In German a slating review is called a “Verriss” which comes from the word “verreissen” – pull to pieces. When I discovered yesterday what the kitty had done to one of the free bookmarks I got in the bookshop, I thought it was somehow apt to use a picture of it for this post.
I’m not the first nor the last who will mention the debate that was raging on Goodreads, Twitter, a few blogs and even in the newspapers last week. Some of the discussions, although heated, were interesting, while others were alienating or downright offensive. In any case they got me thinking about “reviews” in general and “negative reviews” in particular.
The first incident started on Goodreads where a reader posted a negative review of a YA novel (see here). For reasons I do not understand this triggered a massive response from YA novelists who slagged her off collectively. More and more people entered the debate and in the end it looked like some sort of author versus reader war. I have read her review and while it was easy to see that she didn’t like the book, I didn’t think she was offensive. A lot of these debates were going on on blogs and twitter and were picked up by mainstream media like the guardian here. The guardian article then triggered further responses, one from the YA novelist Maggie Stiefvater (here) which annoyed many bloggers but which I personally find very interesting and balanced.
The next incident happened on the page of the speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons where a reviewer posted a very negative review (you can find it here) of a Fantasy novel that many like. This has created a response and an intensity of response I found amazing in itself. I was so captivated I could hardly stop reading. At some point a lot was censored.
Sure, the question comes up whether such heated debates only happen when it comes to genre but I do not think so. When you write literary books you even may end up being torn apart by professional critics which may prove to be more fatal. In the cases mentioned above, there were at least people supporting the author.
Much of the debate was circling around the notion of “proper review” and taking into account what a “proper review” is or should be. It was said that a review can be negative or positive but it shouldn’t manipulate the reader or be guided by intense emotions. With this interpretation of review in mind, it was stated that one shouldn’t write an emotionally charged negative review. If you do so, it’s rather an attack than a review.
I for one do not enjoy writing too negative or snarky book reviews. I have seen too many positive reviews of books I didn’t like on other blogs to find it appropriate to be snarky. Why would I want to ridicule a book? That’s like ridiculing someone’s taste in books. Very often I find that negative reviews are not balanced and are used to make the reviewer look good. They often work along the same lines and are aggressive and offensive. They also often rely on saying negative things about the author and ultimately about his readers.
Still this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say what we like or don’t like but there is always so much that works in a book anyway or that we know will work for others that we should try to emphasize it. I have found wonderful books through someone else’s careful and thoughtful negative review.
Last week, instead of reading The Savage Detectives, I spent a lot of time with Nick Hornby’s wonderful essay collection Housekeeping vs The Dirt which he wrote for the magazine Believer. One of their mottos, as he writes is Thou Shalt Not Slag Anyone Of. As he explains further
As I understand it, the founders of the magazine wanted one place, one tiny corner of the world, in which writers could be sure that they weren’t going to get a kicking; predictably and depressingly, this ambition was mocked mercilessly, mostly by those critics whose children would go hungry if their parent’s weren’t able to abuse authors whose books they didn’t like much.
When I visit a new blog I read a few posts here and there and I’m very glad if I see the writer has written about books he/she likes and about some he/she doesn’t like and I will pay extra attention when reading negative reviews. Not too long ago I was on a blog who reviewed a book that another blogger had recommended as being particularly great. Said blogger not only hated the book but found it to be insulting his/her intelligence. The blogger went on and on how weird it was that another person did recommend this. He/she took it apart in minute detail, making herself/himself look good and witty in the process and of course that person got a lot of applause. People loved the snark, couldn’t get enough of it. I wonder if anyone else felt as bad as I did. What about the person who did recommend the book (mercifully the name wasn’t given)? Funnily it is a book that I have read and think in its genre it is a very good book. If said blogger only reads romance or even only literary fiction he/she wouldn’t get it and shouldn’t even bother reading it. Reading it and then emphasizing that this isn’t what we would normally read because it is beyond us, is a bit shameful. Maybe the person did sound intelligent, she certainly didn’t sound kind.
There is an instance in which I find a negative review acceptable and that is when the book is morally unacceptable. When it glorifies oppression, racism, sexism, or is a vehicle of harmful propaganda. In that case the negative review could serve as a warning for the reader and is even necessary.
Another instance in which I find it acceptable is when a literary writer who is extremely smug in his utterances about others and dismissive of other’s craft writes something that is bad. In that case you can say, he or she had it coming.
How about you? Do you like to read snarky reviews? Do you write them?
To end on a positive note, here is a picture of the bookmark ripper and, no, that’s not my bed, excuse me, that’s one of his own. Fluffy and comfy, original Icelandic eider-down.