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Should Authors Be Critics? The Question Of Reviews

March 2, 2014

Picture the following: you have just finished a book, and a particularly painful one at that.  Perhaps the grammar was broken, or maybe the plot and characters simply didn’t work – for whatever reason, you are now unhappy. For ordinary readers, the solution is obvious: pen a long and detailed one-star review, post it everywhere you can and hope it deters others from following in your wake.

But what if you yourself happen to be a writer? What if you realise how painful such reviews can be? Should you really still do it in that case? Should you soften the review in some way? Or even say nothing at all?

Opinions on this matter vary considerably. In this influential post, Kristen Lamb argues that authors should never write such reviews, for both personal and professional reasons. Likewise, Mimi Barbour mentions in this post that she only reviews books worthy of three stars or more. Other writers take less rigid views; this, for instance, argues that bad reviews are unnecessary but also not ultimately harmful to the writers who pen them. Last but not least are writers such as Karen Myers, who argue that writers should indeed publish bad reviews when the situation calls for them.

Nowadays, I fall very much into the latter of the categories presented. And now, I’ll explain why.

First of all, an obvious point: if you’re going to write a review for a book, then you might as well be completely honest about it. There is no point in going easy on a book because it was self-published, or because it’s a debut, or because…well, whatever, really. If a book is bad, then it is bad – that simple. Books cost readers both time and money, so if a book is bad then readers ought to be able to say so – even if those readers happen to have written books themselves.

But what about simply keeping silent? This, according to Kristen Lamb, is at least as powerful as any bad review could be. While this argument works in certain cases, I feel Lamb misses something important. A five-star score from a reviewer who only gives five-star scores means very little. If that reviewer gives both good and bad ratings, however, then those five stars mean so much more.

I’ll end this on a personal note. One day, I would dearly love to be published myself. I would love even more to receive a glowing review from a fellow author. If that happened, though, then I would dearly want that praise to actually be deserved, rather than out of some misguided sense of duty.

Agree with this post? Disagree? Got any alternative opinions? Feel free to post your thoughts below.

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From → Writing

22 Comments
  1. Hall of Frigga permalink

    I agree – that authors can write reviews. They read too, don’t they? Otherwise it’s the old adage of those being able to, doing, and those not able, criticising (or teaching). I suppose the issue is that a bad review might be taken as “I could have written this so much better than you”.

    • Agreed on all points. I like your latter point in particular, and must admit that I’ve never really considered that before. I guess the answer here is to not make a point of being a writer when doing reviews – well, that’s what I hope, anyway.

  2. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to give a negative review if a book is truly bad, though as Hall of Frigga said, don’t do it in a “I can do better” way. A review should be as objective as possible and more focused on the writing itself than on what you feel. I also think if you’re going to write a review you can at least finish the book. Personally I don’t like giving negative reviews, but I’m fine with others doing it as long as they don’t just use it as an excuse to be nasty.

    I sometimes rant about books I didn’t like. I don’t see these as reviews and don’t call them that either. However, I only do those about books by authors who are already rich and famous, so they can take it. Perhaps I’m just rationalising now 😉

    • Same here :). I think I’ve mentioned personal feelings in a couple of my reviews, but I always identify them as such when they come up. I’m also REALLY hoping I never do a “DNF”, though I’m sure it’ll happen one day…

      And yeah, rants are fun every now and then. I find them more fun when talking face-to-face with fellow ranters, though; I find written rants too hard to keep coherent, for whatever reason.

  3. I usually keep quiet about books I’ve hated, not least because I don’t want to waste any more of my time on them. Most unfamous bad books sink without trace without my assistance; most famous ones have plenty of 1-star reviews already for book browsers to consider before buying.
    I think I would do the same if I were not a writer myself. The situation is uncomfortable when the book is by someone I know, and writers do tend to know other writers. My guiding principle is to be truthfully positive, silent about bad aspects or silent altogether, following the old advice, ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.’
    Years ago, I gave a 4-star review to an acquaintance’s book I really enjoyed, mentioning something that didn’t quite work but saying it didn’t spoil my enjoyment. She emailed saying it wasn’t what she expected from a friend. I deleted the review, haven’t read her second book, and don’t think much of her. But also I formulated my guiding principle and have stuck to it ever since.
    When I refer people to the reviews of my own books, I always say, ‘Some of them are by people who don’t know me!!’

    • Very good point. I do sometimes wonder if online reviews like mine really make a difference in the grand scheme of things. Then again, I guess if everyone thought like that there’d be hardly any reviews, so…

      Glad to have not run into that particular dilemma. Getting upset over a 4-star review seems a bit odd to me, though :/.

      Thanks for commenting, as always! 🙂

  4. That’s a very good point — because, as a writer, I know that I don’t like to leave bad reviews about other writers’ works — especially not writers that I interact with on a weekly basis via WordPress, Facebook, etc. So then, when I get a 4-5 star review, the question becomes: do I actually deserve this, or are they just obligated to be nice to me because I’m nice to them?

    I know when I review books that maybe weren’t my favorite, I give a decent rating (3-4 stars), and then I do my best to point out both what I liked and what I didn’t like. That’s really the best way to tell if you should buy a book — find the parts of the reviews that talk about the flaws, see if multiple reviews mention the same flaw, and then decide for yourself if that flaw’s going to ruin the reading experience for you! For example, one of the big things I look for with self-published books are comments on editing (specifically spelling and grammar mistakes). Those drive me CRAZY, and if several reviewers mention that the book is riddled with typos, I probably won’t buy it.

    • I tend to do similarly when looking for new books. I always check for comments concerning editing and I also check for obvious astroturfing in the “good” reviews. If I don’t find either of those and also like the blurb, then I’ll probably end up buying the book :).

  5. I agree with your point at the end about writing a negative reviews versus keeping silent. The key is to write the negative review in the right manner. If you’re honest and fair with your critique (mentioning even the slightest highlights or redeeming factors), you’ll come across as respectful to the author and to the readers. If you start spouting insults, sarcasm, obscenities, etc., that’s when I think a reviewer would be in trouble.

    I’ve been writing CD reviews at an independent music webzine for 5+ years now. While I’ve never reviewed an album I didn’t like in some way, I’ve never been afraid to share mixed feelings I have toward a CD. And I do that by balancing the compliments with the criticisms without resorting to inflammatory language. I’ve actually received “thank you’s” from unsigned bands who appreciated the feedback and said they found it helpful for improving their later material. Just goes to show that even when you write a less-than-positive review, if you write it in an appropriate manner, the creator of the product you’re reviewing may be grateful for it in the end.

    • Agreed completely. I actually quite enjoy ranty reviews when they’re done – just – right, but I don’t think I’d ever try writing one. Always best to keep things polite and calm, in my view, and especially when the review is “bad”.

      I’ve been contacted twice by authors I’ve reviewed and on both occasions the exchange was highly pleasant. I still get nervous when I first see such messages, mind.

      • I know exactly what you mean on that last bit. Do you tense up at first and think something about the lines of, “OK, I hope they’re not angry with me about something I said”? And then breathe a sigh of relief after you open and read the message?

      • Yes on both counts. Both responses were to “okay” reviews, so I couldn’t help but worry a little at first.

  6. I’m a new author (second book out last week). I wrestled with this topic and finally developed my own policy: (1) I will give an honest review if asked by another author and I believe I will enjoy the book. It’s nice if they return the favor, but not required. (2) If I honestly can’t give it a decent (>3 stars) review, I will tell the author and they can decide if they want me to post a review.

    Why? As a new author, it is really hard to drum up enough reviews to be credible. If I’m not willing to contribute to the review pool, do I have a right to ask for reviews? As far as being humane about the review policy, my feeling is that anyone who has actually finished a novel deserves the benefit of the doubt. I’m not about to be the one who crucifies a fellow writer for the sake of my opinion.

    • First of all, congrats on getting two whole books out there :). What kind of stuff do you write, if you don’t mind me asking?

      Sounds like a good a policy to me. I think in my case, bad reviews are a bit easier to write simply because I haven’t yet published anything. Out of interest: have you ever had to email a writer over not liking a book of theirs? What does the result tend to be?

      • Sci-fi/fantasy – if you’d like a review copy, shoot me an email. Haha! (seriously, though…). The latest book is at http://amzn.com/B00IRG97SK.

        I should clarify that this policy applies to new, independent authors–anyone who has the backing of a Big 5 house or has lots of books out should have the resources & experience to perfect their craft.

        I had one instance where a guy asked me to review his book (it was not a reciprocal review). I started and it was awful. Lots of grammar mistakes, no editing, meandering story… I put it aside and just waited. He had 2 5* reviews from obvious family members and then a couple of 1*. He pulled the book within the month.

        In answer to your question, I’m reading one right now that I am on the fence about. I decide to put it down and then the author surprises me on the next page with something that’s pretty good.

  7. I don’t agree with those who only post positive reviews. However i don’t agree with being nasty. You can be honest in a positive way. I often point out what was lacking and how it could be improved rather than just saying it was terrible.

    • Good point. I do occasionally get a bit nasty, come to think of it, but I’m always careful to qualify my statements in such cases. The one thing I’ll NEVER do, however, is to insult the author themselves. That, in my view, is not on. Ever.

  8. Reblogged this on My Blog and commented:
    Reviews have been on my mind lately since I released IRRADIANCE a few weeks ago. As authors, we need reviews, but what IS the right answer for giving them? In addition to the post, I recommend a read-through of the comments as well.

    • Thanks for the reblog; really glad you enjoyed this post :). I notice the post went to davidbrunsdotcom rather than your currently active blog, though; was that intended?

      • Yeah – apparently there is an issue w my wp acct. I seem to have 2 accts?

        I’ll repost when I get it sorted out.

        David (M) 516-972-6597

        >

      • Seems that way. It’s odd: I also get the wrong site if I click on your name in my notifications, but I get the right page if I click in the comments instead.

        Might be an issue with your gravatar or something. Best of luck sorting it, in any case.

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