Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Negative Reviews: What's the Point?

Yesterday, PWxyz asked a question that hit pretty close to home for me, as a publicist--"what's the value of negative reviews?" A good question, and something that I've wondered about myself when breaking the news to an author that a review--and it's worse when it's a major review or a first-time author--has panned his or her book.

PW's question was actually originally found on Sarah Rees Brennan's blog, in this thought-provoking entry. She brings the interesting perspective of both a reader and a writer, and knows how hard it can be to read that sort of criticism about something over which a writer has labored.
Like any other person who reads a ton of books, I hate many, many books. Oh, how I hate them. I have performed dramatic readings of the books I hate. I have little hate summaries. I have hate impressions. I can act out, scene by hateful scene, some of these books. I can perform silent hate charades.

And in the past, I have reviewed a couple of books I hate. And then I would always feel crappy afterwards.

And I would wonder why. After all, I hated them! It was a public service to warn people off them!

This is why. One is that I am sort of terrible at reviewing things I hate. I am not reasonable about it. I do not add ‘Oh, but despite my loathing for the subject matter, the prose was excellent’ or ‘Still, the idea of a dragon in love with a tree is an intriguing one.’ And I feel that, especially since hate reviews are the most popular ones, because people love to see people hating on stuff, nobody is sure why but it is fascinating! – I feel it’s important to be able to write a hate review as close to objectively as you can, explaining why and wherefore, and not only getting your cruel mock on.

She also (wryly and somewhat hilariously, for anyone who's ever held the hand of a poorly-reviewed author) discusses her "addiction" to reading her own reviews. Really, the entire entry is worth a read, but it also leads to something that's important to realize--most reviewers will only review books they like.

Well, I start with only reviewing books I really, really like, or books I love. The books I hate? No. The books I'm 'meh' about? Also no. And sometimes I don't review books that I do love, because I forget or I don't have time. (Another good reason not to review books I hate: no time, and I already wasted all that time reading them!)

But does this mean that nobody in the world should write negative reviews? No - I think people should. And this is lucky, because people will whether I think they should or not.

(As an aside, this also reminds me of this post on BookSlut, which made me comb through their recent reviews hoping against hope that they weren't referring to one of my authors.)

But the larger question asked by both Rees Brennan and PWxyz is a good one, and one that I struggle with fairly frequently. PW sums it up well with this:

The value of negative reviews is endlessly debated in reviewing circles. Some reviewers really enjoy putting the boot in, while others find it distasteful. Some, like Rees Brennan, both enjoy it and find it distasteful. PW publishes mixed and negative reviews, but many other publications don’t. However, no one debates the value of positive reviews, even though exactly the same considerations apply: they affect a writer’s morale, a book’s sales, a reader’s approach to the book. Reviewers and review publications would seem to have the same responsibilities in either case. So why are negative reviews so polarizing? And can this debate ever be definitively resolved?

You'll never find me in the "any publicity is good publicity" camp, but I do think that it makes sense that most book reviews are somewhat positive--unless it's a popular or big-name book, without reviews (or excellent marketing and sales!) most people will never read it and chance wasting their time and money on it, anyways. Helping steer people towards books they might like, and distilling why the book is worth reading, does seem like it should be a main point of book reviewing. If a book is simply not very good, why waste precious review space?

What are your thoughts? Have you ever read a negative review and read the book anyways? What do you do when you read conflicting reviews?

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