Monday, September 14, 2009

What should you say in a book review?

In our "Just Ask" section, Annie Louden said:

I have been seeing posts recently about not naming the books we're reading, in case we don't like them, because we don't want to upset an author or agent. Here's a link from Janet Reid

And here is a wonderful response that I agree with

I don't think we should be afraid to have opinions on books. They're just reviews. It's not bashing.

Anyway, I'd be interested in the discussion.


Hopefully, others will speak up on this topic as well. As I was thinking about it, two considerations came up. First, ethically, I think writers should feel free to name books and to discuss them as they see fit. The culture of fear we encourage and reinforce among ourselves in the hopes of getting published is, in my opinion, responsible for the monotonous writing we can often encounter in contemporary books and literary magazines. If we are afraid to give our opinions, then no one will hear our opinions, and no one will know what readers and writers are truly feeling about the direction of our art and which writing is truly affecting.

You had mentioned Janet Reid's post on invisibility. I'd bring up that she has another post saying that the discussion of art, whether good or bad, is a great thing. For me, this is a bit hard to accept, but I really do believe that any publicity is good publicity, if you are trying to get a readership. If someone writes a fair critique of your book, meaning they are able to discuss what they liked and what they didn't like, chances are it will help you see your work in a different way, and it will make readers curious about your book. If someone reads a bad review about a work, there is still a chance that he or she will read it. If someone has never heard of your book, there is no chance. If, on the other hand, someone writes an unfair critique of your book, whether it is all good or all bad, chances are, the review will end up revealing more about the reviewer than the original writer.

The second part of this discussion is the business side of things, or rather, the side where we are managing our images in the hopes of staying in everyone's good graces. Sometimes, writing a critical review of a book can offend an agent or an author. In that case, yes, you may end up hurting your chances of collaborating with a couple of people. And, perhaps you are hurting your chances with someone that really means something to you: a favorite writer, or an agent whom you want to represent your work. That's something for you to decide. But, I'll bring up that, though you may offend one person, you may also gain one or more fans who admire your courage, your intellect, and your taste.

What does everyone else think?


  1. There is a real difference between saying, "This book wasn't for me, I struggled to connect to the character" verses "This book sucks".

    You don't think of it because you would never ever say the latter, but people do write scathing book reviews that lack professionalism.

    The first is perfectly fine, the second might come back to haunt you. In the end, though, we have to be ourselves. Who wants to follow a blogger who is not genuine?

  2. Well said, Davin. I like how Tess says it, as well - to be ourselves. But I also think there's some things we should keep our mouths shut about. There's things that go through my head about certain books and writing that I would never say publicly.

    Carefully choosing what we say and how we say it - after we've taken the time to think about what we've read and how we really feel about it - is the key.

    I always stick my foot in my mouth when I rush to say things without thinking them through.

  3. I too, agree with Tess on this. I think you need to be clear when you give a book review. There is nothing wrong with saying you didn't like a book, but if you aren't going to give a real reason (just because isn't a reason) then it comes across as being spiteful and mean. I've always tried to be careful in my phrasing and cite my reasons for not liking a book. I also try to reiterate that those are MY feelings.

    Also, to Glams point, I also write my reviews immediately after I've read the book, then hold it to post a few days later, after I can walk away from what I've written. I can read through the review again, tweak as necessary before it goes to post.

  4. This is a tricky one. You know that I'm pretty blunt about what I like and don't like, and I've been pretty forthcoming about naming names. But several published authors lately have warned me that you should avoid saying anything bad about other writers, one going so far as to forbid himself from making comments about others even in personal email. That seems a bit paranoid to me.

    So either we write honestly about writing, or we only write reviews of books we like. Which bothers me; part of criticism is to be critical, to point to things we think could be improved. Also, one service a critic provides is to warn people away from things that aren't very good. But, as Tess says, honesty and professionalism are never out of place. Don't let the distant, anonymous nature of the internet seduce you into acting like an ass, just because you can.

  5. I agree we should most definitely have opinions. There is always a nice way to suggest your feelings, I never forget that.

  6. ...That first link was too aggravating a read for me to say what I think here, because what I think can't be said without anger from me. I could post my response at my place, but I don't know if doing so would have any real meaning beyond me.

    But I'm glad you brought up the topic, and I agree with what you said.

  7. Tess, thanks for your thoughts. Yes, I think that difference is very real. In my work I've had to learn over and over again that an opinion without anything discussion behind it doesn't get you very far. If the point of a review is to provide insight, then you have to give the person reading your review enough information so that they can decide on things on their own.

    Thanks, Michelle. I also try to be careful with what I say. I always try to get my point across, but in the fairest way possible. Still, I admire people who lay it all out there, provided I don't think they're being illogical.

    WindyA, thanks for jumping in, and very well said. I think the review works better if we back up our opinions.

    Scott, I've admired your bluntness and your forthcomingness.

    T. Anne, thanks. I agree. There's a nice way to put most things. I don't think I'm always nice, but I try to be direct and honest--which I think often comes off as nice because people know that you are respecting them.

    F. P. Thanks for you comment. This topic was Annie's idea, so thanks to her.

  8. Ooops, I got confused with who said what. But now I see Annie brought up the topic originally, she stated her opinion, and then Davin stated his. So I agree with you both.

  9. ...I see that now. The links embedded in there confused me for some reason.

  10. I think as long as you are tactful with the review, it's okay. Like Tess said, there are some books that just aren't for me. There are classics that I hate, award winners that I didn't enjoy, etc. So it's just one person's opinion.

    But in my reviews, I do try to point out both the good and bad points about the book aside from just assigning a rating. And if I absolutely loathe a book, I probably won't review it online. I'm afraid karma will bite me in the butt if I publicly tear down another writer's work, lol.

  11. No worries, F. P. Glad it's cleared up.

    FictionGroupie, you bring up a good point about consistency. If a reviewer almost always pointed out the good and the bad of a book, I know I wouldn't be offended if she or he was critical of my work.

  12. I like the way Tess put her comment. I think as long as we are respectful we can still say that a book was not enjoyable for us to read. I do a lot of reviews and at first I was mostly doing books that I really like sort of more as recommendations, but sometimes it's nice to have someone tell you when to avoid a book, so I've stopped avoiding reviewing books that I don't like. If an agent won't work with me because I said I didn't enjoy reading one of their client's books then I'd guess that wouldn't be a good person for me to work with anyway.

  13. I think Tess's points are well made.

    I personally do not post about books of which I have a negative opinion. Maybe it's my Mom's voice in my head saying, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all," or the fact that I often prefer to forget the books I didn't like, or that I can't insult more people without risking accidentally swallowing my foot from putting it so far in my mouth, but I tell myself that I learn more from studying books I loved. If I loved the book, I want to know why, because that means there's something I could be learning to do.

    Also, I try not to give negative opinions online, because

  14. Being honest.

    Being yourself.

    Being professional.

    I think it's possible to be all three.


  15. I have to agree with Tess. I want to be authentic. I don't want my blog buddies to believe I am a big phony. I want to live my life...all of every way, real. So that means if I read a book and absolutely can't find anything good to say about it, I won't do a review. I wouldn't do one until I have read and liked the book.

    Now this doesn't apply to bloggers who announce they are reading a book before they do the review. Then they pretty much have to give the review and watch what they say. There's got to be something good to say. Characters were well thought out. Something. Nice discussion, Davin. :)

  16. Should we be having a contest for most favored comment?! :)

    Lois, thanks for telling us about your progression with reviews. It's interesting to hear it from someone who does a lot of them.

    Dominique, I tend to be like you a lot of the time. If I don't like a book, I rarely want to expend the energy to discuss it. At the same time, I think that I have relied on critical reviews often when deciding on books and movies.

    Shelley, as usual, very nicely put.

    Robyn, interesting thoughts. I know that I have personally refrained from mentioning which books I'm starting for fear of having to bring them up again later on. :P

  17. I try to do book reviews in the context of what writers can learn from them. On very rare occasion (I think only 2 books), I used a book review as an example of what NOT to do--but I used books that were well known and had won awards, etc., so I also included a bit about obviously other people liked the book even if I didn't.

    I do try to find some aspect that is good. I rarely find a book entirely worthless. So in my reviews, it's not usually a matter of "did I like it or not" but "did I find something of value in it or not." Usually there's SOMETHING.

  18. Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts, and thanks, Davin, for posting my question.

    The hardest thing I come across when writing a book review is how to describe it without any spoilers. But I don't worry about if I can't say something nice. If I read a book all the way through, there is obviously something good in it anyway, or I wouldn't have finished it. I also tend to still recommend even books I didn't like because I never know what another reader will think. That kind of goes back to what you said, Davin, that someone might read a book that didn't have a good review.

    I guess my biggest problem with this issue isn't whether or not writers are saying if they liked or didn't like a book, but it's the going out of their way to say nothing negative for fear of angering someone. We can't be afraid to have our opinions, especially if they're professional. It's all subjective anyway.

    In writing classes in college, if I didn't like someone's story, I couldn't just keep my mouth shut. I had to give a critique. The only way for us to write better in class was to receive constructive criticism.

    And, I learn a lot from the books I love, but from the books I don't like I learn what not to do. Both good and bad books teach me something, which is why I'd like to know from other writers what they honestly think.

  19. Great post. I tend to believe that in all things, honesty is the best policy - even when it means somebody's feelings might get hurt. Of course we don't need to be "brutally" honest, but I believe everyone deserves to be told the truth. So with regards to critiques, we do the author (and other readers) a disservice if we sugarcoat things. If I am known to be an honest appraiser of all situations, then you always know what you're going to get from me. Now I might offend some people, but at least they can't say I am playing favorites or have an agenda. It's just me, whether you like it or not.


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