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April 04, 2008

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CT Henry

Critics should write negative reviews. It makes writers more responsible for their writing as well as teaches readers the difference between a good and bad writing.

As a reader, it's so hard to decide what to read because most reviews are so positive. You really have to read between the lines to find out if a book is just lukewarm. I only want to read outstanding novels, and today's review cause me to do lots of research before deciding whether to read a book.

Hopefully, writers would work harder, if they knew there were repercussions for turning out crap.

David Montgomery

I would like to think that receiving bad reviews would motivate writers to work harder. But I doubt that would happen.

tess gerritsen

No author sets out to write a bad book. Almost all writers write the best darn book they're capable of, in the time frame they're given. We're all terrified of bad reviews.

So no, the threat of a bad review doesn't motivate anyone to work harder. We're all working as hard as we can.

David Montgomery

Good point, Tess.

What I really had in mind, although didn't express very well, is that I believe a thoughtful negative review can be useful to an author, if they're willing to learn from it.

So it's not a matter of working harder to avoid the bad review, but rather taking an opportunity to learn from a negative review, and doing better the next time out.

But I don't think that happens very often.

I.J.Parker

First of all, this has been a superb series of posts on the art of the book review. My compliments.

Next, yes, I would think that a bit of constructive criticism helps a promising author to do better. I recall that one reviewer of my first novel (he was generally very positive) thought my dialogue was stilted. It hurt, yes, but I have since paid special attention to dialogue. Writers learn by writing. After a while, one becomes more selfconfident and knows if the criticism was appropriate.
As a reader, I check the review blurbs on the backs of books for reviews by known reviewers and PW (and even Kirkus, etc). PW is sometimes a little generous, but the big newspapers tend to publish very fair estimates.

David Montgomery

PW seems to be overly enthusiastic much of the time. Granted, it's going to depend a lot on who the reviewer is (and their reviews are unsigned). But they're one of the worst culprits for the "false positive" review.

I usually only pay attention to their reviews if they're negative. I don't really trust their positive critiques.

Guyot

It's all Harriet's fault.

tess gerritsen

David, PW once said my writing was only for "readers who move their lips". And PW once called a certain horror novelist (years before he became a National Book Award honoree) the "Pied Piper of the illiterate generation"

When PW gets nasty, it gets REALLY get nasty.

Thank heavens so many readers who move their lips actually buy books.

Doug Riddle

Good points about the factors involved with a negative review.

As a reader/writer I take negative reviews with a grain of salt. Alot of times I feel it is personal prefrences of the reviewer involved. Which is not a bad thing, we all have our prefrences. And for that reason I think it is important, as you mentioned in an earlier blog, to find reviewers we trust and/or have similar likes and dislikes.

What actually concerns me is "bandwagon" reviews. Where I see more than one reviewer glowing about a book, and all of them using the exact same phrases to review the book. More than one of those books have left me wondering what book the reviewer read or if they actually read the book.

David Montgomery

Tess,

I've never understood critics who write nasty reviews like that. I can understand not liking a book. I can understand hating a book. But that doesn't mean you insult the author or the people who would read it. When I do go negative, I try to remember to still be respectful.

Doug,

I don't think reviewers not actually reading the books they review is any kind of major problem. Other than hacks like Harriet Klausner, I don't think it's a widespread phenomenon.

Doug Riddle

David,

I believe they actually read the books, though sometimes you have to wonder.

I just think they get into a bandwagon mentality....first, that they repeat what other reviewers are saying.....and second, are hesitant to say anything negative about a book that everyone else liked.

Elaine Flinn

"Bandwagonism." There is a certain herd mentality among reviewers, some of whom are a little too eager to jump on board and praise whatever or whomever is getting the most buzz. Janet Maslin raves about an author in the Times? A lot of reviewers follow. An unknown author is suddenly the flavor of the month? The reviewers come out of the woodwork to praise her, eager to show that they, too, are part of the in-crowd."

Bandwagon-ism is, to me, akin to mass hypnosis. I can think of several 'Janet Maslin' raves that left me wondering - and if ads for those particular books in the book section of the NYT played into the review. Lest that remark be considered snarky - it's not meant to be a mark against Ms. Maslin. Just wondering...

krimileser

I think there is a difference between newspaper reviews and online reviews. If a newpaper reader want a recommendation, fine, just write positive reviews. But for readers who don't trust a single reviewer (or don't find a review by their usual reviewer) that results in a bias.

I recently searched for reviews of Black's Christine Falls in German. I didn't came up with many (only a few outright positive) and some of the renown reviewer were absent, so I can guess ...

But a book by an author not as famous as Banville would have resulted only in a few, most likely positive reviews. That is nonsense and not helpful for readers.

Without knowing the books he/she don't like, how can I trust a reviewer ?

JMH

Most reviewers get no money or very little; they’re basically doing it because they enjoy reading. Dave’s first point (bad books don’t get finished) probably accounts for the overwhelming reason why you rarely see very many brutally negative reviews.

Also, some organizations (e.g. Booklist, Library Journal) have a stated goal of finding books that are recommended for their target audience (librarians) and hence their reviews are generally going to be favorable because the book has been determined to be recommendable. For example, Booklist receives about 50K submissions per year and reviews about 10%. A review per se means the book is being recommended as worthy of purchase by a library.

Other organizations, such as the ezines, seem to tell it like it is; at least in the opinion of the particular reviewer, which is always subjective (particularly if the reviewer is out of his/her favorite genre). For example, NewMysteryReader.com has a 5-bolt grading system and isn’t afraid to hand out mediocre grades. Many, many other ezines operate the same way. All the reviewers out there aren't gushing over eveything. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Another factor is the reviewer’s philosophy of life. Some people like just about everything that comes into their life and gives all those things praise. Some people are more critical, grumpier and less full of enthusiasm for life, and it shows in their reviews.

Because books take so long to read and because everyone can’t read all of them, reviewers perform an important service for their target audiences, be it libraries or bookstores or the general reading public. Most seem to take that responsibility seriously and do a pretty good job. It’s not easy to take a 350 page book and distill it into 3 or 4 paragraphs. That takes a lot of thought, planning and time.

I.J.Parker

Banville excels at the use of descriptive language. I can see where that would not translate well. As for CHRISTINE FALLS, mystery fans tend to be less concerned with language than with plot, character, and action.
(As an aside: I've not been able to force myself to read my own books in German).

Patrick Balester

Your second point, lack of review space, would seem to be the most pressing reason. If newspapers and magazines devoted more overall space, OK, then I would expect a few bad reviews. But with space at a premium, do readers want to read 3 or 4 paragraphs to learn that the book is not recommended? I don't. That's also why I don't add bad reviews to my blog...I prefer to focus on what I (and other readers) might enjoy.

Patti McCoy Jacob

David - If I have to choose between reading a positive review to find out what I should absolutely read or a negative one to find out what I should absolutely avoid, I'll go with the positive review every time.

Proportionally speaking, there are far fewer excellent books than there are bad ones, so I'd rather spend my valuable time finding out about the exception as opposed to the rule. And again, that's if I absolutely have to choose between the two types of reviews. And of course, this can only work if I completely trust that particular critic.

And I agree with you about the main reason negative reviews are not as common - why bother continuing to spend your valuable time reading a book you still haven't been able to get into by page 50 or so? Unless, if you have my editor, you're forced to...

One review I made a conscious decision not to give was for a book written by a man from my town, a man I had never met, but he was a loyal reader of my column. He sent me a copy of his first published novel, asking me to read it. Didn't demand or even act as if he expected a review, just sent it to me to read, leaving it up to me whether I wanted to review it.

It was not good. For so many reasons that it would have been a cruel act on my part if I had actually reviewed it and listed the reasons. I didn't feel that the world at large needed to be warned to avoid this book - he was an unknown who, as yet, had no expectant public, would probably have very few people buy the book anyway, so why should I add to his potential misery?

This is what I did for this fellow resident instead, as unprofessional as it may have been. After numerous emails to me, asking if I received the book, if I liked it, informing me of his book signing dates, etc., I finally emailed him and told him, gently, what I thought of his book, point by point. And that I would rather give no review than a bad one. Believe it or not, he actually appreciated my comments as well as the fact I didn't review it. Obviously not a believer that all press is good press.

So I guess you could add that to the list for not giving a bad review, however that would be classified. Bleeding heart, maybe?

John McFetridge

Here's a very good article from Salon, "The Case of the Overrated Mystery Novel," and he names names:

http://dir.salon.com/story/books/feature/2004/01/06/mystery_hype/

It does seem true, with shrinking review space a lot of big name writers keep getting the same reviews for basically the books over and over....

David J. Montgomery

A very good article? Consider this line at the end of the first paragraph:

"The American detective novel may be commercially viable, but it is devoid of creative or artistic interest."

I'm afraid I'm going to have trouble finding common ground with a person who begins their position with horseshit like that.

John McFetridge

You wanted to talk about negative reviews ;)

I think (hope) he's intentionally going over the top to stir up debate.

Certainly there's no need to find "common ground" with him - debunk everything he has to say.

The article is 'good' in that it's the only one I've found offering the "other side," of this.

David J. Montgomery

I don't really have any interest in engaging in a debate that begins with the premise that crime fiction is shit. What's the point?

That's precisely NOT the kind of thoughtful, negative critique of books that I'm talking about. Anything he writes about a mystery novel will necessarily be colored by his stated prejudice -- so how can you rely on anything he says?

It's irresponsible for a critic to begin with the premise that "the American detective novel is devoid of creative or artistic interest" and then proceed to explain why a few particular American detective novels aren't any good.

What's the point? He's established his prejudice at the outset, therefore his individual critique is meaningless.

And that can't be the only negative critique of crime fiction that you could find. If so, you must not have looked very hard.

Doug Riddle

Interesting article, but how much stock can I put in someone's opinion about mysteries/thrillers who doesn't seem to like them?

Just goes to show how important it is to read reviews by reviewers who you trust...i.e. reviewers who are knowledgeable and widely read in the the genre.

David J. Montgomery

Precisely. If someone is writing a review of McCormick and Schmick's and they begin their critique by saying, "I hate seafood, but here's what I thought of the restaurant..."

Well, are you really going to keep reading?

Cameron Hughes

That Salon dude dismissed some great writers(Block and Connelly) awfully fast.

Frankly, dismissing Block is the bigger crime

John McFetridge

Well, it's true, I didn't look very hard.

But, a lot of people simply dismiss crime fiction and I thought it was interesting that this guy was at least saying why he feels that way. He claims to love Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald but feels too many of the current big names are stuck in a rut, presenting the same characters in the same moral dilemmas over and over.

He seems to be agreeing with your "priase inflation" and "bandwagonsim" points.

David Montgomery

Here's a negative review I wrote, of Naomi Rand's It's Raining Men:

Boston Globe review

Doug Riddle

The basis of the PI novel is "moral dilemmas" and how the PI character deals with them and the effect they have on his soul.....when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you.

David Montgomery

Here's another, also from the Globe:

Jan Brogan's A Confidential Source

(Too much plot summary, but it gets to the point eventually.)

Caitlin

I usually agree with the adage “any press is good press.” In Patti’s case, while the author said he was glad there was no review, he wasn’t getting much attention anyway. Even if just a small amount of Patti’s readers decided it was worth checking out the book’s Amazon page or website, that would still be more possible buyers than without the bad review. It also seems, from the previous posts, that while people prefer to read recommendations, bad reviews generate a different kind of interest. Am I being naive in thinking a bad review could help promote a book?

David Montgomery

This is kind of fun...Check out Patricia Lewin's Blind Run in USA Today.

David Montgomery

No, Caitlin, you're absolutely right. Negative reviews will sell copies of books, just as positive reviews will. (Not as many... but they're still publicity. And books need all the publicity they can get.)

In fact, that's another reason to add to my list of why people don't write negative reviews:

They call attention to books that you'd really rather not give any attention to.

Good point.

krimileser

I.J.Parker,
didn't intend to discuss Black - it was just an example.

Reading the original I realized the quality of his language. Others, reading the German translation realized it, too. One renown reviewer wrote that there are passages where Black gave the Genre tutorial lessions, but he also wrote that he didn't like the book, which is strong and seldomly used.

Patti McCoy Jacob

And this may be a naive question, but what do you suppose would cause someone, after reading a bad review, to then turn around and buy that book, especially if, in my case, the author is unknown? Morbid curiosity? Or is it simply a case of the reader having a history of never agreeing with that particular critic? I know I've learned not to trust certain movie critics because our tastes are so opposite that if they pan a movie, I actually make a point of going to see it.

David Montgomery

Most of the time I don't think it's deliberate, although I suppose there is some element of perverse buying involved with some readers. (E.g., "It can't possibly be that bad. I've got to check that out.")

What happens is, a person sees a review in the newspaper, maybe they just glance at it, maybe they don't really pay attention to what it's saying or they don't read the whole thing. Maybe their analytical reading skills aren't particularly well developed.

Whatever happens, they don't realize or don't remember that they saw a negative review. But the author's name or the title of the book or the jacket cover sticks in their mind.

So the next time they're in the bookstore, they pick up that book, it looks familiar, they think to themselves, "Oh yeah, I saw something about that in the paper" and they buy it.

tod goldberg

I give books bad reviews all the time. Why? Because I've been hired to give a qualified opinion based on my experience as an author first and as a critic second, and maybe being a professor helps, but probably not, and so I'm not afraid to say why I think a book works or doesn't. It's a subjective matter, of course, and one i'm intimately aware of. When I wrote my first book, I think I got about three good reviews and the rest basically stated that I was America's worst writer. I took that to heart, examined what it was I was doing, what I thought worked and what other people clearly did not think worked, and went about becoming a better writer. Subsequently, I can count the negative reviews for my last two books on one hand -- and in those negative reviews, I've learned something, too. My sense then, when I review a book that isn't working for me, is to say exactly what I found wrong with it and why. My opinions aren't always in lock step with other critics' but I absolutely couldn't care about that in the least. Particularly in the crime field, I find too many gushing bukkake fests in reviews and I simply cannot abide them -- part of it has to do with the incestuous nature of the genre, I believe, because god knows crime writers know each other and know each other well and so are usually woe to say a bad thing, but it's a business were in and criticism is at the heart of what we do as artists and so I'm not afraid to dish it because I'm not afraid to get it in return. It's part of the business we're in.

David Montgomery

I think Tod's comments are right on. And when I've been assigned books to review, and didn't like them, I gave them what I think were fair, justified negative reviews. (I would never state an opinion about a book that I didn't believe and, hopefully, could support. Regardless of who had written in or what other people were saying about it.)

The real dilemma for me comes when I'm choosing the books myself. Then I have to decide: Do I review this book just to say that it's bad? Or do I include a different book that I can say is good? In that case, I do tend to opt for the positive, because I think it's more useful. But perhaps that's not always the right decision.

Elaine Flinn

Ah, the life of a reviewer - damned if you do, and damned if you don't. :)

GB

Tod Goldberg's comments are spot on. I review books (both genre and mainstream) for a newspaper with a print run of over 100,000 and who knows how many online readers. I have never declined to submit a negative review if I believe the book in question deserved it.

The critic's duty is to give a qualified opinion even if it might potentially hurt someone's feelings or (the reason I suspect explains why critics are so reluctant to give negative reviews) antagonize the author, the publisher or the agent. The argument that there is not enough space to publish negative reviews is ludicrous. A harsh review can be just as interesting to the reader who is thinking of buying a certain title as it is to those who want to know more about a given critic's aesthetic preferences. I read Michael Dirda's reviews not because I expect to read glowing endorsements but because I believe he is one of this country's most insightful critics.

Then again, this temerity when it comes to bad reviews is far more common among crime genre critics than their mainstream fiction counterparts. I don't think it does the genre any good.

David Montgomery

"A harsh review can be just as interesting to the reader..."

I know the point you're making, but I don't think this is completely true. The question we have to ask is: Should critics give readers what they need or what they want? If it's what they want -- and that is what most newspaper editors are looking for -- it's generally not negative reviews. In my experience, the reading public seldom seems interested in them.

But I do agree with your last point. (I assume you mean timidity and not temerity.) A thoughtful, balanced critique of the genre benefits everyone. Definitely.

GB

Ooops! Right, I meant timidity.

think-think-think

From a reader's perspective, I like negative reviews mostly because they give the positive reviews meaning. For instance, Kirkus is typically so cranky and quick to point out flaws that if they give something a starred review, I figure it must be pretty damn good. On the other end of the spectrum you have "notorious fraud" (a DJM quote, I believe) Harriet Klausner (though I suppose it's an insult to real reviewers to call her a "reviewer") -- a positive review from her means absolutely nothing since her standards appear to be non-existent.

From a writer's perspective (I'm not a writer, but my significant other, X, is), I do think there's something to be learned from constructively, objectively negative reviews (not the petty insults that Tess is referring to). I know X has considered the flaws pointed out in her work by reviewers she respects. And there's little satisfaction in getting a glowing review from a person/publication who/that absolutely adores EVERY piece of crap they crack open, right? You can't very well pull a quote from an HK review and slap it on your web site -- at least not with a straight face.

Jim

As a reader my major concern with reviews is not that they are too positive or too negative, but that they are too short -- no doubt the fault of the publication printing them.

The typical roundup review has a plot summary followed by a buy or don't buy recommendation. It would be interesting to find reviews that are more descriptive of what the experience of reading the book is like. "Fast paced LA Noir" could cover everyone from Chandler to Ellroy -- but what a difference between the two.

Literary novels get this routinely, and with the exception of Ellroy and Price, crime fiction gets short changed.


David J. Montgomery

It is frustrating, Jim. Although there are still a lot of full-length reviews of crime novels. (I just don't happen to be writing very many of them these days.)

Jim

Following up on myself I ran into the following NYTBR on Lush Life

[http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/16/books/review/Kirn-t.html?scp=1&sq=lush+life+price&st=nyt]

I was particularly taken by the following:

'Tentatively and gradually, however, fragile, improvised bonds begin developing like laundry lines strung between apartment windowsills. Catalyzed by a miniature crisis that means nothing in the scope of history but everything down on the sidewalks and the streets, detectives align themselves with victims’ families, freed suspects with the officials who once suspected them, managers with the workers whose tips they skim. The transient, self-serving affinities that pass for affection just before the bars close and the showy displays of grief that intensify when the media are around melt and trickle away over the curbs, where they’re splashed into vapor by the trucks and cars supplying the place with its goodies and its shoppers. There’s an orthodox leftist sentimentality here mixed up with a certain primal conservative yearning, but they react in solution toward the end to form a raw and slightly unstable new compound that Price isn’t shy about valuing higher than mere gold — which, despite its shiny, alluring heft, ultimately weighs us down until we can only stand in place, envious, anxious, cocky and alone."

I like "The transient, self-serving affinities that pass for affection just before the bars close and the showy displays of grief that intensify when the media are around melt and trickle away over the curbs, where they’re splashed into vapor by the trucks and cars supplying the place with its goodies and its shoppers."

Let's see. The "self serving affinities" and the "displays of grief" "trickle away over the curbs" and and are made into "vapor" by people buying and selling merchandise. Does that mean that if I pick up somebody in a bar, my relationship will be destroyed because there is a sale at Macy's?

Or how about leftism and conservatism creating a compound worth more than gold that makes us "envious, anxious, cocky, and alone". How would that work?


I guess long reviews aren't automatically helpful.

Jonathan M

Interesting post.

I'm quite an active reviewer in the SF genre and I probably produce as many positive reviews as I produce negative ones.

I disagree with the idea that finishing a bad book is an impediment to negative reviews... When I'm 100 pages into a book I dislike I WANT to finish it so that I can stick the boot in and every weak character, stupid plot twist and lazy cliche makes me want to write that review more and more.

As a reader of reviews I like positive reviews as they tell me what I should buy, but I love negative reviews as they're inherently entertaining.


Also a review or piece of criticism (online especially) forms a part of an ongoing conversation about a work. I know I read multiple reviews of books before buying and as a result negative reactions and "out on a limb" reactions are helpful too.

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I remember I read an excellent crime book it was perfect because the mystery was exciting, I like so much those books in which I can find something abstract, I know people feel focus on those books.

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While this subject can be very touchy for most people, my opinion is that there has to be a middle or common ground that we all can find. I do appreciate that youve added relevant and intelligent commentary here though. Thank you!
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David J. Montgomery is a writer and critic specializing in books and publishing. He is an emeritus columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and The Daily Beast, and has also written for USA Today, the Washington Post, and other fine publications. A former professor of History, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and two daughters.

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