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.