The Value of Negative Reviews

Rose Fox -- August 30th, 2010

Sarah Rees Brennan waxes eloquent (at some length) on being a writer who reviews and is reviewed.

Like any other person who reads a ton of books, I hate many, many books. Oh, how I hate them. I have performed dramatic readings of the books I hate. I have little hate summaries. I have hate impressions. I can act out, scene by hateful scene, some of these books. I can perform silent hate charades.

And in the past, I have reviewed a couple of books I hate. And then I would always feel crappy afterwards.

And I would wonder why. After all, I hated them! It was a public service to warn people off them!

This is why. One is that I am sort of terrible at reviewing things I hate. I am not reasonable about it. I do not add ‘Oh, but despite my loathing for the subject matter, the prose was excellent’ or ‘Still, the idea of a dragon in love with a tree is an intriguing one.’ And I feel that, especially since hate reviews are the most popular ones, because people love to see people hating on stuff, nobody is sure why but it is fascinating! – I feel it’s important to be able to write a hate review as close to objectively as you can, explaining why and wherefore, and not only getting your cruel mock on.

I get my cruel mock on. I’m not fair. And generally, I wish to be fair.

In the comments to Rees Brennan’s post, a pseudonymous commenter who self-identifies as a professional reviewer says, “I just don’t take anyone seriously who doesn’t occasionally pan a book, and I don’t bother with all-positive review sites. If someone only has something nice to say, then what they say is pretty meaningless, because I have no idea if they’re unable to admit not-liking something or if they don’t have critical faculties to decide whether the prose sucks (maybe they like sucky prose fine, some people do) or whatever.”

Another commenter takes a different tack: “I DEFINITELY see the point of being TRUTHFUL about reviews, and not writing all glowing positive things for a book you weren’t really into. But what you do? You give recommendations. That’s what I do too, when I ever get around to writing up books online. As a librarian I feel it’s my duty NOT to trash books. My duty is just to get the GOOD books into the hands of those who will enjoy it. The books I don’t like can just sit there on the off-chance someone who DOES like it will stumble upon it.”

And taking the middle road, a third commenter: “Most people read reviews to find things to read. Bad reviews just waste column inches for the most part, because they are very rarely more funny than they are unhelpful. That said, reviews that contain some critical points are, to my mind, perfectly reasonable. There are thousands of reasons I believe this, not least of which is that the art of criticism is a discrete literary practice that I enjoy both as a producer and a consumer. But the main one is that sometimes you can talk another reader through the less perfect aspects of a book and let them see that something they thought was huge was in fact minor. Good criticism can be like relationship counselling in that way.”

The value of negative reviews is endlessly debated in reviewing circles. Some reviewers really enjoy putting the boot in, while others find it distasteful. Some, like Rees Brennan, both enjoy it and find it distasteful. PW publishes mixed and negative reviews, but many other publications don’t. However, no one debates the value of  positive reviews, even though exactly the same considerations apply: they affect a writer’s morale, a book’s sales, a reader’s approach to the book. Reviewers and review publications would seem to have the same responsibilities in either case. So why are negative reviews so polarizing? And can this debate ever be definitively resolved?

18 thoughts on “The Value of Negative Reviews

  1. Pingback: Being A Writer On the Internet (Complicated! Augh, So Complicated!) | Sarah Rees Brennan

  2. David Macinnis Gill

    When I’m deciding which books to use in my classes, reviews that describe the subject matter, characters, genre, and general themes are helpful. Reviews in which the reviewer tries to prove that she is more intelligent or funny than the book or film are much less useful.

  3. sue-bob

    It seem like the question is not should there be negative reviews, but who should give them. Many writers are understandably wary of upsetting other writers, who are contacts in the industry and might negatively influence their readers against the writer’s book. One of the famous examples of a writer reviewing critically (and often constructively) is James Blish but he wrote under a pseudonym.

    For writers there’s also the question of how sensitively another writer will take their comments. I have a friend who reviews for a national newspaper and he’s talked about writing a thousand words of glowing praise plus one minor niggle, then receiving an irate phone call.

  4. Angela Parson Myers

    I agree with marniecolette. Reviews done in a professional manner are helpful, whether positive or negative. It’s those that are simply cruel or obviously written in an (often failed) attempt to be humorous that I object to. I dislike the meanness of spirit they reveal. When I run across one, I simply don’t read it and go on to read the reviews written by readers who took the task seriously.

  5. marniecolette

    I think that negative reviews that are well written ( i.e. point out why the reviewer gave it a negative – poor editing, inconsistent plot, random items thrown in with no relevance to story, structure of story) are necessary and helpful not only to a potential reader but to the author as well.

  6. fairyhedgehog

    I’m a complete amateur so I have the luxury of only reviewing books that I like – mostly to recommend them to friends.

    It’s a bit of a dilemma though when a friend knows I’ve read her book and I don’t review it. I just feel it would be even worse to point out what I think are the major flaws in it now that it’s too late to do anything about it.

  7. robert l forbes

    No author enjoys a pan, but they are in good company. A must read for all writers: PUSHCART’S COMPLETE ROTTEN REVIEW AND REJECTIONS, Edited by Andre Bernard and Bill Henderson. Some astounding and fascinating stuff!

  8. JMS

    Wonderful bad reviews are so wonderful: who can forget “Tonstant Weader fwowed up” (Dorothy Parker) or Thomas Conner’s description of Bob Dylan performing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” as “a threat rather than a promise.”

    But most bad reviews are painful to read and to write, because it’s disappointing when someone fails so badly in the attempt to create a work of art. On the other hand, when I was a young reader, I learned a lot about what I could and should expect from books from reviews that talked about flaws like inconsistent characterization, poorly done research, bad pacing, and flat climaxes.

    No bad review has ever been as illuminating, though, as Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”

  9. Gail D.

    I don’t often hate books. A few I have, and I knew exactly Why I heartily disliked them, and was able to express that. (I Hate “Surprise” and “twist” endings–which is why I dislike most short stories, and Hated “The Life of Pi,” and “The Lace Reader.” (I also disliked the fact that the people in Lace Reader were supposed to be able to read the future through lace, but Never Actually Did It.))

    But mostly, I don’t Hate the books. I’m left disappointed, or dissatisfied which isn’t the same thing. And–again–I usually know why. Sometimes the story is about things I don’t enjoy (like scary vampires) and should have known better than to read. Sometimes the writing is subpar (though I have a rather low threshhold). Sometimes, I don’t get the emotional payoff I want (Usually in lit fiction).

    So is that a negative review? I guess it is. Huh.

  10. Sarah Rees Brennans

    I blink and feel famous! But did want to contribute to the comments that yes, I absolutely agree that negative reviews are necessary – especially with pro reviews which as a commenter on my blog pointed out determine which books are bought by libraries and unleashed upon an unsuspecting public. Just that *my* negative reviews were neither objective nor informative, and thus best dispensed with!

  11. The Chawmonger

    I agree with Sam Sykes. If we’re going to have a living, thriving literary community, we can’t allow book reviews to devolve into glorified press releases, a circle jerk of mutual blurbing. For one thing, that’s boring for readers. One of the first things fiction writers learn (or should learn) is the importance of conflict — internal or external — to create tension, suspense, and therefore interest. The same is true for nonfiction: if in the discussion of literature there are no disagreements, no warring aesthetics, no passions engaged, then it’s pretty tough for readers outside the publishing industry (or hell, within it) to find anything to get fired up about.

    Second, this whole discussion seems to presume that the value of reviews rests in how they affects book sales. But I would argue that reviews themselves are intrinsically valuable. Consumer Reports might tell me whether or not I should buy a toaster, but that’s not the purpose of the New York Review of Books. Good criticism reaches beyond the “thumbs up, thumbs down” to make statements about the nature of art — about what it does, what it should do, what it might be able to reach for. Sometimes those ideas come out in a rave review; sometimes they come out in a vitriolic pan. But in order for those ideas to emerge at all, the reviewer has to engage with the work honestly and rigorously. To me, all this debate about “positive vs. negative” misses the real point: it’s not about positive vs. negative, it’s about smart vs. lazy.

  12. Pingback: Negative reviews « Rhiannon Lassiter

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  14. Dormammu

    OK, I write reviews for several journals. I have written for several others. I have recently actually begun to think of myself as a professional (I’ll hit 650 books reviewed shortly) And I agree with Sam; if there are only positive reviews out there, the discussion is one sided–or actually there IS no discussion…just a lot of gladhanding.

    Every book cannot be great or even good. And some of what’s out there now is just plain awful. When I write a negative review, I am warning potential readers not to waste their time on a work. Just because Joe Adult-Bestseller thinks he can write a novel for teens, doesn’t mean all his adult fans should rush out to buy his book for the teen in their lives. Ms. Radio-Personality might think she’s hilarious and a skilled writer…when actually she has the literary talent of a mung bean. The informed public has a right to be forwarned.

  15. Pingback: The Value Of Negative Reviews « Movie City News

  16. Emperor Franzen

    Negative reviews are so polarizing because Emperor Franzen requires 100% unanimous public opinion of my works. Even one stray negative review (cough cough Washington Post) can seed the rebellion against my domination.

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