Book review: naughty or nice? (#SFWApro)

There are two schools of thought about writing negative reviews.

School the first: You read a book/see a movie/listen to an album, then say what you think, whether you’re giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

School the second: Avoid negative reviews.

The first school (which I’m obviously a member of) doesn’t offer much in the way of reasons why, but here are some arguments for school two:

•It’ll look like you’re tearing other writers down to enhance your own standing.

•Conflict of interest: concerns that your negative reviews will hurt you with other writers, editors or publishers, or that your readers will assume your connections influence your reviews.

•There’s too much negativity in the world. Why add to it?

The first two strike me as mostly personal viewpoints, rather than general guidelines (obviously reviewers who aren’t writers have no dog in either hunt). The third one is very much a general guideline. Don’t be negative. Don’t hurt. Buildup. Say positive things.

Robert Silverberg discusses this in an Asimov’s column from last year, both the cuththroat reviewing style of Damon Knight and James Blish and contrasts it with John Updike’s rule that it’s ‘better to praise and share than blame and ban.” He ultimately comes down on the side of Updike.

I can’t say I agree. In the first place, it’s quite possible to praise and share good books while still criticizing bad ones. I agree with Silverberg it’s bad to make personal attacks (he quotes Blish recommending the co-authors of one book be tossed together and set on fire), but criticizing the worth of a book (as Silverberg did in some of the older reviews he quotes) seems perfectly fair.

Part of Silverberg’s discomfort is that, as he notes, he knew a lot of the people he was reviewing. He wasn’t comfortable hurting friends, and very conscious that some of them weren’t doing well, which made him feel bad about piling on more grief. Or criticizing Algis Budrys for a novel Silverberg knew he’d worked hard on.

On a personal level, no argument. If I really couldn’t say anything nice about a friend’s book, I’d just skip the review (I’ve done it once or twice). When I was with the Destin Log I’d never review local plays/books/music because I know the people involved and I don’t feel I can be honest; much better to interview them about how they got started, how they got published, etc., and leave it at that.

As a general rule? Not so much in agreement. Quite simply it doesn’t matter whether a writer hammered out his book over a couple of weeks (about the rate at which Walter Gibson wrote Shadow pulps back in the day) or labored over it for two years. For me as a reader, only the finished result matters. To paraphrase Siskel and Ebert, if the book doesn’t work it doesn’t matter how hard the writer worked or why it had to be the way it was.

As to the more general argument that there’s too much negativity or that we should all try to be nice, I think this article on smarm says well why refusing to go negative is not the best path.

I’m happy when I can write positive things about a book, as that means I had a good time reading it. But when I dislike one, I’ll say so, and try to explain my reasons.


Filed under Reading, Writing

4 responses to “Book review: naughty or nice? (#SFWApro)

  1. I used to be a card carrying member of the first school. My thinking was that honest criticism is, in the long run, more helpful to an author than simply ignoring the book (I’d never write a positive review if I didn’t mean it).

    I still believe that to a certain degree. Negative reviews teach me what I need to improve so that my next book can be better.

    I have to admit, though, that my writing has been negatively impacted by such reviews. I really want to connect to my readers, and reviews that clearly show I’m not connecting dim my enthusiasm.

    I also learned that I don’t necessarily know what the readers want from that book, only what I want. There are a lot of books out there that I wouldn’t touch simply due to what I perceive as grave craft issues. A lot of those books sell well, though. If the readers like it, who am I to say that it isn’t a good book?

    So in the end, it was a very personal decision for me to move to the second school. I’d never try to tell you to make the same move, but I can’t write negative reviews anymore.

    • I agree it can be a very personal decision–I’ve no quarrel with anyone who makes that call for themselves.
      And yes, I’m well aware many of the recipients of my reviews are laughing all the way to the bank (well, if they noticed me at all).

      • I guess the real question is, “What are you trying to accomplish with your review?”

        Only if you know the answer to that question can you begin to determine if leaving negative reviews serve a purpose.

  2. For me it’s to have a conversation about books, which definitely includes both good and bad. And to sort out my own thoughts on why a book works for me, or didn’t. And while I don’t seek out crappy books, I don’t feel any reason not to say (without suggesting the author be set on fire) that I think they’re crap.

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