Friday, January 28, 2011

Are negative reviews worth the potential fallout?

All books are not created equal. We hope for greatness when we pick up a new title, wanting to be informed, entertained, and enthralled. Most of the time we'll settle for the first two. It's the rare release that completes the trifecta.

As a reader and as a reviewer, of course I love those. A great book will usually sink its claws into me pretty quick, pronouncing itself a cut above its peers within a chapter or two. Depending upon the hype, I may begin with high expectations or none at all. I think I enjoy it best when a relative unknown connects. The reviews almost write themselves in my head as I read, and I enjoy championing the author's work to a new audience.

Bad books, unfortunately, are just as apparent. Their insipidity multiplies as the pages turn-often quite slowly-leaving me searching for positives with which to balance a potential review. Some reach the proverbial car-wreck status, where I'm forced to keep reading only by the sheer masochism of wanting to see how much worse things can get.

Assuming I make it to the end, I'm left with a dilemma: how to honestly convey my opinion to the readers without being unduly harsh or negative. After all, even bad books were somebody's baby. The author likely put a lot of time and effort into writing it. And, of course, others may not agree with my assessment.

I have punted a couple of times over the last year or two, skipping the part where I actually write the review. My standard has a lot to do with the size of the publisher. There's little sense in kicking a micro press. Why risk the negative karma? In a case where no one is likely to have heard of the book in the first place, I'll leave the safety on the gun and let them walk away.

The large houses seem to view themselves as the gatekeepers, lending a stamp of approval simply by their willingness to publish a particular writer's work. Their books appear in every Barnes & Noble across the country. Innocent readers will likely waste money on bad books from the large houses. Here I feel an obligation to warn.

Negative reviews are the most difficult to write and take the most time. I often find myself doing extra reading on other similar titles or other work by the author, just to make certain I'm being objective. And my stress level climbs the entire time, knowing they will be even more unhappy reading my critique than I was reading their dreck.

As much as I-or any reviewer-owe it to the author to be fair, there is an equal obligation to be honest to the reader. We've already established that not all books are equal. If we ranked them all on a scale of 1 to 10, they're not all 10's. In fact, the 10's should be rare. So not all reviews can be overflowing with praise. If every review reads like a PR piece, you cheapen the write-ups of the truly good books by not setting them apart. And when a book stinks, well, that's where I feel like I owe it to the reader to say "you can skip this one." Life is too short to read bad books.

I ran across a story this week, courtesy of the Publisher's Weekly Daily e-mail, about a case where an editor faces criminal charges over a negative review posted on his site. Professor Joseph Weiler, a legal expert at New York University and the editor of the European Journal of International Law, found himself on trial in France this month, the culmination of a legal process kicked off by an angry author. Why France? Apparently the author, a senior lecturer at the Academic Centre of Law and Business in Israel, liked her chances better there. In fact, it's unlikely the issue would have even been accepted on a civil basis here in the United States. Unfortunately, some European countries don't have the same safeguards in place to protect freedom of speech. In this case, the freedom to warn potential readers that a book may not live up to their expectations.

It's highly unlikely any of my less-than-flattering reviews will land me in the dock in Paris, but cases like this make one wonder whether writing a negative review is worth the fallout. I've only ever had one complaint from an author, about a book I reviewed on The piece wasn't overly negative. In fact, my only complaints about the book came toward the end of my review, I want to say maybe in the 12th of 14 paragraphs. I felt bad they were upset, but also felt strongly about the points I had made. I surfed the internet and found similar contentions in another review and felt mildly better.

I fretted over how to respond, in the end simply writing the author to say I was sorry they felt that way, but I appreciated them contacting me all the same. End of story. At least until he wrote back. My innards churned as I clicked that e-mail open-only to find a very pleasant reply. We exchanged a couple more e-mails apiece, and he was actually quite nice.

I've had many more cases where authors have written, thanking me for thoughtful reviews. A couple have acknowledged critical points I made in otherwise positive write-ups with comments like "yeah, I wish that we had done that a little differently."

It's nice when an author is happy with my review. That is, of course, almost entirely dependent upon how well I liked their book. Despite the old saying "there's no such thing as bad publicity as long as they spell your name right," most authors are not going to look at things in that light if you rip their book apart. Still, I have a feeling most potential book buyers would appreciate the head's up.

Wouldn't you? How honest do you expect book reviewers to be? Is the simple fact that they're devoting time and space to a book an implied stamp of approval?

(All comments welcome, except for negative ones, in which case I'll see you in Paris.)


  1. Excellent piece, James. As you know, I often encounter the same difficulties, except I'm not as nice as you.

    At the risk of over-exaggerating the importance of the reviewer, his or her primary responsibility is to the readers, the ones forking over their hard-earned dough. They deserve to know what's good or what's not.

    As for the size of the publishing house, I don't know if that should matter. Some of the bigger ones have put out their fair share of drek, either resting on their laurels or simply because of a lack of good editors due to downsizing, multiple projects, etc. One problem is that many of these employees are not experts in the field. If an author makes an egregious factual mistake, it might not be caught, such as the time a writer attributed a quote to a player at an event that took place several years after his death. And this doesn't even address the style of writing. I think a manuscript should automatically be tossed out if it includes Jacques Barzun's line about baseball.

    And while I have great respect for the writers who persevere to get their work published by whatever means, they also need to wake up to reality (like some "American Idol" contestants, who have been told for years that they have talent, only to be embarrassed on national TV). There have certainly been some gems from the small/academic presses, but those are few and far between.

  2. Some great points, Ron. I guess the "gatekeepers" are kind of a double-edged sword. They do stand in the way sometimes of things getting published, but on the other hand, some people might benefit from being told their work just isn't good enough and no one else seems to be telling them (or they are running through their third base coach's stop sign).

    Regardless of the source, I struggle being the one to say "This Reggie Jackson biography is riddled with errors and should never have been published." But I will hint around strongly enough that anyone can read between the lines.