Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The merits of negativity

With the drama surrounding Alice Hoffman and Alain de Botton's responses to seemingly spiteful and mean reviews against their books fading, there's a good opportunity to look at the "negative review" a little. Not how authors should respond to them - that's been handled quite a bit - but rather if negative reviews should even be written. And if they should, how? In my post on why we review from a few months back, R.T. left an interesting comment:

As a reviewer (for print and online outlets), I try to adhere to a straight-forward policy: I do not write negative reviews. In other words, if the book lacks merit and I can find nothing positive to say about it, I take a pass on reviewing it. There are too many good books to spend precious time on the others. I have had editors insist upon a review, even when it was going to be unfavorable, and at that point the editors and I have had meetings of the minds in which my policy prevails. My reasoning for the policy is simple: Readers look to reviews because they are seeking out good books to read, so why tell readers about bad books? To do so is a waste of time for everyone involved.

It's an interesting policy, one that I absolutely disagree with. The purpose of a review, in my mind, isn't simply to say if it's a good book and pass it along, but perhaps also to steer people away from it. It's more difficult today with blogs that often pump up the same books but if a reviewer says, "You will not like this book because of: ... ", I'll understand it and take it into account. But if all I see is gushing praise for a book, people saying, "It's the best book ever! It's amazing!" I'll be getting a skewed view of the book.
Perhaps this is just my own personal method, but before I purchase/acquire a book, I like to see the so-called negative reviews, whether they're on Amazon (I use Amazon as a blanket term for all localized review sites), blogs, or elsewhere. My philosophy is as follows: If someone can logically and reasonably convince me that the book is flawed, clearly listing reasons why (without resorting to petty name-calling), I accept their points and reach my own conclusions. If all the "negative" reviews are one sentence blurbs of "worst book ever" without offering any support for the claim, I have to assume the book is actually good, because nobody has provided me with proof otherwise. And if everyone followed R.T.'s idea, instead of just most reviews being positive, all reviews would be positive and gushing, meaning that it would (mistakenly) appear that all books are amazing. Or a bad book would have no information on it, meaning people simply wouldn't know to stay clear.

Negative reviews are necessary. Not all books are perfect and a reviewer should never feel bad for voicing an honest opinion (assuming it is done in a calm, reasonable fashion without resorting to childish insults - this is applicable to the author's response as well!). A reader spotting a negative review is getting another opinion, rather in the same way that another positive review would bring forth some new points (hopefully...). Negative reviews are not spiteful, angry responses, they are different sides to the issue and are sincerely helpful. In my mind, to avoid them is simply foolish.


  1. I could not agree with you more! I also spend a lot of time reading negative Amazon reviews--I often find I can tell by the reasons in the negative reviews that I will in fact like the book, and this tends to be more reliable than going by some of the positive ones alone.

    I also bring sort of a different mindset to my own practice, because I don't really think of the purpose of reviews as a way to find good books to read. I read many, many reviews, and that's not really my reason. I want to simply read about books: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sometimes if something particularly appeals to me I will then pick it up, but I've already got a list miles long of good books to read. I don't need reviews for that.

    And one other point--I sometimes find I have a different idea than other about what "negative" might be. I recently wrote a review for another site of a book that I wasn't in love with but thought was pretty good. I felt my review got that across (my boyfriend read it and said, "I feel like you can tell you didn't love it but came up with good and interesting things to say about it"). Then I saw another blog refer to my review as "extremely negative"--I was a little surprised, and felt pretty bad. I hadn't wanted to be "extremely" or even mostly negative, just honest.

  2. Not every reader of reviews is looking for good books to read. I am perfectly aware that I am not going to read almost all of the books that I read about. But I want to know what's out there. I want to know about the bad books, too.

  3. I must agree with you. Golly, there is enough gushing about some books in blogland. If that was all there was out there...well, first of all it would be very dull to read. And second it would be very, very false.

    Most books are not excellent. Most are just ok. Not perfect, not awful. Some are very good, and some are very bad.
    Quite honestly, in reality, most books I review are in the middle or better for the simple reason that if it is really awful, I most likely did not finish it and if I don't finish it, I can't really review it.

    But, oddly enough, in my experience, anything short of a rave review is seen by many as negative.

  4. I sort of agree with you. We need negative reviews because not all books are perfect. But what I feel you leave out of this discussion is the quality of negative reviews. If you look at Caleb Crain's review of Alain de Botton's book in the NYT, it is a negative review certainly - but it's also a bad negative review, in the sense of not doing anything to explain the book or allow the reader to come to an independent view point. So rather than saying we need more good or bad reviews, we need reviews that will allow us to see what we're going to buy. That's the most important thing that customers need. Too often, reviews are undermined either by gushing love or bizarre hatred (such as that NYT reviewer felt for Alain de Botton). My sense is that all authors recognise this. I'm an author and if people are negative about my book, I don't mind so long as they do it professionally. What must have annoyed de Botton was the unprofessional nature of the attack on him - to which he (hilariously) chose to respond in the only way left home to him, a big fat 'f... off!)

  5. Wow - yes, negative reviews are really important. A reviewer passing on the books that don't fit his/her tastes seems pointless to me. When a book fails me in some way I like going over why, an exercise which seems just as valuable as listing the reasons why a book became a favorite.

  6. I think negative reviews are really necessary. I've always thought this but blogging has made me super aware that basically hardly anyone agrees on hardly anything when it comes to what makes a good or a bad book. One person's worst book ever is another person's favorite. So somebody might read a negative review and come away still wanting to read the book and then read it and really love it. We have no idea how people will respond to our reviews, positive or negative. So why not just be honest and let the rest take care of itself?

  7. Many book reviews these days are simply endorsements and provide no critical assesment of a book's literary merit at all. It used to be that critics would evaluate literature to see how successful or unsuccessful the book was at achieving a standard based on a specified school of thought. These days, there seems to be little effort in evaluation based on anything except for, perhaps, marketability. I used to write reviews for an outlet that only ran "good reviews." While this is good in helping people choose what is enjoyable, it is not helpful at all in helping people to develop a taste for what is good or what is bad in literature. Great post, and I love your blog.

  8. I enjoyed reading your thoughts. I rarely give negative reviews - usually only when a book I had high expecations of (perhaps a previously admired author for example) fails to please.

  9. I do agree with everyone here - negative reviews are helpful because they often give a different flavour of the book. It's hard to label books good or bad, but they always appeal to some readers and not to others, and if you know what kind of reader you are, you can figure out whether it's your type of book. I discount equally streams of gushing praise and streams of pointless bile. But one curious thing: if I review a book negatively on my site, my stats drop, the traffic disappears and hardly anyone comments. Book bloggers are looking for something very different to amazon browsers, I feel.

  10. I dunno. I always make a point of reading the one-star reviews, because they're so funny. The majority of the time, the one-star review is what convinces me that I'll like the book. After reading it, I typically find that the negative review was based on both a total lack of appreciation of the book's merits, and a lack of interest in literary fiction in general.


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