I hate writing negative reviews. That’s partly, I admit, because I always imagine the author reading them and softly crying as they see me tear apart their baby. Mostly though it’s because they take twice as long to write as the more positive ones.
As a general rule negative reviews aren’t actually that common. That’s true not just of my blog, but of blogs generally and to an extent of more traditional outlets too. Many bloggers, and many critics particularly in the genre space, seem to see themselves almost as cheerleaders for their preferred literary form. I think that’s a mistake.
Here‘s an example from The Guardian of what I mean by cheerleading. Eric Brown is a well respected SF reviewer and a successful author in his own right (a good one – I’ve read some of his books). In his column he regularly gives thumbnail sketch reviews of recent notable SF releases. That’s a useful service, but the problem is he likes all of them.
Now, Eric Brown presumably has more than four books he could choose to review, so it’s quite likely he just chooses to focus on those that he thinks most merit attention. That approach would automatically mean nothing but positivity – the bad books wouldn’t even make his column.
Take a look though, even if you’ve no interest in SF, at the third review down – the Tad Williams novel. In particular, note this quote “Dollar is not your archetypal angel but a likable rascal with a penchant for sex and drink.” Now, I admit I’ve not read the book and Eric Brown has, but does that not sound like the worst bloody cliche of urban fantasy?
Put bluntly, it’s a terrible character concept. It definitely doesn’t sound to me anything like anything Chandler or Hammett would have written (comparisons Brown makes, and I have read both as well as other, previous, Tad Williams’ novels). It sounds generic, which if genre is to have any value is what it must always strive not to be.
That gives me a problem. If I don’t trust the Williams’ review, and I don’t, where does that leave me with the others? The Willow Wilson and the Mary Gentle both sound potentially interesting (actually, I think the Mary Gentle sounds terrible, but I know the author’s work and have some confidence that she might pull it off). If Brown is always positive though how do I know which ones are really worth reading, and which are just getting a sympathetic boost?
I’ll stop ascribing motives to a man I’ve never met who probably genuinely does like all four books, and instead turn to my own blog. I have written negative reviews here, but not very many. So why is that?
Well, before I answer that I’ll give some examples of past negative reviews I’ve written. First example: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkin. This is from way back in 2008, and I hated this book. In fact, it genuinely made me angry, and I think it’s the single most negative review I’ve ever written. The book deserved what I wrote and more, and I stand by the review, but it represents a failure on my part – I read a frankly terrible book and that means I didn’t pay enough attention when choosing what to read.
That’s reason one for a paucity of negative reviews. It’s quite rare I go into a book blind. Generally I know quite a lot about it before picking it up, either from general knowledge of literature or the subject matter or from other blogger’s reviews. I don’t get paid for this, so I’m not going to read a bad book for any reason other than my mistakenly thinking in advance that it was going to be a good book.
Second example: Plague Zone, by David Wellington. Again, this was essentially a bad book. It wasn’t though a book which made me angry as the Perkin book did. This is again an example of me making a bad choice – I read a lesser work by an author who was writing in a genre that’s of no interest to me. That’s my fault, not David Wellington’s. I’ve already talked about why it’s rare for me to read a book that’s out and out bad, but there’s a second point this one brings out and that’s that writing negative reviews is much harder than positive ones.
John Perkin’s book made me angry, so slamming it was easy. David Wellington though had made an honest attempt at writing a solid horror novel and for me hadn’t on this occasion pulled it off. If I’m going to say that in writing then I should justify my view, and that means analysing a book I didn’t enjoy to present where I think it failed and why.
When I write a review of a book that I think hasn’t succeeded I have two main goals. One is to give a sufficiently fair review that someone else might think “hey, this doesn’t sound bad at all, what he dislikes I might like so I’ll give it a try”. In other words, I still want to give enough information to allow a reader of my blog to take an informed view of the book. The second goal is to be constructive. That doesn’t mean blind positivity. It means though saying why I think the book didn’t succeed sufficiently clearly that the failing could potentially be addressed in future books.
That’s in some ways an arrogant statement. The truth is any given author is highly unlikely to be reading my blog, and even if they were is even more unlikely to look to some random blogger for literary tips. Still, if the book isn’t irredeemable (like the Perkins, seriously, it’s terrible) then there should be something one can sensibly say that plainly speaks to the book’s flaws without just lazily throwing stones.
What’s even harder though than writing constructive criticism of a book one doesn’t rate, is writing a review of a book that ultimately is just mediocre. Two examples now: Q&A, by Vikas Swarup (later to be made into a film as Slumdog Millionaire); and The Glass Palace, by Amitav Ghosh. The second is more negative than the first, though looking back I think I was probably a bit kinder to Q&A than it deserved.
The Perkin review was fuelled with anger. The Wellington review was of a book that had clear and easily described flaws that Wellington had obviously avoided in other novels he’d written and that could be avoided in future. The Swarup and Ghosh though, ultimately they’re just a bit worthy and dull.
The concept of my blog is that I review every book I read. If that wasn’t how it worked though I doubt I’d have reviewed either. It wasn’t enjoyable to lay into what for both authors would have been a considerable amount of work. Both books have lots of fans, so if they come across my reviews I’m there raining on their enthusiasms. Worse than all that by a long way though is that it’s boring to write about something boring. As I said above, I’m not getting paid here and writing about dull books is a chore.
What’s noticeable to me as I write this is that all the examples are from a few years back. That’s good, because it means I’m getting better at avoiding bad books. What prompted this post though is my upcoming review of Magda Szabo’s The Door. This is a book with a lot of fans, many of them people whose views on literature I hold in very high regard, but I thought it was terrible. I don’t particularly look forward to writing about it, but I am hoping that on this one at least I’ll have people in the comments telling me why I’m wrong.
So, negative reviews. If you avoid writing them you’re potentially doing a disservice to the authors, by denying them criticism which could help them improve. You’re also potentially doing a disservice to other readers, by not warning them of what they may be getting into. Worse than all of that though is you’re risking not driving debate. If everyone disagrees with me about The Door, that’s not a bad thing. That’s the start of a conversation.