The Value of Negative Reviews

Over at Metafilter they’re talking about this New Yorker article, in which book critic Lee Siegel explains why he doesn’t want to write negative book reviews anymore (here’s the MF thread). I posted my thoughts on the matter there, but it’s worth posting them here too. Here’s what I said.

I was a professional critic of film and music for a number of years and I didn’t shy away from giving negative reviews when I felt negative about the work. But it’s worth noting that when I was doing that work, I wasn’t given the option of what work to review; particularly with film, my job was to review every film that came into town. With music, what I reviewed was mostly assigned, not chosen.

These days people are interested in knowing my reviews of books (particularly in science fiction and fantasy). By and large with books I publicly offer only positive reviews. Reasons for that: One, I am on my own remit in what I choose to read and am under no obligation to make reviews, so I’m allowed to review only what I want, when I want; two, at this particular moment in time, if I were to be offering negative reviews of SF/F I would be mostly be punching downward. To the extent I want to trade in my notability in the field, I would prefer to use it to build up, not tear down. And again, that’s my choice to make.

With that said, I don’t think it’s beneficial to have all published criticism be positive. I think criticism should (generally) be honest and explanatory — if the critic finds something to be bad (or poorly made) then an examination of that is useful, even if it initially hurts the author’s feelings. One of my favorite reviews I’ve gotten as an author was from Russell Letson in Locus, when in the reviewing of Old Man’s War he noted that he kept throwing the book against the wall in irritation… and then picking it back up again right after to keep on reading. The review was not positive, but it was honest and it was fair, in the sense that Letson explained why he felt what he did. It was good criticism, if not positive criticism.

As an author I generally prefer to get positive reviews (welcome to the human ego), but I’m not lying when I say I would rather get a thoughtful negative review than a thoughtless positive one. It’s easy to say “oh, I liked that.” It’s harder to say, “I did not like it, and here are all the reasons why.” Whether I agree with the reasoning (or whether my feelings are hurt, or even whether the review might damage my commercial prospects) is immaterial — the criticism isn’t for me specifically. It’s for readers (in the case of reviews, which ask the commercial question of whether the work is worth the money) or for observers of the field ( in the case of literary criticism, which asks whether the work has existential value).

So while I understand Lee Siegel’s reasoning for not offering negative reviews, and indeed follow it for myself in the field in which I work, I hope not everyone agrees with him. There is value in negative reviews. Sometimes critics need to plant their flag and say “this is simply bad. And here’s why.”

69 Comments on “The Value of Negative Reviews”

  1. The difference between criticism and review. I think of criticism as starting with Goethe’s three questions: what was done, how well was it done, was it worth doing? Reviews start with who will have a good time, is it worth my money, and is it worth seeing?

  2. And the few studies show that a negative review in a prestigious place does more to increase sales that a glowing review in a little known journal. I suppose the psychology is: if they (Publishers’ Weekly or the NYRB) thought it worth reviewing, it must have some merit and might be worth checking out.

  3. Amusingly, John, as this popped up in my RSS feed, I was wondering online (on twitter) if I should write a review of a book I didn’t hate–but didn’t feel very positive about, either.

  4. When I send out stuff I have written to folks for comments, I always say ‘constructive comments welcome and encouraged.’ tell me what I did right, but also tell me where I need improvement. Suggestions as to how to improve my material is welcome, too, but not expected. You can’t expect for your writing to improve if no one tells you what needs work – and no, it is not always evident to the writer what his or her weak points are. Too many folks today seem to take constructive criticism as if it is a personal attack. Which is why a lot of us who have edited any type of publication no longer read the works of people we’re not familiar with, after having had someone flame us for making constructive remarks like suggesting someone use a larger variety of verbs…instead of a character always walking, occasionally have them shuffle, skip, slink, etc. You’d be surprised – well, no, probably you’d be unsurprised at the howls about how such a suggestion was uncalled for, nasty, mean spirited, etc.

  5. This post reminds me of Roger Ebert’s website. He had a section with his one-star reviews, because lots of people liked to see movies that he didn’t like. Not all of his one-star reviews were super well thought out; however, for the most part, he would explain his reasoning, which I appreciated.

    At the same time, Ebert was a movie critic. I was okay with him giving a movie a bad review. I wouldn’t feel the same way about a movie director panning another director’s movie. I am glad that you (John Scalzi) don’t write negative reviews, because (1) having a big name pan someone else in the field is rarely helpful and (2) when a non-critic in the same field (e.g., director to director) writes a negative review (especially with no explanation) it usually reflects poorly on the person doing the review.

  6. at this particular moment in time, if I were to be offering negative reviews of SF/F I would be mostly be punching downward.

    I’m intrigued by your assumption that the only books you could want to review would be by lesser beings :)

    Seriously though, an author in your position is about the only kind of author who can get away with reviewing in the same genre. You’re successful, with a huge fanbase in a huge wide ranging genre, so are immune to the attacks that someone like me – who is an author reviewer but in a narrow subgenre – receive routinely.

    I used to advocate strongly that authors in small genres should review honestly, to increase interest in the genre itself, to promote excellence, and to point out books which don’t offer good experiences for readers (in the reviewer’s opinion, of course.) Now I would say to any author not in Scalzi’s exalted permission – never, ever review in your own genre, and review outside it rarely. If you review positively, you’re assumed to be a shill. If you review negatively, you are assumed to be running a vendetta (even if you started reviewing long before you became a pro author), and the fans of that reviewed author will boycott you and hate you big time. (Indeed, even criticising the justly criticisable behaviour of another author in the same genre ends in the same result.) There is no assumption of honesty, and that’s because too many positive only author reviewers have tainted the well.

    But I do believe authors like yourself should review – even downwards – as much and as honestly as possible. You’re bulletproof, and you’re an uberfan of the genre – exactly the kind of enthusiast and expert in the craft who can offer valuable criticism. I don’t think you should care too much about the punching downwards, because the simple exposure is going to be gold to a less well known author – whatever you say.

    However, I would never review your books. Punching upwards on someone who wields a mallet is likely to cause pain to both parties :)

  7. I am glad that you (John Scalzi) don’t write negative reviews, because (1) having a big name pan someone else in the field is rarely helpful and (2) when a non-critic in the same field (e.g., director to director) writes a negative review (especially with no explanation) it usually reflects poorly on the person doing the review.

    Pamela’s just demonstrated my point.

  8. I review genre books for a political blog site on an unpaid basis. This allows me to select the books I write about and those are usually books I have enjoyed. Which is a good thing, because if a book is so bad that I would want to go about “sharpening my knife,” as Lee Siegel put it, I simply don’t finish the book.

    Every once in a while, I will do a post where I list the books I have not been able to finish and what is was about each one of them that turned me off. The commenters have sometimes been able to convince me that I should give a specific book another try, but more often it leads to an discussion of what it is that makes certain books so unappealing to readers.

  9. There is a world of difference between “abuse” and “constructive criticism”. I have never met an author whose writing was tolerable who did not value constructive criticism, even if it seemed pretty critical, as long as it actually made concrete suggestions. Even if your answer is “no, I’m doing that on purpose”, you at least have something to work with.

    I try to make sure that my feedback on art is genuinely informative in some way, because if it’s not, why bother?

  10. I find it interesting that you consider, for yourself, giving negative criticism as punching downward. I mean, I understand it; someone could look at a review from a writer like you and simply write off whatever was being reviewed as bad without trying it themselves based solely on your review, even if they might like it for their own reasons, which could hurt the author.

    However, considering the context of that term (“punching downward”) and your own views regarding negative thoughtful criticism, why do you consider negative criticism coming from you to be “bad” when it could be constructive, even while being negative (as you say thoughtful negative criticism can be)?

    While I can’t speak for anyone else, I know that if you read something I wrote and thoughtfully tore it to bits I’d probably have a moment of “Awwwww…” but then I’d get over it, look at what you said, and make the next one better.

  11. @Seebs

    ” I have never met an author whose writing was tolerable who did not value constructive criticism, even if it seemed pretty critical, as long as it actually made concrete suggestions.”

    I have. It can sometimes be…not very pretty.

  12. I have never met an author whose writing was tolerable who did not value constructive criticism, even if it seemed pretty critical, as long as it actually made concrete suggestions.

    You must know saner authors than I do. Because 95% of my beta efforts have ended with a tantrum from the betaee, no matter how much I explain my methods, warn them I will be honest, and how warmly they claim to welcome criticism.

    Also it is interesting to note how quickly ‘reviews’ have been conflated with ‘critique’. Reviews are for readers. Authors have no business demanding the review offers anything constructive to them at all. Reviews are not for them.

    Critique is offered privately, and is for the author while writing the book. Reviews come after the book has been released, and can no longer be improved.

    Understanding that difference would make the world a better place for reviewers and authors both.

  13. With regard to the comments about John punching downward, I suspect that it has more to do with the fact that he recently held a position of actual power in the SFF writing community than the fact that he’s popular and generally well-regarded. Coming from a position of even recently vacated power, the only direction available to punch is downward.

    Whether or not he’d actually be punching is an interesting wrinkle to the question that I’m glad came up, though, and that probably has something to do with the distinction between a review and a criticism (which I also see being discussed hereabouts, not surprisingly).

  14. I am grateful for negative reviews as a reader, because they tend to be a lot clearer on what/why/how a book did not work for them — which are often reasons it will work for me. Not everyone has to like everything and that’s totally cool, it doesn’t mean someone is a bad author or a book is a bad book.

    I’m also grateful for negative reviews as a reader because they, not the positive reviews, contain trigger warnings (intentionally or not) for content that would not only make me stop reading the book, but be incredibly upset by it.

    5-star reviews are great, I’ve left plenty myself, but I quite often find negative or even mediocre reviews much more helpful if I’m on the fence about a book. I go to regular review blogs for most things, and even their negative reviews have a lot of people in the comments saying “This didn’t work for you but it sounds like it’d be great for me”. Generally about books I never would have heard of if they held to “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. They’re nice about it, too — just honest.

  15. It’s complicated these days. On the one hand there is a lot more puff and outright sock-puppetry. On the negative side there is trolling and people flaming other books because they think it’s a zero-sum game and somehow their books will prosper if other books fail. Plus the whole definitions of “books” and “published” are much less clear than they used to be.

    It’s not just binary good or bad. Even in a positive review I might say I liked this, this, and this, but not that; showing all sides validates the review by showing the reviewer is paying attention. I might say I didn’t like X but you might, or I liked X but you might not. Again it’s a matter of letting the reader know if the book is something they’d be interested in. If I’ve taken the time to read a book for the purpose of reviewing it, the time is justified to myself if I write the review. I try to find positive things to say. I can remember one case where the book was just unmitigated (literal) wankery, and I felt that saying so would be a warning to the unwary. Mostly I would try to avoid authors or subgenres that I didn’t think would interest me, though I also made a point of reviewing books that other reviewers might overlook. This was a long time ago, haven’t had time in a while.

  16. Seebs:

    “I have never met an author whose writing was tolerable who did not value constructive criticism, even if it seemed pretty critical, as long as it actually made concrete suggestions.”

    I’m not at all a fan of “constructive criticism” in a general sense. I wrote about this some time ago, and I said:

    “… ‘constructive criticism’ drives me up a freakin’ wall. To be entirely honest, I like criticism of my work to be generally unconstructive. I don’t mind if, say, you you tell me my dialogue stinks and is unrealistic, but I do mind if you tell me my dialogue stinks and the way to fix it is to do A or B or C. When I had Old Man’s War out to beta testers, I asked them to catch grammar, spelling and continuity errors, and to tell me what they liked and didn’t liked about the story. But I also specifically told them not to offer suggestions on how to fix things. Why? Because I didn’t want to hear them. It’s enough for me to know if you think something’s not working in the writing. It’s my job as a writer to figure out how to fix these problems — or not, since something you might see as a bug in the writing is something that I might see as a feature.”

    Exceptions for this are the editor of the work in question, or peers whom I have asked for insight; everyone else, however, I would be unlikely to appreciate advice on how to solve a specific problem.

    On the flip side of this, when I offer feedback to authors I tend to identify things I see as problematic but not offer a solution unless they ask — and if they ask, I would say “this is how I would deal with it,” signifying that I recognize my own process and solution path may be different from theirs.

    With that said, I will second Ann Sommerville’s observation that there’s a difference between having something critiqued by an editor or a writer in an early process stage, and someone offering criticism after the things has been published. One is for the benefit of the author; the other is not.

  17. I agree with you, for the most part. As a consumer of books, art, music I find it helpful to read honest critiques. That said, I also think it’s important that reviews be written by people who can give a fair assessment of what they’re reviewing even if it’s an assignment (as it was for you in the past).

    There are two negative reviews that have stayed with me over the years because of how out of whack they were. The first was by a noted film critic who complained that a film wasn’t the one she would have made on that topic and proceeded to explain in detail what the film should have been. A fine literary exercise, perhaps, but completely useless for deciding whether or not to see the movie. The second was a review of an Eric Clapton concert in the Boston Globe by a music critic who doesn’t like Clapton. Give me a break! If you dislike him, have your editor send the other music critic – don’t go and then complain that the concert was bad because it was vintage Clapton!

  18. My thing about offering bad reviews is that I feel like it’s not fair to do that when I haven’t finished the whole thing, whatever it is. But I don’t want to waste time finishing something when I’m not enjoying it. There are too many awesome things out there that I could be enjoying, I’m not a professional reviewer, and it’s not my job to torture myself like that. There are a few times that I have finished something just because it was part of a particular franchise and I had enough emotional investment in the franchise to see it through to the bitter end, but those are rare, and I did take the time to submit a negative review.

  19. I review the books I read, including the ones I dislike. I usually do so in relatively neutered terms (what I’ve heard called “namby-pamby ‘what worked for me'” terms) because I’m very aware that what one person thinks is bad writing another person thinks is beautifully descriptive, and that it’s completely impossible for me to divorce my tastes from my reaction to the text.

    I would probably pull my punches even more, or skip ‘small targets’ if I had a big following, but I don’t intend to stop reviewing things. I don’t like the idea that being an author means not getting to be a reader any more, or express my own opinions.

    I’ve also noted that the “Be Nice” culture (where it is considered bad and unkind and unprofessional to say anything negative about a creative work) tends to be directed more toward women than men. Not exclusively, but there is a definite gender lean in which reviewers are criticised for the tone, ‘stridency’ or mere fact of their opinion.

  20. One of my gigs is as a book reviewer. I’ve also done other arts, but books are my main. With every review, I try to be the customer: is this worth the money? If so, why? If not, why?

    As a corollary, I don’t trust reviewers who only give positive reviews. If I don’t know what you think is bad, how will I understand your bar for good? I’ve totally panned very popular, well-regarded authors, because I didn’t think a particular work was up to par. I consider this a service, that I provide, and I take it seriously. When I write a review, I could give a shit about the author; I’m about the reader.

    On the other hand, I also edit. When I’m editing, it’s aaaaaall about the author. How do we make this better, more gorgeous, enthralling, marketable? How do we best showcase the author’s voice? But, because I am a compulsive reader, and I review, there is always the little voice in the back that is writing it up, making comparisons, considering marketing.

    It’s all very complicated and conflicting. Delicate.

  21. I feel like it’s not fair to do that when I haven’t finished the whole thing, whatever it is

    I was sent a book to review recently which I couldn’t read more than five pages of because it was the dullest, most pretentious and pointless writing/characterisation I’ve seen in a long time. I could have reviewed it by writing exactly that, making it clear that the style was the issue, and it was a DNF (did not finish). That’s honest and fair.

    I didn’t review it, in fact, because anyone who writes that badly in my genre and sends me stuff to review, tends to react like a chimp on meth when faced with anything less than fulsome praise. I don’t need the drama. (And so all the five star reviews this trash has somehow garnered stand unchallenged. My conscience is hurt. But my skin is not.)

  22. John:

    When I workshop with people, I make “translating solution-speak” an explicit part of the process. The way I’ve always identified it is that most of the time you can’t stop people from telling you how to fix your story. It’s easy to say, “X didn’t work for me.” But for most people, that’s not a satisfying stopping place. We want to say “X didn’t work for me because….” And that’s significantly more difficult to do. It’s even harder when people can’t quite pin down what is bothering them to begin with. So “X didn’t work for me because… mumble mumble… but I have an idea to help!” becomes “(I don’t really know how to say what’s bothering me but) here’s an idea to make it better!”

    As a writer, I always try to work backward from the suggested solution, because I feel like it’s pointing to something. A lot of workshoppers can only function in the solution-zone, and while the solution itself is almost always entirely wrong (except when it’s coming from somebody like an editor), it’s still only code for “X isn’t working.” And, for me, deciphering that code, when I can, is an opportunity to improve the work.

    Of course, deciphering is itself work, and I can’t blame anybody for wanting to avoid the people whose comments would necessitate it.

  23. There are bad reviews, and there are bad reviewers. I’ve stopped reading Michiko Kakutani’s reviews in the New York Times because I can predict them in advance: If it’s a major male novelist, she’ll almost invariably trash the work, saying she thinks it much inferior to his earlier stuff (which she may not have reviewed anyway).

    Not to say that there aren’t a lot of sexist male novelists; see this thread on Crooked Timber. But Kakutani isn’t reviewing them openly on those terms, which would be fair. She’s working her own private agenda, which isn’t giving the reader a fair shake.

  24. A long time ago someone (Rolling Stone?) published an explanation for why their reviews were mostly positive. They gist of it was that while they felt an obligation to publish reviews of major albums from major artists good or bad. (Just like a movie critic reviews everything that comes to town) they did not see much point in killing trees to publish a review that added up to “There is this band that you would never have heard of without this review…and they suck.”

    In addition to all the good reasons Mr. Scalzi gives for following basically the same policy I think it really is punching down for our host (Ozymandias) to publish bad reviews of people who are less well known. Scalzi is a critic. It is part of his reputation. It helps, a bit, to feed his family and keep him in bacon. One of the best ways for a critic to get or build a reputation is by writing scathing bad reviews. Not that he needs my advice, but I would say that if he wants to go after Kim Stanley Robinson or Neil Gaiman or somebody, why not. If he makes a habit of entertaining his blog readers with his pummeling of people we have never heard of he runs the risk of turning into………..a different person

  25. Writers can learn from reading reviews of their own (or other writers’) work, but I don’t think that’s the main purpose of reviews, whether they’re in the NY Times book review, reader reviews on Amazon, or or a review on an author’s blog. Reviews are there to tell prospective readers whether or not a book might appeal to them. If an author I read and like recommends a book, and their reasons for recommending it make it sound like something that’s up my alley, I’ll take their comments more seriously than a random review on amazon, or even a review from a celebrated reviewer. Likewise if an author I like has serious misgivings about a book.

    I can see why authors, at least, don’t want to spend time being negative about other author’s work, though. Aside from the “I don’t finish books I really can’t get into, so how can I review them?” question, the last thing a wet-behind-the-ears newer author wants is to anger another writer who may or may not take their criticism personally. And the last thing an established author wants is the reputation for bullying tender new writers with harsh reviews.

    So I really think negative stuff should be leavened with stuff that’s not so negative as well. The example of the reader who kept wanting to toss your book across the room but kept picking it back up again was a good one. Something made him keep coming back to it, and I’ll bet he mentioned what that was too. If he’d just tossed it down and didn’t come back, then he probably wouldn’t have written a review at all.

  26. Rabscuttle:

    “I would say that if he wants to go after Kim Stanley Robinson or Neil Gaiman or somebody, why not.”

    Well, because in both of those cases, they’re friends. Which is another reason why I’m often not in a rush to write reviews of sf/f; a whole bunch of people in it are friends, and I don’t much relish criticizing friends in public.

  27. I love bad reviews. (Note I am speaking as a reader; when I write, I want good ones).

    Ebert’s bad reviews were a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Anyone who was watching TV in the 80’s enjoyed he and Siskel attempting to outdo each other in just how much they hated a truly bad movie.

    But I’ve learned more about books that I’m thinking of buying from bad reviews.

    – Is the spelling atrocious? Not buying no matter how great it is.
    – Is it all rapey and/or macho? Do not want.
    – If people bluster and huff about a romance “oh, there was just too much explicit sex!” then boy howdy DO WANT SMUT.
    -“Why did there have to be such filthy language?” because the characters are city-dwelling adults dealing with crimes and aren’t going to be saying “Oh, gosh darnit, that corpse is kind of icky”.

    Etc. Yes, some authors are going to act like a chimp on meth (thx. Ann) but if they’re stupid enough to do that, then I REALLY want to know so I don’t give them money.

    I suppose I want honest reviews, and by the nature of that, some of them are going to be bad.

    If a reviewer only writes nice reviews, how am I supposed to know when something’s actually good? If Lee Siegel doesn’t review a book, is it because he just didn’t have time to read it before deadline, or did he read and hate it? We’ll never know. So he’s basically useless as a critic now.

  28. This is why I didn’t review “The Human Division”. I enjoyed it as I have all of your work to date, but I had some criticism that I thought I should keep to myself on Goodreads and so as not to discourage others from reading it.

    It boiled down to the fact that THD shipped too much freight. While I know if fit the bill for you in terms of words / work per dollar, a lot of those words were recap stuff. I felt like a high percentage of THD was catch up and therefore in terms of net new story per dollar spent for the reader, it was not a good value. I can’t remember anymore what the ratio was, but if 30% of a sub-20 page episode was catch up and the rest was new, I didn’t feel like the $0.99 was worth it.

    That kind of feedback wasn’t something I thought would be understood by the average reader and so I decided to keep it out of any review.

  29. This is not the first time you’ve cited the Russell Letson review of OMW as a particularly valuable example of its kind. Unfortunately, it does not appear to be available on-line. I suspect I know the answer, but on the principal of “If you don’t ask, you don’t get,” is there any chance of getting the Letson piece up?

  30. Also, while germane only to the larger subject of book reviews, if you’ve not read it already, I strongly, strongly recommend to you Paul Fussell’s outstanding essay “Being Reviewed: The A.B.M. and its theory. [A.B.M. = Author’s Big Mistake] It’s collected in “The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations” but a crappy scan of its original publication in Harper’s can be read here:

  31. My favorite bad review of all time was for the movie “Dinosaurs” where the reviewer complained that the animation was too realistic — the direction might as well have used live action. Because there are so many good dinosaur movies made with actual dinosaurs. I think this was in the New Yorker.

    I really liked New Yorker reviews, because one of the main writers had completely opposite tastes to me. If he panned something I was pretty sure to enjoy it, and if he raved about something, it would leave me cold. So the information to me was perfect.

  32. I got this review, of sorts, when being rejected from a venue:

    “We are looking for music that is a little more upbeat and generic.”

    Negative reviews like that, I post to my reviews page. “Insufficiently generic”? That’s a criticism I can handle. XD

  33. First of all, I think that negative reviews are crucial. As a reader, and a relatively discriminating (read: snobbish) one at that, reviewers who are all, or near-exclusively, positive are worse than useless to me – if they’re only bringing me half the picture, then how can I trust their judgement?

    Another important axis is how much the reviewer actually has to say. “I loved this” or “I hated this” are equally useless without further detail, but a lot of reviews don’t go far beyond that – as a reader, I dig through reviews until I find the ones that actually have some meat to them. There’s an interesting bias towards negative reviews here, though, because it’s often much easier to explain what was terrible than to explain what was magnificent. But, after doing a fair amount of reviewing, I came to an interesting conclusion: a lot of stories and books I disliked didn’t stand up well to a full review. Because while I could list their faults and drive the piece into the ground, what’s the sense of going into such detail over a piece I’m recommending people avoid? Some books fail in interesting ways, and those can make for terrific reviews, but the ones which are simply riddled with flaws in every possible aspect make detailed reviews feel pointless and downright masochistic (Facebook friends reading “50 Shades of Grey” ironically, I’m looking at you here).

    What I’m finding very interesting about book reviews now is that they can be taken very personally. A book is usually the work of one individual, who’s greatly invested in it – and with the ease of e-publishing, the barrier to entry is practically nil. Which means you don’t need to be particularly skilled, professional, or thick-skinned to expose your work to the scorn of a million readers. Similarly, pretty much anybody can write a book review – some of them are terrific and insightful; some of them are needlessly harsh; others can be deliberately cruel or completely off the wall – but they’re all public and easy to find and can look pretty much alike to the casual browser.

    There’s some serious drama now over at Goodreads, who are finding themselves standing right between authors and readers. You can basically trace the problem back to a few authors who’ve responded very badly to negative reviews and comments, and to a few reviewers who’ve crossed the line of good taste with their reviews. But the field is so emotional and volatile that the issue becomes bigger and bigger, and Goodreads finds itself trying to balance between reviewers being able to express their opinions freely and authors protesting a site culture that’s increasingly perceived as being negative and downright vicious.

    All in all, I’ve long since learned that reading reviews is something that takes time and discrimination. Reviews are subjective and individual; that means that finding the ones that are useful to you requires consideration and careful filtering. Once that’s agreed, then I think anybody can write any review they want, because it’s up to the reader to find the useful ones anyway. (Personally, I suspect most people find the all-positive reviewers less useful.)

  34. Hi John,

    Have you ever received a negative review from someone you considered a friend? If so, did it make things awkward the next time you saw them?

  35. (2) when a non-critic in the same field (e.g., director to director) writes a negative review (especially with no explanation) it usually reflects poorly on the person doing the review.

    Um, anyone writing a review “with no explanation” of how they came to form that opinion reflects poorly on everyone concerned — including the editor(s) who allowed it to see the light of day, regardless of whether it’s a gushing rave or a hatchet job to the nads.

    What I’m finding very interesting about book reviews now is that they can be taken very personally.

    @standback: Sure – and I’m totally sympathetic. The arts/book editor of the magazine I most frequently review for is the kind of guy who will reply to a 500 word review with a 500 word e-mail requesting clarifications, trims and re-writes. Even though they inevitably make the piece better, I’ve still had moment where I’d like to throttle him until his eyes pop out. And as a passionate Janeite, anyone who disses the Divine Miss Austen in my hearing is taking their lives in their hands.

    But here what I try to do as a reviewer. Remember that every writer, myself included, is asking the reader for something more precious and costly than a slice of their discretionary income: Time and attention. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a perfect book, so what does and doesn’t work about the book to hand – and how?

  36. I don’t think “constructive criticism” means “tell the author what to do.” I think constructive criticism means designing your feedback with the goal of being as helpful to the author as possible. Being “constructive” can be as simple as staying polite, courteous, and non-condescending, so the feedback will be easier for the author to swallow. It also means considering your reactions and criticisms in depth, making sure you’re communicating clearly, and everything else that serves the goal of helping the author on his/her next rewrite.

    Personally, I find the most valuable thing I can offer a WIP is a detailed log of my own reading experience – what I reacted to, and how. If I read and think “man, this mystery character seems squeeky clean – I’ll bet he turns out to be the murderer,” or “man this guy’s been giving me a history lesson for three pages already” or “ha, what a great one-liner!” or “ooh, was that evasive remark foreshadowing for something later?” — all these are really useful for the author to know, whether that’s a reaction he was aiming for or not. Ultimately, a book is aiming to give a reader a certain reading experience; the best thing I can do is detail my own experience reading. Going beyond that into “you can make this better by doing X…” is already really tricky territory – although sometimes, an example of “one possible way of dealing with this would be…” can go a long way to explaining a criticism clearly, without trying to bend the author into any particular direction.

  37. Ash Tarhuni:

    Sure, and no, not usually. One, I don’t expect everyone to like everything I write, even friends. Two, I already know some of my friends don’t find my writing to be their cup of tea. Three, I don’t like everything my friends write, either. That’s not why I have them as friends.

  38. ‘constructive criticism’ drives me up a freakin’ wall. To be entirely honest, I like criticism of my work to be generally unconstructive. I don’t mind if, say, you you tell me my dialogue stinks and is unrealistic, but I do mind if you tell me my dialogue stinks and the way to fix it is to do A or B or C.

    We’ve had very different sorts of experiences with constructive criticism. In my other profession (planetologist), constructive criticism means telling the author of the paper you just reviewed what mistakes they made and why you think they are mistakes; suggestions for how to correct them are optional but usually welcomed (e.g., “the Student’s T is only valid for normal distributions; you’ll need to transform your data for it to be applicable”). That gives you an opportunity to turn a good scientific paper into a great one. And, given that it is mediated by a (mostly) neutral editor, there are fewer ego conflicts than you might expect.

    And in my other, other profession (geophysicist for an oil company), we are expected to offer constructive criticism of the “this doesn’t work and this is why” sort (e.g., “the trap formed after maturation so there won’t be any hydrocarbons”). Sometimes we offer teammates suggestions on how to fix the problem but we rarely do so for people who work at other companies.

    In both cases, the use of constructive criticism has almost invariably helped rather than hurt and we’ve gotten a better product from it. That’s why I practically beg people to give me constructive criticism of my writing; how am I supposed to become a better writer if I never hear back from my readers?

  39. Man, negative reviews. I have to say that since I stopped being a professional reviewer, it’s gotten a lot easier to write negative reviews because I can say “What is going on with this nonsense?” instead of trying to balance my opinion with the likely opinion of the review’s audience, usually by using weasel-phrases like, “Fans of X will likely enjoy this book.”

    Ultimately, when I’m writing a review, I’m not doing it for the author. Most authors I’ve interacted with understand this. But that small minority that doesn’t? Are having a major chilling effect and that worries me.

  40. I wouldn’t write negative reviews mostly because I’ve pretty much learned how to tell which books aren’t going to be in my ‘like it’ zones.
    Anyway, it’s my opinion that reviewers define ‘good’ with some pointless-to-me literature type scale, not on how enjoyable a read it was.

  41. Of course, just occasionally there is a larger point to writing negatively. I wouldn’t call Fred Clark’s writing on Left Behind “reviews”: they’re something a lot more detailed than that. “Deconstructions”, perhaps, though not in the original sense of the word. I call them “analyses”. He tears the books apart, looking for bad writing, yes, but also for bad theology and bad morals. He also points out, most interestingly, how all three are tied together. His writing is exhaustive, but still manages to be fresh and even, frequently, witty.

    Ana Mardoll is providing a similar service for Twilight and The Chronicles of Narnia. Highly recommended.


  42. I don’t think there’s been any remark on the difference between fiction and non-fiction in this discussion. Here’s what I mean…

    I’ve done 17 reviews on my modest blog, mostly of aviation-related books. 15 non-fiction and 2 novels. Early on I decided that I would write reviews only of books that I (1) enjoyed; and (2) would recommend to friends. This decision came about when I read a book by a man who was a genuine hero, supremely admirable, but whose memoir was poorly done. My respect for him just wouldn’t let me post what would have to be a negative review — so I said nothing.

    But then, a couple of months ago, I read a biography that wasn’t simply a poor effort; it was egregiously and willfully misleading. It wasn’t just bad, it was close to evil. So I wrote and posted a negative review describing the problems (with supporting evidence).

    After that, I’ve concluded that while it’s well and good to tilt toward positive reviews, sometimes the reviewer of non-fiction has a responsibility to raise red flags (whether “more in sorrow”, or in high dudgeon) when the work under examination is just very wrong. This responsibility would seem not to apply to the review of works of fiction.

  43. When it comes to negative criticism, Mark Twain’s rant on Jane Austen is still the gold standard:

    “I haven’t any right to criticise books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

  44. I’ve written a fair number of reviews on Amazon. Out of the near 400 or so, my count of 1 star reviews is 4, obviously not a large percentage. Like many others here have said, often if I find I’m not enjoying a book, why keep reading? And if I don’t finish it, I won’t review it; any review would be based on only partial data, and therefore not fair to either the author or prospective other readers. I feel the same way about Hugo voting – I want to have read all the nominees before making up my mind, full data input is required.

    Negative reviews definitely serve a purpose, as (at least those that detail the reasons the reviewer felt the work was poor) they provide a different insight into the work in question, another lens in which to view the prospective purchase. All positive, glowing reviews might be justified for a work that everyone agrees is great, but at the same time I (the prospective buyer) would feel that I’m only seeing half the story, and would have niggling doubts about purchasing for just that reason.

    At the same time, negative reviews should be specific about what was felt to be wrong, and this can sometimes be very hard to identify objectively (is there such a thing as objective when judging a work of art?). There have been times when I have offered suggestions of what might make a work better (say, ‘this character was not fully delineated, more background/history of this individual might have helped’), but I think in general I agree with John here, that this form of input in a review (as opposed to a critique) is neither necessary or appropriate.

  45. If one wants negative reviews one only needs to go to and read their reviews. People sure do hate stuff on there. However, if one wants thoughtful criticisms one must go …. umm. I don’t really know the answer to that. Very rarely does a person find thoughtful critiques . The only place I have found those recently are in some of the reviews in Asimov and Analog.

  46. I’ve often found that my negative reviews are the ones I spend more time writing as carefully as possible. I’ve read too much work from fellow reviewers where a pan is less an exercise in getting to the heart of the work and more about the reviewer parading his own imagined cleverness and wit. I find that kind of thing professionally embarrassing.

    It’s vitally important not only to convey what you thought about something, but why. As one of Ebert’s colleagues said after his death, “I agreed with Roger about 40% of the time, but I learned from him 100% of the time.” Reviews should inspire your readers to be more thoughtful about their own opinions, and to understand and communicate their own tastes better.

  47. I consider the reviews on Dear Author to be almost perfect. They’re not afraid to give Fs or DNFs, and they always explain why a book did or did not work for them. I may not always agree with the grade they give a book, but I can always tell whether I’ll like the book or not.

    The best review I’ve ever received on a book of fairy tales I wrote gave me 3 stars – and explained exactly what did and didn’t work for her, including a list of words she found problematic. It was a wonderful review because it was *useful*.

  48. “And of course, with the birth of the artist came the inevitable afterbirth – the critic.” Orson Welles, narrating in Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I.

  49. As a new writer I thoroughly enjoy constructive criticism; it really helps me grow. I realize I have a lot to learn and I’ll take any feedback I can get. In my day job as a graphic designer I tend to be more selective of which constructive criticism I let influence me because after 10 years I have a little less to learn and I’m a little more set in my ways.

  50. It was a wonderful review because it was *useful*.

    Maybe you’d be better off not using reviewers as your beta readers and your critique partners?

    I got a review on one of my books which by the by pointed out a minor but stupid error. But the important thing about the review is that it told other readers about what it might be like for them if they *read* the book. A review which mentions a homonym misuse, and whether they would have written the ending differently, is bugger all use to a reader who needs to know:

    1. Will the book entertain me?
    2. Does the plot engage?
    3. Are the characters worth spending time with?
    4. Is the writing good enough not to interfere with the reader being swept away?

    A review which gives *that* information is useful.

    Sure, I fixed the minor error because the novel is now in ebook form and I could. But no one is going to buy an extra copy because I did, or avoid it because I didn’t. They *will* do so or not if a reviewer gives the information that *readers* find valuable.

    If you’re an author reading your reviews for writing tips, you’re doing it so very, very wrong. Pay an editor. That’s their job.

  51. Ann: Those four points, that’s what I wish I’d said above.
    Good writing, brief, transparent and spot on. :-)

  52. Fascinating discussion.

    I’ve written tons of reviews in my day. I was a newspaper movie and pop music critic, and have written movie and book reviews for various magazines. Now that I’m writing books, which get reviewed, the shoes is on the other foot. My work has generally been enthusiastically reviewed by both critics and readers, but like everybody else I sometimes get negative reviews. I don’t mind these if they seem reasonably thought-out and make valid points. However, a one-star rating with a one-sentence “review” is worthless and frustrating to receive. The experience of BEING reviewed has, I think, made me a better reviewer. I find myself working harder to analyze the work and come up with some sort of meaningful insight, whether I like the piece or not. That, for me, is the value of a well-considered review.

  53. I have mixed feelings about negative reviews – there are so many books from publishers, and orders of magnitude more self-published ebooks these days, that finding good books and good authors among the slush is really a much harder problem than finding negative reviews warning of books that aren’t worth reading, so insightful positive reviews or even “people who bought this book also bought” robo-recommendations can be a lot more useful to me as a reader. On the other hand, while there are highly marketed books that often deserve negative reviews, I think negative reviews are much more useful for non-fiction or political commentary books than for fiction.

    With movies, it was usually more fun hearing Siskel/Ebert/Roeper saying “I hated hated hated this movie!” than “This was a good lightweight movie but there are five better movies out this week, so rent it.” But there really were only 10 movies out that week, instead of 100000 books, so they could do that. (And of course none of us would have seen “Plan 9 from Outer Space” if it weren’t for the decades of highly negative reviews.)

    I didn’t care for Old Man’s War – it was well-crafted MilSF, but didn’t grab me the way Honor Harrington did; most of that subgenre doesn’t. On the other hand, Redshirts started off as a fun version of pretty much what the title promised, then jumped off the edge into uncharted territory, and then did it again, and solidly deserved the Hugo. (So did several other novels this year, but Redshirts was a really accessible novel in addition to being well-written.)

  54. “I’m not lying when I say I would rather get a thoughtful negative review than a thoughtless positive one.”

    I think part of the problem is that it is easier to write a well-thought-out negative review than it is to write a well-thought-out positive one.

    More often than not, when a review could go either way — when a reviewer’s feelings toward a book is luke-warm — the review ends up focusing on the negative, rather than the positive.

    When you end up looking at a site that just lumps reviews together in a numerical system, that number really doesn’t have any intrinsic value. You see 1000 3 star reviews — what does that mean? Is that a good book or a bad book? And more importantly — WILL I LIKE IT?

    Another issue is THE TWO STAR REVIEW (Or the nebulous void of them) — you see far more 3 and 4 star reviews than you see 2 star reviews. When people don’t like something BAM! 1 star review. But when people LIKE something, maybe their value scale is — this is a 4, I REALLY liked this book, but it was not my favorite (so no 5). But if they hate it, here’s a 1. (Or the lovely, I’d give this a 0, but it’s not an option).

    The ranking system itself is somewhat flawed.

  55. Following up on James McCormick’s comment. From time to time, I write reviews on Amazon. I have three goals when I do so: (1) no spoilers, (2) talk about my experience, and (3) talk about my likes and dislikes. Interestingly (to me), my reviews are reviewed by other Amazon customers, who find them “helpful” or not. Kind of meta, but it’s still feedback and I find it interesting but really not useful. I wonder if the authors feel that way about my reviews?

    Recently I gave a book a three star review (out of five). I considered that to be a middle-of-the-road rating (literally). But Amazon posted it as a “negative” review. Apparently, only 4 and 5 star reviews count as “positive” in the Amazon universe. I never set out to write a negative review and didn’t feel especially negative about the book — just thought it was a solid (if superficial) effort. My “negative” reviews are 2 stars. (I’ve never felt the need to write a 1 star review.)

    I feel like I should apologize to the author. Perhaps I was overly harsh?

    Or perhaps Amazon is encouraging grade inflation?

  56. I might be conflating what James and Nick said in the two previous posts, and more.
    I was surprised when I learned that Amazon (A.) calls a 3 of 5 rating a reason to ban a seller from their market place, as I considered a 3/5 to be a don’t bother me with emails. I got it, if I hadn’t I’d of whined.
    IMO for reviews in general (not a seller rating at A.) that give a value to a product on a 1 to 5:
    1) ignore: probably a competitor or someone like that guy who was screaming at me on the street about how I really must renounce Satan. I’d be fine with denounce. But renounce? [censored.]!!
    2) Might have value. Read for relevant content. –like, does the person say anything understandable about the product.
    3) see 2)
    4) see 2)
    5) Ignore.
    Unfortunately for my opinion A. has some great 5 star reviews that can’t be from a shill.

    When I buy something I expect to get what I thought I was buying without being double billed or worse, and for A. now give every seller who I don’t remember a 5.

    I* wouldn’t apologize about giving a 3 star review but I would delete, edit or some such my review to represent how A. does the numbers.
    Ohio, USA
    *Perhaps best for you that you don’t be like me.

  57. Crud. I meant to say about the orange color? Ooh! Pumpkins! The bestest ever pumpkin custard pies are made with butternut squash, not cooked pumpkin and assuredly not green cushaw which I’ve heard is what is actually in those cans at the store.

  58. Shawn,

    Yes. I did go back and edit my view to clarify that I did not mean three stars to be overly negative.

  59. Other reviewers clearly have their own notions of their missions and functions, but as for my own self, reviewing is a conversation (necessarily one-sided), and “you’ll like this” is only one part of what’s worth talking about. My writing roots are in the academy and in teaching, so much of what I think is worth discussing is how things work and where they come from: analysis and history. My reviewing is literary criticism operating within the limitations imposed by journalism and what’s-happenin’-now-baby and for-godsake-don’t-tell-the-ending.

    Add to that the fact that nobody is going to pay me enough to read books I don’t enjoy (and thus finish) and you get the kind of reviews I write: positive in the sense that if I like a book enough to finish it, it’s at least a decent book, and the topic of conversation is going to be why and how I enjoyed it. That’s not a thumbs-up/thumbs-down or N-stars consumer report. After more than two decades at Locus, I suspect that all six of my readers have figured out how to apply the appropriate parallax correction to my reviews (or how to read my silences, though that’s much trickier).

    Now, in my tech-journalism days (whose word-rates are sorely missed), I did product reviews, which are quite different. I was expected to provide accounts of the user/customer experience–to evaluate rather than converse-about. So bugs and flaws and limitations were a crucial part of the story. If I didn’t try to break it or force a failure and then report on the results, I wasn’t doing my job. But a novel is not that kind of product, and a book reviewer isn’t in the test-to-destruction business. Not this reviewer, anyway.

    BTW, John–I was never tempted to throw Old Man’s War against the wall–merely to toss it gently and regretfully onto the also-ran pile. But the book’s problems proved as interesting as its virtues, and besides, you write a good stick. The book nudged me into articulating why it annoyed me, and that is a useful exercise, if one that I would rather not have to engage in very often. Life is too short, deadlines are too close together, and column inches are too scarce.

  60. Huh. I think “constructive criticism” is slightly overloaded, because it can refer either to the whole category of criticisms which are specific enough to be useful in any way at all (“dialogue doesn’t seem realistic” might count, “didn’t like book” isn’t very useful), or specifically to attempts to describe how to fix it.

    I mostly favor the former as being more useful. I’ll only suggest a specific fix in the rare case where there’s some compelling reason to favor it, and even then, I recognize people won’t always use it.

  61. Elitist Book Reviews (fan site) is my favorite fantasy/sci-fi review site. Not because of books they like/dislike, but in how they explain their reasoning. I have read glowing reviews and can tell from the things they like, that I don’t think I would like the book. I have read luke warm and in one case a negative review and based on their reasoning decided that I should try the book.

    I think that is the best compliment I can give a reviewer.

  62. Scalzi: ‘constructive criticism’ drives me up a freakin’ wall. … It’s my job as a writer to figure out how to fix these problems — or not, since something you might see as a bug in the writing is something that I might see as a feature.”

    Well, the reason suggestions to fix beta fiction don’t work for most authors is because the beta reader ended up reading something that the author didn’t intend. Something in the writing didn’t work as intended. It was intended to captivate the reader but it did something else. And fiction, especially novel-length fiction, is lke a literary equivalent of a Rube-Goldberg machine. They’re complicated. They have a lot of moving parts that have to hue together perfectly. And if they’re well designed and if they work as intended, they can be fascinating to the audience.

    So, fiction that doesn’t work is to the beta reader like watching a Rube Goldberg machine where the watermelon rolls down the chute and stops, and then nothing happens. The reader might think that the watermelon missed the bowling pin tied to the rope that could then be tied to the sledgehammer to drop on the teeter-totter. But suggesting this might anger the author who knows that the watermelon was obviously supposed to bounce off the upright piano and slowly roll off the ledge and fall into the bushel basket at the bottom, you fool! And suggestions to the contrary are far more insulting than just pointing out that the watermelon got stuck without incorrectly suggesting something as assinine as a sledgehammer drop. This is fine literature, you know, not Gallagher.

    Fiction, like Rube Goldberg machines, can be constructed a million different ways. But for any given story for a particular author, the author usually has a specific intention for each component. So suggesting how to “fix” fiction is like suggesting out to “fix” a Rube Goldberg machine. Statistically speaking, you’re probably going to suggest a “fix” that was NOT the authors original intent. Sure, your “fix” would work, but then it wouldn’t be what the author intended anymore. Just like if the author intended the watermelon to roll into the bushel basket, but it doesn’t, there are a million ways to get the Rube Goldberg machine moving again, but there are only a few that are the author’s way.

    It’s not like the author is “right” in the way they wrote their story. It’s not like the inventor is “right” in the way they built their Rube Goldberg machine. It’s just that there are only certain ways in which the thing they create is actually “theirs”, and your suggestions would probably create soemthing that belongs to someone else other than the author.

%d bloggers like this: