On reviews good, bad and ugly

cropped-wayrf-logo-v11.pngA couple of articles caught my eye in recent days, both concerning unfavourable reviews of books. The first is from the writer’s POV; except rather than shrugging off the criticism novelist Kathleen Hale used it as a reason to start stalking the unfortunate blogger who happened to dislike her latest book. I read the article late on a Saturday night, and a bit drunk; even then I could scarcely believe what I was hearing, finishing the piece marvelling at just how distant from reality Hale sounded. The second piece is a lot more balanced, in all senses of the word. It’s written by former book blogger (and author) Suzanne McGee, who became the target of a disgruntled author’s ire and closed down her blog because of it.

Both pieces got me thinking on the notion of bad reviews, and why people leave them. In her piece, McGee mentions that she is an Amazon Vine member (if, like me, you didn’t know what this was you can find out here), and is therefore obliged to review everything that she is sent. This sounds somewhat relentless to me; but free books is free books, so if you’re going to step onto this particular treadmill I suppose the least you can do is to be honest.

I don’t have a review policy on this blog, although they seem popular elsewhere. If I had to come up with one, I suppose I’d sum up my approach by saying that I only review the books I like. I don’t read all the books I get sent. Hell, I don’t read all the books I borrow from the library. But since the world wise web is already chock full of negativity and scorn, I don’t think anyone needs another blog that just adds to that pile. I like a book, I review it. I don’t like it, I pass over it in silence and move on to something else.

I remember outlining this position to a couple of authors on Twitter. ‘But negative reviews are really important feedback,’ they both said – and I can completely see how useful they might be. To the author, anyway. I’m less convinced of their benefit to the reader, which is primarily what I am. Despite how good a book might be, and how much I never want it to end, there’s always – always – a small part of my brain thinking about what I’m going to read next, like the chain-smoker thinking about his next cigarette or the alcoholic his next bottle. To keep that fire burning, what I want to hear about is what you really like – what are you into, what are you enjoying, who do you rate?

Give me a positive review over a negative one any day of the week. Reading unqualified criticism of an author’s work, I’m always wondering what else is going on here – what history is there between reviewer and reviewee that has caused this dislike to erupt so violently? Such speculation only moves the reader’s eye away from the book itself, when in fact it should remain at the very centre of any review.


  1. Thanks for the links to both articles.

    I have a lot of sympathy for Hale, in that her “critic” quite clearly wasn’t a critic at all but someone engaged in a power-trip that was potentially (and quite possibly in fact) destructive to others. Yes, Hale went much too far, but I can understand her fury and her pain. I’m sure all of us have suffered “reviews” that have been completely dishonest and, sometimes, barely distinguishable from hate mail.

    As you say, McGee’s piece was more balanced. As she says, the world of reviewing has a new set of rules, and it’s going to take authors a while to get used to it. What she doesn’t say is that, before that happens, some authors may perish along the way because of the activities of folk like the one who hounded Hale. It might make sense if sites like Goodreads — which already does some policing of reviews — took action to shut down operatives like this one. I dunno.

    • As you say, it’s a complex issue. I can’t fathom why Hale responded at all to the bad review – it’s more symptomatic of issues the reviewer has rather than the book. This has always been true, I think, except pre-internet these arguments and struggles were confined to a much smaller group of people.

  2. An interesting post and I’d like to say at the outset I don’t approve of campaign reviewing. I do review all the books I read and if I don’t like one I explain why but these are far and few between, because I mainly read books I think I will enjoy. I read both positive and negative reviews to judge this. What one person dislikes may not impact my decision if it isn’t important to my choice e.g. Not liking the chief protagonist, whereas a reviewer who doesn’t explain either positive or negative views fails to assist me as a reader. I think the key to critical reviews is balance.

    • Thanks for the comment. Yes, I think reviews do need to be balanced – you can often tell a hatchet job straight away, and I’m left thinking about what the writer has against the author, rather than the book itself, which is clearly wrong. I’ve never felt under any pressure to review all the books I read; sometimes, whilst I may have enjoyed them, I may not have anything significant to say about them, which is what I always try and do when writing a review – if only to get clear in my my own mind just why I liked something.

  3. What Kathleen Hale did was quite disturbing and wrong. A lot of bloggers/readers were appalled by her actions including me. I think if you choose to just review what you like to read, that’s fine. Negative reviews have the right to be public just like positive reviews and are equally important. I find them helpful. How else are readers to judge what you like or don’t like? The key to writing reviews ( like the previous commenter said) is balance. Readers are smart and can figure out when a review is mean spirited. I write my share of negative reviews. I recently somewhat panned Raymond Chandler even though he is revered. But I am no one but a reader who blogs as a hobby so my words shouldn’t drive someone to try to stalk me. You ask what is the point or why even bother writing negative reviews? Because, believe it or not, some readers find them useful just like positive reviews. Honestly, I am more skeptical of positive reviews or rah rah reviews. No book is perfect and no reader goes into a book wanting to hate it or trash it.

    • Interesting. I can’t disagree that negative reviews have a right to be heard, they’re just not something that interest me. My preference is not to review at all, rather than give a bad review – perhaps because I’d rather spend that time reading something else.

      You’re absolutely right that no reviewer deserves abuse for holding an opinion, whether positive or negative. To quote the mighty Groove Armada, ‘if everybody looked the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other.’

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