Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Reading and Writing Negative Reviews

Recently I've been considering whether I want to do more with my Goodreads account. I made one a while ago for better access to some of the features, but I haven't added any books or friends because I'm not sure how, or if, I'd rate and review books.

The main reason is because I'm nervous about writing negative reviews and giving less-than-glowing ratings. Sure, I'm incredibly grateful for other people's negative reviews, since they can:
  • help me avoid books with elements I know I won't like
  • temper expectations for hyped books
  • make me feel less alone in my dislike of certain books
  • inspire me to read more critically
  • educate me on issues in literature
  • remind me that taste is totally subjective
  • make positive reviews more meaningful
  • provide lots of entertainment (ok, I admit it's a guilty pleasure of mine!)

Still, I'm not sure if I'm brave enough to write them myself. Here's a few obstacles I can think of:

1. Don't want to hurt the author's feelings
I know you worked that that book forever and totally poured your heart into it, but, no offence, I thought it was terrible.

This is really for my own peace of mind, since I have no idea which authors read their negative reviews and which don't, and anyway mine won't be the only negative review out there. But if I publish a negative review there's always the chance the author might come across it, and imagining it makes me feel kind of guilty because it's not like I would write a negative review to hurt an author on purpose but she would probably still be hurt, you know?

This is especially terrible when you "know" the author. I hate that feeling when I read a book by a writer whose blog/tweets I enjoy, only to INTENSELY DISLIKE said book. It's so awkward and makes me vaguely uncomfortable, and putting my dislike for it out on the Internet for everyone to see would just intensify that feeling.

2. Desire to be (or be seen as) a nice, positive person
I'm a NICE PERSON, dammit! Only unicorns and rainbows and sparkles allowed!

So I'm not really one of those "if you have nothing nice to say, keep your mouth shut" people, but at the same time I can totally understand the desire to not be or be seen as a jerk by keeping public criticisms of other people's work to a minimum. Also, some people are committed to positivity and prefer not dwell on negative experiences (e.g. a book they didn't like) by spending time and effort writing about how awful the book was. Plus, people might like you more if they know you only say nice things about others and so don't have to worry about getting on the wrong side of your snarkbazooka someday.

3. Karma
Ok, whoever's keeping track, I've written ZERO negative reviews in my entire life so I'm owed a little consideration when my book comes out, right?!

I can see how the concept of karma would affect someone's decision about writing negative reviews, even if I'm not a big believe in karma myself. Some people are strongly affected by criticism themselves and so, out of consideration to other people's feelings, refrain from posting critical reviews online, hoping that spreading a little goodwill will make a difference. For some, it's just the right thing to do.

4. Avoid backlash from fans or authors
How dare you dislike the best book of all time! You clearly misread the book and failed to appreciate its brilliance due to your inherent stupidity.

Sometimes readers take it personally if you criticize a book they like, since it can be seen as a direct criticism of their taste in books. People might even attempt to tear you down for daring to write about their favorite writers in a negative light. And if you're really unlucky, you might even hear from an angry author. Yeah, not fun.

5. Career considerations
I don't know why so many people buy your books, which are clearly awful, but I'm really desperate for a blurb by someone other than my mom.

I have no idea if I will ever pursue publication. But in the (unlikely) event that I do, it'd be better not to have burned any bridges with scathing reviews. Authors/agents/editors/publishers are more likely to be favorably disposed toward you if you don't bash their books, and they probably won't want to help you if you say their book sucked. So it could be safer to err on the side of caution and refrain from writing any negative reviews if you're working or hoping to work in the industry, just for the sake of your professional relationships.

Anyway, those are just a few I could think of. In the end, I think it comes down to your purpose for writing reviews. Some people write reviews to promote books they love, support other writers, sell books, share their opinions, or help others choose what to read next. Depending on what you want to accomplish with reviews, including negative ones may or may not be in your best interest.

For me, the appeal of writing reviews stems from my desire to express my opinion and join discussions about books I've read. I'd want to gush about books I loved and vent about ones that disappointed me. I'd want to talk about books that made me laugh and cry and books I wanted to throw against the wall. I'd want to analyze books as well as record personal, emotional reactions. I'd want honesty and openness.

This means that writing only positive reviews wouldn't be for me. After all, when it comes to reading reviews by other people, I give significantly more weight to the opinions of people who write both negative and positive reviews than people who write only positive ones.

But of course, all of this is possibly moot as I am most likely too lazy to write any reviews at all (particularly considering my track record with blogging). Still, it's something I've been thinking about lately, so I wanted to get my thoughts out there and hear what you think!

What's your take on negative reviews? Do you post both negative and positive reviews, positive reviews only, or neither? Why or why not?


  1. I don't post negative reviews. (Or at least, I haven't yet.) If a friend asks me in private, I'm more than willing to discuss things in detail. Otherwise, I keep my criticisms to myself.

    If I were a reader with no writing aspirations, I'm sure I'd feel differently. ;)

  2. That makes sense. Talking about books in private is a great way to get that discussion kick without the risks that come with posting critical reviews in public.

    That said, do you post positive reviews, or just avoid reviews altogether? I'm curious about that too, so I think I'll edit my question to reflect that.

    Thanks for your response, Carrie! :)

  3. I haven't actually written any negative reviews anywhere, but I'm not generally opposed to the idea. I think that there's a difference between writing a balanced, intelligent review and the scornful, disdainful, holier-than-thou "reviews" that sometimes appear. I don't like it when someone writes a review in a way that seems to suggest anyone who is a fan of the book is obviously a loser/blind/dumb/uneducated/etc.

    But then again, I've only read a few books that I really wanted to throw at the wall, so maybe I'm just more tolerant? Usually when I dislike a book I can see how there are others who like it; it's just not for me. And I usually don't feel strongly enough about those books to write a review in the first place.

  4. I agree with you about balanced critical reviews vs. author/fan-bashing reviews. Personal attacks are totally uncalled for. But I'm actually ok with snarkiness when it's directed at plot points or characters or writing style -- I think it's possible to express strong dislike of those elements without making them value judgments on authors or fans. But I'm sure everyone has different tolerance levels for that.

    It's neat that you can keep your cool! It's easy for me to become really invested in characters/stories, which means character traits, plot lines, or messages that I find disappointing can ruin the reading experience for me and make me upset enough to want to go vent somewhere. :P

  5. So many of those thorughts have gone through my mind when it comes to Goodreads. I finally decided to use GR as a booklist for me. I don't do reviews. I rarely give stars to books, and it's only those of the writers I beta for. (So far, that's one person on GR!)

  6. All 5 of your points are applicable to me as well, and I definitely asked myself whether or not writing bad reviews was "worth it" too. (Thumper from Bambi always rings in my ear: "If you don't got somethin' nice to say, then don't say nothin' at all.") Because what does it accomplish, right? What's the point in putting that negativity out there? What do I gain from it? What does anyone gain from it?
    Well, one answer (as you mention) is that I use reviews, both positive and negative, to help me make my purchasing decisions. For products, mostly, but for books too. So I value when people are able to explain what works and what doesn't, what they liked and what they didn't.
    Also, I believe on principle that everyone should be allowed and encouraged to voice their honest opinions.

    And finally, I don't have a great memory, so "reviewing" is a way for me to remember, years later, what I thought of a book and why. (I put reviewing in quotes b/c I don't consider myself a reviewer, per se. I just jot down my overall thoughts and feelings and hope it's helpful to others.)

    So when I put those two things together, it was enough for me to decide, yes, I'm going to be honest, even if that means some reviews are "negative."

    However. When I published my web serial as an ebook, and started to get reviews for it, and started to get friend requests on GoodReads, I decided there needed to be some separation. There's Kristan the writer, and there's Kristan the reader, and though they may inhabit the same body, they don't need to have identical Amazon or GoodReads accounts. So they don't. I have a "private" GR account that is FOR ME. For my records. And then I have my public author account, where I list all the books that I've enjoyed recently (without ratings). Books that I would be willing to recommend to others.

    I tend not to post reviews at Amazon at all anymore, unless I think I'm offering some perspective/information that isn't already there, or unless a book that I enjoyed doesn't have many reviews and I want to offer encouragement to the author and/or other prospective readers.

    So yeah. That was a super long answer, haha, sorry. I just wanted to be helpful. In the end, that was what I chose to do (and who knows, I may modify it in the future) but I think every reader/writer has to figure out what they are comfortable with. There is no right or wrong.

  7. I've considered doing that too! So far I've been keeping my Read/TBR list in an Excel spreadsheet (I LOVE Excel) but I've thought about migrating it to Goodreads.

  8. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Kristan! I love getting to see your thought process as you worked out what would be best for you. It IS super helpful! :)

    Yeah, I've seen some people mention that they don't see the point of putting more negativity out there, but I do think other people can benefit by it. Honest opinions are really valuable.

    I hadn't thought about having separate accounts for the writer and for the reader. That's an interesting take, and I can see how that could make it easier to express yourself on books you've read while keeping things positive for the author identity.

    I think what I appreciate most about your comment is that your commitment to helping and encouraging others really shines through. You're awesome, Kristan! :D

  9. Aw, thanks. :)

    Just FYI (b/c it wasn't clear from my post) my GR account is "private" in the sense that it's under a different name. So the reviews, good and bad, are still public, but they're not connected to me directly. I think there is a more truly private setting, but for some reason I couldn't switch my account to that.

  10. Firstly, welcome back to the blogosphere Linda! And what a way to come back, the age old topic of negative reviews. All of these are great points and they're things that I think about often. When I started blogging, I decided I wasn't going to do any reviews unless I was really into something - and it was actually for a very personal reason: I'm lazy. Reviewing always takes me a day and a half, and I didn't want to schneizeleffort through a review either (which always takes longer than I think it will anyway) because I want anything I review to have some substance in it. Otherwise, how is it helpful?

    But obviously, we did eventually start reviewing, and I think part of that is because I love having discussions with people about books. It's one of the best ways to make new blogging friends, and you can quickly learn who has similar tastes to you and therefore find more people you can count on for recommendations. 

    There's also that thing you mentioned about using reviews to figure out if something is for you or not, and it was a little hard doing that, especially with the hyped-up books because so many of the reviews in the blogosphere were overwhelmingly positive, if not gushy. Nothing wrong with that; I love seeing people's enthusiasm for books they love, but completely gushy reviews that don't get into the specifics of what makes the books awesome aren't that useful to me when making a book-picking decision.

    In the end, it's about honesty. For me, it feels a little disingenuous to only post positive reviews, and I like discussing the things I found problematic to see if it was just something I picked up on OR to find out why those things didn't bother people. If I write anything "negative," I try to make sure it's even-handed and that I explain my reasons for not liking something or if something didn't work for me. Much of the time, the reviewing process makes me appreciate books more because it helps me parse through my feelings and put them into coherent thoughts; and that in turn is educational for my own writing.

    It's hard though because of the interpersonal and diplomatic relationships that could come into it. I always feel a little torn when I don't love books by authors who I like personally or even when I don't like the books my blog friends have recommended and gushed over. And there's that whole thing about not wanting to burn any bridges, so I come back to this topic all the time. So far though, I've stuck to my desire to be honest and, I hope, fair.

  11. Yay, I'm so glad you weighed in on this! I love reading your & Alz's reviews. MAJOR PROPS for writing all those smart, balanced, analytical reviews. I might be way too lazy to do that, haha. I think it takes a lot of effort to be detailed about things that worked and things that didn't -- my main thoughts after I finish a book tend not to be too coherent, so I love reading other people's reviews and seeing different perspectives. :)
    Yes on book discussions! And so true about the relationship stuff. I always feel bad not liking books by bloggers I like or, like you mentioned, books blog friends loved and recommended. It's rather silly but I always think, "oh noes, can we still be friends?!"

    I think you do a great job being honest & fair in your reviews, and I am seriously so full of admiration! I feel like I wouldn't be a good reviewer because I'd want to be all "ARGH THIS ANNOYED ME TO DEATH" or "omg! these characters are ADORABLE! <3 <3 <3" or just "meh." Yeah... not too helpful. :P

    Thanks again for the great comment!

  12. I think all of your point are very valid, and are the main reasons I don't do negative reviews. I just don't say anything if I hate a book.

    And your reasons may seem "just in case" now, but you'd be amazed how true they are once you're published. You DO have to ask people for blurbs and authors DO read their reviews (unless maybe you're super uber popular and bestselling and don't have time to worry about those things anymore.) I know I've read every dang review on my book out there, lol. And believe me, I remember the negative ones. So if Suzie Smith left me a really scathing review and then a year later she's getting published and wants a blurb quote from me--guess who is going to be too busy? It's petty but we're all human. 

    I love honest reviews and use them to make decisions for book buying. But I don't feel like it has to me ME, a fellow writer, who has to tell the world so and so's book sucks. I'll leave that to the readers and book bloggers.

    Great post!

  13. Thank you so much for reading and commenting on my post, Roni! I really appreciate your experience and perspective as a published author. It can be hard for me to think that far ahead (since writing is more like an on-and-off hobby for me at the moment), but it's a great reminder to watch what I say online since things can be nearly impossible to take back.

    And I can totally understand why authors would prefer not to do favors for someone who criticized their books in public. It doesn't seem that significant to me now since blurbs don't influence my reading decisions, but I'm sure it'd be a big deal for authors, especially new ones.

    Thanks again for sharing your take on negative reviews!

  14. trekking your blog!!! 


  15. I usually don't talk about a book if I didn't like it. But in the business of book reviews, I think it's important. Constructive, respectful reviews are always helpful. 

  16. I feel like I'm jumping on a band wagon, but I hesitate to write negative reviews for those same reasons too.

    Negative reviews are important. I use them when deciding to read a book, so I feel hypocritical for NOT writing them. However, if I see that there at several revues that reflect my opinion I don't feel the need to pile on.

  17. I can see the wisdom in that. But I have to admit that sometimes it can be hard for me to keep my opinions to myself! :P

  18. I feel like since I became an author, I lost my right to give a negative review. Not that I would have anyway--it's just really not in my nature. Plus, I'm too lazy to write reviews. Mine consist of marking a book as "read," and giving it a star rating. I rarely give it any less than a three. Some books just have a "stopped in the middle" status.... In some ways, I guess that's less than a three, since I wouldn't finish if it wasn't at least a 3. I gush about books I love, but not in a professional review form. Mostly in an "Oh my gosh. I LOVED this book!" kind of way. :)

  19. Totally with you on the laziness -- writing reviews takes so much work! Major props to book bloggers.

    But I do like the social aspect of allowing other people to see what you've read and liked, so maybe I'll do something similar by marking books read and sorting them into shelves rather than use star ratings. That might be better than having half the books I've read be marked as a 2, since that means "It's ok" according to Goodreads. (Yes, it's ridiculous how difficult to please I am when it comes to books!)

    I think it's awesome that you mostly end up liking books you finish. I always seem to come across these books that are great until everyone I like dies at the end (or some other ending that makes me want to rip out my hair) and then I get pissed off and end up disliking the book. :P

    And yay for gushing about amazing books! :D

  20. I'm with you on those thoughts. I have a Goodreads account and lots of friends, but I'm only using it to catalogue the books I read. I've given stars to the authors that I've betaed for, but that's it. 

  21. Hehe I love how you say you have lots of friends. :) But yeah, I've started adding books to Goodreads too! Just books I love or like, for now. I'm still hesitant about rating/reviewing books I don't like, but every time I see a well-written, analytical critical review I can't help but think, "Gosh, I wish I could be that awesome."

  22. Personally, I think negative reviews are necessary, just like I think criticism of work is necessary. Not everyone is going to love every book. Books just don't work that way. I don't think it's cool for people to get nasty/insulting, and I'm pretty terrified of eventually dealing with my own negative reviews, but all-nice-all-the-time doesn't really help anyone, author OR reader.

    Anyway, I came by to let you know I tagged you in a Lucky 7 meme ;)

  23. Definitely! Negative reviews are absolutely necessary, and I also agree with you that personal attacks are NOT COOL.

    Honestly, though, I can see how the Be Nice policy might work for certain people. Some may prioritize people-pleasing or just have no desire to say bad things about anything (yeah, I wish that were me, lol). It's something everyone needs to decide for themselves -- I just have such a hard time doing so!

    Thanks for the tag, I'll come by to check it out! :)

  24. Guess that makes me a horrible horrible person because of my crippling need to be honest all the time.

    UNLESS there are bribes or sexual favors involved, in which case, bring on the sunshine, rainbows and unicorns!

    Nice to meet you, Linda! You are now being followed by me! ( not creepy at all ...)

  25. Thanks, Kristy! Nice to meet you too. Since I prefer honesty to niceness, I guess I don't have to worry about being too broke and inexperienced to offer you any useful bribes!

  26. I had such a hard time with this. I agree, negative reviews are the most helpful when deciding whether or not to read a book. And to be honest, I skip reviews by people who only post THIS WAS THE BEST BOOK EVER for every book they read because I feel like I can't trust them. (That said, I'm opposed to those reviewers who review just to bash a book.) 

    Still, I worried a lot about #5. I don't want to burn bridges, either. So I've decided that on my blog and on Goodreads, I only post reviews of books I liked (and I don't post reviews about all of those, mostly due to laziness). But in those reviews, I'm totally honest. If I liked the book but there's an aspect I didn't enjoy—a far-fetched storyline, etc—I say so. But I'll never bash a book. And I won't write a review of anything I hate, mildly disliked, felt ambivalent about, or felt was just OK (unless it's for my online book club, but thankfully I haven't hated any of those yet).

    Speaking of Goodreads reviews, I love reading Phoebe North's reviews. They're so thoughtful and honest. I can totally trust her. She's also an author. So there's someone for whom it worked. 

  27. Oh yes, Phoebe North's reviews are awesome! I really admire people who can break down issues in a book, praise the things that were done well, and point out things that didn't work. And I think those kinds of analytical reviews are really helpful in giving me ideas for characters, plotlines, and worldbuilding (either as good examples or things to avoid) in addition to helping me decide what to read.

    I totally understand what you mean about the laziness -- I can't see myself posting too many reviews either. But whenever I read a great review (whether positive or critical) it makes me want to be that awesome, too. And sometimes I still feel tempted to gush/complain about books I read, though if it's the latter it's probably best for me to do it privately or anonymously, haha.

    Thanks for sharing how you deal with reviews! Glad you found a strategy that works for you. :)

  28. I've written negative reviews (and plan to continue doing so) but I worry about all the points you brought up--especially #1 and #5. 

    I think whether or not you say you didn't like a book is just a matter of personal preference/opinion. There's no one way to review fiction, or anything else for that matter.

  29. Definitely agree it's a matter of personal preference. It's just a tough decision to make for someone like me -- aka wants to be expressive and honest, but is also wimpy and lazy, LOL.

    But yay, I love reviews! So glad you write them, especially since you write both positive and negative ones. :)

  30. I post positive "reviews" every now and then. (They're usually in the form of art or bullet points. Does that count? *Grins*)

    So glad to have you back around the blogosphere! :)

  31. Thanks, Carrie! Congrats on being blitzed by Peggy! :D