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?