In the comments section of the post below about Why books get reviewed, Paul Guyot asks the following:
Why do you think -- at least in the mystery/crime world -- that the "bad" review has become so rare?
I'm not talking about being mean or nasty, etc. I'm talking about a critic doing their job: reviewing both good and bad books. Why did that die?
It's a good question, and one I've been thinking about a lot over the past few months since this came up in a discussion. Because I think it's true: there aren't very many negative reviews written of crime novels, and there probably should be.
So here's what I've come up with. There are several factors that come into play at various times. Not all of these would apply to any particular reviewer, or any particular book. But at least some of them affect all of us.
- To write a negative review, you have to finish reading the book. If the book stinks, you don't want to finish reading it. This is the main reason I don't write more negative reviews. There are so many books waiting to be read that I hate spending the time reading something when I don't think it's any good.
- Lack of review space. With the significant decline in space devote to books coverage, there is pressure to use that coverage to promote the good rather than pan the bad. I can't really argue with that decision. If I have to choose between recommending a good book or scorning a bad book, I'll nearly always choose the former.
- Lousy books aren't very interesting to write about. If a book is spectacularly bad, then maybe there's some good material there. But if a book is simply mediocre -- and this is the case for most of the bad books published -- then there's not really a lot to be said about it. Writing a review of a book that's bad, but only in a dull sort of way, is nearly as tedious as reading it -- and the review wouldn't be much fun to read either.
- Nobody likes negative reviews. The publisher, the publicist, the author, the people at the newspaper, even the readers themselves -- just pan a high-profile book, especially one that other people liked, and watch the hate mail come in. So there is no encouragement to write them, but there is encouragement to write positive reviews. (Note: I'm not saying this is a reason not to write negative reviews. But I believe it does influence people.)
- Praise inflation. After reading 5 books in a row that aren't very good, even a halfway decent book will seem good by comparison. Thus, books that might otherwise receive negative or mixed reviews get edged up the quality scale.
- The "out on a limb" factor. It takes a certain amount of self-assuredness, and confidence in one's taste, to go out on a limb and state that a book other people like sucks. It's easy to doubt your instincts when you hate a book that other people are proclaiming is great. Nobody wants to look like an idiot. So it can be easier just to keep your mouth shut.
- "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.
- It can be hard to publicly proclaim that a book someone worked really hard on is not very good. This is a tough one for me. Even if I know in my heart that a book stinks, it's hard for me to tell everybody that. I think it's part of our culture -- you know the old saying, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all?" Well, I was raised to believe that. And it can be hard to overcome. Some critics get off on uncapping the poisoned pen, but I don't care for it myself.
What do you folks think, as readers? Do you want to see more negative reviews? Would you pay attention to them? Would you rather have a reviewer tell you that Book A is awesome or Book B is horrible?