On Negative Reviews

There was a bit of a controversy going on last week wherein an author mentioned his favorite quality in reviewers. And no, it wasn’t writing good reviews for him! His name is Mark Charan Newton (Yowza he’s young! Born in 1981! And what a cutie!), and he wrote a post entitled, What Makes a Good Book Blogger (From a Writer’s Point of View). Here’s point six:

6) You can’t love every novel. Loving everything diminishes the power of what you say. There is no way of possibly knowing what is good or bad if you recommend everything. Do not feel pressured to do so by publishers – remember, by reviewing, you’re doing them a favour. And if as a writer I come across your review of my book, I’m not likely to think a lot of it if you’ve loved every single book out there. We’re egoists! We want to feel special.

Another reviewer, Mark Chitty, responded, “. . . as a blogger myself, if I’m not enjoying a book I just put it down and pick up the next. I’m doing it because I love reading – but I love reading books I enjoy and that usually means my reviews are, more often than not, positive.”

I’m the same way, except I’ll usually offer the novel to Superwench or Raven (I also have a guest reviewer coming up, just as soon as I can mail her the book.) If they don’t want it, I’ll offer it to Kat of FantasyLiterature, who lives just down the road. If they don’t want it, well, maybe the library will.

So, that’s why my reviews are mostly positive. These are the books that made the cut. Sometimes, when I’m on a real train wreck of a book, I’ll continue reading just to see if it gets any better. But most of the time, I’m just not interested enough.

Do you think I should blog on unfinished books? I have not up to this point, mostly because of Amanda Ashby‘s You Had Me At Halo. If I had set that book down in the opening chapters, I likely would have written a “what the heck is this” kind of did-not-finish review. Since I wanted to see why other reviewers thought it was so special, I kept reading. And low and behold, it ended up my favorite book of 2007. However, if you want to know about the chaff, I’ll consider blogging on those as well. Maybe I can do a monthly round-up. So let me know!

25 Thoughts to “On Negative Reviews”

  1. I find that I’m more likely to finish a train-wreck book than a mediocre one. If the book is horrendous, I’ll keep reading it because, beyond a certain point, it’s funny. If it’s just “meh,” I’ll set it down and then just keep forgetting to pick it back up.

  2. It’s an interesting discussion. I think he’s oversimplifying things a bit on this one point. Here’s why.

    1.) Like you said, I don’t always finish a book which I find I’m not enjoying. I generally give a book about five chapters to hook me. Books which put me to sleep long before that point get less; books which I have high hopes for improving later in the book get more. But I can’t write a full-fledged review of a book I never finished.

    2.) The more I make friends with people whose reading tastes are similar to mine, the more I can make appropriate reading choices based on recommendations. For example, if you, Tia, like a book, I can be pretty sure that I won’t hate it at least, because we have similar tastes. Back before I knew so many people with tastes similar to mine, I read a lot more books which I ended up disliking. I wasn’t able to make informed reading choices.

    3.) It’s not enough to just say that a reviewer who gives a favorable review to every book isn’t discriminating enough. You have to look at the context of a review, for one. For example, I loved the first book I reviewed here at Debuts and Reviews, but I had criticisms all the same. But the positives far outweighed the negatives, thus I gave it a positive review. And then you have to take into consideration points 1 and 2 above.

    While I get his point, I think this is just not the right way to look at it.

    1. We’re so alike it’s eerie.

  3. {thoughtful look}

    I was drawn to your blog because I can usually tell from your reviews if I or one of my parents would like the book. We don’t always like the same books, but you’re usually pretty good about about mentioning all three of our hot-buttons. I’ve seen the turn up in rave reviews; I tend to avoid those books, no matter how good they’re supposed to be. You’re often good about mentioning our favorite features, too. I tend to get those, if not for myself, then as gifts for the appropriate parent. I’ve been known to get those even when the review is bad. {Smile}

    If you blog on unfinished books, could you mention why you stopped reading each book? I think that might tell me if I’d like the books you didn’t finish. For instance, if you found the characters too shallow to care about, I’ll know not to put it in my to-read pile. If you were simply distracted by a more interesting book before you got past the first few chapters, I’d be more inclined to look over a copy if I happened to run into one. And so forth. {Smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  4. Val

    I’m one of those fools who nearly always finishes a book so I do write reviews that are… more negative than positive once in a while, although they are rarely entirely negative. If there are books that suck from start to finish I haven’t come across them often. I partly do this because to know what you like about a book you must also know what you don’t like and figuring that bit out is usually half the review. Another part of the reason is that I simply want to know what happens next 😛

  5. I have found this to be an interesting discussion as well. Myself, I have been slowly trying to be a little more in depth with my reviews, though haven’t gone too far beyond just recommendations yet.

    I can certainly understand Mark’s point. Point 6 of not being able to love every novel is absolutely true. I however tend to not blog about a book if I didn’t like it. Perhaps that gives an impression that I “like every book,” though I think that is where the discussion is coming into play. If a book isn’t good enough for me to finish or like, then I generally want to be done with it and don’t bother blogging about it. It’s done, over with, and I am moving onto something I have heard (or better yet know) I will like as soon as possible.

    Perhaps I too should (in my endeavor to review books more often on my blog) not only go into more depths on the books I like, but start mentioning books I didn’t like and why.

  6. Kelly, I’m with you about the train-wrecks! They can be amusing! There was a book I read last year that qualified, but I didn’t review it because I won the book in a blog contest, and didn’t feel any particular obligation to write the review. Nor did I feel any particular need to trash the author. I’ll try her third book and see if she continues in this way. If so, I’ll stop reading her.

    Anne, I’ll give some thought to your suggestion. I never thought of it that way.

    Val, I admire you! I’ve never felt obligated to finish books and I’ve even walked out of movies before. I think the more time-strapped you are, the less tolerant you get over things that you suspect are wasting your time.

    And Jakob, I totally understand. I’m thinking about doing a monthly post on books that are on hold, and I’ll include my reasons that I stopped reading.

    1. {Chuckle} I can’t count the number of times Mom’s told me “You and Dad should like that book. I didn’t. It was too bloody.” Just because Mom prefers books with a minimum of battles and attacks doesn’t mean she can’t recommend one she thinks we will like. {Smile}

      Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  7. Stefan

    I tend to review almost anything I read, whether I liked it or not, but I tend to seek out books/authors that I think I might like, which means I often write relatively positive reviews. However, I’m careful to distinguish between 3 stars (liked it), 4 stars (loved it) and 5 stars (the best of the best), and have no problem giving a lower rating to a disappointing book by a favorite author. I have absolutely no interest in reviewers who rate almost everything 5 stars, because it makes their opinions meaningless. If someone puts “highly recommended” at the end of the vast majority of their reviews, I just can’t take them seriously.

    1. Tia Nevitt

      I’ve thought about using stars, but I then get the urge to dole out stars for various categories: plot, character, pacing, etc. And then I just end up doing what I’ve always done — let the reader infer from my review how much I liked it.

      But that’s just me. I certainly respect star systems when I see them elsewhere.

      1. Stefan

        Well, I think we both use stars on FanLit, no? It’s just a way to quantify the overall impression I had of the book. Obviously the actual review goes into more detail.

        1. Tia Nevitt

          True. Very true. For whatever reason, I’ve never used any sort of ranking system outside of FanLit. Which, of course, has been the subject of some rather cantankerous discussions on other boards in recent months.

          1. Stefan

            Oh, I didn’t know (about the cantankerous discussions). I started using a 5 star system on my own crappy little blog, just because I was used to it from sites like GoodReads, so it wasn’t a big adjustment for FanLit.

  8. Raven

    I very, very rarely read a book I absolutely love. It does happen, but I dole out my love carefully. 🙂 So when I write a review (although I see I only wrote eight of them last year 🙁 ), I’m pretty much always going to find positives and negatives and discuss both. I try not to “trash,” because I know I’m talking about something an author worked hard on, but I will say what I did and didn’t like… and why. I think whys are important, especially if the author reads the review. It might give him or her food for thought for the future.

    1. Tia Nevitt

      I try to do the same thing. Sometimes authors never read reviews, but if they do happen upon it, I want to at least be helpful. David Anthony Durham once wrote to me to tell me he changed something in The Other Lands after he read something in one of my posts on Acacia. I was thrilled.

  9. Tia – I’m so glad you kept reading Halo! Your review of it was such a special one for me!!!

    This is such an interesting post and personally I think it comes down to a matter of style. There are plenty of bloggers/reviewers who have no problems giving out bad reviews (trust me, I know!!!) but there aren’t as many who give out really thoughtful and considered reviews – and you definitely do this.

    So I think the question comes down to what each individual reviewer feels comfortable with doing (hahahaha, which was probably no help at all and explains why I could never review books in the first place!!!!)

    1. Tia Nevitt

      You know more than anyone that I’m pretty honest about the problems I have with novels as I read them!

  10. Hi Tia. Thanks for the link, and the complement – though you should know I’m heavily photoshopped and in fact bear a stunning resemblance to David Gest.

    I think what I originally meant was this: if a reviewer thinks all books deserve a positive write-up, then great. But how am I supposed to discern which books are better than others? And what does this tell the reader of your opinion? Can the reader then make a valid judgement?

    Also, think of the Harriet Klausner effect – http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2003/09/heres-a-shocker-the-klausner-post/

    1. Tia Nevitt

      Thanks for stopping by. Most of my reviews have some critiques. I generally list the biggest things that bugged me about the novel along with what I liked. I certainly hope my reviews won’t be taken for a Harriet Klausner-esque review. For one, my reviews tend to be at least 600 words, and I try not to go over 800 words.

  11. Tia Nevitt

    Ok, I think I’m beginning to consider doing a monthly post on unfinished books, as I suggested above. They won’t be reviews; just why I put the book down temporarily or permanently.

  12. Deborah Blake

    I like your reviews just as they are 🙂
    I can’t stand reading really negative reviews–in part because I am an author, and I know how much it hurts to be on the other end of one, but mostly because life is too short (and my TBR shelf is too large). I don’t want to hear about books that stink. I just want to know which ones are good, and why.
    This doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate it when you point out the one or two parts of a book that you didn’t like. That’s part of what makes a good review. But, in general, I only want to read a review of a book you really liked overall.
    The unfinished book thing is interesting, but only as an aside, really.
    [And just as a note: most authors have caught on to the wonderful Google Alert system, whereby you can be notified if your book or your name is mentioned anywhere. I’ve found reviews on my books on blogs and elsewhere this way. Always assume the author is going to read your review.]

    1. Tia Nevitt

      Thanks, Deborah! The interesting thing is, when I have posted reviews that are overall negative, people usually turn up in the comments and say, “This one sounds good to me,” and they go and buy it. So any publicity truly is good publicity!

      And I always get a kick out of seeing referrals from author sites, and from keyword searches of their name and book title. I’m guilty too! I have an alert for my name and for the name of this blog. And when I see a referral from an email system, I know someone is passing my link around!

      1. See? I’m not the only one who can spot a promising book from your reviews whether you liked the book yourself, or not. {SMILE, wink}

        Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  13. I like this discussion quite a lot, and it is something I have been thinking about, too (for obvious reasons).

    One, I don’t think it ought to be surprising that there would be more good reviews than bad. Books have a lot of people working on them. The majority of books do not get published. Someone, somewhere, had to think that it was good or it would not have been published in the first place.

    Two, the problem with star ratings is the same as with grades. They seem to the eye as though they are objective. After all, three stars is more than two! But different reviewers may have different scales. Making that two star book that reviewer x was luke warm about better than the three star review that reviewer y was luke warm about. But the stars trick our eyes into simplifying the whole review down to one bright shiny picture. Plus, if a reviewer is more of a star grinch, giving only when stars are literarily pulled from him, then we may not even read his review, figuring, hey – that book there has more stars, I’ll start at the top.

    And last, if you have a debut writer (as this site features so often), why pile heaps of scorn onto their mistakes? What is the point? Yes, I know that bad reviews are deliciously fun. But what do they really accomplish? How do they forward the art form? Bad reviews are usually about the reviewer, while good reviews are about the book. Which is really more important? If you read something by Stephanie Meyer, or Steven King, or this year’s newest wonder-kind, and hate it, well have at it I say. Be that lone voice in the wilderness that says _DO NOT BUY. It won’t do any good, of course. But what is the point in heaping scorn on a mediocre book by an unknown writer. Not reviewing that book at all is just as negative. After all, most books die in their own time, anyway, without any help from anyone. Remaining silent starves the worst offenders more surely than a bad review ever could.

    One last thought. It is also not surprising, when you think about it, that the majority of reviews seem to come out mostly positive or mostly negative. As the first first post stated – meh is just not that engaging. So when we review work we tend to either beef it up or tear it down. MOST books are probably somewhere in between – neither an eternal classic on the order of The Bible nor the worst book imaginable.

    Thanks for the great topic.


    1. Tia Nevitt

      You might want to slap me for this, but when I’m looking at a book on Amazon, I hunt down the negative reviews. I want to know why the reviewer didn’t like it. This is true mostly for nonfiction, because I usually only buy nonfiction from Amazon. I prefer to go to the bookstore for my fiction — don’t know why.

      When I buy nonfiction, it’s usually about parenting or writing or history, and I want to know why the reviewer saw fit to give it one or two stars.

      But for fiction, the reviews are usually so mixed. I tend to look at the cover (because certain covers are used in certain subgenres and I can usually tell what subgenre it is by the cover), read the cover copy, check out the opening pages to see if it clicks, and if I’m wavering, read the blurbs.

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