bit too late on twitter last night and need more coffee. 😛

    Thanks again for your input!

  • I am sure you have been put in the position of writing a favorable review after getting one from a writer friend. What I want to know is do you write one anyway even if you didn’t like the book?

  • I don’t like doing negative reviews either. I make a point of only reviewing self-pubbed and small indie books that aren’t likely to get much exposure. So if I really like a book, I’ll do my small part to get the book into the public eye a little more and give the author a hand. If I hate the book, I say nothing and let the book fall off my radar. Why bring an unknown into the spotlight just to rip it to shreds?
    Like several poster have said, writers pick stories apart and look at things that the average reader wouldn’t notice. Personally, I hate when I’m watching a movie and the person I’m with picks apart random details that I wouldn’t have noticed; it takes away from my enjoyment. I don’t want to be That Guy in my reviews. Then readers who read my review and buy the book anyway are going to be watching for the mistakes I pointed out instead of getting into the story and judging it on its own merits.
    Upthread someone mentioned books that feature rape as a romantic element; now that’s a negative review I can get behind. Panning a misogynist piece of garbage like Fifty Shades of Grey is a service to humanity.

  • Awesome. I bow humbly at your feet. BTW–great use of “multiplicative”–haven’t heard that term since calculus class a millennium ago.

    I also agree completely.

    If I have problems with some “misogynistic” matter or I happen to adamantly oppose the character’s (or author’s) philosophy or lifestyle, I simply saw in my review that the material or situations require a mindset at odds with my view of common culture. If I think only “mature” readers would digest it well, I will say so. Bear in mind, some people never attain the “maturity” to appreciate certain subjects or philosophies. Cool. Their lives are probably easier.

    I have found objectionable material in books most people adore, but I will not harangue people who just want to know if I liked the book. I won’t tell them what not to read because I don’t like to be told what not to read. I will, however, give good reviews (or rhapsodic ones, if deserved) to books I like or that I think have any redeeming value. Entertainment is a lovely quality.

    I reserve the right to point out self-published works that need a good editor. Shame on you! You know who you are… (And Penguin–spring for an editor that knows how to use commas. They don’t cost much.)

    I have purchased books that have been panned by obviously demented or hateful reviewers just to override their nastiness. One small act of compassion in an often short-sighted world.

    Thanks, Chuck.

  • I grew up with a 100% Italian grandmother—born in Naples, able to see Vesuvius out her window as a child, had a father who was a professional chef—she was the real deal and she could cook like a madwoman. Some of my earliest memories are of eating the endless supply of culinary delights she’d whip up in her kitchen. To me, that’s what Italian food should taste like. Her sauces, her seasoning blends, her methods—these are what I consider to be classic, to be enjoyable, to be my personal definition of “good” Italian food.

    Does this mean that if I go into an Italian restaurant where the same dish is prepared differently and doesn’t satisfy my craving I’ll stand up, announce to the roomful of diners “This food sucks! This isn’t real Italian food!” and throw my napkin down in a huff? No, of course not. Why? Well, a) I’m not a lunatic b) I wouldn’t want to ruin the meals of the other diners who are actually enjoying the food and c) I realize that my taste is just that—what I like, nothing more, nothing less.

    I’m not one to gush or give compliments lightly. I’m not that type of person. But if I like something I’ll say so. Say I walk into a party and one of my friends looks absolutely fantastic. I will likely make a point of going over to her at some point in the evening and say “Wow, you look great tonight!” and, because people who know me know I don’t throw around empty compliments, it’ll probably make her happy. And that will make me happy. Then we’ll both be happy. On the other hand, if I see a friend who’s put on a bunch of weight, or is having a bad hair day, or just chose a really unflattering outfit, I’ll stay silent. I won’t yell across the crowded room “Holy ****, what were you thinking when you left the house looking like that?” Why not? Because a) I wasn’t raised in a barn, b) I don’t like to draw attention to negative things and c) who the hell cares what I think about how she looks? It won’t make me feel better to tell her and it certainly won’t make her feel better to hear it. Besides, maybe someone else thinks the weight gain gives her a more womanly figure, or that her new hairdo is awesome, or that her boobs look awesome in what I consider to be an ill-fitted top.

    Posting a review of someone’s work, good or bad, is the equivalent of yelling it across a crowded room. That’s how I regard reviewing. I attend writerly events like book signings and conferences. If I even consider reviewing a book I seriously think to myself: If I saw the author at a conference would I shout my opinion of their book for all to hear? Not likely. And if I did you can damn well bet it’d be because I loved the book so much I actually wanted the whole room to hear my praise. Not because, for whatever reason, the book wasn’t my cup of tea.

    I fully understand that any and all reviews are subjective and that everyone is entitled to express his or her opinion whether it’s about the quality of the marinara or the fit of someone’s jeans or the plot of an author’s book. I also fully understand that every single review is just that. One person’s opinion. Just because you deem a book “bad” does not make it so. It only means the book was bad to you.

    What I personally believe is that what one says in a review and how one chooses to say it is far more telling about the writer of the review than it is about the material being reviewed. Whether you’re an author or not you’re entitled to shout your opinion from the highest rooftop you can find. If it’s a negative review you just need to realize that you’re being that napkin-throwing diner or that person who announces “your ass looks huge!” to the whole big internet-roomful of people—and that’s not the person I ever choose to be. My choice about my own behavior.

    For the record, if you’re an author and your ass looks fabulous, I’ll let you know. I may even shout it across a crowded room.

    Full disclosure: Deep dark secret—I’m a writer. Okay, that’s not deep, dark or secret. Neither are my books.

    • This! I couldn’t have put it more eloquently, Karen. My feelings, exactly. Just because I’m thinking something doesn’t mean it needs to be shouted publicly, or ever. I have a healthy enough sense of self to understand the world doesn’t revolve around my opinions and I’m okay with that.

      Thanks for the discussion, Chuck. Love it!

  • Hmmm… thorny subject this one, judging from the comments already posted!

    I have read books that I’ve been seriously disappointed with, and since joining the Goodreads site I have now also been presented with the dilemma of: ‘do I publicly express my criticisms of these books or do I not?’ I’m not a famous author yet – and it may be a long, looonnnng time before I become one (if ever.) So the niggle becomes how far into the future do I look regarding how critical I can be about an author’s work? Am I okay to do so while still a faceless scribe quacking into the void – or should I be mindful of a ‘long-term view’ that isn’t even guaranteed anyway?

    Although I’ve got to be honest – whatever the future holds I hope to GOD no fellow author ever asks me to write a ‘back-scratchy’ review of their book – that I actually don’t like. I’m monumentally rubbish at insincerity, so even though I’d try to be as tactful as possible I would HAVE to be honest. I guess that’s why I don’t have many thin-skinned friends… :^/

  • Definitely a lot to think about here, but to me it seems absolutely counter-intuitive to leave only good reviews. Isn’t it much simpler to leave your thoughts and feelings on everything you read/finish?

    Though my publications are all small press, I enjoy reading well-thought out 3-star review with analysis and thought more than a 5-star gushing “mom” level review.

    Having a mix of positive and negative reviews are a by-product, a sign of critical engagement, and that seems to me what we–both as writers and readers– should strive for.

    • Well, keep in mind talking three-stars isn’t really what I’m referring to — three-stars is not a negative review, nor is it a pan.

      That being said, critical engagement isn’t automatically an author’s job. That’s the job of the critic and the reviewer. The point is, again, that leaving negative reviews *as an author* might feel useful to do so, but the actual value of having done so for many people approaches zero, or dips into negative numbers. It’s not like we don’t have a host of readers who will leave reviews and light the path with them good or bad; authors don’t necessarily need to contribute bad reviews to that scenario.

      — c.

      • I think that distinction between author and critic/reviewer is another false dichotomy. Authors are (or usually are) consumers–if you produce something, you’re more likely to partake in the field. In terms of comprehensiveness, at least, reviews should include entries from friends, critics, fans, and other authors. This would grant potential readers (whichever pool they belong to) the best possible resources for making a decision.

        I dig the “Let’s be nice to each other” vibe, but I think it’s ultimately nicest–to ourselves and others–in becoming critical-thinking, engaged citizens of all things, entertainment and otherwise.

Leave a Reply to beverlydiehl Cancel reply