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young adult book reviews & more

My two cents on reviews

I am a book reviewer. That’s obvious enough, but exactly does it mean to be a book reviewer? It’s rather redundant to say that a book reviewer is someone who writes reviews for books. There’s nothing debatable about that. My main concern here is how far a reviewer is entitled to go in a book review.

I’ll begin by making my own stance on reviewing painfully clear. I believe in the honest although not always positive review. I believe I have the right to express my opinion on what I read. I believe that a review should pertain to an author’s work, and not the author. And I believe that people, and this definitely includes reviewers and authors, should be mature about all of this.

Lastly, I'd like to remind all authors that reviews are opinion, and that while you are entitled to react in the way you choose to negative reviews, it is impolite and rude to insult the reviewer and/or encourage others to do so. Negative reviews are not insults to authors, but comments and constructive criticisms about the author's work.

This section above is taken directly from my “Book Review Policy,” a little section hidden somewhere on my blog that I’m sure few people aside from me have seen. It was a little disclaimer of sorts meant to encourage healthy conversation regarding negative reviews as opposed to verbal (or even physical) violence.

Unfortunately, not everyone on the world thinks like I do. And this creates problems when we are confronted with the negative review.

I have one example in particular that I want to delve into, mostly because it has a happy ending. But, before we get ahead of ourselves, I’ll start from the beginning.

On June 22, 2009, I posted a review on my blog for Gentlemen by Michael Northrop, but the review went up earlier on Amazon, GoodReads, and Shelfari, appearing May 29, 2009. I will be honest: I did not like the book. I did not request it from Scholastic, but I received it because I was one of their distribution lists. From the summary, I was mildly interested, and even though the story turned out to be totally different than I thought it would be, and not in a good way, I felt obligated to review the novel anyway because I had been provided with not one but two free copies from the publisher.

Sometime after my review went public, I stumbled upon this post on Alexa Young’s blog, The Worst Review Ever. I can’t say that I wasn’t completely surprised to have a negative reaction (having experienced a far worse response to a review that was not nearly as negative). But at the same time, I kind of was. I’ll admit, I was a little upset and angry at this post and some of the comments in response.

But when I go back and think about all of this now, while I still get a little miffed, I am less so now that I put everything into perspective. Yes, I wrote a negative review. Yes, the author, Michael Northrop, wasn’t so pleased when he saw the review. Yes, all of this could have been handled a lot better.

My side of the coin

On my part, I could have phrased my opinions on Gentlemen in a more precise manner. Going back and reading my own review, though, I realize that although I know what I’m talking about, other people might not, or might misconstrue what I was trying to say. For example, when I wrote “readers who enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger may find some merit in Northrop’s writing style,” I was really trying to say that I thought Northrop and Salinger have a similar writing style, particularly because they both incorporate stream of consciousness. Another thing that I should have made clearer was that I was not a fan of The Catcher in the Rye; I actually thought it was really boring. I noticed a lot of people didn’t understand why, if I didn’t like Gentlemen, I would recommend it to fans of the aforementioned classic. And as I mentioned above, it’s because I thought they had a very similar style.

What actually bothered me the most, even aside from some comments on Michael’s submission to The Worst Review Ever that basically said that my review was poorly written, was the suggestion that I should have made it clearer that the novel was not something for me. Um, well, sorry to sound so unsophisticated, but wasn’t that obvious? I can own up to the fact that my review of Gentlemen was not my best piece of work. There are definitely many things I would change about it. But to have me explicitly state that something was not for me is like saying that I didn’t have positive opinions about that something. Well, duh!

Is it really that hard for people to grasp that my reviews are really just my opinions? If I’m writing a negative review, I, for one, think that it’s pretty clear that I didn’t like the book, which means it probably was not for me. I’ve been operating under the assumption that The Book Muncher caters to an educated audience that should not need me to be overly explicit when I write a negative review. I don’t want to treat my readers like five year olds, and I don’t think that’s how they want to be treated anyway.

Another thing that bothered me was that my review was viewed as an attack on the book. There is a difference between a negative review and an attack. I apologize if it appeared so, but it was definitely not meant to be that way. Attacking a book, and especially its author, is never okay.

The author’s side of the coin

So there are definitely things that I could have done differently, but there are also things that Michael could have done differently. Let me state first that I am not in any way trying to attack anyone here. I’m just using one personal example to comment on.

I actually did not have any real personal experience with Michael’s reaction to my negative review of Gentlemen. I only found out about it after stumbling upon his post on The Worst Review Ever. This is both good and bad. While I appreciate not being confronted and personally attacked, it’s still not good to know that others are attacking or demeaning you.

Even though I’m no longer bothered by the fact that all that did happen, I still don’t think that it is completely right. It’s a two way street, and if it’s generally viewed that it’s not okay for a book reviewer to attack an author, then it shouldn’t be okay for an author to attack a book reviewer or encourage others to do so.

The happy ending

I was at a book signing when my friend introduced me to Michael Northrop. Upon that introduction, I thought back to my negative review and his post on The Worst Review Ever. I smiled, but inwardly, I was a little worried. I didn’t think that it would go well.

However, once I fully introduced myself as The Book Muncher we both acknowledged the fact that I wrote a bad review for his book, we got past that. Why? Because we’re both rational human beings. There’s absolutely no use in getting worked up about something so inconsequent, when viewing the bigger picture, as one negative review. I mean, even if I didn’t like the book, there were plenty of other people who did. And in the end, that’s really what counts.

The lesson we can all learn

If Michael and I can get past one little negative review, then why can’t everyone else? Why can’t some book reviewers grow up and learn to write with some grace and maturity? There is absolutely no merit in mercilessly attacking a book and its author, unless one wants to look like the nastiest person in the blogosphere. Why can’t some authors respond in a calm and rational manner to a negative review instead of trashing the review and the reviewer? There is also no merit in this except immediate personal satisfaction. Why can’t readers understand that reviews represent a single opinion and that it’s probably not a good idea to take one opinion as the truth?

Please note that this is not aimed at anyone in particular. I just hope that enough people will see this and modify their behavior accordingly, because it’s very unlikely that bad reviews will go away, but we can all act differently to reduce the potentially nuclear fallout.

12 munch(es) :

Robby said...

And this post right here is one of the reasons why you are one of the greatest bloggers we've got.

Alison said...

I think authors need to grow a thicker skin and leave reviewers alone. Unless you say the author is a complete idiot (which you didn't), a bad review is nothing personal. I wrote a review recently in which I said lots of good things about a book, but criticized the author's use of long paragraphs, which I thought made the book less appealing to younger readers. The author jumped down my throat in the comments, saying the paragraphs of my review (which I'm not intending elementary or middle schoolers to read) were just as long. I thought this was bad form and makes the author look immature.

The Book Muncher said...

Alison -
That is very unfortunate. I agree that blatantly attacking a reviewer based on something so inconsequential as that makes the author look immature, especially when your criticism was quite small compared to your overall review. At the same time, though, I personally would not mind if an author merely expressed his/her disappointment that I did not enjoy his/her book. But I guess that's a completely different story.

Robby -
Thanks!!!

Michael Northrop said...

Hi Rachael,
We are the most mature! I think these are really good points, and you have clearly put a lot of thought into this. The only thing I’ll add is that, you know, authors are people, too. Gentlemen was my first novel, which means I’d spent years on it: everything from the writing and revising to the grueling agent search, and all of that. (Some of your readers are probably going through the same thing now…) And your review came out just a few months after its publication and landed on four sites. My poor Google Alert nearly had a breakdown!

I sent it to Worst Review ever because it was (and still is!) the worst review I’d ever received. Super obviously, you are entitled to your own opinion on your own site—I may have been defensive, but I wasn’t dumb! But by scattering 1-star reviews on places like Amazon’s customer reviews, it seemed like you were doing everything you could to make the book fail. If it had, I might never have gotten another shot. I think that’s what felt personal to me at the time, and also what struck a chord with the people who commented on Worst Review Ever.

Anyway, again, I basically agree with you. I just wanted to add that, as a debut author, you feel really vulnerable—you are really vulnerable! (Of course, now I’m a cynical, coffee-guzzling veteran! Haha!)

Grace said...

Very true (the post), and thanks for saying that. :) Do you mind if I use this post whenever I get into arguments about my own reviews? I've already gotten into one or two arguments about reviews on goodreads. One of them was a moral aspect - and left with me wanting to bang my head on the wall repeatedly. The other was with a friend which was rather awkward. For some reason, I completely forgot to say, explicitly, it was an opinion. May I please? :)

Fact: humans are diverse. Meaning: we all have different opinions. Turn out: not all opinions are the same as another person's. Duh. Why does this continually surprise people?

Leigh said...

First, I fully support any blogger-reviewer's right to review a book negatively. As a reader, I appreciate the context of the review (what genres does the reviewer prefer? what audience is the book appropriate for?). If it feels like a personal attack on the author or is completely divergent from other reviews, I will probably not pay it much mind.

As a writer who has received her share of negative reviews, though, I offer one point Michael did not make: for much of publishing's history, it has been known as a polite society, writing itself is considered a "gentleman's hobby." Even in this very open internet atmosphere, an author who responds to criticism of her work is frowned upon. We are expected to maintain a level of artistic integrity. But it still hurts. When Alexa Young promoted her blog, Worst Review Ever, to other writers, some people (including me) jumped at the chance to say, "Hey, this hurt my feelings." Finally we felt free to commiserate with other writers in a sanctioned, formalized way.

Rachael, you are a sophisticated reader and reviewer and your blog reflects a wide range of literary tastes. Not everyone, however, is as cogent or consistent in tone and quality as you.

Leigh

Anonymous said...

Way to be civil on the interblag! Too many people see the internet as somewhere to rip people to figurative shreds.

The Book Muncher said...

Grace -
If you mean to use it as sort of a way to show others your point of view, as in referring them to my comments on this issue, I'm okay with you doing that. However, the point of this post is not provide support for when arguments with authors/other people come up. I'm really hoping to promote (sorry for sounding so formal) "civilized discourse."

Leigh -
Thank you so much for your thoughts and perspective! I was actually talking to someone today about The Worst Review Ever and I know not everyone (readers and reviewers) sees Alexa's blog as "a sanctioned, formalized" way to look at bad reviews. Having interacted with so many more authors now, I understand a lot better.

Also, thank you for all your compliments!

Donna said...

I think it comes to the standards bloggers are held to and they seem to be all over the place. On one end we're supposed to be professional and treat our reviews seriously, as if we're actually professional reviewers. On the other when we do something someone doesn't like, we're demeaned and belittled, as if just because we're bloggers, we should be pandering, not honest. It's a real juxtaposition. We're supposed to be writing reviews seriously but at the same time if one of our serious reviews isn't liked it's belittled and demeaned as not being real.

Bloggers need to learn the different between a negative (albeit constructive) review and a bash and to differentiate the book from the author. Authors just need to get over it. Not everyone is going to like their books. Not every review is going to be glowing and positive. If you don't like how a review sounded, don't take it to the airwaves and bitch about it because that doesn't make you look good. Swallow it and move on. Just maybe there's something of merit in that review so you just might be able to get something out of it. If not, click away and forget about it. Being someone that's been edited and has edited, you should be able to differentiate between a douche and someone that's looking at your book with a critical eye.

The internet is very unforgiving and it allows people, all people, to make asses of themselves because they're all made trigger happy. Once we can all learn some breathing techniques and actually think about what it is we're about to post before we post it, things will turn out that much better.

The Book Muncher said...

Donna -
Thanks so much for your comments. I definitely agree that some people hold reviewers to a double standard, but it's one that I've just decided to ignore. I just do what I know to do in the best way I can. And I completely agree with your last statement, very well said.

J Wiles said...

I found this entirely enlightening. I read your review, certainly not one of your best as you point out, and Mr. Northrup's response. While the situation could have initially been handled a bit more maturely on both ends (his blatently looking for someone to trash your review was rather uncouth), it's nice to know that, in the end, the two of you could get past the incident.

My main reason for responding, however, is that I, at least once a year, highlight a book I clearly disliked on my own blog. That's not to say I go around trashing books needlessly. The original intent for me was to provide, on certain occasions, a dissenting voice. The approach I've taken is not unlike what I was told to do in creative writing classes in which I find something good to say about the piece I'm reviewing and then to rationally explain and support why I disagreed or did not like some other part of the writing.

I've been fortunate to not yet have had an awful response to a negative review, but then, I know it's coming at some point. And I'm okay with that. Having been through creative writing classes, I understand the need for criticism of both the good and bad and, should I ever become a published author, I hope to maintain tremendous poise in the face of adversity.

Anyway, thanks for this little aside to your process. I enjoyed it thoroughly as it was well thought out and constructed. You're still one of my favortie book bloggers ever.

The Book Muncher said...

J Wiles -
Thanks for adding your approach (via creative writing class). That's generally what I strive to do (of course, I'm not always the best at this!) and what I think all reviewers should try to do as well. And thank you as well for the compliments!

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