Monday, February 07, 2011

Negativity In A Public Forum

Last wednesday, during #YALitChat on twitter, there were apparently some comments made about book bloggers. It was partly triggered by the fact that some bloggers write negative reviews--bashing the book, and sometimes the author. So, a few people decided to bash them.

A bit of the pot calling the kettle black, if you ask me...

That said, I'm one of those bloggers who writes negative reviews. Because of this, I wanted to share my thoughts on the subject.

I've said this before, but I firmly believe in learning as much as I can, wherever I can. Especially when it comes to writing. For that reason, I will finish every book I pick up (because there is always something I have learned by the time I've read the last page). If I write a review, I will focus on making it constructive and respectful, and it is always about the work (not the author). I highlight both the good and bad, and will never tell people not to read it. I have very specific taste, so just because I didn't like it doesn't mean someone else won't.

So, why do I write negative reviews? Well, I believe in being honest. If I have issues with a book, or if I felt there were pieces missing, I'm going to point that out because I feel there are others who might want to know. Also, it's something I've learned from and I like to share what I've learned. And, whow knows? The author might take this feedback from a reader and file it away for future use.

Not everyone puts so much focus on the work, though. Amazon's review forums are a good example. Some of the people who write reviews (or comment on an existing review) are snarky, mean, disrespectful, or trying to start a fight. Also, there are some book bloggers out there who have attack the author personally instead of the work. Or, they've attacked the work and ripped it to shreds, spewing vitriol.

The big difference between a book blog and Amazon's review forums is this: the review forums are there for readers to share their personal reactions to a book. They may not even be big readers, but they could have had a strong reaction to a book (positive or negative), so they felt the need to share. People know this, so we adjust our expectations accordingly.

Book blogs are different. If someone is writing a blog about books, then it's safe to assume that this person is an avid reader and is there to promote reading. Therefore, the expectation is higher. Not incredibly high--we aren't looking for Kirkus or NYT quality reviews--but definitely high enough that there's no attacking going on.

The problem is this. Writers write stories that we hope will invoke emotion from the reader. Sometimes it’s not the kind of emotion we’d like…to me, that’s part of the nature of the business. Sometimes those emotions come out in a public forum, and they’re not always appropriate. And sometimes an author has a personal reaction, responding with more negativity.

A reader could maybe be forgiven for this transgression (unless the attack is personal), but an author should know better. Writers know what we’re getting into when we put our work out there for all to read, and we have to know when to walk away. Otherwise we are no better than those that bash us.

So, yes, I write negative reviews. But never never never will I attack either the author or the work. It's unprofessional. If a book blogger is doing any kind of attacking in a review, it just shows how unprofessional he/she is and it will turn off readers. Especially if that blogger is an aspiring author--watch what you say, folks, because it could come back to haunt you.


Anonymous said...

I don't think there is anything wrong with being honest. Not everyone will like every book. It's completely subjective. Even books I love usually have something I dislike. I think as long as a reviewer isn't attacking the author, it's fine to state your opinion--because really, it's just one person's opinion.

kah said...

I agree. Constructive criticism is good and I apprecaite it when someone gives it about my work. But bashing and being cruel is very unncessasry.

Liek Thumper's mom says "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothin' at all."

Mysti said...

I've only recently started writing reviews on my blog, and though I'm mostly positive because I want to support the author's efforts, I do point out things that didn't work for me. But, I try to word it in a way that only points at the work and not the author. I hope I'm being successful. So far, I've not had anyone tell me they're offended.

I can be really sensitive to criticism, and I know many other writers are too, but I think we can all learn to keep our comments respectful and honest, while being as encouraging as possible. Pointing out what works/doesn't work for an individual reader should help the author in his/her future work. I certainly hope that I can take the good, bad, and ugly in stride as well.

Jessie Harrell said...

I agree. If authors only want to hear good things about their books, they should only talk to their families. That being said, I too, try to point out as many positives as possible because someone else's tastes will be different from mine. And I never attack an author personally. Heck, if I think a book really isn't up to par, I probably won't blog about it at all.

Brian James said...

As a writer, I have no issue with bloggers posting negative reviews of my books as long as the review is insightful. I've actually struck up friendly conversations with such bloggers.

The problem I think most writers (at least the ones I know) have is with negative reviews that tell nothing except the "I hated this book" or "it was dumb" kind of thing and then seeing all the comments thanking the blogger for steering them away from it.

Personal attacks, of which I've also encountered, are obnoxious. But to ask for civility on the internet is a foolish request.

Nora MacFarlane said...

Negative reviews come with the territory. Authors should know this going into publication. Thick skins are necessary. But reviewers need to stay professional and keep their comments to the book. Cruel, hurtful inflammatory remarks about the author are never necessary. I don't read the Amazon review forums for that very reason.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

That's sad they were attacking other people that way. You have some really great points about leaving reviews you want to leave. I think tactfulness is the key, and professionalism. An author can absolutely destroy their reputation and career by bashing other authors. Not good. I personally don't leave negative remarks about published books anywhere public, but that's a decision I've had to make as a published author. Everyone's situation is different. I really appreciate seeing your side of this!

Beth said...

I've written negative reviews too. I try to be nice about it, but the truth is even when I really really love a book I usually still point out things that can change. But these last couple of weeks I've heard things on Twitter that make me afraid to continue posting reviews. An agent said that if you gave a negative review of her client's work she just wouldn't work with you and that made me wonder what if I say I liked it but...? Or this could have been a really good book if...? And then last week's blogger bashing

LM Preston said...

I must say I was at the chat and really didn't catch all the ranting about this issue. Book bloggers are writers also, and they have audiences that depend on them giving a great review, introducing them to new books and so on. Publishers and Authors appreciate this. But this is a forum that is wide opened to differences of opinion. I say write and review honestly. I as an author appreciate blog reviews of my work. That someone would take their time and read then think about what I wrote.

Logan E. Turner said...

I'm like Beth. I'm more worried about agents than authors. I actually wrote a post about this that's going up on Wednesday. Can I link to your post?

Catherine Stine said...

This is why I don't normally do reviews! I only do the very occasional one, of a book that I can honestly rave about. That said, I think there is nothing wrong with a blogger discussing some of a book's flaws, as long as it's balanced out by mentioning strengths.
A few book reviewers do seem bitter, as if they get off on being wittily cutting. I can easily pick them out from the majority, who are valiantly trying to be balanced. The bitter ones simply come off looking lame. But these guys are few and far between.
In my reading, 90% of children's book bloggers are very fair.

Merc said...

I keep track of what I read (mostly), and will occasionally write up thoughts on the books, positive and negative. I don't really think of it as "reviews" (but this is just me) since it's rarely more than a paragraph of 'liked it/didn't like it, because...'

But I agree with your post, Tabitha.

I see nothing wrong with negative reviews, so long as it's always centered on the WORK, not the author of the work. (Pure bashing isn't helpful or interesting to read.) Writers and non-writers bring different, intriguing aspects to reviews, so I like seeing both (positive and negative) when I read.

Tabitha said...

Kelly - I'm the same way. There's always one or two things that I feel could have been improved, even in a book I loved. It's rare when I find nothing, and just gush about it's awesomeness. I love it when that happens, though. :)

Karen - SO true. Thumper's mom has always been wise. :) Bashing is just ridiculous in a public forum. If you need to vent about a book, do it to your friends. Then, after you've calmed down, if you still feel the need to review the book, do so in a professional manner. I don't understand why some people find this so difficult.

Mysti - exactly. This business is so subjective. There are books I love that my friends can't stand, and vice versa. And good for you for writing honest and constructive reviews. I think that's the best way to portray someone's work, and since no one's complained you're probably doing a great job. :)

Jessie - I think that's a fantastic rule of thumb. I try to point out the positives, too, because that's what an honest review does. Even if I didn't like a book, there is almost always something positive to say about it. After all, someone loved it enough to publish it. :)

Tabitha said...

Brian - yeah, those kinds of reviews are just plain hurtful. It's unprofessional, and could end up hurting the blogger in the long run (expecially if s/he is an aspiring author). Responding in kind, though, is just as unprofessional and will hurt the author more than the blogger. So authors need to be very careful, and learn to treat it like a harsh critique. And yeah, it might be foolish to ask for civility on the internet, but I'm still going to. Call me naively optimistic. :)

Nora - the Amazon review forums are notorious, aren't they? There is always a toad around there somewhere, bashing and stalking and bullying the respectful folks. It's a shame, really.

Michelle - so true! Tactfulness and professionalism are absolutely necessary in this business. I know of several authors who have decided not to do reviews anymore, mostly because they don't want to be in the situation where they say something negative about someone else's work. It makes complete sense! :)

Beth - same here. If I really loved a book, I definitely leave an overall good impression even if I'm pointing out a flaw or two. If I had a strong negative reaction, I focus on what bothered me so much, and what I would have preferred instead. It's never about the author, and I never rage about how much I hated the book (even if I did hate it). I think that if you keep it professional and focused on your own personal taste, then agents or editors won't take offense. After all, they know very well how subjective this business is. :)

Tabitha said...

LM - I've heard a few others who were at the chat say this, too. I wasn't there, but I went back and read as much as I could, and I didn't see any overt flaming or the conversation spiraling out of control. But I totally agree that if my work is sparking so much thought, even in a way that the reviewer is pointing out my weaknesses, then that's a good thing. Contructive criticism is like gold to me. :)

Logan - link away! And I completely understand your concerns about agents reading negative reviews. It was a concern of mine when I first started this blog, and I didn't make the decision lightly to write negative reviews. But I figured that if I stayed professional and kept it everything within my own personal taste, then an agent shouldn't be offended if I didn't like one of her client's books. For that matter, if I didn't like one of her client's books that much, then we we probably have completely different taste and wouldn't mesh well together. :)

Catherine - those who seem to get off on being wittingly cutting just make me ill. But you're so right that they come off and lame, so they're not worth worrying over. And you're so right that most of book bloggers in the kidlit community are fair and fabulous. It's those very few that make it difficult for the rest of us.

Merc - "Pure bashing isn't helpful or interesting to read." EXACTLY!! Makes it easy to ignore those folks and move on. :)

Akoss said...

Objectivity, honesty and respect are what I try to keep in mind while writing my reviews. I hope I haven't offended anyone so far.
I think you're doing a good job but people will always find something to hate about book bloggers if they so wish.

Tabitha said...

An excellent point. If one is predisposed to dislike something, then practically nothing is going to change that person's mind.

I'm glad that the kidlit community has plenty of open-minded folks. :)

Bookish in a Box said...

I'm more prone to believe bloggers who write both good and bad reviews because it provides context, but I agree that it needs to be respectful and constructive. Thanks for expressing this so clearly. Great post!

Natalie Aguirre said...

While I don't personally want to do a negative review, I respect the negative ones if they are professional, like yours are. When you are positive about a book, I think it's an even more positive review because you are honest.

I think even if someone doesn't like a book, it's important to focus on the positive--it's always there--as well as the negative.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I wasn't on the chat last week, so I don't know what happened. But I have several thoughts on what you've posted:

Of course negative reviews have a place, and people have a right to write them. Reviews that get personal or gratuitously vicious are uncalled for--but hey, we do have freedom of speech.

I find the vast majority of the book bloggers are a pleasure to work with. I don't expect them all to be cheerleaders or to post only positive reviews. Whether to post negative reviews or not is their own decision.

I've always found your reviews to be professional. I've sometimes read books you blogged about but didn't like, because you gave enough details about the books to let me know I probably would like them.

Reviews are, mainly, for readers. They should give the reader a sense of what the book is like, who might like the book and who might not, and why.

I do want to address the "thick skin" idea, though. I blogged about this a while back (forgive the link: because I think that thick skin is kind of a myth. Also, I will say that nothing prepares one for negative reviews. They are not like rejection letters (which are private, professional, and usually not very detailed) and they are not like critiques (which, however harsh they may be, always have the goal and the possibility of changing the book for the better, and which are also usually private). A negative review is being told, in public (and sometimes brutally), that (in one person's opinion, at least) you failed at something you tried very hard to do. Now, I'm not asking for sympathy here--since I put my book out into the world, it's only fair that people get to discuss it publicly. I'm just saying that the review mill is difficult to fully understand until one has been through it.

That said, I always try to act professionally. I don't respond to negative reviews. If people take the time to send me a link to a positive review they've written, I thank them. But at this point, having read dozens of reviews early on and getting a good sense of what people liked and what they didn't, I read very few reviews now. It's especially confusing when the reviews are contradictory, and one person hates the very element that another loves. There comes a point where all the discussion puts too many other voices in the writer's head, and the writer needs some quiet in order to hear the voice of the next story.

Becca Puglisi said...

Thank you for posting this, Tabitha. One of the reasons I don't currently review books is because I wouldn't be able to say they were all wonderful if they weren't. I totally respect your honesty. Thank you for putting yourself out there in a respectful way.

Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

Tabitha said...

Bookish - I'm the same way. If I know the books that a blogger didn't like, then that makes the ones s/he did like even better. Plus, if the books s/he didn't like are described in a respectful manner, with enough detail for other people to figure out whether they would like them, then I might find another book for my shelf. It may not be the perfect situation for the book (as in, the blogger doesn't gush about it), but it could still draw readers. Win-win. :)

Jenn - I love it when you leave comments because they are always well thought out and insightful. :) I'm very glad to hear that you've found and enjoyed books that I've been lukewarm about. That's my goal, so I'm glad to hear it's working. And thank you for sharing your thoughts on the thick-skin issue! As I said before, very insightful. :)

Becca - thanks! I think a lot of people share your philosophy. It's sad when the folks who don't also don't retain respectfulness or professionalism, and that's where the problems start. I'm glad my blog comes across as respectful, because I work very hard to keep it that way.