Thursday, 25 November 2010

Thoughts on Negative v. Critical Reviews

There is a whole heap of brouhaha about negative reviews throughout the blogosphere at the moment. While the Jawas Read, Too blog fiasco with Andrew Smith and Michael Grant sickened me after eight comments, I wanted to turn my attention to something more concerning. The confusion regarding negative reviews.

I believe there is a difference between negative and critical reviews and find it unfortunate that they are lumped together. In most cases, less knowledgeable (or dare I say, lacking common sense) individuals tar them both with the 'mean' brush. I am biased in this scenario. I have often been branded harsh or mean because I choose to post reviews on titles that I find underwhelming on a critical level. While in some cases harsh (but truthful) might be applicable, mean is not.

And here's where I stand upon the soapbox. Reviewing is subjective ("...particular to a given person; persona") and as such won't please all readers. Rubbishing a novel based purely on one's emotions without evidence isn't critical and therefore isn't a worthwhile review. It is baseless. My choice to criticise a title on poor craftsmanship or lack of emotional heft and connectivity isn't baseless. It isn't negative for negativity’s sake.

Many bloggers declare they won't post negative reviews. I understand and respect that...if you review critically (introspection about what elements worked well.) I have chosen a different route. Though I receive review copies I do not feel obliged, nor wish, to represent all my reading material in a positive light when my feelings are to the contrary.  Some titles just aren't that well written. Sometimes that is due to a premise heavy/ writing light approach. Sometimes it's due to the book being poorly constructed. Sometimes it is a heavy or light editing hand. Regardless, not all books are created equal and perfect.

To review something is "...1. To look over, study, or examine again. 2. To consider retrospectively; look back on. 3. To examine with an eye to criticism or correction." There is nothing there about publisher or author responsibility. Receiving a book for review, buying a title, doesn't not automatically equate to finding the positives. Sometimes they are there, sometimes you'll find yourself looking aimlessly for eternity. Having a book blogger, reviewing titles, means that you need to be reading critically. Whether you interpret that as identifying just the positives (or negatives) in a title is up to you. If you are wise, you'll try to portray both doing a service to those who put time and money into the book.

What angers me is when a review blogger writes a baseless review (positive or negative) based solely on their emotions. "It was awesome because the guy is soooooo hawt" or "I plan on using the pages of this title to wipe my butt the next time I visit the lavatory" - neither of these show critical thought. They are baseless. Neither do our community justice. Neither do the authors or publishers, editors or publicists, any favours. They reflect poorly on the blogger and their ability to read and write with thought. To review is to examine.

Conversation has turned on bloggers that review negatively e.g. those that review without critical thought to bash. Yes, they are awful. Yes, they do our community a disservice. But so do the baseless one paragraph glowing reviews that contain no examination at all outside of the hotness of a fictional character.  If find both to be offensive.

We all should be aiming to be critical. While many people are lumping critical in with mean or negative, they are wrong. Critical reviewing means you are reviewing well. Critical means you are identifying the positive and/or negative aspects of a title. Critical means you are examining a book based on more than your gut or your need to please an author. Critical is “…involving skilful judgment as to truth, merit, etc.” In can also mean to judge something too severely (of which I can be accused). If you give reasoning, justify your opinion with solid evidence you aren't on the same level as a slap dash, hate reviewer.  It is a line I have found hard to tread, sometimes losing my balance but something I've improved on with practise.

Lastly I would like to state that disliking a book, providing a well-constructed review on the reasons why, isn’t being "mean". The author might take it personally, it’s their baby after all, but the intent isn’t (generally) to wound the person behind it. The intent is to critical reflect thought on the effectiveness of the storytelling. Reading is subjective. Not everyone will like the book that you love but that doesn’t mean that they are mean.

If there is anything I wished to achieve by writing this post, it was to ask people to be more careful in assessment of critical bloggers as mean or negative. A negative review isn’t the same as a critical one. While they might both see the same book as lacking, their approach is very different. Also, critical does not automatically imply that the review is seeing a title as lacking. Writing a critical review of a book you adore is one of the hardest things to write as a reviewer. It is something I admire heartily in bloggers that choose to only review books that have experienced positively. It’s hard…but I am glad they keep pushing on.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. Like everything we post on our blogs it is subjective, drawn from my own experiences so feel free to disagree.


Anonymous said...

Adele, thanks for posting this. I completely agree. Assumptions that criticism and negativity are interchangeable undermines the entire field of criticism (and, in fact, my career). Criticism is responsible scholarly writing. Negative reviews are not. Simple as that!

Jane said...

I generally agree with all that you wrote here - but many people critique something and choose the most extreme metaphors and words to explain WHY they thought something was not enjoyable for them - and I can't help thinking that sometimes it could have been said in a more constructive way, and would then sound like less of a personal attack.

Kelly Jensen said...

@Jane: It's not a personal attack if someone is critiquing something, even if they use "extreme metaphors." It's a criticism of the work itself. I don't think I've seen a review in recent memory (and heck if I can pull one out period) that was ever a criticism of the author. There is a distinct difference between the two.

Adele, a lovely post and one that best captures what so many think about when crafting a review that is sometimes not comfortable to even write.

Jo Treggiari said...

Hear, hear!
I read (and respect) your reviews because you are always fair and your less-effusive reviews are always backed up with reasoning and explanation.
As a writer it is hard for me to separate my own feelings when reading a not-great review of my books but that is just a matter of growing a thicker skin and remembering that my books are not me. It is never a personal attack unless it is from someone who doesn't like my shoes or hairstyle or who I choose to write about... and those are easy to discount.
And a well-written critical review (much as a query or manuscript rejection)can be a valuable tool in allowing me to think about how I write in the future and what skills I could be strengthening.
There are still times that I might want to curl up into a small ball and sob into my pillow but that too will pass.

Liviania said...

Very true. The greatest advantage of a critical review is that readers can realize they might still like the book since none of the things you disliked are their dealbreakers. Or they might not waste their time if one of the elements that didn't work is something they really care about. A bad review is useless to everyone because people dislike books for different reasons and thus you've been mean without imparting information.

Splendibird said...

This is an incredibly well thought out and well written post. Like many reviewers, I think, I put a great deal more thought and (dare I say) angst into writing a review about a book that I disliked as I feel it's important to be able to succinctly and accurately convey any criticism you may have, with thought and careful wording. I think that as long as you are being thoughtful and articulate then you should have nothing to worry about. The day that I find myself bitching without back-up (by which I mean decent reasoning and tact) is the day that I'll stop reviewing. While the Jawas Read Too/Andrew Smith brouhaha was pretty scary to follow as a reviewer, I would also like to highlight a comment that I got on a fairly critical review, from the author herself:
I wouldn't normally link to my own blog in a comment but I do think this highlights how positive authors can be even about less than raving reviews...

John The Bookworm said...

We had a very interesting Twitter discussion on this! I really despise authors that choose to comment so often - especially on reviews that are most certainly constructive and clear, like Ericka's. They make fools of themselves and, in Michael Grant's case, imply an agenda. He commented somewhere around ten to twenty times. He wouldn't let it DIE. It was really sick. I actually read Gone, which has been on my shelf awhile, after the experience, and enjoyed it a little, but found some evidence of the same 'Look at me, I'm soapboxing everything you want. This means I'm awesome,' in how he first showed that characters were Mexican, had autistic siblings, ect.

Mostly, I think it's important for people to remember that reviews are subjective, and that people review differently. While I'm not a fan of positive reviews without any construction, some people DO read just because the guy is hot. That's okay. It's just not the way I want to review. However, people should always remember that, good or bad, we should respect the author while we do it and separate them from their work.

Great post as always, Adele.

Amy said...

I agree that criticism and negativity aren't interchangeable but I think that every blogger does have a right to blog the way they want. Which means that if they just want to write a few sentences based on their reaction to the book that's their choice because it's their blog. Just my two cents on the topic! I think there's plenty of room for all kinds of critical ones and shorter reactionary ones, because I think there are readers for both of those kinds of reviews.
Great post!

Emily said...

I hadn't heard about this whole situation but I'm not surprised that it exists. I'm constantly surprised by folks who seem to forget that the blogging world and the Internet in general are not a private place. People can read what you write! It's a caution to everyone; if you post comments that are on the far side of ridiculous, people can read them. Likewise, whatever you post on your blog is for public consumption as well. I'm a believer that people should write and post what they want, but bear in mind that they are accountable for what they write. Personal responsibility, folks!

As an aside, HOLY WOW did that graphic on this post make my eyes cross! It definitely grabbed my attention!

Blueicegal ♥ said...

personally I'm not sure what to think about bloggers who only write positive reviews, i wouldn't follow them that's for sure, i want to follow someone who i know will say what is on their mind, i want to know if i should not read a particular book for whatever reason, if they are holding back then they are just wasting my time. Fab post love your reviews btw :)

Carla said...

Such a well thought out, articulate post. I think what everyone needs to remember, especially in our corner of the universe, is that reviewing books is as subjective as it can get. I totally believe that no two people are going to feel the exact same thing about a book. No one can claim your opinion is not valid as they do not share it. To do so would be ignorant. There have been cases where a reviewer has tore to shreds a book that I absolutely adored, however, this has never made me feel any sort of hate or bad feelings towards that person. After all, I may hate a book that they love. Sure, if a reviewer wrote a particularly negative review but did not base their hate on anything solid, if they did not provide examples or justifications for their views then it would be a different story. After all, reviewing is critiquing someones work, and not everything smells of roses.

Lauren said...

This is a really interesting post, Adele, and I pretty much agree with you. I can't stand reading reviews where the blogger slates a book without backing up their points at all. At the same time, I respect bloggers who read and write critically.

However, over the last year or so my opinion on superficial reviews has changed a little. If they're written by younger bloggers or people who perhaps haven't had much practice writing reviews, I now figure that the reviewer will eventually improve. So in that sense, I don't get annoyed by baseless reviews - although I don't enjoy them, and I have my limits if they're overly rude.

I personally try not to get too subjective in my reviews. I like the idea of describing what the book is like, not focusing on whether I liked it. Of course, then I end up just describing what *I* think the book is like, but it's the approach that works for me. One of my happiest moments as a blogger was when an author I'd never spoken to before linked to my review of her book on Facebook, stating that she even agreed with the criticism. I was thrilled by that.

Felicity said...

As someone who often has to discuss the reviews with the author, I find negative reviews are hard to explain when there isn't actual reasons. As Adele noted, I hate this character therefore the whole book because he is mean - isn't a review, and merely responding to what could be possibly be the author's intent.

I hate how the author choses to make this character mean with no real reason is far easier to understand and for the author to learn why the reviewer isn't responding to the work.

In regards to bloggers reviewing, I'm all for it, whatever walk of life they are from and often it's a great learning curve for younger bloggers about reaction and response and you'll see bloggers become more confident with their style as they get the hang of it. I think drawing attention to the work is great and like life not everything can be perfect.

My respect lies with bloggers who review honestly. I admit my undying love for Melina Marchetta especially Jellicoe but I recently read a review that wasn't the usual gushing positive. The reviewer was very honest and constructive about why they didn't like, what it was that held them back and I can only respect that because it as Adele notes, it's completely subjective and what a boring world it would be if we all loved the same thing.

Emma (the Expat) said...

This is a great post. All bloggers need to think about this before they start reviewing books! I have to admit though, I'm sure I've been guilty of saying things like "IT WAS JUST AMAZING" and not really getting constructive enough.

Nomes said...

It's hard work writing a well thought out review - I think a lot of people take short cuts. You see this especially on sites like goodreads - where people tend to rant and rave a lot.

Regarding always positive reviews. blah. Not helpful at all. I want to get a feel for the book before i consider purchasing it and to see if it matches my tastes, plus I love knowing how the reviewer personally responded.

I don't want to hear every book is amazing. It discredits the reviewer - I don't put much stock in their opinion.

Responding to another comment: I agree it takes a while to get the hang of reviewing and finding your own groove :)

Liz B said...

For the most part, I agree with you. I'm not a fan of reviews that are little more than publisher copy and "I love/hate/bored now" without any reasons etc given. It tells me what the blogger likes or doesn't, but it doesn't help me at all know whether or not I'll like/hate/be bored. Giving reasons? Then, whatever the blogger's end opinion I may want to read the book, either because I nod and agree or, I'm intrigued by something someone else dosn't like, or even I find "if x doesn't like it I will." There are some people whose "love it" is all I need, but that trust in that reviewer is built up by previous, detailed reviews.

If I'm being critical, I need to accept disagreement and criticism, and also realize that some of that won't be well written out. Just like an author has to realize it. I don't think the Marbury Lens/Grant comments are that bad, in all honesty. It's a healthy debate. There are definately comments I've had where I step away from the computer and think of my "dream" response and then do a more measured response.

Bea said...

I agree with Chutzpah. I wish all book bloggers would read this and think about it. I do try to back up what I didn't like about a book (or what I did like) and not be just reactive. I find it challenging to write a thoughful, balanced critical review but sometimes it needs to happen.

Bea said...

I agree with Chutzpah. I wish all book bloggers would read this and think about it. I do try to back up what I didn't like about a book (or what I did like) and not be just reactive. I find it challenging to write a thoughful, balanced critical review but sometimes it needs to happen.

Bea said...

I agree with Chutzpah. I wish all book bloggers would read this and think about it. I do try to back up what I didn't like about a book (or what I did like) and not be just reactive. I find it challenging to write a thoughful, balanced critical review but sometimes it needs to happen.

Adele said...

Thanks for all the well crafted responses and additional thoughts! While our reading is subjective, so are our thoughts on reviewing.

Some of this discussion has continued onto Twitter and I would like to reiterate that I don't expect a literary analysis as a review. Mine sure aren't. I do expect reasoning - whether emotional, literary or something else completely. You don't have to have a scholarly approach to have an opinion - just voice it....with reasons.

Cheers everyone.

Sean Wright said...

This is a timely post for me. I am struggling through a book at the moment. The premise is interesting but the execution is severely flawed. I will struggle to give it 2 stars.

I don't really see the point of reviewing and only praising and being positive, it turns you into an unpaid cog in the marketing machine.

If a book isn't good, saying it is is really defrauding readers.

Like you say keep it polite, informed, fair and honest.