NOTICE: (Updated March 5, 2010)

Beginning December 19, 2009, Books 'N Border Collies will be posting but only intermittently while I pursue personal goals. I plan to share some reading I'm doing, but there will be no reviews. I will, however, be sharing my exploration of vegetarian cooking and the cookbooks and websites I use to educate myself. I hope you enjoy it!


Thursday, July 9, 2009

No Negative Reviews = Wishy-Washy Reviewer? I Disagree.

Every couple months or so I see discussions crop up on various blogs regarding negative reviews and whether or not bloggers want to or should write them. The definition of "negative" is nebulous at times. Does it mean we shouldn't say anything bad about a book we didn't enjoy? Does it include constructive criticism or are we only talking about what could be called "nasty" or "snarky" reviews?

I believe each blogger needs to approach this issue in his or her own way. It's the distinct personality of a blog that draws loyal readers and commenters. And as blog readers, we will continue to visit and engage those who are the most entertaining and informative to us. Therefore, it's not the argument of what kind of reviews a book blogger should write that I want to draw attention to here. What strikes me when I see these discussions are the comments that imply a blogger who doesn't write any negative reviews is somehow being wishy-washy or dishonest or kowtowing to authors and/or publishers. I strongly disagree with this view. There are not a ton of comments along these lines, but every time I see one I get cranky.

I am one of those bloggers who dislikes writing outright negative reviews, and my reason is this: One Reader's Junk is Another Reader's Treasure. For every book I didn't like, there are numerous readers who will tell me it was their favorite book ever, and those are the people I'm hoping to reach when I write my thoughts on my reading.

In reality, books that I genuinely disliked are few and far between and even fewer that I would say I outright despised. I'm more apt to be ambivalent. That is because I know my reading tastes, and while I do explore out of my comfort zone fairly often, I can usually do it in a manner that still fits my personal likes and dislikes. On the surface, I seem to read a large variety, but I still have an inner criteria that goes into each choice I make. Yes, there are books that suffer the bad luck of being read at the wrong time -- I'm in a bad mood or I just finished a fantastic book and the next one just can't match it. Perhaps I was mistaken in what I thought a book was about. There are times I am aware that a book most likely won't be something I'll love, but I want to read it anyway for whatever reason. I keep all these things in mind when I sit down to tell you about them. If it happens that I didn't like a book, I'll tell you and I'll tell you why. But it won't be because "the author writes like an imbecile and couldn't plot his way out of a paper bag", because that may be true, but maybe he was really, really funny anyway.

Just my two cents. Anyone want to borrow my soapbox? :-)


The Biblio Brat said...

"One Reader's Junk is Another Reader's Treasure."


I feel obligated to be honest with my readers. If I don't care for a book, I say so. But I truly believe a negative review doesn't have to be "negative" or mean - and I try never to be either.

Sometimes, and I did this recently with Atmospheric Disturbances, I will offer links to other reviews, both positive and negative so that readers can decide for themselves if a book is suited for them.

I appreciate the fact that others may value my opinion, but I would hope, in the end, it is not the only one being taken into account.

Great post Lezlie, and I am glad you brought the subject up. I will be back to check out the comments as I am interested to see what others have to say.

BooksPlease said...

Well said! I don't think it's wishy-washy or dishonest or kowtowing to authors when I write a review saying what I like as well as what I didn't like about a book that wasn't quite to my tastes.

Reading blogs is not helpful, if all the bloggger does is just gush on and on about how wonderful a book is. Before coming to your blog today I was reading differing reviews of a book I haven't read myself and was interested to see the reactions to that book - some were full of praise or condemnation and just a few were what I describe as "balanced" - with reasons for being critical or otherwise. I think the only thing is to decide for myself. It looks as though I will like the book and it was the balanced reviews that made me want to look at it.

Meghan said...

Great post, Lezlie! I try not to write completely negative reviews either, although I have had a couple of instances in which I just had to, especially given the books were unsolicited review copies. Normally, though, I do like pretty much everything that I read. Like you, I know what I like and that's what I read. Sometimes I dislike elements of a book but it's extremely rare for me to completely dislike a book that I've chosen for myself. And even then I do try to point out what's good about it because as you say, someone else will probably love it.

Ana S. said...

"What strikes me when I see these discussions are the comments that imply a blogger who doesn't write any negative reviews is somehow being wishy-washy or dishonest or kowtowing to authors and/or publishers."

This makes me uncomfortable too. I've been told a few times I love every book I read (which is actually not really true) and I always worry that people think I'm less than honest. Which is mostly paranoia, but you know. Like you, I just know myself as a reader very well, so more often than not, I pick up books that I end up enjoying.

I do enjoy talking about books I loved a lot more than about books I disliked, but that doesn't mean I'm not willing to be negative. In fact, I've just finished drafting the review of my least favourite book of the year so far, and I didn't have anything much that was positive to say about it. But I did make sure I acknowledged that just because *I* felt this way, it doesn't mean everyone else will too. I also linked to several positive reviews.

And to me, that makes a big difference. There are a couple of snarky /sarcastic bloggers I really, really love, and even when they're poking fun at a book I enjoyed I laugh along with them. This is because while they're snarky, they're not imposing. They may say, "I thought this book was stupid", but they never say, "and if you like it, you're stupid too!!!1"

Jeane said...

I think the most honest way to write about books is to mention those you didn't like as well as those you loved- and why. I always try to find something positive to say even when I really dislike a book, though, and to put links to readers who liked it as well, because like you say, a book I dislike is one someone else will love.

Anna said...

I'm honest in every review I write, regardless of whether it's a review copy or a book I bought myself. I've had a couple of authors indicate that they didn't agree with my assessment of their book. Oh, well. But if I don't like a book, I try to say something positive about it, and usually I can. Just because I didn't like it, doesn't mean someone else can't love it.

As the years go by, though, I'm becoming a better judge of books I'll enjoy. So I find that I like most of what I read.

I also tend to read more than one review of a book I'm interested in reading, get some other viewpoints. That seems to help even things out.

Diary of an Eccentric

bermudaonion said...

I agree with you. I try to keep my reviews honest, but I feel there is absolutely no reason to personally attack the author. Sometimes the fact that I didn't like a book is my problem, not the author's anyway.

Rebecca Reid said...

Very well said. As you know, I've been thinking about this too!

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

IMO it depends on the purpose of the blog. If a blogger simply wants to write about great books then there is no reason to write about ones he/she hates. In my case my purpose is to create a record of everything I read so I do need to write about books that I didn't like if I happen to read them. But I do realize that other people might like that same book so I always try to point out the pros and the cons - that way I can critique the books without being mean (at least, that's my goal!).

Lezlie said...

Biblio Brat ~ I'm glad people are enjoying the topic! It's something I feel strongly about but I shy away from "stirring the pot".

Adding links to others' reviews is a great way to add balance, especially if it is a book you didn't care for. Not to mention that it's great for community building! :-)

Books Please ~ Thank you! I actually like reading reviews of books that the reviewer didn't like, because sometimes what they didn't like is a characteristic of books that I enjoy. In the same vein, reasons one person loved a book may be the very same reasons I would pass it by.

Meghan ~ Thanks! I don't read unsolicited review copies, so I've been able to avoid that particular issue. Thankfully, I don't get many of them, so I don't feel bad about it. I've got a couple here now I should give away to someone who'd probably love them. Thanks for the reminder! :-)

Nymeth ~ I tend to procrastinate writing about books I wasn't excited about. As you said, it's much more enjoyable to talk about books you loved. But I also like the challenge of trying to pick a couple of points out that others might find attractive in a book.

There are a few bloggers who write in a manner I would never feel comfortable engaging in myself, but I enjoy reading their clever remarks!

Jeane ~ I've made the special effort this year to write about every single book I read. Though even the ones I didn't write about last year were only because I was lazy, not because I didn't like them. :-) I think you are very, very fair in your reviews when you didn't care for the book.

Anna ~ I hope all your author responses have been polite and not some of the scary ones we hear about every now and then!

Bermudaonion ~ Reviews that are unduly harsh on the author make me sad. Good or bad, it's only our opinion and that author worked hard to produce his or her book. I admire the stamina it takes to be a writer, even if I maybe didn't care for the finished product. It's all I can do to come up with regular posts, much less a complete book! :-)

Rebecca ~ Thanks! I *do* know! It was your post that finally prompted me to write this one. Not that there were any of these kinds of negative comments on your discussion, because I don't think there were. But it reminded me of the topic!


Anna said...

So far, they've been polite for the most part. None have been outright rude, but one was pretty cold. I've only have 2 email me about it, and those were of books I didn't like at all but tried to be positive about. When it comes to review books that I've mostly liked but pointed out a few drawbacks, there hasn't been an issue.

Sometimes I feel like who am I to be judging their work, but I remind myself that I'm talking about books with a bunch of friends and just expressing my opinions.

Diary of an Eccentric

Lezlie said...

Heather ~ That's a very good point. It's not every bloggers purpose to write about everything they read. I was just reading in a book about blogging yesterday that talked about each individual's purpose in blogging. I think sometimes we get wrapped up in what we're trying to do and unconsciously apply the same criteria to others.

Anna ~ Exactly. There are some book bloggers who may wish to be taken more seriously, and that is great. But I'm like you. The thoughts I express are just my opinion, for what they're worth. :-)


joanna said...

As long as you explain why you didn't like a book, I think it's ok... And I certainly don't want to discourage other readers from reading the books I dislike. I know that I sometimes pick up books that have had negative reviews/comments because the storyline intrigues me and I think that I just might like it. Sometimes I'm right.

Lezlie said...

Joanna ~ I've got no issues with people writing negative reviews. It's when choosing *not* to write negative reviews is looked down on that I get my ire up. I also have been known to pick up books even when the reviews are bad for exactly your reasons. It's great fun when we get it right, isnt' it? :-)


Heather said...

I was thinking about this myself the other day when I was writing reviews (I had a stack of read books that I hadn't reviewed yet). As you know, I rate my books and of late I've been giving 5 out of 5 for many of them! I read to my interests of the time so I generally enjoy the book and thus I give a high rating. If I have something 'negative' to say, I'm honest about what I think but I try to be fair in what I say. I have been guilty of gushing...not really knowing what to say without giving the whole book away is really hard! If someone's perception of my reviews is that I am wishy-washy or what-have-you then they are entitled but they don't have to read my blog if they don't enjoy it.

Kristen Howe said...

I'm just getting started. I'm not a good book reviewer. I try not to do bad reviews. I haven't had a book I hated in a long time. Any tips on book reviews and blogging? You made a good statement.

Serena said...

"One Reader's Junk is Another Reader's Treasure."

I agree....just because I don't like a book, doesn't mean that someone else won't like it.

I've found a number of my "negative" reviews have received comments for readers interested in the book regardless of the flaws I found.

I think its good to have a variety of opinions.

Joanne said...

Very interesting topic -- I am just beginning to review the books I read for personal pleasure on my blog, so chances are I will have more positive than negative reviews since I'm self-selecting books for enjoyment. I rarely step too far from my comfort zone. I am not a professional book reviewer or literary critic, nor is my blog set up to be an authoritative book resource -- I'm just one person who enjoys reading specific genres and posting opinions and thoughts about them for the fun of it (really just a 2cents version). To be honest, I visit book blogs more to be exposed to books I might not have come across myself, and I keep in mind that the review is an opinion. I enjoy reading reviews that are objective (either positive or negative) without crossing the line into what might be considered personal criticism against others.

Lezlie said...

Heather ~ Giving ratings is a difficult thing. So I don't do it. LOL! Seriously though, if you're giving 5/5 for most of what you read, to me that just means you're making great choices for you, and that's a good thing! :-)

Kristen ~ Thank you! And welcome to the community!! I'd be willing to bet that you're a better reviewer than you think you are. I often see bloggers putting out these excellent, insightful reviews and think, "I wish I could think and write more like that!" But ultimately we have to be who we are. I can't say enough that I think the most important part of blogging is to let your individuality shine through! Read and write about books you love or are interested in, not necessarily the hot book(s) of the moment. With time, patience and practice you'll find your groove and the blog readers will find you. In fact, I'm going to find your blog right now! :-)

Serena ~ I love when that happens! I sometimes feel like I was harder on a book than I meant to be, but then someone comments that she thinks it looks interesting anyway and will probably read it. Awesome!


Lisa said...

I agree with you on this. I try to make it clear that I'm writing about my personal thoughts, feelings and opinions. I don't claim to be a literary critic. I also understand that what I don't like at one point in my life may be something that I fall in love with when read at a later date.

Lezlie said...

Joanne ~ You have a great attitude! It's going to be fun to see which books you decide to do your reviews on.

Lisa ~ That is another great point. I think classics fall into that catagory for a lot of people. We often don't appreciate them until we're not reading them for classes.


Joanne said...

Thanks, Lezlie -- Come on over and visit anytime and let's talk books! BTW, your border collies are cuties...we have a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and now, after seeing your pups on your blog, I have to get Buddy's pic on my blog!

Poppy Q said...

I found it interesting that by writing about a book I didn't like, I got a really strong response by readers commenting. They were sure if I read further I would enjoy it, even love it. However after reading it for 100 pages, and struggling to pick it up each time I felt I had given it a fair go. Life is too short to waste time with books you dislike, as there are so many good ones out there.

Nothing wrong with saying that you didn't like the book, but there is no need to be nasty.


Lezlie said...

Joanne ~ I will definitely do that! I subscribed yesterday, so I'll be keeping up with you!

Julie ~ People will go far to defend a book they loved. Me included! And I agree with you. It's to be expected there will be books we don't like, but I'm not a big fan of the nasty reviews. I personally skip over them.


Terri B. said...

Lezlie, I totally agree with you on this. I appreciate honesty from book bloggers and I always try to be honest. If I didn't like a book, I try to explain why and also believe that those things I didn't like might be just the things that someone else will either like or overlook. I also try to say something positive about the book and can usually find something to like (there are really very few books that I've just hated). I want to read honest reasons why someone either did or did not like a book and don't care for meanness or snarkiness in a review. Fortunately, I don't run across too many of those. Thoughtful post, Lezlie!

Nan said...

This blog entry rates an A+ in my book, Lezlie! :<)

I rarely have this problem because 1. I mostly just read what I love, or 2. the authors are dead. :<)

Lezlie said...

Terri ~ Even right now, I can't think of a book off the top of my head that I truly hated. Like you, there is nearly always *something* about a book I liked or that I think would make it appealing to others.

Thanks, Nan! Again, you sound so sane and serene! Is that just a thing with you? I bet it is. Very cool! :-)


Jem said...

It has been interesting reading this post and all the comments! I have only been blogging for a couple of months and am just coming up against this issue recently.

I wish there was a polite way to distinguish the books that are published by top publishing houses and ones that are down the rung a bit. It seems to make a big difference with the quality of the end product. But if I consider the book amongst others published by lesser known houses, than it doesn't seem so bad. Does this make sense?

Lezlie said...

Jemima ~ I understand what you're saying. Interesting point! I've never considered that aspect before. I'll have to pay more attention and see if I come to the same conclusion.


Literary Feline said...

You've been reading my mind, haven't you, Lezlie? I was thinking this post, I just don't think I could have written it so eloquently.

Some of the comments surrounding the need for negative reviews have come off sounding as if those who like most of what they read are not being honest and I truly believe that is unfair. As pointed out, we each have our own style and reasons for doing what we do. I don't see what is wrong with that. We have to be true to ourselves. I don't think there is a wrong or a right in this--why can't we do what works best for each of us individually? And appreciate our differences.

This topic is just one of many that has gotten under my skin lately--discussions that seem more divisive than helpful. I think that many of these conversations can be beneficial and worthwhile--if handled right. Too often though, something is said that turns it into an us versus them scenario and the communication breaks down. People end up doubting themselves or wondering if they should continue blogging. Okay, maybe that's just me. :-)

I personally count among those who like most of what I read. I choose books that I want to read very carefully--my reading time is limited and I don't want to waste it on a book I am not enjoying. I'm the kind of person who focuses mostly on the good in people--it's my nature. I am honest in my reviews and am not afraid to say I don't like something, but I won't be mean or nasty about it.

I've been following this discussion since you first posted it. I am glad to see that we're not alone in our thinking!

Darlene said...

I don't believe in trashing a book - someone worked hard on and I respect that. In my reviews if It was something that wasn't a favorite of mine, I say so but that's it. And you're right, there's been a lot of books I've thought that were so-so and others thought they were great. Everyone has different tastes. Another thing for me too is that if I really am not enjoying a book I picked up, I shut it and quit reading. Therefore not a lot of negative reviews make it to my blog because I simply don't read the book. Great post Lezlie!

Lezlie said...

Literary Feline ~ "People end up doubting themselves or wondering if they should continue blogging. Okay, maybe that's just me."

:-) No, it's not just you. Many of us are probably just insecure enough to feel exactly like that more often than we care to admit. You can include me in that group for sure!

Dar ~ Thanks! I can't engage in book trashing either. It's just not me.


Kim L said...

Great comments on the age-old dilemma... I'm just a blogger, do I really need to put my super-negative thoughts out there? For me, it's become easier because I don't finish books very often that I didn't like. I don't get as explicit about why I didn't like a book, I just mention a few issues and let it go. And I don't have a problem with bloggers who write negative reviews, I just am not as apt to go out on a limb with my thoughts!

Lezlie said...

Kim ~ I agree. It's not the negative reviews I take any issue with. It's the negative view taken of bloggers who don't/won't write them that bothers me.


Jeanne said...

Hmm. I just wrote a post about this too, and took the point of view of one who thinks that people who don't write negative reviews are being wishy-washy.
As a college teacher, I see a lot of students who have gotten away with relativistic and/or multicultural comments on the books they've been required to read. My job is to teach them critical thinking, which requires making judgments.
I think more book bloggers could be making more judgments about the quality of what they read, and maybe why they picked that title in the first place. This is related to my recent challenge--to read something out of your comfort zone.

Lezlie said...

Hi, Jeanne! I can see and agree with your point regarding critical thinking, especially with students. And I believe there are a lot of bloggers out there who write more along those lines when reviewing. However, there are also those who are simply in this for the fun of sharing a love of reading, and there are an infinite number of ways to do that. As blog readers, we learn where to go when we want an in-depth analysis and when we just want a quick-hit recommendation. I think they are both very valid methods, neither one being better than the other. They serve different purposes. I'll have to check out your post on this topic, too. Thank you for stopping by and commenting!


Jem said...

I also try to remember that sometimes a reader of my review will decide to spend their money on buying the book. So I should not feel that I have to spare the author's feelings if it was not a good quality book. (I always try not to go overboard in criticism though-just gently point out at least one drawback.)I also strongly believe that while personal taste does come into it, their are some general standards that can be used to judge a book regardless of personal preference.

Lezlie said...

Jemima ~ I've been lucky lately in that I haven't read anything that had me wondering how the author managed to get published. :-) I think no matter how kind a reviewer may try to be, there is a a chance an author's feelings may be hurt by *any* criticism. While I feel bad about that, a writer does have to understand that his or her book will not appeal to everyone. Some are mightily thin-skinned as we have seen out here in blogland. I don't mean to sound disrespectful of them or their work, but when they put themselves out in the public eye in whatever form (writing, music, etc.), they need to be able to handle it professionally. That being said, I'm glad I'm not a writer, because I think I would cry if someone trashed my work. :-)


Ann Kingman said...

Great post, and fantastic discussion you've sparked.

I have no problem with negative (though not nasty) reviews when the blogger chooses to do that, as long as there is some context. What I can't abide is when a blogger says something like "this is not the type of book I would normally read" and then proceeds to trash it.

We, on the other hand, don't pretend to do "book reviews." Rather, the focus of our blog is "book recommendations" and as such, we only write about books that we've enjoyed and can honestly recommend. I think we are pretty clear in stating this, so we haven't yet been accused of being 'wishy washy' or publisher's shills (even though we both work for a publisher).

Thanks for the thoughtful post and discussion!

Lezlie said...

Hi, Ann! And thank you! Books on the Nightstand is definitely a great recommendation site. It wouldn't make any sense to even mention books you didn't like on there. I think the one time I remember anything like that at all was one time Michael was mentioning a book he didn't like, but he didn't give the title because is wasn't relevant to the point he was making.


Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

Man--super late leaving my comments here, so hopefully I'm not repeating too much.

I actually like to read a little bit of criticism when reading reviews. I want to know what worked for the reader and especially what didn't work. This is particularly true for bloggers whose taste I've come to know in the past year or two and can somewhat align their tastes with mine. If I can handle what the person found fault with, then I'll still seek out the book. Of course this is often times subjective and I have to be careful not to color my own opinions when reading (if I read that Bella from Twilight is annoying SO many times will I find her annoying just because everyone else did or because she really is?).

Anyway, this is a great question, Lezlie and one that I think will continue to come up. I think once upon a time--maybe last summer when ARCs were just starting to make an appearance in a big way--this question was a little different. Bloggers didn't know how to review books subjectively and many many admitted that they padded reviews of books they didn't like because they didn't want to offend the author because the book was free. Luckily most of this has gone out the window.

But yup, agree 100% that what I don't love someone else is sure to find great enjoyment from.

Lezlie said...

Trish ~ That's exactly why I don't read too many reviews of a book I want to read myself. I don't want to taint my own opinion right before I've even started it, even if it is subconscious. And you're always a welcome face to see at the party, no matter how late! :-)