Monday, September 11, 2006

Always say something nice

Authors in the biblioblogosphere (I confess I like that word) regularly go online to vent about bad reviews. You don't hear too much from the other side. How do you feel about writing negative reviews? Even if the book was a real stinker, in your humble opinion, do you ever hesitate to express your thoughts because you're afraid of hurting the author's feelings? Do you tone down your review as a result? Do you avoid writing the review altogether?

Or, on the contrary, have you ever written a negative review so sarcastic and witty that you're gleefully proud of it?

Lots of questions here.

I often hear the word "fair" bandied around. Reviewers feel that their analyses have to be fair. I appreciate the sentiment, but am not sure it's applied in the way it's intended. The word is often used to mean "balanced," i.e., reviewers should always find something positive to say even when they hated a novel and wanted to fling it across the room. Yet the opposite never holds true. If you truly loved a novel, chances are you won't go out of your way to find something critical to comment on.

To me, the dictionary definition of the word "fair" seems more appropriate - free from bias, dishonesty, injustice. In other words, reviewers should be open-minded and judge a novel based on what it is. There are certainly kind (or kinder) ways to express criticism, I'm not disputing that, and I have no problem with it either. And yes, it can help to assess a novel's appeal to other readers if you find a book's simply not your type. That falls into my definition of "fairness," and is different from its being "balanced." (Though you may quibble.)

For a classic example of how "always say something nice" can be taken to the extreme, check out Philip Hensher's review of James Thackara's The Book of Kings, published in the Guardian's Sunday Observer in September 2000. Ouch! You have to admit it's funny, though (or at least I can). If you felt a novel deserved it, could you picture yourself writing a review like this?

What does the word "fair" mean to you, as a reviewer, as a reader, or even as an author?


  1. I've never reviewed anything professionally, so I can only give my ten cents from an author's viewpoint. When I asked family and friends to read my 400-page manuscript, I said, in essence, "Be honest in your reaction, but take the following into consideration: visualize 400 blank pages and think about what is required to fill those pages with an original plot, compelling characters and plausible motivations, all of it written in distinctive prose and crisp dialogue." There was no guarantee, of course, that I was successful at achieving any of this, but it does put things into perspective. (I could also have added the immense difficulty of acquiring an agent and the agent successfully finding a publisher).

  2. I'm just a reader, but I admit that I like fair reviews better than sarcastic, zinging ones. Yes, I want to know what in the book didn't work well, but if the criticism is dispassionate and free of the reviewer's biases and opinions - or of those are included, that the reviewer note them as such - then I can better judge for myself whether or not I want to read the book.

  3. John - you mean that people should be honest yet at the same time respect the author's efforts? I can understand that; even if I dislike a novel, I think it's possible to give an honest opinion without being mean-spirited about it.

    Laura - I admit I've yet to write a sarcastic, zinging review, although I have written some critical ones. I can agree with unbiased, maybe, if it's meant in the sense of "open-minded." Part of reviewing, imho, is about expressing a personal opinion, so I would find it hard to be dispassionate... but if a reviewer's any good, it should be pretty apparent what his/her opinions are.

    I should also add, I can enjoy reading a snarky review without necessarily agreeing with it. (Haven't read Book of Kings, though, and won't; Hensher convinced me of that.)

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  5. I thought that the Hensher review was a "fair" one--not a kind one, certainly, but an objective one that he supported with specific examples. I'd be reluctant to write a review in the style of Hensher--aside from the fact that I certainly wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of it, that's the type of review that's best left to professional reviewers who don't have to fear having their own publications savaged in revenge.

    When I write a negative review, I try to give very specific examples of what bothered me. I do also try to find something positive to say about the book--not so much out of kindness, I think, but so as to let the reader know I'm not deliberately overlooking the book's good points, assuming there are any.

    I've never been assigned or promised to read a book that turned out to be so bad that I didn't want to review it, but there have been a couple of books I've avoided reviewing on my blog because I figured the authors were already so down and out that they didn't need me adding to their misery with a bad review. One was a book that had been on Amazon for two years without selling until I bought a copy, and the other was a book by an author who had apparently been dropped by her publisher, for reasons that became all too clear upon reading the book.

  6. Actually, Hensher's a novelist himself (The Mulberry Empire, which is historical, and others) though he's definitely more accomplished than the author whose novel he reviewed.

    I once made the mistake of agreeing to review a novel written by a friend of a friend, as nobody else would review it. I didn't care for it and was somewhat kinder than I would have been. That was a while ago; I wouldn't do that now.

  7. As both an author and a reviewer, I can honestly say that, for me, being "fair" is the trickiest part of reviewing. "Fair" to me means not being mean-spirited or judgmental to the point that it overshadows your job as a reviewer, i.e, to let potential readers know about the existence of this book. I do my best to judge the book on its merits and its intended audience. I've reviewed books for HNS Reviews that weren't my cup of tea, so to speak, but I always seek to read as if I were the audience I think the author (or was told by the publisher's accompanying press release) aims toward, and to examine the writing itself. Was the plot engaging, well constructed? Were the characters interesting,unexpected, or mere cliches? If I offer criticism, I strive to balance it with something positive, something I liked. If there was nothing I liked (and this hasn't happened yet, thank God), then I'd contact my editor and tell them, "Hey, I personally think this sucks," and give her the option to submit it to someone else. I will not blast an author. Just a rule of mine, and possibly a silly one, but as a writer I know all too well what it takes to actually complete AND get a book published. That said, the same knowledge influences me as a reviewer: I know what it takes and I expect authors to give it their all, even if I'm not their preferred ideal reader.

    As a writer, I've been fortunate to have had mostly positive reviews of my work. I've also been ignored. Nothing is quite as deflating as having your publisher submit your book to a review source and to not even recieve a no-thanks (but you get used to it). And I've had readers on my book pages at amazon call me anything from "a master" to a "pot boiler" and a "disappointment," so again, you learn. Criticism is all part and parcel of the biz: you can't expect to please everyone. In the final say, reading and reviewing are subjective; what one person likes, another may hate. One thing, however, stands out: GOOD writing. It can be about a 24-hour dig for one lone potato during the famine, but if the writing is good, the book will shine.