Monday, 14 May 2012

Should negative reviews be published?

I have just finished reading an excellent historical novel that I shall be reviewing for the Historical Novel Society later this month. I've also just read one that I think shouldn't have been published.  This made think about the reviews I've received for my books as well as the reviews I've written for other people.
I always review a novel honestly. I try and avoid doing any for friends and people I know just in case I can't give them a five-star, glowing report. If a book is excellent then I say so, if it's good then I say that, but also mention what, in my opinion, could have made it even better. With a poorly written book it's much more difficult.
I had a bad review and a five-star review for the same title on the same day. Reviewing is subjective and the comments should make that clear. What can be enjoyable to one person is another's worst read. One person may like the subject/style of writing another might not. That said - a badly written/edited book is just that.
As a writer I know how hard it is to finish a manuscript. If a publisher has put this book out, then they must have believed it was as good as it could be. I don't enjoy being negative about someone's efforts, but there would be no point in having reviews if the only ones that were ever written were positive.
However, I make sure  my comments are never directed at the author but the book. I've never forgotten the critique I received when I was an unpublished writer which told me I was ridiculous. I can also honestly say that I've only received a very few downright bad reviews. I could quote what was said in all of them - and by whom. I've had many glowing accolades and 5* reviews and although they were all a delight to get, I don't remember what was actually written.
Which brings me back to whether anyone should ever write and publish a bad review knowing the potential damage it can do to an author's well-being. I'm not talking about self-published books -these are another thing entirely.
What do you think?
Would it be better if the bad reviews were not published? The writer would know the reviewer didn't  like their book by the absence of a review.
Until next time
best wishes


  1. I can't see the point of publishing bad reviews - surely the idea is to recommend a good read? If it is a bad read, don't review it. Personally, I haven't got time (or inclination) to read books that are not proving to be a good read - if I'm not hooked by page 50 I abandon it. (although if officially reviewing for the HNS, as UK editor for Indie HF, if a book fails review I do contact the author and give reasons for a "poor review". That, I think, is being fair. Some authors are very grateful for the advice, some don't reply, a few get shirty. In which case I delete their e-mail address and the book goes in the bin. Sorry - if you don't want constructive criticism don't send your badly edited, poorly presented book for review!
    And that is the key isn't it? Constructive Criticism.
    Fair enough to say "there are a few typos that need tidying up", but to condemn a book as "this was awful" is rather pointless; after all (as someone pointed out to me when I blogged about this subject) "A Review is a review - not a critique."
    Comments on Amazon or Goodreads (or anything similar) are a different matter, but again I cannot see the point of being deliberately nasty. OK so you didn't enjoy the read, say why "I thought it had too much historical fact and not enough romance, so not quite my interest" is fine, but to say "This was badly written garbage" is plain downright rude, and is of no help to anyone.

    1. As someone who received such constructive criticism from Helen I would support what she says and found the pointers to how to improve the presentation of my book invaluable. I would go as far as to say they have contributed in no small way to the subsequent success of the book. Having said that, I do think there is some room for "bad" reviews, but it depends very much on the grounds on which the review would be described as "bad".
      Reading is such an objective activity that damning a book simply because the content or story did not align with your own personal tastes would be wrong: My late mother used to say "one man's meat is another's poison" which kind of sums that up. I couldn't get past chapter 4 of "The Da Vinci Code" but it seems I'm WELL in the minority there.
      On the other hand is there not an obligation on the part of a reviewer to point out if a work is simply not worth other people spending their time and money on, either in terms of quality, length, content etc? My own particular bugbear is with fiction that twists historical facts to satisfy a modern political agenda, for example. I also often wonder what the effect would have been if Mussolini's opinion of Mein Kampf had been published ("a boring tome that I have never been able to read" full of "little more than commonplace clichés")

    2. Helen and Tim -thanks for your comments. I'm talking primarily about official reviews (HNS et al) not the few words one writes to help a friend on Amazon. I don't read fist person present tense books however well written -can't get on with it. so I wouldn't offer to review one of those.

    3. Well this post has certainly come back to haunt me. I'd achieved modest success over the last year with a book and was selling about 23 copies a day until 1 week ago, when I suddenly got 2 (in my opinion) quite vicious 1 star Amazon reviews and sales have virtually disappeared.
      When someone's opinion directly hits you in the wallet I find it somewhat harder to be philosophical about it. :-)

    4. Tim - I know what you mean. Just had two reviews for The Duke's Reform -one great the other dreadful. I think some people get their kicks by being unpleasant.
      I'm sorry your sales have been hit - hopefully they will bounce back again.

  2. Other reviews that should not be accepted are those by people who do not finish reading the book! This is disingenuous to authors and readers, as it cannot give a true assessment of a complete story. Such reviews should not be allowed on retail sites like Amazon. If any are found, they should be removed.

  3. Having reviewed historical fiction, history and prize winning novels for the American newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, for over twenty years, I'd say both are essential if done properly. And by properly I mean adhering basically to the standards articulated by John Updike in his article on reviews.

    First and foremost though, the question has to be who is the review written for? Because that makes the whole question a great deal clearer. If it's for the general reader and it's a negative review, well, what you're really saying is, "Don't waste your hard-earned money." And I, as an always skint reader, appreciate that.

    But if a review is to be negative, then it is absolutely essential that the review says exactly where the book fell down. Research? Plot? Characters too flat or cliche? Seen better writing in a junior school? And the reviewer then MUST provide excerpts from the text to support the criticism.

    So essentially, a review must deconstruct the novel and analyse the bits and see if they add up to Excellent.

    I always found books I loved harder to review. Our PR-marketing society has used all the superlatives so many times for such inferior merchandise that it's hard to pin down what 'beautiful' or 'brilliant' or 'delightful' really mean. So again, it's probably best to choose an excerpt from the text to show exacly how luscious the prose is, or how well-defined are the characters...Because again, the review is for the readers, to say, here, look at this, this is rather special and I think it's worth spending your money on it because I think it's worth treasuring.

    That said, I've quite happily sliced and diced books when it was clear the author hadn't bothered, or that they were writing this one on ego and assumed great sales were a given, or that it was just a second-rate, churned out mishmash. But I have also and with the greatest pleasure written paeans of praise for some of the finest books of our time--Dorothy Dunnett, Patrick O'Brian, Charles Palliser, Norman Davies, Giles Milton, Salley Vickers. And it has been an honour so to do.

    1. Shawn and mb -thanks for the input. The HNS has a strict word count so quoting from the text isn't possible. If I ever have the time I would like to do reviews on my blog - then I could be as long as I want.
      I know what you mean about over used words - I used many when writing reports. "Lively" = damn nuisance etc. I always say at the end of an HNS review if I recommend the book. If I wouldn't buy it but think fans might I say 'I'm sure all her fans will enjoy this book.'

  4. I also review for the Historical Novel Society, and I've written both positive and negative reviews. (I'm also an author, and I've received both sorts of reviews as well.) I can't agree that one shouldn't publish negative reviews--the point of reviewing a book is not to build the author's self-esteem, but to give potential readers an idea of whether the book will be to their liking. Authors whose well-being is so fragile that they can't cope with even polite criticism really need to go into another line of work, or should circulate their efforts only among their family and friends.

  5. Absolutely couldn't have said it better than Susan.
    As a reviewer myself, I do not accept books that I do not think have a strong chance of my enjoyment.

    That said, I will read each book till the end, and make my opinions known in my review, as that is what I am obligated to do as a reviewer for that publisher.

  6. Well put, Susan! There seems to be a lot of writers suggesting that 'bad' reviews shouldn't be written or published - one went so far as to say there should be a law against it - and I wonder how many of these base their decisions to watch a film or tv show, or buy music based on a review. The assumption that a 'bad' review is personally motivated or malicious is probably well founded in some cases, but by no means all (or even most). The rights of readers to make an informed decision about what they spend their money on outweigh the rights of fragile writers to have their egos stroked.

    1. Susan/Marie and RG I enjoyed your remarks. Thanks for posting.I think a reviewer has to be honest but not personal. I watch films on TV based on the *ratings - but don't always agree.
      I accept some reviewers don't like my style - can't please everyone. Reviewers must read all the book in order to make an informed opinion and so many on amazon clearly don't.
      My point is that content/style/subject are according to taste - an overwritten/ cliched/boring book is just that. I know publishers invest money in some of these poor books but one wonders why? I suppose someone somewhere will read and enjoy them -but not me.

  7. Slightly different spin on this, I'd say that the first duty of reviewers is to respect their readers - their readers, not the author's readers. If a reviewer doesn't like a book I'd advocate damning with faint praise rather than trashing the book. I also think that the only way to judge a book is by the author's intentions (Updike's first rule). But if a book fails in what it sets out to do I think you must say so - so long as you explain yourself. (And this is NOT the same as those people who say at the end of a review something like 'You'll like this if you like x author, but I don't so I didn't' - that's a really lazy formulation and meaningless).

    Also authors should trust people who read reviews more. I buy books that have been given 1* reviews (you can tell if it's spite, and you can tell if the reviewer just didn't get the book), and I often steer clear of books that have had 5* reviews from the friends and groupies. Readers are not fools, and the power of a balanced review is that it acknowledges this fact.

    Richard Lee,

    1. Richard, thanks for joining this debate. Updike's a clever chap. Not always clear what author's intentions are - sometimes blurb says 'historical romance' but little interaction between main protagonists. I never 'trash' a book although I will say why I didn't like it.

  8. And please also read post on my blog re reviews. I think some people just like the sound of their own print, to mix metaphors. I agree with your reader who said these bad reviews do damage - after all, we earn so little for our work, given the hours of dedication wwe put in, that unless there are glaring discrepancies in plot/style, it is disheartening. Maybe those who can't write, review......

  9. Carol, thanks for dropping by. You will be interested in my latest post -be pleased to hear your take on YA and digital readers.