Bad Reviews & Being Nice

Recently on Twitter I mentioned having read the first chapter of A Very Bad Book. As usual people asked that I name it. As usual I did not.

I don’t name books I hate, or authors I think are talentless,1 for lots of reasons. The main one I give is that as an author it’s hard to do so without looking jealous if your target is more successful than you are, or like a bitch if you’re shredding a less successful book.2

Now loads of authors I know write critical reviews of other people’s books and I support their right to do so. More than that I think they’re doing the community a service. I don’t think they’re jealous or mean. Critically taking apart other people’s work is a fantastic way to improve our own writing.

Every time I read a book I hate I spend a vast amount of time trying to figure out why. What when wrong? How can I avoid that? When someone writes a thoughtful critique of a book they deem unsuccessful—even if we don’t agree with them—they’re helping all of us. Thinking critically about words and language, about art, and why we do or don’t like it, is wonderfully useful to the entire community of writers and readers.

Beyond that, we authors are allowed to not like things. Particularly books. Because if there’s one thing we know a truckload about, and care deeply about, it’s books. That’s why we’re writers. It’s absolutely fine for us to express those opinions.

Frankly, I LOVE a well-written critical review. I also love well-written vicious snark.3 I am absolutely not of the “be nice” school. I even enjoy vicious reviews of my own books.4 So why am I letting others’ perceptions keep me from sharing my views?

Because I can’t write a well-reasoned critique. When I don’t like a book I want to tear it to pieces and jump on it. I want it NEVER TO HAVE EXISTED. I find it nigh on impossible to be dispassionate. So when I’m figuring out where a book went wrong? I’m doing it in a nasty vicious way that would absolutely make the author and their fans weep and/or go after me with an axe. I feel this way because I’m offended that such a piece of crap was published in the first place. How did people not notice how COMPLETELY RUBBISH it is? Have they collectively lost all critical judgement? Aaarrrrgghhh!!!

Rational me knows that there is no one universally shared standard of excellence. And, yet, confronted with a book I deem truly awful I cannot keep that in mind. I just have to stab it.

If I was capable of calmly and dispassionately discussing the faults and shortcomings then I would write critical reviews. But I just can’t do it. It is a character flaw, I know. But there it is.

In conclusion: My not writing critical reviews or speaking ill of living writers in no way means that I think no one else should do that. Or that I think doing so is a terrible thing. We writers are grown ups, we can take it. To be honest I’m much more concerned by the “be nice” culture than I am by snarky reviews. Historically the women who have been told to “be nice” and keep their mouths shut are the ones saying the most interesting things.5

  1. Unless they’re dead. YOU SUCK HENRY MILLER! Every single thing you ever wrote was the crappiest, most self-indulgent, most misogynist filth ever written. Moby Dick is the most boring pile of poo ever published! Though I am fond of Melville’s short stories. If only he had stuck to that length. []
  2. And, yes, I use the word “bitch” advisedly. I do think the perceptions are very gendered. []
  3. And I should admit that sometimes I am incredibly amused by sub-literate snark as well. But in more of a point and laugh way. Yes, I’m a bad person. []
  4. Well, some of them. []
  5. Obviously, I am not at all cool with things like death threats. Just to be absolutely clear. []

9 comments

  1. Cyndy Otty on #

    You are not the only author I know of who doesn’t review and/or talk about books and/or authors they do not like. But you are the first one I know of to give a reason. And it’s one that I truly respect. So, thanks for that. :-)

    In the past I used to love to snark at bad books. (Well, bad anything, to be honest; I just loved a reason to be snarky at things that were awful.) However, at some point I started picking apart those bad books and began writing reviews from a more critical standpoint . . . and then I had an extremely awful situation where I wrote such a review for an author who spent the better part of a week attacking me all over the Internet. (Including, but not limited to an email calling me the c-word.) The author in question did some pretty unstable things that did not garner her any sympathy and it ended up burning itself out pretty quickly. (Though, to this day it still generates search hits to my blog.)

    I have since spoke with people about it and the general concern I hear is that they are worried about that same kind of backlash and/or they don’t want to unintentionally offend someone. And I get that to an extent, but I think if you can pick apart a book (or any work), there’s no harm in sharing that even if your opinion isn’t popular. It’s just a learning experience for everyone.

  2. Justine on #

    Cyndy Otty: What you said. I’m so sorry you had that awful experience. I really wish there was a way to make authors not do that ever. I mean once you’re more than say, ten, you should be able to take criticism. And as a published author you should know that no book ever in the history of books has been loved by everyone. Someone will hate your books. Deal with it.

    Shannon Hale: Awwww. You made my day.

  3. Kaethe on #

    When I love a book I’m often completely inarticulate about why. Most books that I don’t care for interest me too little to bother examining why. But every once in a while a book fills me with such loathing, with such anger, that I feel compelled to read it three times and explain point-by-point why it is the worst book ever published.

    Thank you for an amusing look at how an author views reviews.

  4. Susan Loyal on #

    Just registering total agreement with footnote #1.

  5. Justine on #

    Kaethe: I’m exactly the same way. Solidarity!

    Susan Loyal: Bless! I’ve had several friends yell at me about my Moby dick hatred so it’s always nice to find another hater. :-)

  6. Lily on #

    Just to say you are UTTERLY WRONG about Moby Dick – but right about reviewing. I don’t review books for many of the same reasons – I think it’s especially awkward when they are books in your own field, because it’s so easy to be labelled a jealous bitch (on the gender thing, don’t you find that men of the Literary Establishment write way the bitchiest reviews, BTW). Also, writing reviews is really time-consuming. I can spend as much time deconstructing a book I dislike and analysing why (and ranting about how the hell it ever got published), as I could writing a few chapters of my own book – and I’d rather be doing the latter.

    I read Liar recently and loved and admired it very much. If I wrote reviews, it would get a very shiny one…

  7. Justine on #

    Lily: Ignoring your colossal WRONGNESS about The Boring Too Long White Whale Book you are SO right about many of those male literary establishment reviewers. So mean and nasty. What is their problem? Though I really hope they keep doing it because I am very amused by their stoushes. Fight on, literary boys!

    And, yes, writing a well-written, thoughtful review is hard work! Even writing nasty slashy reviews is exhausting. Like you I’d rather work on my novels.

    Thanks for the kind words about Liar. Much appreciated.

  8. Sue Bursztynski on #

    I haven’t read The Whale Book, but I gather it’s the one that they make kids read in US high schools and most of them hate it. I don’t do horrible reviews. You have to pick them apart to do that and who could be bothered? I read so many online things from writers hurt by bad reviews saying, “but we should accept this to help us improve our writing”. I don’t know about other reviewers, but I review to let readers know what they’re getting for their cash. If you want a critique, join a writer’s group or get an editor. As someone whose first novel has had every rating from one to five stars on Goodreads I can totally agree with the notion that not everyone will like it. And given that the comments range from “too much dialogue” to “not enough dialogue” and “non-stop action” to “not enough action”” for the same book you can only shrug and get on with it.

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