Wednesday’s Work-in-Progress: Negative Reviews on the Brain

Thumbs_down_smiley2On my mind lately: negative reviews.

The topic came up during my recent visit to the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, not just within the book-reviewing discussions I had with students, but also in a presentation by another faculty member, who told us that he was fired from one of his freelancing gigs (as a food critic) after negatively reviewing a restaurant whose ad dollars helped fund the publication he was writing for.

It came up again when I returned home and discovered a new, negative (two-star) review of Quiet Americans on Goodreads (go ahead and look for it if you want to). I didn’t mind quite so much the disdainful adjectives the reviewer applied to my writing style–everyone’s entitled to an opinion–but I was bothered (and stunned, really) by one other judgment about its substance. If I were to engage with the reviewer (which I won’t; we all know authors should NOT follow that understandable impulse), I would ask for some specifics. That’s one thing about negative reviews–it’s especially frustrating when the reviewers don’t provide details, examples, or other evidence to support their arguments. It’s not all that dissimilar from getting a negative workshop critique that offers painfully little (if anything) to help you understand what, exactly, the critiquer objects to.

And then, last week, I read a negative review that seemed exemplary: sensitive, thoughtful, detailed, and evidenced. Read it here, and be sure to read through to the end, which offers some powerful closing lines (yes, I’m always reading as a writer!).

Meantime, just this past Monday, David Abrams’s always-interesting Quivering Pen blog presented, as part of its “My First Time” series, a guest post by Doreen McGettigan on her first bad review. Which brought back memories of my own similarly-themed “My First Punch-in-the-Gut Review” for the same feature.

So, yes, I have negative reviews on the brain. Any thoughts on the subject or relevant links you care to share?

7 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Work-in-Progress: Negative Reviews on the Brain

  1. Diane Lockward says:

    Remember, too, that sometimes a negative review at Goodreads or Amazon is not coming from a serious reader/reviewer but from someone who simply bears you some personal ill-will. It’s so easy under the cloak of anonymity to hit 2 or 3 stars and then vanish. As readers we need to be aware that some reviews don’t deserve more than 1 star. As authors we need to remember that a bit of controversy is often a good thing for a book.

  2. diana rosen says:

    The Walker review was spot on. Alas, even some reviewers suck up the hype that some writers conjure up themselves via publicists or other reviewers spread on too thickly for fear of not appearing in the fold amongst those pandering to writers who have become sloppy, or have allowed personal invective to coat their stories.

    In this age of instant accessibility, it’s both a good and bad thing that reviews of books are easier to obtain than ever. That makes a demand that readers approach reviews with some well-reserved (or deserved) cynicism. We’ve all heard or even contributed our share to the misleading positioning on or other bookselling posts.

    The best way to use book reviews to make sound choices for your reading pleasures is to find a few reviewers whose views and tastes are similar to yours, or even those who are always diametrically opposite of yours, and make your choices that way.

    I’ve had to categorize some of my friends’ reading choices just like I do reviewers as those I know I’ll loathe and those I know I’ll love.

    One other comment: sometimes a negative review is better than no review, especially when supportive commentary follows the review! (hint, hint to those who loved the book!)

  3. R Klempner says:

    I think the best way to distinguish between a good review (like your Jewish Journal example) and one that is just plain bad is that a good review contains a coherent and logical reaction to the contents of the book, whereas a bad review either is 1) not coherent, 2) not logical, or 3) not about the book. If a review uses pejoratives to describe the author or even their writing if they fail to provide logical proof, then it’s just not a good review — in the first case, because of #3, and in the second because of #1 &/or #2.

    Sometimes, a “bad” a review is, like Diane Lockward said above, due to personal or political motives. Other times, it shows that the reviewer is either not an astute reader or not an articulate writer. For example, the final complaint in the Quiet Americans review indicates that the reader didn’t understand that the characters themselves are the ones that might be suspicious of or even hate Germans in general, not the writer. Nor did they get that such a reaction (which might not be fair to Germans as a whole) is a natural reaction to have in the context of Holocaust survivors. If you hadn’t included such suspicions, you wouldn’t be accurately reflecting the mentality of the characters.

    On the other hand, like Diana Rosen said, a “bad” review could be about taste.

    I’ve almost stopped publishing negative reviews at this point because I don’t want to hurt the author’s feelings, reputation or pocketbook just because our tastes differ. I’ve been on the other end of negative reviews or comments, and it’s just dreadful! If I write a negative review, it’s generally because there is something in the book itself has a logical flaw or the like, and I back it up with evidence.

  4. Erika Dreifus says:

    Thank you all for these great comments. (Rebecca: I see that you looked up the review! ;-))

    1. R Klempner says:

      I couldn’t resist! 😉

  5. It’s funny you should bring this up. I’ve just been pondering this same thing, especially as I’m pitching a review to a new magazine. I do come across books that I find less than spectacular, and I try to think carefully about why it is that I don’t like something. Sometimes it’s the writing (unclear and uninformed) and sometimes it is simply the authors style. For the latter, I can’t really fault the writer for not matching my preferences. For the former, I can suggest ways that I think the book might be improved.

    I think Rebecca hits the nail on the head when she describes the elements of a good and bad review. I also understand her wish to avoid writing a bad review. While I don’t wish to misinform readers, i.e. recommend something that I actually think is not worth reading, I don’t want to do harm in an already precarious industry. It’s a difficult balance.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Joan, it IS a difficult balance. Good luck with that pitch to the new magazine.

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