Bad reviews


The latest Booking Through Thursday prompt happens also to be a subject close to my heart: bad book reviews, and whether to give them. The original question goes like this:

I receive a lot of review books, but I have never once told lies about the book just because I got a free copy of it. However, some authors seem to feel that if they send you a copy of their book for free, you should give it a positive review.

Do you think reviewers are obligated to put up a good review of a book, even if they don't like it? Have we come to a point where reviewers *need* to put up disclaimers to (hopefully) save themselves from being harassed by unhappy authors who get negative reviews?

This question sums up the reason I could never be a professional book reviewer: I find bad reviews to be largely pointless, and while I am writing one, I feel like my time would be better employed flushing diamond brooches down the toilet, lying comatose in a gutter, or counting legumes in a peanut butter factory.

Which is not to say that I'm for good reviews of bad books. I just don't want to read bad books in the first place, let alone spend time writing about them afterward. When I'm writing about a book I love, I feel exhilarated. The effort to pinpoint the exact confluence of elements that made the work so special forces me to think more deeply, experience the book more fully, and cement favorite parts of it in my mind. If the thought behind the volume is mediocre, the prose lifeless and the characterization shallow, it is a waste of my time to put in the effort. And I certainly don't want snippets of mediocrity cemented in my brain for all time; I can already recite enough television commercials for that. There are SO MANY amazing books out there. I feel absolutely zero desire to read bad ones just because I could theoretically get them for free.

It's different if we're talking about a good book with which I disagree. When the argument is thoughtful and well-developed, it can be an eye-opening exercise to sift through it, crafting counter-examples and examining my own feelings so that I can articulate why I find the book so wrong-headed or offensive. Likewise, if it's a good but deeply flawed book (well-written but intensely racist, for example, or with an ingeniously structured plot but flat characters), that can serve as a jumping-off point for a stimulating discussion. But most bad books are just...bad. Boring. Mediocre. Stilted. Why would I want to spend my time dwelling on them?

There is a segment of the population that delights in reviews SO bad they are hilarious/transcendent. Dorothy Parker and her band of unhappy snarksters specialized in this genre. Me? I don't particularly enjoy reading it, and I definitely don't want to start writing it. Being funny via tearing down others' work is startlingly easy, I think; much easier, certainly, than crafting something of value independently. During the phases of my life when I've devoted a lot of energy to tearing others down (not thoughtful, constructive criticism but snark), my own creative ability has been hobbled: I can't stop imagining that other people are doing the same to me.

Plus, on the rare occasions when I have spent time reading bad reviews, I'm left with a hollow feeling. "Well!" I think to myself, "that's one fewer book/film/circus I need to witness." But since I had usually not planned to read/watch the spectacle in question anyway, knowing that some reviewer thought it sucked doesn't really add to my life. There is SO MUCH art out there, and I'm not going to get to most of it. Narrowing the field by one work at a time is not a very effective way to find the stuff I like; eliminating one book out of a million still leaves 999,999. Reading a good review, on the other hand, is very efficient: here is a piece of art I might enjoy! I am intrigued; perhaps I'll go check it out. After reading a good review, one that speaks to me, I feel richer, excited to experience something. I get the sense that those ten minutes I devoted to reading the review were not time wasted, but opportunity gained.

So. Not being willing to read or write about bad books, my career as a reviewer of contemporary literature is a non-starter. Being sent an advance copy of a book, I tend to give it a positive review or none at all, which gives me a spotty record over at LibraryThing Early Reviewers. I realize that this is not a practical approach for a professional reviewer, who needs to produce a column on a weekly or monthly basis. Certainly such a person should always give their honest opinion, which often obligates them to produce negative reviews. Luckily, I am not a professional, and can write about books however the heck I want. And right now, what I want to do is to write about an excellent history of early Australian penal colonies; the entry will be coming in the next few days.


  • I agree with you, to a certain extent. I do think that writing positive reviews are exhilarating and a lot easier to write compared to bad reviews, which sometime feels like a chore.

    As for bad reviews, I do like reading them if they are well written and not harsh, just because they offer a different perspective on a book I may have liked.

    I do agree with your last point though. One of the joys of being a book blogger is to do whatever we want. :)

  • If it ruins your reading, then you are correct: you should not bother with it.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography