The Goodness of Bad Reviews

Daphne over at the Longstocking blog was talking about the Worst Review Ever blog and mentioned her shock at the meanness of some of the reviews:

I’m actually a reviewer for Publishers Weekly and while I’ve read some things that were kind of poorly constructed, I’ve never had even an urge to be even half this harsh, not even secretly if I strongly disliked the book. Too much work goes into a book for anything to warrant this kind of nastiness and seriously nothing is so bad it deserves to be called “a candy-coated turd.”

I have condemned books in stronger language than that. When I hate a book, I really hate a book. I totally get writing such vicious reviews. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons I don’t write reviews and only discuss books on this blog if I love them: the knowledge that were I to write an honest review of a book I hate I would most definitely hurt other writers’ feelings, alienate their fans, and lose friends. Also the YA world is small and writing a bad review of another YA writer’s book leaves you open to charges of sour grapes. Life’s too short.

I say that as someone who has received very mean reviews. I know exactly how much it hurts. Reviews have made me cry and scream and kick my (thankfully imaginary) dog (poor Elvis, he knows I love him). But I believe people are moved to write such nasty reviews because of the intensity of their relationship with books. That’s awesome!

I feel that too. When I read a book I was expecting to love and it sucks I feel betrayed. When I read a book in a beloved series and the characters are suddenly transformed beyond recognition and there seems to have been no editing at all and the writing has gone to hell, I am OUTRAGED. I want to kick the editor and the author. On the scale of things, I think writing a mean review about the book is way better than assault.

Passionate reviews, good or bad, are fabulous. It’s great that people care enough to rant or rave about a book. I don’t think it’s unprofessional to vent your spleen at a book. Some eviscerations of books are wonderfully well written and a total pleasure to read. And some passionate raves about books are appallingly badly constructed. One of the reviews of my books that embarrasses me the most was a rave. An extraordinarily badly written rave in a professional location1 which so mischaracterised my book that it was unrecognisable. The reviewer clearly loved the book. They also clearly didn’t understand it. No review has annoyed me as much as that one.

On the other hand, my favourite review ever remains the one written by a punter on the B&N site which said Magic or Madness was like a bad Australian episode of Charmed. Makes me laugh every time I think of it.

An unprofessional review is one that attacks the author directly. But the problem is that most writers conflate themselves with their books so that many consider an attack on their work to be an attack on them. It’s really hard for us writers to be clear that the reviewer is calling our book “a candy-coated turd” not us. But learn it we must! Part of this job is having your work assessed by people who are not going to be kind. No one owes you a good review.

A site like the Worst Review Ever is an excellent place for authors with bruised egos to vent, but I really hope it doesn’t have a dampening effect on online YA reviewers. If you hate a book, say so. Figure out exactly what it was that bugged you about it and let rip. You’re doing all of us readers a service. Even if we totally disagree with you. One of the most useful parts about Twilight‘s success has been the vigorous debate all over the intramawebs about the book’s worth and effect on its readers. I’ve learned a lot from it. I’d really hate for reviewers worried about an author’s feelings to dilute their passion. Bugger the author’s feelings. You’re not writing reviews for them, you’re writing your reviews for us readers.

Readers, you (we) have the right to hate!

And also the right to change our minds at a later date when we read the book and discover it didn’t suck after all. Or vice versa.

Authors, you know what’s worse than a bad review? No reviews at all.

  1. I’m not saying whether it was online or off. []


  1. Laura on #

    I have only destroyed ONE book and it was because it was very bad. The writing was horrible, the storyline ridiculous. It made me wonder if an editor just passed it thru without looking at it.

    I HATE HATE HATE when anagrams are used in books OMG, WTF, BFF. Can’t they spell them out? I mean I know in this day and age of IM, E-mail and texting, everyone uses that short hand but in books it should be banned. Another over use (and also used due to I-net) is the use of caps for yelling. Italics were fine prior to 1995 with a simple exclamation point. That in itself is enough to drive me batty and when it’s the main part of the story (I-net shorthand and all caps for yelling, I’m turned off)

  2. Justine on #

    Laura: What you say is something authors should really pay attention to. Lots of readers and reviewers are turned off a book by what really amounts to a personal quirk on the part of the reviewer/reader. No author can anticipate everything that’s going to annoy readers/reviewers so they should try not to worry about it.

    For example, none of what annoys you annoys me. But I really dislike a whole range of things that other readers don’t mind. Such as books where the hero lectures the heroine at the drop of the hat as if she were a moron. I put the book down at that point.

  3. Jeanne on #

    I’ve enjoyed looking at Worse Review Ever, but it’s not going to stop me from saying what I think. It’s kind of Prufrockian (“do I dare disturb the universe?”) for a reviewer to think her opinions are that influential.

  4. Justine on #

    Jeanne: That’s good to hear. It’s a bit Prufrockian of me to worry that things like Worst Review Ever will inhibit bad reviews.

    I was set off by reading three reviews in a row of an astonishingly bad book that totally pulled their punches. You could tell the reviewers hated the book but they just wouldn’t come out and say so. Very annoying!

  5. Laura on #

    Well Justine, in a certain book, the heroine probably was a moron:)

    I’m just kidding.

    I’m not a Stephen King fan, and he’s had his share of nasty reviews by BIG named reviewers in NYTimes, USA Today, etc.. Authors need to take it with a grain of salt. Not everyone is going to like your book or your style of writing or MY style of writing.

    I cannont tell you how many times I tried to read Peter Carey’s “Oscar and Lucinda” for some reason, I just don’t get his style of writing. YET, I love Nick Hornby, Roddy Doyle, etc… “Oscar and Lucinda” made me want to throw the book across the room. (Of which I did with Brideshead Revisited years ago).

    Okay, I attempted to watch the movie because who doesn’t love Cate Blanchett and Ralph Fiennes. MOVIE SUCKED too. I got up to the part in the movie that I got up in the book and shut it off.

    Plus moving a glass church? ARGH! 🙂

  6. Eric Luper on #

    However, Justine, calling a book a candy-coated turd does nothing to describe what the reviewer disliked about the book and as such serves no use. If you look at the actual review on Goodreads, it is ALL this reviewer had to say about the book. Unless this author opened her Amazon shipment to find an actual candy-coated turd (I am partial to sour apple candy-coated turds) I would expect a little more.

    I agree with you that as writers we open ourselves up to criticism and sometimes that criticism comes in the form of outrage. But I would expect a little more from someone who purports to be a book reviewer.

  7. jerri blank on #


    i basically agree with you, and definitely agree that authors (including me) could stand to be less sensitive. i also think the internet is totally great and that it’s very wonderful that there are so many outlets these days for people who are passionate about books to share their opinions.

    but i also think that a lot of reviews these days, particularly some on certain book blogs, amazon, etc, aren’t written out of passion– negative or positive– for the books in question. in fact, half the time i can’t figure out why the reviewer is writing the review at all. you have people panning meg cabot because it’s not thomas mann and vice versa, people who seem too put out to actually think about a book for two seconds before committing their opinion to “paper,” people whose writing indicates that they may actually be illiterate, and people who are just showing off by being nasty. (This last category is obviously not a new development, but still…)

    My very least favorite reviews are the ones that say things like, “I can’t put my finger on exactly why I disliked this book so much, but I really didn’t like it.” If you can’t articulate your opinion about my book, why are you reviewing it at all in the first place, hm?

    of course all these people obviously have a right to say whatever they want, and anyway, i don’t think stupid reviews hurt a book at all, so whatever. on top of that, any discussion of books on the internet is ultimately positive. and there are obviously so many smart, interesting, awesome people on the internet contributing to a really vibrant community of book loving people. so basically it’s all good.

    all that said, however, this brave new culture of “I HAVE AN OPINION” is still annoying and totally OOC. (that stands for “out of control.”) while i, too, think it would be a shame to discourage people from expressing passionate opinions of any kind, i also don’t think it would kill anyone to try to be a little more thoughtful. (by which i mean “possessing a thought.”)

  8. Justine on #

    Eric: Sure, the vast majority of book reviews are rubbish. But, frankly, so are the vast majority of books. In an ideal world all books and reviews would be wonderfully written. Sadly, we are not in that world.

  9. Madison on #

    I always say what I think when I review, but I do tend to try to tone down my negativity (unless it’s a highly popular book or something). And I’m a sarcastic person, and yes, that does come through sometimes, but I hope it’s more entertaining than anything. After all, sometimes certain plot elements or whatever get annoying when you come across them too often. Anyway, I guess I just feel that because it’s my opinion, I shouldn’t bash needlessly if I’m trying to come across as at least a little professional. I find many of the reviews on “The Worst Review Ever” hard to take seriously because some of them are just a bit too ridiculous in the insults. I don’t like when reviewers come up with analogies and so forth to describe how bad a book is or how much they hated it. Just say you didn’t like it and why you didn’t like it if you really want to persuade me. But using odd metaphors? Chances are, I’ll be laughing and inclined to spend time on the book because I have to see what inspired such hilarious writing.

  10. Justine on #

    Madison: You’ve just put your finger on why I like many hilariously bad reviews so much. They pique my interest in a book every bit as much (if not more) than a gushy review does.

  11. PixelFish on #

    I’ve definitely experienced the feeling piqued by a bad review phenomenon. Mileage and tastes vary.

    Also the WRONG review can lead to me having hilariously wrong ideas about a book. Recently a Washington Post reviewer compared David Anthony Durham’s Acacia to the Chronicles of Narnia. “But grimmer!” Now I quite enjoyed Acacia, but except for having four children and the oldest girl kicking butt with a bow, there was little to no resemblance to Narnia. When I finished Acacia, and recalled the review, I thought, “That was not the right comparison.” And while Acacia was a pretty good read, it was hard for me to get into the book because I had been handed a set of expectations with the Narnia-but-grimmer comparison.

    Actually, due to Justine’s prior discussions of why she doesn’t out books she hated, I have been rethinking my more snarky reviews. (I stand by some of them, although hopefully I didn’t descend into implying things about the author.) I have yet to publish a book, but after trying to write and finish a novel, I have a much better idea of how hard it is to pull together characterisation, plot, setting, everything, and make it into a unique and memorable novel. So I’ve tried to lay off any suggestions that a writer is a hack or lazy. Because good lord, writing can be tough sometimes.

    I still reserve the right to point out my favourite bits of stuff-I-thought-sucked. (Like over at Tor, there’s a discussion about Mary Sues, and I mention one of my “favourite” Mary Sues ever, because it’s apropos to the conversation.) The author has my seven dollars, and I have three hours less. It all works out. I think I can have an opinion.

  12. Justine on #

    Pixelfish: I think a bad review of written by someone who also writes in that genre is always going to be open to accusations of sour grapes or vendettas or whatever.

    But I’m disturbed that anything I said caused you to tone down your reviews. Sadness.

  13. Anna Jarzab on #

    Justine, this is exactly how I feel about reviews. Maybe that’s because my book hasn’t come out yet, so I haven’t had any bad reviews, but as someone who can be an opinionated loudmouth at times (all the time), I think it’s perfectly reasonable for people to say what they want about a book they read. I prefer it when reviews, bad or good, are smart and well thought out and well written. I usually don’t read the ones that aren’t.

  14. Diana Peterfreund on #

    I’ve been villified in reviews and I’ve had my books torn to shreds. Hurts like hell, but it’s really none of my business. A review isn’t for me, unless I’m a reader. I’ve already read my own books.

    And sometimes, the things you see in a “bad” review will drive you to a book. “Mindless beach read?” I’m *so* there!

    I’ve seen reviewers hate all over one of my books, but then have seen them hate all over a book I also hated, and nail each and every reason I found it pathetic and worthless and a travesty to the trees it killed to be printed and go, “yes, you’re exactly right, and oh, crap, does that mean you are also exactly right about MY book?” Noooooooooooo!

    But hey, I passionately disagree with my closest friends whose opinions I *normally* trust in all things about certain books. Somehow, we manage to make the relationship work. For instance, I love MOBY DICK. Justine quite wrongly does not see its glories. I have yet to stab her in the eye with a shrimp fork.

    Sometimes, people are going to love/hate a book for the exact same reason I do, and that’s awesome, to find that sympatico. Sometimes, they are going to love or hate it for a different reason, and I’m going to tear my hair out and go “wow, you SO didn’t get this!” Oddly enough, i find the reasoning to be so much more relevant than the overall “rating.” Is that weird of me?

    And REVIEWERS DO NOT PULL YOUR PUNCHES! Speaking as a writer, I’ll take my lumps if as a reader (which I was long before I was a writer and will be til the day they send me out on the ice floe) I can trust your reviews to be honest!

  15. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Also, can I just say that from time to time, I like me some Mary Sues? they can be done well.

  16. Justine on #



    Other than that what you said.

    Except for the Mary Sues. On account of if a Mary Sue is a convincing character they tend to have stopped being a Mary Sue.

  17. Amber on #

    You definitely clarified why I also like bad reviews that pike my interest in a book. I definitely agree. But I do think it is only courteous not to bash the book in front of their faces (unless they read your blog, which that you can’t help), although I do commend you for only boasting about books you like on here. I’m not a reviewer officially but I do on my blog, and I will say if I don’t like a book and try to recken why.

  18. Reverie Books Reviews on #

    I think it is only fair that we as reviewers actually think about the book we read. I see so many blogs love every single book and it makes me wonder if its really the case. yeah sure maybe. But I know that it is only fair that I write a thorough thoughtful review. The author and editors have spent countless amount of time putting this book together and I am obligated to do my best. Whether that is a good review or a bad review. I must admit that what one person like another loves. So my opinion only matters so much. Nonetheless it is still important to be honest.

  19. Justine on #

    Reverie Book Reviews: I keep hearing that argument a lot. That writers and editors work so hard that it’s wrong to be dismissive of their work. I’m unconvinced.

    Lots of people work really hard and have what they produce dismissed. I know few people who work harder than restauranters and chefs. They have their work dismissed all the time.

    I don’t like the idea of reviewers thinking they owe writers or editors anything. They don’t. They owe the people who read their reviews well-written, honest reviews. They owe that to themselves. But us authors? Forget about us!

  20. Reverie Books Reviews on #

    Oh don’t get me wrong… There have been plenty of books I have dismissed and just couldn’t finish because they were so bad. I am with you 100%. Readers buy these books and there is no reason for them to buy a book because they have only read good reviews and end up hating it. That is my point. I think it is the reviewers duty to be honest. Period. I know you (reviewers) don’t like EVERYTHING….tell us what you don’t like. I base my buys many times still on what others say and sometimes I overlook some reviews because I think “oh, they’ve liked that book and that book and that book and I didn’t like them so maybe I wont like this….”

    anyways… I am rambling now…

  21. Q on #

    I only review books I like and recommend to my blog readers. I just don’t see the point of reviewing a book I didn’t like–it feels like a waste of my time. I’ll rant about it to myself, but I’m not going to use brainpower to formulate a review. I’d rather be writing or reading another book.

  22. Reverie Books Reviews on #

    But how would the readers know what’s good and bad if everyone posts the good reviews. Maybe the book just got overlooked and not just not liked.

  23. Lauren McLaughlin on #

    I’ve been personally vilified in reviews a couple of times. It used to hurt. Now it sort of excites me. I figure if I made someone that mad, I must doing something right. My feeling generally is that once your book is published it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to “them” and “they” can say whatever they want. After all, if you didn’t want people talking about your book, why did you write it?

  24. Carrie on #

    I agree with Lauren — I’d prefer passion over apathy (though passion can really sting too!). I also think that a book belongs to the reader. But yeah, bad reviews still hurt and they hurt even more when I feel like the reviewer isn’t stating their own opinion but what every other person should feel too (i.e.: all who like this book are morons and don’t listen to them).

    Though I do think my fave bad review was someone who said “I blame the author for making us have to think.” That’s a criticism I think I’m okay with!

    All that being said, reviewing is tough and I tend to stay away from it. I can always see the good in a book and I often can see the bad too. For me, life’s too short to dwell on the bad. And also, life kicks people around enough without me going and looking for people to kick me more 🙂

  25. Justine on #

    Lauren: You can write without wanting people to talk about your writing by not publishing it. But, yes, once your book is in print it is out of your control.

    I know this even more than I did before Liar ARCs were released into the wild. I have completely futile-y been urging people not to spoil it. It’s alreayd been spoiled in multiple places.

    Not my book anymore . . .

    And yet . . . PLEASE DON’T SPOIL IT!!!!

  26. vian on #

    Chalk me up for loving passionate reviews. Not the mindless “ZOMG, every word which drips from the Pen of this writer is gold/excerable” type, but the ones which get specific about what drives them to raptures. Because the things which invoke a strong reaction, positive or negative, in a reviewer, are the things which will draw you towards a book or propel you into the next suburb to avoid it. Sure, they might say “I wanted to smash the protagonist across his smug, manly jaw” … but if I’m in the mood for some archetypal 1930s pulp, that review is going to be more helpful than one which says “the author has remained true to many of the Golden Age archetypes of scientist-as-hero blah blah … “

  27. J on #

    I would hate people forever if they lied and said my stories were good when they sucked. i want to know what people really think. don’t sugarcoat it. (but please wait until i’m DONE to do this. or i will crumble and cry.)
    i agree with the last statement. “I’ve learned that the more people that are saying bad things about me, the better i am doing.”
    but that is only true half the time. i would truly rather have bad reviews. i mean, at least they READ my book. sure, they hated it, but they cared/ thought enough of it to READ it.

  28. Diana Peterfreund on #

    I don’t need my Mary Sues to be convincing. Not always. Sometimes it just fun to watch Wesley Crusher run around the Enterprise and be cutely perfect at everything. It’s like the characterization equivalent of a popcorn movie. No, you don’t really buy it, but just pass the butter and salt and have a good time.

  29. PixelFish on #

    Justine: No need to be sad. I merely go thoughtful. Also, while the snark was written well over five years back, it IS in the same genre I would like to write in, and you know how they say that nothing ever really dies on the internet.

    And some of it is sympathy from trying to extrude my own book. Because while I think that a certain character is the Mary Sueiest Mary Sue evar (except for possibly Bella Swan, but I doubt it, as I think Bella just has more notoriety) I don’t think her creator was writing her intentionally that way.

  30. Kelly on #

    Such an interesting discussion!

    I’m in a similar boat as PixelFish, in that I’m a wannabe YA writer who’s got a YA book review blog right now. Realistically, I’m years off from having my writing out there in the world, so for now I’m reading and reviewing and learning from others.

    I actually received an email from a YA author whose book I posted a not-glowing review of, and she suggested I might want to rethink posting negative reviews. That I might be sorry one day because the YA writer community is small.

    It kind of destroyed my will to blog for a while. But then I realized I am first and foremost a reader and no matter what happens with my writing I will always be a reader.

    The whole reason I started my blog is that articulating what I like and don’t like about what I read helps me figure out what I like as a reader and also what I need to work on as a writer. I thought that others like me out there would appreciate reviews written from a writer’s perspective, and that it might help them to see areas where they could improve as well. And the idea of not posting any constructive criticism about what I read (as this author suggested) made me want to abandon doing a blog at all. I don’t enjoy reading reviews that are always positive about everything, and I wouldn’t want to be disingenuous with the reviews I’m writing either.

    But I eventually did come to terms with that person’s feedback and decided that the benefit to me of reading critically, articulating it, and publishing it for others to learn from as well was higher than the potential drawback of when I might maybe one day possibly be published, y’know?

    Anyway, loving this discussion. Good to hear others’ thoughts on the topic!

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