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