This post is the second in a two-part series (Part I here). All opinions are my own, and I am not speaking for the rest of the reviewers at The Readers Café, as we each write reviews in our own way.
Y’all, I just today caught the unintentional hilarity in splitting up these “On Negative Reviews” posts into a series. I mean, it’s kind of a running joke around here that we’re going to head for the fainting couch whenever we review a book that is the first in yet another series. So for me to go and do this with these posts was a pretty cheeky decision. I am laughing heartily at myself.
I would really love to say that I have liked every book I’ve read. For me, getting part-way into a book and having that “uh-oh. I don’t think this is going to be my scene” moment is disappointing. Getting most of the way through a book and then having the wind taken out of my sails by an unsatisfying plot twist is frustrating. And encountering, at any point in a book, anything that is an absolute deal-breaker for me and causes me to put the book down right then can be very upsetting. Like many readers, I try to do some research in advance for many of my book choices, and I like to think I have far fewer negative reading experiences because of that, but the fact remains that from time to time, I read a book that just doesn’t work for me. And, like many readers, that used to be a mostly private disappointment for me.
Obviously, that’s not the case anymore.
Our blogmistress, Amy, is fiercely protective of giving us the flexibility to a) read and post at whatever frequency works for us as individuals, and b) review whatever we’ve read, in any genre, and give our sincere opinions. I appreciate her philosophy; I know there are book review blogs that have a policy of “don’t write bad reviews”…but I’d not want to be part of those projects. As a reader, I appreciate negative reviews, and as a reviewer, I believe writing a negative review–thoughtfully and with a sense of perspective–is a service that provides value to other readers.
Very rarely will you see a review from me that unequivocally states that a book is so terrible, nobody should ever read it. That’s usually because I very rarely read a book that I think is wholly awful. Typically, even if I may not like a book, I can take something good from it, and I like to communicate that. I also will take the time to describe why I may not have liked it, so that each person can make their own decision about how much credence to give to my review. For some people, sometimes, the answer is “none at all–she’s full of shit!” and that’s OK!
Normally, when I write a negative review, I tend to focus on four areas:
- Harm: are the ideas presented in the book harmful, in that they unquestioningly reinforce misconceptions, stereotypes, or other social constructs that serve to marginalize people? Seriously, I don’t want to read about how women are all catty bitches, because a) it’s not true, and women are often not taken seriously in real life because of untrue assumptions like this one, and b) that is really tired and lazy writing, and a way to avoid having to do any real work with character development. So if I read a book that assumes “women are all catty bitches” as a premise, and uses that to short-cut character depth or motivations, in general I’m going to give it a negative review.
- Internal consistency: do the characters behave in ways that make sense, given the characteristics the author has assigned to them? For example, is our prudent, cautious, never-traveled-before protagonist suddenly seized with a desire to sell everything he owns and go tag sheep in the Andes? If so, is there any reason given for this life-changing decision and does that reason make sense? Also, are descriptions of places and people consistent? Nothing pulls me out of a book faster than reading about someone’s blue eyes, when pages before those eyes had been violet.
- Finishes: Formatting (especially for eBooks), typographical correctness, sentence flow–anything that might fall into the category of “editorial polish”–would be considered here. Many readers will rate the importance of this category different from the way I do, and that’s fine; while something in this category may not swing a review entirely to my “negative” column, I will make note of it, since it’s something I notice when I’m reading.
- Hype: I don’t get too worked up about hype in general (see: Fifty Shades of Grey and my continued non-reading of it), so instead here I’m talking more about the intentional presentation of the book by the author, the publisher, and whoever is contributing blurbs on the cover. For example, if I see a book billed as “hilarious!,” I expect to laugh at least once. The dissonance that results from having ideas, supported by the establishment that is responsible for the book, about what a story will be, and then those ideas being proven wrong, make me a little cranky.
Of course, I may have other reasons beyond these four to dislike a book I read–as much as the analyst in me would like to, I can’t compartmentalize all of my reactions into just four categories–but whatever the reason, as I’m drafting a negative review, I try to be careful to focus on the “why,” so that other readers, who may have different priorities and reactions than I do, can take what may be useful to them, and leave the rest.
I, like many of my colleagues, don’t particularly enjoy writing negative reviews (OK…sometimes we do…we do promise “more snark than the NY Times” after all). I’m well aware that no matter what I think of it, every book I read is the product of someone’s hard work, and that their hopes and dreams may be bound up in the volume I am presuming to criticize. All I can offer is a commitment to precision–to say what exactly I didn’t like, and why–and an appreciation for the fact that bringing a book to publication requires a level of effort that shouldn’t be minimized. This goes double for new or independent authors, too; somehow, I don’t think James Patterson much cares what we have to say, but then with the publicity machine he has working for him, he doesn’t have to. For those authors who do care, I very much hope that, even while I may take issue with some content, I can likewise be an advocate, and look forward to the next review in which I can discuss, and tell everyone I know, how much I loved what I have read.