Sunday, June 13, 2010

On Writing (Negative) Reviews

First, I'd like to say that I don't love writing negative reviews. I don't have a wicked grin (or laugh) that I save for these situations. But the truth of the matter is, I don't love everything I read. I don't like everything I read. Sometimes it is just lack of a reaction, or a lack of connection. When I read this Orwell quote at Semicolon, I thought it came close to the truth.
“Prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash but constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feeling whatever.”
Not so much the praising trash, but the "no spontaneous feeling" part is so true. At least for me. At least some of the time. Sometimes I think it is easy to tell which books I am really passionate about. (Though I don't *always* gush. So length of the review alone isn't an indicator. In fact, sometimes it's the reverse.)

I try to be honest. I wouldn't say I'm always the most honest I could be. Sometimes I am a bit too restrained. (I still feel guilty for how calm I kept my review of this Jane Austen biography. I think it was because I was trying--for better or worse--not to let one or two pages of the book taint my opinion of the book as a whole. If only, if only he hadn't said what he said about Anne Elliot.) But when it comes to being honest, there's a danger of guilt no matter which way you go.

I don't think people should feel guilty for writing negative reviews. I think negative reviews are important. I think they are even necessary. Reviews are subjective--completely subjective. Reviews consist of opinions--personal opinions. And sometimes you've got to go there. Negative reviews can be just as helpful as positive ones. (Especially if they're thoughtfully written.) That doesn't mean we're all equally called to write negative reviews.

For me, my "goal" has always been to review every book that I read. If I finish it, I review it. I never have promised to finish every book that I've started. And sometimes I do stop reading a book because I don't want the burden of reviewing it. (Also because I don't want to waste my time.) I wrote about this in May. For as long as I've had a review policy, it's stated: In all of my reviews I strive for honesty. My reviews are my opinions--so yes, they are subjective--you should know my blog will feature both negative and positive reviews.

What I try to think about when writing reviews is NOT what will the author think when s/he reads this review. NOT what will the publisher think if/when they read this review. NOT what will the author's friends and family think if they stumble across it. Instead, I try to just be honest and think about who I'm trying to reach--and that would be readers. Sometimes I see more weaknesses, than strengths. Sometimes I think these 'faults' are more personal and are things that wouldn't be a problem for others. There are times I think a book needs a more forgiving, more patient audience. Because I'm NOT the right reader for that book. I liked what Teresa had to say about this subject.

What do I have the most trouble forgiving? Poor characterization. Weak, one-dimensional characters. Characters that act with no motivation, no reason. The more complex a character is, the better. I don't even have *to like* the character(s). As long as I can believe (for the duration of the book) that they're believable as human beings. (And sometimes that's tough to do.)

Great writers have the ability to bring all their characters to life--no matter how big or how small a role they play in the book. Patrick Ness, Anthony Trollope, L.M. Montgomery, Georgette Heyer, and to some extent Orson Scott Card, are all authors that come to mind. These writers KNOW how to do characters really, really well.

Good writers have the ability to flesh out their main characters. True, the reader won't get that great a picture of all the best friends or of siblings, parents, neighbors, etc. True, some of the lesser roles may feel a bit like types. But when it comes to the people who count most--the hero, the heroine--they're very real, very believable.

But if none of the characters come to life, if none feel complex enough to be human, if all feel flat and clumsy, well, that's a big problem. It's hard to find much to praise in a book like that. (Well, unless the book is extremely action-packed, plot-driven, premise-driven, and relatively short. I can think of another exception. Smut. There are some romance books where characters don't matter at all. Love scenes that you could copy and paste from one to another without anyone noticing a thing. Granted, I don't think all romance books are like that. There are quality writers to be found in that genre too.)

What do you find unforgivable in a book? What do you find matters most--the story/plot, the writing/pacing, or the characters? Do you feel comfortable writing negative reviews? Do you appreciate reading negative reviews?

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Annette said...

Hello Becky!
Honestly it is rare that I have to write a review on a book that I dislike. Most of the books I pick to buy in a store on choose to read for review I like. What I do struggle with is making sure that I explain myself well, another words a substantial case for my dislike.
Characters are most important to me, a storyline can be weak, but if the story has good characters I can make it through the book.
I read/reviewed a book in the past month that was just plain crazy. I disliked almost everything about this book. The characters (angels) were entirely too chatty (just one of the reasons). The book was completely dialog and it went on and on.
When a writer writes a book it is like a child to them and I can understand why it means so much to them. I will be honest, but not ugly and I'll make a substantial case for my dislikes.

Donna (Bites) said...

I'm a firm believer in honesty so I have no problem writing negative reviews. I substantiate all of my claims and I try to find at least one thing in the book that was redeeming. There has to be something there, right? Or it wouldn't have gotten published.

Hackneyed writing, cliches, derivative work, cardboard characters, abusive relationships cloaked as romantic, all those things I find unforgivable and I'm going to call the book out on them.

Teresa said...

Thanks for the link!

I'm like you in that I'd rather not write a negative review, but that's mostly because it means I spend valuable reading time on a book I didn't enjoy :) I find it strangely satisfying to pick apart why I didn't like a book when I'm writing the review, though; it seems to help me understand my own preferences. Plus, I appreciate reading negative reviews, and I try to write the kinds of reviews I want to read, positive or negative.

And I love what you say about your reviews being for readers, not the author or publisher and so on.

As for unforgivable flaws, I'm with you on characterization, and I'd add extreme predictability. Yes, there are some books (like a Heyer novel maybe) where I know what the ultimate outcome will be, but I don't like it when I can see every single step along the way before it happens.

~Niki~ said...

I'm new to the blog review scene, adn I have a question for you...What do you do about authors and publishers that send books ALONG with books you wanted, and the books they send along you don't wanna read! lol.
Also, I received one the other day I asked for, and was sent, but read the first few pages and I can already tell it's not my kind of book. The author keeps emailing asking 'how i'm doing on the book' LOL. HELP! yikes! I have no problem passing it along to someone else, but what do you do in these situations?

Fiona said...

Great topic Becky - I might come back to this more tomorrow, finding it hard to put thoughts into paragraphs at the moment -

For me, bad characterisation is unforgivable as most fictional novels, whether plot based or not, contain them so if they are flat then the whole of the book's going to fall down flat with it.

I love a good negative review. As long as it explains why it is negative of course. "It sucked" isn't a review.

It's a shame if people feel too uncomfortable to write writing them, because in my opinion an author should be prepared that some people will not like their book. If everyone thinks it's bad that's when they should worry.

I have written negative reviews for books that are universally loved - I guess I felt a bit disappointed I didn't like it but I wouldn't say I really felt bad about writing one.

In the end, people who take a subjective opinion personally, probably haven't got an opinion worth listening to themselves. We all have our likes and dislikes of certain books - or authors. It isn't an attack on an author's personal character.

I think if you're an author, then you should be prepared for negative criticism or not publish your book. It might hurt but it shouldn't offend.

Books inspire a lot of opinions and feelings. There are only a few books I could say I hated. Most I simply did not like for various reasons. But I will always say why - others can agree or disagree.

Saying that though, I don't really get to write that many bad reviews any more simply because I quit before I ever get to that stage - and since joining places like Goodreads I no longer pick up ones I know I won't like by mistake.

I like reading negative reviews even of books I love. Why someone loves a book and another hates it I find endlessly interesting. We all look for different things in books. Sometimes you see something you didn't notice before in a person's review - sometimes even with books I have loved, I might agree with them on that.

Everyone rates differently. One person might be more forgiving about certain things then others. So negative reviews provide a good balance.

Becky said...

Niki, I wanted to address your questions.

You shouldn't feel obligated to review any book that has been sent to you that you haven't requested. As to not liking a book that you've agreed to review or consider for review (it sounds like an author request maybe?), unless you've got a review policy stating that you absolutely review every book you receive, you shouldn't feel bad about it.

You can either finish it and write a negative review--if you feel comfortable doing that--or you could email the author and let him/her know that you won't be finishing the book. The clearer your review policy is, the easier it can be to deal with authors and publishers.

Julie P said...

I think that as a reviewer, we have to be honest. So yes, that means negative reviews on occasion. I'm not sure what I find unforgivable in a book. I read for entertainment, so as long as a plot can keep me engrossed, then I am happy!

Becky said...

I recently wrote a blog post about this exact topic. To be honest, I really appreciate when others give a true, negative review...IF they tell me why. I'm intelligent enough that I know whether the things they disliked might bother me or not. I find it nearly unforgivable in a book if the author insults me. I'm not sure I can explain this, other than to say that I find some smart-alec comments or over explanations to be insulting. If an author explains something to the point where I feel like they must think I have the word "stupid" written across my forehead, then I'm annoyed.

Well, I'm not explaining my reasons here. I do think that good negative reviews are so helpful. Readers may not agree, but it's good to know people's opinions and why!

ShelfLife said...

I'm so glad for this post - writing negative reviews IS hard and it is thankless. Everyone hates a critic.

But I continue to write negative reviews because they help me as a reader know WHY I liked or disliked something; it forces me to articulate my tastes in an intelligent, discernible way.

I think one thing that helps me do the hard task is my formula. You're absolutely right, reviews are subjective, but I've tried hard to come up with very objective ways of measuring my reactions and sharing them. That way it's very clear exactly what I disliked, which may not be a problem for others.

As for my writing unpardonable sins, I would say historical inaccuracy and plot are my two biggest. I can forgive poor writing if it's compelling, and I can even forgive somewhat flat characters, but an unresolved plot or an unsatisfying ending? That really irks me.

Jeane said...

I appreciate having the negative reviews along with the ones that gush. We're not all going to like all books, of course, and it's nice to know why! My blogging goal has been very similar to yours: simply write about all the books I read, whether good or bad. In fact, sometimes a negative review will make me want to read a book, if the parts that don't appeal to a different reader are exactly the sort of thing I like. I've had other readers respond in the same way to negative reviews I wrote- even though the book was not for me, it sounded really appealing to them!

melissa @ 1lbr said...

Another good and thoughtful post! I know I've sometimes struggled to not write a totally negative review of a book that had a few pages that just ruined the book for me. I'm still working on getting that balance.

Sara Lyn said...

I'm a big one for character development, too. Have you tried David Eddings' The Belgariad series? I really love his character development. (And snarky sense of humor, it's true.) :)