Wednesday, April 30, 2008

On Bad Reviews

I am contemplating a bad review.

Perhaps I should explain.

I don't mean either someone else's review that already exists, or a review that's done badly -- I mean that I have been thinking, this afternoon and evening, about committing a bad review, about taking arms against a disappointing book. (Though I'm not so arrogant as to think I could end it.) I finished reading a new novel on my train ride home, and I have to say that it didn't come all together in the end -- instead, to my mind, it flew apart at great velocity and left a big mess. And, since I'm "reviewing" everything I read these days, when I finish something, I start to think about what I'd say about it. (The percolation process from reading to reviewing is running about ten days to two weeks right now, which is a healthy span of time -- judgments should be considered, not shouted out immediately.)

But, since the human mind loves nothing so much as itself, after a little while -- after thinking up some disconnected phrases, a few factual attacks and stylistic flaws, after thinking up the bones of that bad review -- I turned to thinking about bad reviews in general. Are they useful, or not?

My early years in the field were in the heyday of SF Eye, a criticalzine that I loved, uncritically, in those days. SF Eye's claim to fame, at least to me, was that it would give negative reviews. Looking back, they were probably snottier and nastier than I remember, and revelled in tearing down what they saw as the idols of the field. But, given that the main review outlets in SFF avoided saying anything negative -- it's long been rumored, and often denied, that Locus has a specific policy against running any reviews with any serious criticism -- SF Eye was necessary. Someone had to point at the shit and say, bluntly, "this is shit."

We're all Young Turks when we start, ready to tear down whatever is in most need being torn down and very ready to point out the Emperor's lack of clothes. But then time goes on. We meet some of those writers -- people whose work we like, whose work we don't much like, whose work we try not to admit that we haven't even read -- and find that we like and dislike them in ways entirely separate from their books. And, mostly, they're nice people who we want to be nice to.

So when Nice Writer X's new book is a bit disappointing, do we say so? How about if it's lousy? Or what if it's actively stupid? I spent about a decade writing promotional copy for SFF books, but I had the great advantage of always being able to pick the ones I wrote about -- there was always something that I liked, so I could write about that honestly. But if I'm saying something about every book I read, some of them are going to be dogs.

On the one side, a reviewer always wants to be honest. If I liked a book, I want to say that -- more, I want to explain what I liked about it, and, as best I can, how I liked it. And I want to avoid soft pedaling a book I didn't like.

But I've also gotten to a point in my life when I like to think of myself as an adult. And adults don't cause offense inadvertently (as someone once said about gentlemen).

I'll still probably say some critical things about the book in question -- look for the review in ten days or so -- but, if I can manage it, none of it will be gratuitous (unlike SF Eye), and all of it will be for a purpose.

So that's the point: I complain because I love. Really.


Nick said...

It's nice to see someone considering a bad review as something that sometimes has to be done, but should be avoided where possible. It seems to me to be the only reasonable and rational approach to this, although I used to feel differently.

I thought I might also say hello - as another employee of Wiley albeit in a different country (Australia) and a different part of the company (Wiley-Blackwell), I've been enjoying the blog!

Jonathan M said...

One should never intentionally write a bad review, but a negative review is a necessity when the piece demands it ;-)

And one negative review, does not an SF Eye make. SF Eye, aside from gleefully sticking the knife into people it didn't like, was also a spectacularly gloomy read. So you're not quite there yet.

RobB said...

I hedge on this very often and I alwasy go with the honesty meter, in terms of putting my reaction in the review.

It is tough when the book and review will be 80% negative reaction vs. 20% not-negative (when one can't even find anything positive).

Anonymous said...

As a reader, I find bad reviews invaluable -- provided that they contain real criticisms of things that are in the book, as opposed to name-calling. If the bad review discusses the specific things that the reviewer disliked, I can usually guess whether those are things I'd also dislike, or (much less rarely) things that wouldn't bother me. When deciding what to buy, I always skip over Amazon's five-star reviews; the two- and three-star ones tend to be more useful to me.

As a writer, once I get over the ego bruising, bad reviews are even more valuable because they show me where the message didn't come through as I'd intended, or what aspects of my craft could use some work.

Plus a really good takedown is just much more fun to read. :)

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