Monday, January 17, 2011

Why Bad Reviews are Good

A recent, cheerful (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek) blog post written by Marianna Baer exhorts readers to write only positive reviews of books:
Resolve to make 2011 the year of positivity in the literary world! Eliminate all negative critical discussion of books! Put down your scalpels and pick up your pom-poms!....Give 5 stars to all books you rate on Goodreads!
It's a philosophy that many people subscribe to, especially in the land of kids' lit: the only field I know where colleagues spend so much of their energy complimenting and supporting one another. It's as if, because the product is designed for kids, the creators should be treated with kid gloves. Or perhaps because the profession boasts so many amateurs (meaning unpaid and unpublished, not incompetent), there is a perception of fragility.

In October of 2010, a positive-review-only blog was born with the tagline, "Where everyone from casual readers to bestselling authors gush [emphasis in original] about their favorite books." It goes on to explain, "We're not a bunch of literary pushovers, we just see no point in telling you about a book if we didn't like it." It turns out a lot of bloggers follow this review policy, not wanting to waste time and space reviewing books they didn't enjoy. (Of course, professional reviewers don't have this option when writing for a review journal.)

When did dissection of an artistic work and expression of strong opinions become politically incorrect? How did compliment inflation seep into our writing culture? Academic researchers at the University of Chicago, my alma mater, believe that a seminar presentation to colleagues that results in no criticism is a waste of time. For them, polite clapping is a more damning commentary than spirited critique and questioning.

Somehow, in all this slipshod, sugary, female thinking, we're losing sight of the beauty of the negative review. Negative reviews inform. Negative reviews also entertain, whereas positive reviews almost never do (unless you're the author of the book being positively reviewed).

Here's a useful tool I've discovered when looking for the next book to read: I survey the two-star reviews on Goodreads. This is why it works:
  1. The reviews on Amazon and Barnes and Noble are undependable. There's no apparent rhyme or reason to which customers choose to post. And who are those Vine Voices reviewers anyway? Goodreads, on the other hand, is made up mostly of users who love to read.
  2. That said, Goodreads reviewers who give a book one star typically couldn't finish the book. Their written opinion is irrelevant to me, although it's important to include their one star in the book's average star rating.
  3. Three-star reviews are so wishy-washy they're of no help.
  4. Goodreads reviewers who give a book four or five stars gush about the book almost exclusively. They also tend to summarize the plot in gory detail before they begin editorializing.
  5. Two-star reviews, on the other hand, are written by people who love to read, who finished the book, and who often have something interesting to say about what went wrong (and sometimes about what went right). Their reviews don't necessarily deter me from reading the book, they just tell me in a concise and sometimes comically snarky way what went wrong for them.
So let's make 2011 the year of critical thinking. Let's analyze the hell out of each other's work, in both reviews and critique groups, and hone our writing skills — and our senses of humor — in the process.

[Note: on 12/4/2012 I turned off comments on this post because it was getting a lot of spam. Sorry for the inconvenience!]


  1. Hurray--I agree. (But let's not start with me.)

  2. Your writing positively thrives under scrutiny, CS.

  3. Oh, gawd. I'm afraid. When do we meet next?

  4. Agreed! People often assume a "critique" is the same thing as an insult. An insult is vague and directed generally at the person or entire work in question, while a critique is honed, thoughtful, and directed at a specific problem. A critique is nothing to be afraid of, but rather is to be desired. Criticism indicates the idea is something worthy of working on. At the School of Representational Art, students have been known to throw fits when teachers don't list enough problems with their paintings. No art is perfect, and without critique how can we improve?

  5. Thanks for furthering the discussion, Elizabeth! Just want to make clear that the conclusion of my post you refer to is that critical discussion of books is vital. I was totally kidding about only writing positive reviews -- I would hate a world like that. Yay for critical thinking! (I just have to learn how to handle criticism when it's directed at me.)

  6. As a blog-reader, I don't much care for the blogs that only post positive reviews. Since I use these blogs to give me personal reading recommendations, I find I learn just as much about whether someone's opinions jive with mine based on what they don't like as what they do! As a blogger, I try to post about everything I read (though I don't quite succeed), so that means reviewing the good and the bad.

  7. I agree about the value and importance of critical thinking, but -- was it really necessary to append the word "female" to the adjectives "slipshod" and "sugary"? I know plenty of females (including myself) who would agree that critical or even negative reviews ought not to be suppressed. Just because a particular attitude appears to be prevalent in some social groups of women doesn't make it universal, and there are enough negative stereotypes of women out there without women themselves adding to them.

  8. I noted the "female" thing as well. Hmm.
    Otherwise, when I don't like a book, I say so. I try to ID why.
    But I try to do it pleasantly in such a way that the poor author doesn't feel as if I flamed him/her. If I "flame" something, like Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes I would have 900 people telling me how wrong I was. And, there is a supposition that bad reviews will cause pubs not to allow ARCs.Fangs, Wands and Fairy Dust
    Twitter: @fangswandsfairy

  9. Hey R.J. and Steph, the phrase "slipshod, sugary, female thinking" is a quote from Mr. Banks in the film version of Mary Poppins. (I hyperlinked that phrase to the script, but the contrast in font color may not be set high enough.)

  10. Very thoughtful and insightful. Thanks for putting a little perspective on the idea of "criticism."

  11. I like that your blog is one that pushes folks to think!

  12. I'm one of the admins of the positive-review only site you mentioned ( and I wanted to clarify what our site is truly about. All three of the admins are writers, and believe me, we can easily rip books apart (even when we like them), and we receive boxes and boxes of ARCS that we don't enjoy. But we wanted to create a place where people could go and make a quick pick for a new book to read, not sift through hundreds of reviews that evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the author's writing.

    We have a simple request: if you love a book, tell us about it. And anyone is welcome to submit reviews. We absolutely agree that manuscripts should be critiqued and revised several times over, before publication, but we'll leave the public flogging to the professional critics (who I actually disagree with just as often as I agree).

    So if any of you have read a book - ever - that you've liked enough to recommend to others, feel free to submit a review. Yes, Bookshop Talk IS all about the love for reading, and that's a fact we're really quite proud of.

  13. Agreed. As an old sub-ed and scribbler, I truly value seeing the red pen at work on any page of mine. Late last year, I posted a tongue-in-cheek take on how I review: Borrow Mr Potato Head's Angry Eyes And Improve The Literary World!

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