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:
If a book is not outrageously, unforgivably bad for art and society as a whole and you give it below a 5 on Goodreads, I don't trust you.
— Alana Massey (@AlanaMassey) June 14, 2017
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