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Negative Reviews are a Public Service, Not a Blight

There’s a solid minority of the book community that believes one should never be publicly critical of a book.

That’s the view of one book reviewer I met at a writing club meeting on Saturday, and that’s the impression I am getting on Twitter:

Peter Derk feels the same way; a couple days ago he explained on Lit Reactor why he has stopped writing bad reviews.

Needless to say, I think he is as wrong as Massey:

You have to understand, I wrote an entire book that is a negative review of another book. Maybe not negative…look, Modelland is, to me, the Troll 2 of books. It’s fascinating that it exists, baffling at every turn. There’s an audience for it, but I don’t think it was the intended audience. I would probably not hand this book to someone looking for a good, dystopian read that has something to say about body image and real life problems, and I would proffer the theory that only someone who had never read Modelland would choose to do that.

It was a big switch for me. Going from writing book-length negative reviews to skipping negative reviews altogether.

What I’m getting at here is this didn’t come naturally to me, but I decided to give it a whirl.

This is what happens when you stop being real and start getting polite.

You Become A More Discerning Reader

It’s counterintuitive, but it’s true. You become a better reader when you stop writing negative reviews.

Reviewing lousy books worked that way too. If I was reading something crappy, there was something worthwhile coming. I’d be salivating, waiting to trash the book. I paid more attention when I was in the midst of a crappy book than if I read a good one, and it was because I wanted to do the best possible job talking smack about it.

But if you can’t write that trashy review, you do what you probably should have done to begin with: quit. Quit reading a bad book.

This guy came up to the desk when I was working at the library once. He had an enormous stack of books. I asked him how he read so many books, and he said, “Oh, I only read the first few pages most of the time. When they’re bad, and most of them are bad, I quit and move on to something else. There’s no prize for reading bad books.”

That dude was totally right. There is no prize for plowing through bad books, although it would be great if there were, and we could call it the Peter Derk Award For Undaunted Courage. (Hey, I made it up. If you want someone QUALIFIED to have their name attached to an award, make your own.)

With no negative review at the end, no incentive to read through garbage, you’re less likely to waste your time reading through garbage.

While I can understand why Derk decided to stop posting negative reviews, I will never stop. In fact, Derk and I disagree on motivation, the amount of work we put into a review, and how we view our reviews.

Based on her later tweets, Massey seems to be saying that a negative review is an attack on the author, and Derk makes them sound like bile for their own sake, but I see reviews in terms of readers.

The whole point of a review isn’t to spew bile, or to make the author feel sad; the point is to give other readers information they can use to decide if they want to read a book. (The same goes for movies and other types of content.)

There’s no need to read an entire book to post a review, nor do you have to post a long review. If you find you love or hate a work in the first 100 pages, take a few minutes and post a review explaining why.

This is especially useful when you find a book that isn’t worth reading, or where a mediocre book is being hyped out of all proportion to its actual value.

I don’t write long book reviews; I usually tweet short ones. But I did use to write device reviews. There were times I would trash a device because it was simply so terrible that I wanted to discourage anyone from buying it. I was out to save people money, not just be cruel (well, mostly).

My other goal was to inform and enlighten, which is why I found satisfaction in hearing from people who had read my review and decided to buy a device because they loved the features I hated.

Coincidentally, my mother reads negative product reviews for just that reason; she has found that the people who most hate a product are more likely to point out what they see as its flaws. And as the saying goes, one man’s flaw is another man’s feature.

You can’t get that kind of serendipity if you follow Derk’s path and pen a scathing review just for the sake of being nasty about a bad book. Self-censoring a review will also limit the depth of a review to the most shallow and positive details.

It is only when you express an honest opinion, positive or negative, that everyone – including both the reading public as well as the author – gains the most.


image  by Thad Zajdowicz

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Vikarti Anatra June 14, 2017 um 8:59 pm

Negative or partially-negative (not 1 star on Goodreads) reviews are service to other readers who would like to knew how much they would like book. 'Book compatibility' check on Goodreads also shows number of starts for books so it’s easy to compare tastes.
I personally rate 5 stars only to:
– fiction books which I like very very much, which excite me and I re-read (or will be sure I will re-read) several times / old books I read years ago even before goodreads and still remember (Issac Asimov’s,etc). Q
– technical reference books from selected group of authors which are actually usable.

I sometimes write short review text, sometimes not.
Not-5-stars is used to point how much I actually like book (and there are a lot of 3/4 stars here).
my 1 stars on goodreads usually means buying book was mistake in my opinion and I return it if possible.
Rating applies for BOOK and not an author (but this also could mean that book defects – poor grammar (English is not my native language so if I read English-language book and see poor grammar this means something), absense/very high price of Kindle version COULD result in lower rating)

Same applies for my amazon’s ratings and reviews.

Mackay Bell June 14, 2017 um 11:57 pm

As a reader, I find negative reviews helpful. I don’t always believe them, and often if they say something like "too much" x, and if I like x, they might get me to buy a book.

As an author, it’s hard not to get your feelings hurt. And there is no question that sometimes reviews are used to settle scores, either personal (to attack an author they don’t like personally), or political, or even just attacking a kind of genre variation or plot device someone doesn’t approve of. But again, that doesn’t make them unhelpful to people trying to figure out what to read.

As an author I got pretty lucky with positive reviews, but I’d read enough to try to prepare myself for the inevitable one star pan. When I got it, I was pretty bummed. It stated my sci-fi audio book was just a 9 hour advertisement for Apple. Which I have to admit, it kind of is. Funny thing is my sales actually went up a little. So a bad review isn’t always the end of the world.

Mary June 15, 2017 um 5:32 am

Interesting tweet regarding not trusting below 5 reviews; I don’t trust reviewers/readers who consistently give 5 star reviews. It makes no sense to me that all their reading material is excellent. When I take the time to review, I work from the 3-4 range saving the 5 stars only for exceptional books. If I have a 1-2 book in front of me 1) I don’t finish it so 2) I don’t review/star it. I just don’t want to be associated with it.

Michelle Louring June 15, 2017 um 7:46 am

I completely agree. I never even read 5-star reviews. Those are often not the ones that offer any deeper insight. 3 and 4-stars are the ones I give most of the time. If I give a book 4 stars, I honestly enjoyed it, it’s just not utterly amazing and I was able to prioritize sleep over finishing it in one go.

RF42 June 15, 2017 um 9:06 am

I would ask Alana Massey why she bothers using any form of star system, since in her world, all reads are analog: book is A+ = read, book is not A+ = who cares?

Will Entrekin June 15, 2017 um 10:38 am

Interesting thought, especially given that some places (including Netflix) are moving to a like/disklike (thumbs up/thumbs down) model away from the five star system.

I wondered, when I read that, if Amazon would eventually do the same.

A binary system might be more relevant to algorithm-based recommendations, too. Lots of streaming services, like Pandora, use it.

Personally for me as a reader, I find I think most books are around three stars. Pretty good! I reserve five stars for books I’ve found truly excellent. And I’ve found that one-star reviews generally tend to say more about the reviewer than whatever’s reviewed, and often are a result of the reviewers trying to demonstrate their own cleverness or having some axe to grind.

Castiron June 15, 2017 um 1:07 pm

If I read one of Massey’s books and rated it four stars, to me that’d mean it’s an excellent book; not quite "I would grab this if I were being evacuated from my house" or "this completely changed my life" status, but one I thoroughly enjoyed reading and would recommend to others, and if I checked it out from a library, it’s now on my "to buy" list. Even a three-star rating means I found the book a pleasant way to spend a few hours; it might not be one I’d search out again, but I’m glad I read it once.

Apparently, to her four stars would mean that I thought her book was a dumpster fire that the world would’ve been better off without. In which case, a. why even have 3, 2, or 1 stars? and b. I’m not interested in reading Massey’s books.

The Porcupine’s Quill June 16, 2017 um 11:36 am

[…] What is your stance on negative book reviews? Do you firmly believe that if you can’t say something nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all? Does it make you a better reader and writer? This opinion essay weighs in. (And for an opposing viewpoint, this one makes a lot of sense.) […]

Negative Reviews are a Public Service, Not a Blight | Culture et recherche June 19, 2017 um 11:11 am

[…] Source?: Negative Reviews are a Public Service, Not a Blight […]

Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt August 6, 2017 um 4:09 pm

As a writer, I leave very few reviews since I’ve published. There is so much variability in everything from the ratings to how people use the reviews to the discussions of popular books from so many different angles.

It took me a while to realize that a book getting many (even a majority) of negative reviews meant nothing to the writer’s popularity or rating or income. Eye-opener: popular writers and their books get attacked. A lot.

But, as a reader, I am grateful for every reviewer who took the time to give an opinion. I can go through their words and find out if I want to bother. The biggest concern isn’t the beginning of the book – we have the description, the cover, and the Look Inside feature to see if the writer can write (to our taste). But I am infinitely grateful to every person who tells me not how the book ends (that’s a spoiler), but how that ending made them feel. My biggest pet peeve is writers who cannot finish a book, speed up the ending to get it over with, invoke a Deus ex machina, leave a cliff-hanger – all of which I won’t find out until I get the book and read through a lot of it.

I write with the dictum: 'the first chapter sells the book, and the last chapter sells the next book.' A lot of writers don’t.

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