I Love Bad Reviews

Okay, I totally shouldn’t be writing this. But Janni Lee Simner issued a call for authors to say that it’s okay to give us bad reviews. I want to add my voice to those saying, “Go forth and shred our books into tiny pieces.”1

You do not have to be nice about a book you hate.

However, I also want to say that it’s not our place to say so. Reviews are not for authors. They’re not even about authors. You do not need our permission to write about our books. Because once they’re published they cease to be ours.

Reviews are for other readers. A review is about a particular reader’s relationship with a particular book. And if you happen to trust that particular reviewer’s taste they’re a great way to find books you want to read or books you should avoid.

It’s ridiculously pleasing to come across a review shredding a book you loathed. It’s an OMG someone else hated it too moment. Yay! And they’re mocking it in the most hilarious way. Double yay!

I even enjoy bad reviews of books I like. Shaking my fist in outrage at them and rebutting every point is fun. It’s also fascinating to see how differently people read. Dia Reeves’ marvellous Bleeding Violet is a call to arms to take down the state? How did I miss that?

More seriously the effort to critique misogyny, racism, classism, homophobia and so forth in YA—in all art—is essential. We live in a racist, sexist, classist, homophobic world. We can and do unwittingly replicate racist tropes, sexist cliches and homophobic stereotypes in our work. It is a very good thing to be called on it. Our intentions count for nothing if they aren’t visible on the page to people who aren’t us.

Thinking about these issues can be painful and confronting, especiallly for those of us who have had the privilege to not have to think about them, but, trust me, doing so makes us better writers and readers.2

Will we always agree with such critiques? I think the recent Bitch media stoush answers that question. Feminism can, indeed, be in the eye of the beholder. Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels has been critiqued for “validating (by failing to critique or discuss) characters who use rape as an act of vengeance”. I think that’s—at best—a sloppy reading of TM and that the book is profoundly feminist, but I also think that such a debate is extremely important.

When your work is published and out there people get to critique it however they want. The only way to avoid such critiques is not to publish your work.

It’s very hard for authors to believe that reviews are not about them. To not take them personally. It’s hard for anyone to read or hear people hating on something they worked very hard to produce. But you get over it.3 Or you learn to stop reading your reviews.

I was not so cavalier about all of this when my first book came out. Back then every bad review, hell, every non-ecstatic review, broke my little writer heart. How could people be so mean to me!? But then I’d read a book and hate it and pray that the writer never publish again4 and think well, okay, that’s how.

Sometimes you discover that your bad reviews can be hilarious. Here’s my favourite:

Magic or Madness is like a bad Australian episode of Charmed.

It was one of my very first punter reviews—on Barnes & Noble, I think—is it not a gem of its kind? I treasure it.

So, yeah, as I’ve written here many times, I think it’s inappropriate for an author to go to someone’s blog and argue over a review, especially when the author brings hordes of their friends and fans with them. The best response to bad reviews is to ignore them, not to attack or threaten the reviewer. Get over yourself already. Your book is not your child. You are not the boss of the internets.5

I am not, however, calling for author silence. I mean, seriously, have you read any other posts on this blog? I am so not a silent author.6 I don’t see any problem with an author rebutting claims about their politics or world view on their own blog. It can lead to very interesting conversations. Because of her brilliant and wonderful novel, Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan has been accused of not only sanctioning rape as revenge but also of purveying filth to children, and she has ably combatted those claims on her blog and in interviews and elsewhere. Good on you, Margo.

Mostly though I think authors should be thankful that their books are being discussed at all. Passionate opinions and debates about your work are a truly excellent thing. Plenty of books disappear without a ripple.

The biggest enemy of our careers is not bad reviews, but obscurity.

Let me repeat that: the biggest enemy of an author’s career is not bad reviews—it’s obscurity.

And on that chilling note I’m back to saving my typing hands7 for writing more of them books in the faint hopes of postponing total obscurity just a little bit longer.

  1. If you hate them that is. Feel free to praise should you want to. Feel free to meh them also. Whatever you want! []
  2. Not to mention better people. []
  3. Though not getting cranky about bad reviews of Scott’s books is still a work in progress for me. []
  4. Yes, I mean you, Henry Miller. Yes, I know you’re dead. This is a warning to any possible reincarnations of you. I will kill you with my mind. []
  5. That would be me! Or it used to be me—I retired hurt. []
  6. Except when injured. But seriously offline I’m ranting away same as ever. If you see me ask me about Wikileaks or the minnows being expelled from the World Cup or Australia’s immigration policy or pretty much anything else and prepare to have your ears bleed. I gots opinions, yes, I do. []
  7. Thanks so much everyone for letting me know you miss the blog. I miss it too and youse lot as well. Heaps! []

32 comments

  1. Tamara on #

    Justine… what else can I add? I love this post. Thank you for being so honest and for pointing out the obvious, because it sounds like some people haven’t figured it out yet :)

  2. Lauren McLaughlin on #

    “grotesque and disturbing” remains my favorite pull quote from a bad review of my first novel, Cycler.

  3. Doret on #

    There are a lot of inflated positive reviews of books online. (Four is the new three) I’ve been burned one too many times when bloggers have said a book was great and not to be missed.

    I get all excited pick up the book and quickly realize its not a five or even a three. So yes critical reviews are neccesary.

  4. Vinaya on #

    I think I have a little author crush on you! No, screw that, I have a big, full-blown author crush on you, despite never having read your books, which I just went and ordered online. I think you are one of the few people participating in the YA Mafia discussion who has consistently managed to be fair, witty and just plain awesome. Be my internet luuuve, I beg you! :) And seriously, I agree that for most authors, no publicity is bad publicity. Most of the time. Your book gets trashed/gets into a controversy/gets struck off Bitch Magazine’s list? Increased sales, more people talking. Never underestimate the value of prurient curiosity, I always say! :)

  5. Ted Lemon on #

    I don’t understand how you can get to the point of loathing a book, unless you are in school and it was assigned. If it’s really that bad, why not stop reading it? I will admit that I am not very good at putting a book down if I’m not loving it, but if I genuinely am not enjoying reading it, I can put it down. I did that with one recent book I shall not name that was widely loved and recommended to me, but turned out to be awful. But I didn’t read enough of it to be sure it had no redeeming value, so I wouldn’t really want to shred it. Isn’t life a bit too short to finish reading something that you aren’t enjoying?

  6. Cory on #

    One Word: Awesome Post.

  7. David Macinnis Gill on #

    Justine–

    You’re talking about two different functions here–reviews and critical analysis. A review is essentially telling another person how you enjoyed reading a story. Critical analysis is delving into the text with a different lens, one that applies a critical theory to a work. They are two distinct processes, and they tend not to mix well. Unfortunately, in the blogs you mention, that is precisely what is happening, and the mix is explosive. As a reader, I use reviews to decide if a book’s premise will intrigue me. As a scholar, I’m interested in what a text will yield. When I read those blogs, I struggle to understand their mixed messages.

    I am proponent of intelligent, well-crafted reviews and insightful critical analysis. I am not a fan of reviewers who draw attention to themselves by behaving badly in public by repeatedly trashing the work of others. They have the right to do the ripping, just as the Westboro Baptist Church has the right to picket funerals.

    As for shredding books that I “hate,” I’m not into that personally because I value the work the author did, even if that work is not for me. I don’t take joy in eviscerating creativity and don’t see the value in it. If you and others do, however, more power to you.

  8. Light on #

    Thank you so much for dealing with this with a clear head and some really mature and great insights. Some people haven’t…to say the least. It’s easy to dismiss the concerns of reviewers, but in light of posts like the now infamous “Be Nice”, I think we should really take these concerns seriously rather than make fun of them.

    This reviewer put up a really good vlog on this subject: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NW4ag75hdY&feature=channel_video_title

    Have you seen it? You might like it!

    Anyway, thank you again for the post!

  9. Kai charles on #

    Great post. I think it’s important to write truthful reviews. There is a recent trend that people are bashing authors personally which is not cool.

  10. Janni on #

    I really appreciate that you acknowledge both that for readers reading negative reviews can be satisfying and even fun (and that that’s okay), and that looking at art critically is crucial to our society, too, because I think both these things are so very true, and are at the heart of why we need those reviews.

    I love reading and arguing with negative reviews of books I enjoyed, too. (As a bonus, it’s a great way to gain perspective on negative reviews of one’s own books.)

    The biggest enemy of our careers is not bad reviews, but obscurity.

    That. As far as I can tell, there’s little correlation between sales and a book’s average rating, but lots of correlation between sales and how often a book is reviewed.

  11. angharad on #

    Light,

    The Be Nice post you refer to is so obviously the self-indulgent revenge fantasy of an unhappy writer that I don’t understand why you think we should take anything about it seriously. It seems a pretty thin excuse to believe in a YA Mafia.

  12. angharad on #

    Except perhaps to feel some sympathy for her, I guess. I would agree with JL that negative reviews are the price of doing business, but I can certainly empathize with a person so many people seem to enjoy mocking.

  13. Pam on #

    Best post in this mess evar!

  14. Lish McBride on #

    A lovely (and true) post, and something I’m going to pass on to my friends struggling with bad/meh reviews of their first books. Also, as proof that bad reviews can be good, the one saying your series is like a bad episode of charmed? Yup, that made me want to read the series. So there.

  15. Sarah Allen on #

    Great thoughts. I hadn’t thought about reviews this way, but I think you have a point. They are for readers, not writers, and once our books are published they are the readers to do with what they will. Anyway, great ideas.

    Sarah Allen

  16. Stephanie on #

    Thank you for this! When I heard all the nonsense from certain authors in which they told book bloggers that they’d never get published if they wrote negative reviews, I really despaired. I was waiting for an author to cry out against such behavior, but I haven’t heard any authors stand up against it until right now. THANK YOU! You said everything I’ve been thinking.

  17. Lisa on #

    THANK YOU for this perspective. Seriously, it was super insightful for me as YA lit blogger to hear. This may sound lame (okay not may, WILL), but hearing you say authors should be open about reader criticism is a really cool perspective for you to share. Thanks, yo.

  18. Aryllian on #

    Recently a friend recommended a book to me and then told me that she hadn’t liked a different book that I mentioned but hadn’t read. I was actually more intrigued by the non-recommended book, because I knew other people liked it and it made me curious to find out which side I’d fall on. So yeah, I think your last point is very true.

  19. Justine on #

    Thanks for all the kind comments. I just wanted to point out that my stance on this is by no means unusual. Pretty much every writer I know feels the same way. We may personally be wounded by bad reviews but almost all of us think they should exist. None but the very delusional thinks their work is perfect. I mean, hey, even Jane Austen gets one star reviews on Amazon.

    My comment about obscurity being the writer’s real enemy is a paraphrase (or possibly a direct quote—didn’t google too many key strokes) of Cory Doctorow who’s been saying it for years and years and years. And he’s by no means the only one saying it. Writers have been afraid of obscurity since the time writing was invented.

  20. Jo on #

    Awesome post, Justine! I miss the blog too :(. But a couple of weeks ago I also got RSI, so I understand pretty well. I’ve also cut down severely on internet time and started using voice recognition software for writing (my housemates, needless to say, find this hilarious).

    It’s very encouraging that you’ve been able to arrange your lifestyle so you can still write! And thank you for the occasional blog post, I check back here every once in a while and I do love reading them. Good luck with the wrists. Looking forward to the 30s book!

  21. Sam on #

    Well, it´s really nice to read something like this, but sometimes I think that everybody that writes reviews can be polite too. You can hate a book, but they have negative and positive points always. So you can be polite and point them out without be rude with the author or the publisher.
    We have loads of good stories but some writers have problems to tell them in a pleasant way at first. Once one writer said that writing is experience and pratice. So negative but polite reviews can help the writer to get better, bad and unpolite reviews can make writers give up writing. And maybe those that gave up could be great writers in the future.
    So doesn´t matter if you are an author, a publisher or a reviwer , you should be polite always.

  22. Tori on #

    Amazing. Absolutely amazing. I love you for writing this. Thank you so much.

  23. Tiferet on #

    @Ted Lemon:

    This sounds a lot like ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything’ logic. Now that works well as a guide for polite conversation at parties and what not, but sometimes you have to say things that are not nice. If your friend’s about to leave the party or the bar with someone and you know they’re lying about their age or marital status, you tell them.

    Book reviews serve a lot of purposes. They can be used to warn people whose tastes are similar to yours that they are unlikely to like a certain book. They can be used to call attention to problematic content in a book and spark discussion of said content. And they’re also a great way to let off steam if a book makes you white-hot angry.

    I don’t say anything about books I’ve stopped reading out of boredom, but when a book makes me furious, sometimes I do want to talk about it. And when an author repeatedly makes me furious (like Mercedes Lackey, for instance) I do want to talk about that.

  24. Jeff VanderMeer on #

    Justine: I’m going to push against your post a little, even though I agree with you generally.

    One question I’d ask is: Is it easier for you to be unbothered by a bad review because you’re not a midlist writer? I.e. you have a wide and loyal audience already? A lower midlist or an indie press writer can be pretty horribly affected by the wrong kind of negative review in a prominent place.

    Second, *as a reader* I feel absolutely no compunction about taking a snarky reviewer or pointless negative review to task. To me, it makes no difference that I’m also a writer. I’ve no patience for cruelty or clear misreadings of the works of others, and I don’t think anyone else should either. It’s important at the very least to reward good reviewers. I don’t mean reward good reviews, but reviewers who are thoughtful and thorough. I’d personally rather have a negative review from someone who took time with the book and tried to understand it than a positive review from someone who doesn’t have a clue.

    Third, I’m not at all entertained by snark anymore, and I hope this becomes the consensus among readers of reviews.

    JeffV

  25. Janni on #

    Sam (#21): Once one writer said that writing is experience and pratice. So negative but polite reviews can help the writer to get better, bad and unpolite reviews can make writers give up writing.

    This is where the writer needs to remember that, as Justine says, that reviews are not for the benefit of writers, but for of readers, and then to go on writing.

    However hard it is, we have to work at understanding that, once the book is done, it’s not about us any more–it’s about the readers and their experiences interacting with the text and with other readers.

  26. Therese on #

    It’s like love and hate, they are not opposites. Indifference is the opposite to love. So I wish you all the love and hate that you can deal with, and none of the indifference.

  27. Julie @ Knitting and Sundries on #

    I love this! I swear, as a new reviewer, I once wrote a review about a book that I felt had lovely writing but not much of a plot. I framed it nicely, but you’d have thought I ripped it apart. Apparently, the gist of the author and her friends’ comments was that I wasn’t enlightened enough to get the point of the book … or something along those lines … I didn’t argue about it, though .. I just said that all readers are different, and that one works for one may not necessarily work for another.

  28. Catherine Ryan Hyde on #

    I was led to this blog by a commenter on my own blog who said you were another very strong voice for honest reviews. I just posted a blog post, an open letter to authors, trying to get through some of these same basic points. Not even just that it does no good to argue with a negative review, but that the reviewers’ opinions are none of our business. You said it very well. I think authors need to speak loudly for blog reviewers, as many are feeling intimidated. I hate to see that happen. Blog reviewing is a vibrant system that should not be stifled by authors. By anyone.

Comments are closed.