How many times have you heard someone say, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all”? For the most part, I actually believe in the truth of this advice. You see, I used to have anger management issues, which manifested largely when dealing with other drivers, customer service, and my kids. Thanks to a twelve-step program and years of recovery, I am angry-outburst free and I have learned many valuable lessons in life. One of them is basically: if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all. I know that angry and/or rude words–as justified as they might feel or as cathartic as they promise to be–do not produce the effect you would like them too. In fact, they are counter-productive. Destructive. While silence makes you seem in control, wise, and intelligent, and nice words set you on the high ground and make you feel better (partly because they exhibit confidence, peace (as the opposite of worry or fear), self-control, kindness, love, forgiveness, and basically control of the situation).
Another thing that I have learned over my lifetime is the power of the tongue (and therefore of the pen and therefore of the keyboard). “Words can never hurt me” is a total load of crap. Words can do an incredible amount of damage, and not just to others’ feelings, although that is extremely important. They can damage your reputation, your validity, your professionalism. They can damage relationships, families, and even companies. Words are like water. They can be deceptively soft and pretty, but have a power that is as strong as any other force on earth. Water can do some crazy damage to a boat in a storm, a shore during a hurricane, a home in a flood, or your stomach during a belly-flop.
I had an experience recently that left me thinking about the power of the tongue and not saying mean things. I got a bad review.
It’s bound to happen to all of us writers. Many times. I was as ready for it as I would ever be, having read all about these future, necessary bad reviews and how to be gracious about them. And actually, the review wasn’t even that bad. The reader rated Benevolent with four stars, in fact, and said they were anxiously awaiting anything I might write because they loved my writing style. But then they said this: “I’m often disappointed with ‘rushed’ endings, but this was by far the most ‘shove it in a box, slap a bow on it and offer it up as the ending’ I have seen.” Yikes.
It stings! And I want to just run right out there and defend my poor, wounded Benevolent, partly because I feel like what the reader said about the ending is untrue. Sure, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but I most certainly did not rush the ending; I re-wrote it three times and agonized over it. (In fact, see blog entry HERE if you really care to know more about that process.) But I get it. Even if I did take a year to write that ending, to her if felt rushed and un-cared for, abrupt and unfulfilling. No point in arguing an opinion or experience.
Then my mind went straight to my own blog, where I had very recently reviewed Pseudonymous Bosch’s Secret Series (and posted it to GoodReads). Among many other things (my reviews are pages long and often include information, history, back-story, quotes, and always something positive), I said this: “Let’s just come right out and say that the writing is so-so. There are definitely glimmers of imagination, but the actual writing has moments of real stink and long swaths of mediocrity.” I also said, “Bosch falls prey to the over-realistic conversation. What I mean is, readers don’t really want to know every time a character hesitates, stutters, or ‘um’s. It’s tempting to write that way, I know, but it, too, is obnoxious.” And this: ” I bet that Bosch wrote the first book with the rest of the series in his head, but that his publisher hung some deadlines over him. Therefore each subsequent book got less-seriously edited and was rushed to press.” And this: ” I can’t say the kids or I cared about a single character by the end of the series.” And this: “…the ending pretty much sucked.” And “The illustrations were terrible.”
Not very nice words, are they?
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t angry. I was attempting to intellectually dissect the series and my reading experience. I wasn’t emotionally invested. I had given things time to ruminate but not so much time I had forgotten what it was like. I said some nice things. I was confident that the author’s career would not be decimated by my review, since the series is selling like hotcakes and the vast majority of reviews are glowing-ly positive. And I did not attack the author’s personhood, or even his career. Just the books.
But I thrashed the books.
It made me wonder, why do I write critiques or reviews?
I started writing book reviews two-and-a-half years ago for precisely three reasons. One, I could never remember what I thought of a book long after I had read it, let alone what it was about. Two, I needed a schtick for my blog and book reviews was not only a very popular one but also one that would remain consistent. I almost always have a book to review. (I paired that with blogs about writing and indie-publishing to give it a little flare.) And three, I had just completed my master Best Books list and wanted to increase my reading. (See HERE for the blog about that.) Then I started posting the reviews to GoodReads, Shelfari (which I will be switching to Amazon sometime soon), and even Pinterest to increase traffic to my site (in theory).
I have liked doing the reviews. I always have something to say. I have really liked having the reviews there when I need to or want to refer to them (sometimes for just my own personal reasons). I have liked watching my list of books-read and books-reviewed grow. And I am so looking forward to reading all the books stacking up in my TBR. My reviews have also led me to at least two different book projects for Owl and Zebra Press, one of which is coming out this summer. So those are all reasons.
But I also want to ask a couple other questions about reviews. What should be our aim? What are out standards? And what is the etiquette?
The aim of a reviewer:
- To educate. I always take my opportunity with a reader’s ear to throw in some interesting tidbits and impart a little knowledge about the book, author, or writing or reading in general.
- To guide. Isn’t that the idea? Help other people make informed choices about what book to read next? In this capacity, our part is usually as just a note in a symphony of opinion, but not always.
- To enhance. Reading reviews can help us to see a book in a different light, in a new way. Sharing changes things.
- To share. As a reviewer, writing the review helps us to form more entrenched memories with the book, to digest our experience, and to form a sort of community bond that furthers our enjoyment of the book and the reading process.
The standards of a good book review, or Review Etiquette:
- Read the book. Don’t just look at the cover. Don’t just read other reviews. And read the whole thing. If you can’t finish it, don’t review it: you don’t have the whole picture! I suppose there are cases when someone could read a good bit of a book and make a pretty accurate stand on the whole book, like for a certain series I started reading and could not continue due to its excessive graphic nature. But for the most part, read the whole darned thing first.
- Give credit where credit is due. Make sure to cite the title, the author, and publication information. (If you are posting it to a review site, it may already have that information attached.) Furthermore, cite page numbers for quotes and give credit for anything else you include, like covers or photos.
- Be fair. Pretty sure anyone past kindergarten should understand this one. Try to point out both the positives and negatives, even in a review that leans in one direction or the other. Don’t be swayed by external forces, like the coolness factor or peer pressure or the fame of the author–or your own stinky attitude.
- Be honest. And not just to the letter, but also in the spirit of the thing. Know thyself. Know thy opinions and feelings. Know thy past and present and influences. And know thy audience, as well.
- Be kind. Beyond being fair and despite being honest, it is a best practice to actually be nice in your book reviews. Why? Because the author is a real person and their book probably has a lot of emotional attachment for them. This work is someone’s baby! So don’t lean over the crib and call it “ugly.” Say, “My! What a stupendously liberal nose!”
- Notice editions. It may be best for reviewers to begin now with just stating the edition at the front of every review. Online, the editions’ reviews tend to get all mashed together and confused. Say it: “I am reviewing the Kindle edition of the Black Mamba Press version from September 2014.” Many times, our beefs can be narrowed down to a translation, a glitch, or a commentator.
- State it as opinion. I’m pretty sure I bend this one sometimes, or all the time, but let’s all–reviewer and review reader–keep in mind that reviews are opinions, not facts. Be clear about this.
Note #1: While we may follow book review etiquette, we would never be so naive as to think others will follow it, right?. We might hope they would or even encourage them to, but let’s be realistic. I had a “reader” once review my almost-brand-new book based solely on the image of the cover online and give it a terrible rating. Then, she refused to remove the review when I kindly and privately pointed out that she was heavily weighing down my new book’s rating with her unfair review. That’s only the beginning, I’m sure. My point? Deal with unfair and terrible reviews like an adult. Be generous and suave.
Note #2: While we may all walk as close to the line between honesty and kindness as we can, us authors are going to get negative reviews and sometimes we are even going to deserve it. No matter how wonderful the book, someone won’t like it. Someone will find it’s weaknesses. Someone will be in a bad mood. So we, as authors, have to learn what to do with negative reviews. I suggest a combination between avoiding them, ignoring them, and processing them away from the computer, like with a good friend and a bottle of red wine. Take reviews with a grain of salt. After all, we are in an age where people feel safe behind their screens to treat others in ways they never would in person. Or in the old days.
And as a final hurrah to this rather lengthy blog about negative reviews and anger management, I am going to gift you with a series of unfortunate reviews: terrible reviews written about tremendously lauded and fiscally successful books, just to show you it happens to everyone and every book.
Don Quixote, by Miquel de Cervantes, widely known as the best book in the world, has no less than forty-two one-star reviews on Amazon (in one edition, alone, dealing mainly with electronic medium issues and poor translation). “Who reads this trash? This book SUCKED.” and “ If someone wrote this story today, the publishers would pass on it. I found the main character more of an annoyance. If it’s on your list of must reads, don’t bother.” (J Yates and Richard Houghton Jr.)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling. The Harry Potter series has grossed more money than any other book series in history. The nearly-two-hundred one-star reviews for the first book alone. “Well written? Yes. Interesting? NO!” and “The reason why I don’t like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is because IT ISN’T A GOOD BOOK.” ( brachan and Barbara)
Dune, by Frank Herbert. “Probably the biggest disappointment ever.” (Victoria Prickett)
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkein. “This is quite simply the most boring, overrated series of books I’ve ever seen.”
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. “…this by far is the worst book I have ever read.” (J Roselinde)
Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery. “Even as a child I couldn’t buy in to this garbage.” and “This book was so dreadfully boring I wanted to cry.” (Rachel and Ranata)
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. Weighing in with over forty-thousand one-star reviews on GoodReads for the first book, alone, it is widely popular, beloved, and financially productive. “When I turned the last page in this book I almost threw it across the room.” and “Never before have I been so eager to finish a book so that I could come online and write a scathing review of it.” (TheSaint and Laura)