For reasons I’ve yet to be able to explain, I’ve seen an uptick in folks I know talking about the process of reviewing books. I don’t know who patient zero for this epidemic was, however, I do know that I’ve seen this topic come up from a lot of people recently. In these threads/discussions/videos/Twitter rants/etc, there have been two primary items that I’ve seen being discussed.
- Should you tag/make authors aware of your negative reviews of their work?
- Can you review something objectively when your like or dislike of the work isn’t necessarily reflective of the quality of said work?
I wanted to take a moment to talk about these two ideas, both from the perspective of someone who is an author, as well as from the perspective of a reviewer. I swear the fact that I had a book review come out last week wasn’t intentional, though it was a nice lead into this topic.
Should You Make Authors Aware of your Negative Reviews?
Short answer: As a rule, no, but it depends.
Long answer: As humans, we aren’t particularly good at taking criticism from others well. While there are individuals that we may be more receptive to criticism from, it’s still not a particularly ideal experience. One of the things that I think people fail to realize when they write a book for the first time is that the book is no longer yours once it’s published. While you may still be the author of the book, the content you write now belongs to your readers. Some of your readers will not like your book. That’s just the hard reality of being a writer.
One of the first books I ever wrote a review for was a book I got for free in exchange for the review. I didn’t like the book. At all. But I was probably much harsher than I needed to be in my review. And I made the mistake — again, this being my first review — of tagging the author on Twitter and publicizing my negative review with them regularly tagged in my tweets. In retrospect, it was a shitty thing for me to do as a reviewer. While it was my first review that I’d ever written, I failed to consider the human impact of sharing with the author how much I disliked their book.
At this point, you’d think it’s a pretty cut and dry line that you shouldn’t share a negative review with an author. And once the book is published, I think this is true, particularly if you’re trying to get publicity for your own review based off of the author’s fame. So when is there an acceptable time to tell someone you don’t like their book? I feel like the obvious answer here is if you’re asked for any negative feedback prior to the book being published. If an author is trusting you enough to request your feedback prior to a book getting released to the public, provide whatever feedback you can to help them. It ultimately will make their book a better finished product. That’s not to say to be a jerk about your feedback. Trust me, as I’ve done that and it hasn’t gone well. But pre-publishing feedback is extremely valuable.
This is not to say you can’t have a negative review of a book. If you didn’t like a book and you want to leave a negative review on Goodreads, Amazon, your own blog, or somewhere else, that’s totally fine. Not every book is for everyone. Authors do read reviews of their books. I know that while I haven’t taken every piece of negative feedback I’ve had to heart, I have made an active effort to learn from that feedback and become a better writer because of it. As a rule of thumb, I’m much more willing to listen to a negative review that’s kind than one that’s inflammatory.
Can You Dislike Something and Still Find it Good?
I used to have a much more black and white answer on this question than I do now. The strange thing is that I’ve swung around to both ends of the spectrum on this answer, all before landing somewhere in the middle. Allow me to dissect where I stand on this by looking at the example of three different books/pieces I’ve read over time.
One of my least favorite books of all time is a book I had to read in high school called Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. I can objectively look back at the book and say that it makes a ton of great points about environmentalism, upcycling, and sustainability. That said, even after a re-read later in life, I still dislike the book. Perhaps it’s because it was a required reading during a year in high school where all of the readings felt forced (more than normal, that is). Maybe it’s because my initial reading of the book came at a time where I disagreed with much of the book’s premise, tainting my perception of it well after my world view has changed to fall more in line with the book’s points. Whatever it is, reading Cradle to Cradle is still painful for me, even though I can objectively say the book isn’t bad.
On the other side of the spectrum, I’ve read a good amount of fan fiction that would, by many standards, be considered to be terrible writing. That said, I love them. For example, I will read most RWBY fan fiction, regardless of how fan service-y it gets. I can objectively say that some of it is bad. But that doesn’t mean I enjoy reading it less. Even writing styles that get scorn for other reasons like erotica can suffer this same fate — the reader can enjoy the work even if it’s not Dickens-level writing complexity.
With that all said, there are situations where a piece of literature may be well-written or have other positive qualities, but because of the author that penned the piece, there will be an inherent dislike for that work. In my most recent Q&A podcast, I talked about how Anthem by Ayn Rand became this for me once I learned more about Rand, however she is certainly not the only example of this. There’s a surprisingly high number of people who can write a coherent book (or at the very least have hired someone who can do so) while themselves being disgraceful individuals. Although I do try to separate author from work when writing reviews, there are situations that are too egregious to do so.