On Writing Negative Book Reviews

I’ve been thinking a lot about negative book reviews recently. I often feel a twinge of guilt when I have mostly negative things to say about a book. Granted, I’m no Michiko Kakutani and my opinions aren’t important enough to impact an author’s career. However should I, as someone who has never even tried to write a book, be able to criticize others’ attempts?

There was an Op-Ed in the New York Times called “Banning the Negative Book Review” which argues that with so much negativity out there, do we really need to go out of the way to contribute to the “petty sniping” in the name of literary criticism?

Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Eligible (which I reviewed here), recently spoke on how she deals with negative reviews in an interview with the New York Times: “Criticism’s Sting: The Author Curtis Sittenfeld on Book Reviews.” In it, she has a helpful matrix that she uses to categorize reviews.

I think of reviews being mapped on a graph with four quadrants, and I’ll read the ones that are smart and positive, smart and negative, or dumb and positive (hey, all our egos need a little sustenance!). But there’s no point in reading a dumb, negative review.

Curtis Graph

In Case You Need a Graph

So this leads to the question, what makes a smart negative review? Luckily, there are many articles out there on writing negative reviews. I especially liked J. Robert Lennon’s article, which lists the following thought-provoking suggestions.

  • Provide Context: “If you have space, try to characterize the shape of the writer’s career and show how the new book fits in it.”
  • Have Humility: “In your review, let your reader know what it is other people like about this writer. If you disagree, say so, in a non-condescending manner.”
  • Provide a Path Forward: “Acknowledge what kind of excellence the writer might someday achieve, even if she didn’t this time out.”

I also came across art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s approach on works that he says aren’t “immediately congenial.” I thought that was a nice way to phrase this — something that may become congenial to you, with a little work.

I’ve got certain rules of thumb for work that isn’t immediately congenial. One is, what would I like about this if I liked it? That is, I sort of project in my mind somebody who thinks, “Wow, this is great, this is what I like.” And sometimes that idea in my head persuades me, and I come around. I come around a little bit. Sometimes I agree to disagree, but it enables me to write, I think, intelligently, and if that fails, then I sort of back up and say, “What would somebody who likes this be like?” Then it becomes sort of sociological. Then I’m writing about a taste. Sometimes I might think it’s a reprehensible taste in some way and write negatively.

Schjeldahl acknowledges a book could be good but still not to your tastes. You don’t have to like every book that’s technically perfect or widely acclaimed. Part of the joy of reviewing a book is picking apart what works and why or imagining what kind of person would read or write this book. I think criticism is an art form in itself. I, for one, take a lot of pleasure in reading all sorts of reviews and spend  a lot of time thinking about what makes a review work. I don’t think books can really be rated on a scale of one to five, books generally aren’t all good or all bad. To me, reviews are a way to figure out what works and what can be better, both as a way to digest the work and to hold literary works to a higher standard. I’m still an absolute novice in constructing a good review, but it’s been a real pleasure to practice.

What are your thoughts on negative reviews? Does it make a difference whether the author is living or dead? Does it matter if you’re writing for a book blog or for the New Yorker? Is criticism a dying art? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

26 thoughts on “On Writing Negative Book Reviews

  1. I think criticism is good. But it should be written in a mild manner. SOme people word their reviews as “worse book i have read” “totally dumb” etc. One really can word it better. The author is another human being doing a regular job like anyone else. It doesnt hurt us to be a bit kind. The negatives can be worded in a milder manner.

  2. I do wind up writing some negative reviews but thankfully they’re iin the minority. Because the majority of books I review on my blog are from publishers, NetGalley, Edelweiss, etc. I feel I have a responsibility to review them even if I don’t like them. I actually hate giving bad reviews and usually try to liven them up with funny gifs. I also try to lay out the exact reasons why a book wasn’t for me instead of hurling random insults. And in almost all cases, I finish the review saying that my opinion isn’t the end all and be all, and encourage my followers to check out other reviews on sites like Goodreads.

    • Haha, I have always loved your use of gifs in book reviews! I am not savvy enough to use them as well as you do. 🙂

      I like to think that I know myself well enough that I usually do not read books that I wind up hating, but then again, we should all venture outside of our comfort zones sometimes and try different things. I sometimes have a hard time pinpointing exactly why I didn’t like a book, but I think that’s something I need to work on rather than the fault of any author. Do you ever have that sort of gut reaction to a book without any rational explanation?

  3. This is a very good and timely topic! Back in the nineties I remember a teacher friend of mine was angry about the public schools giving all students in an essay competition a plaque and a medal. In other words, they were all winners. My friend’s compliant was that the awarding of everyone regardless of their effort, only served to punish the few students who worked hard and rewarded the numerous students who put little work into their essay. He had a point.

    The current state of reviewing may be headed in a similar situation, especially with the rising world of the indie author/publisher. I think By Hook or By Book is correct. There is a need and a responsibility for negative reviews, but the review should be reasonable and point out the problematical issues so that the author can benefit rather than feel insulted and damaged.

    Great post! Thanks for sharing.

    • Yes, I agree completely that not all books can be winners. I think that where I hesitate is that I personally don’t feel ~qualified~ to express criticism when I’ve never really studied literature or attempted to surmount such a task. I’m struggling still to decide for myself what makes a good book review, or what are the qualities that make a book reviewer persuasive and trustworthy. I’ve seen so many criticisms of Michiko Kakutani, for example, and I’m not sure if I’m familiar enough with the realm of literary criticism to decide for myself whether or not I like her reviewing style or tastes. I don’t know if I could even name a few more critics!

      Are there certain reviewers you trust or despise? This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently! As always, I really value your opinion. 🙂

      • Thank you for the kind words and support. I have to say I don’t really go in for reviews myself. I subscribed to the London Review and the subscription went out last year and I was glad to see it go. Not because it was bad, but because it’s difficult for me to get into reviews. I’ve heard it said “People on the Go!” read reviews in order to not read the book but they want to be able to say something “intellectual” about it. Hahaha. I don’t know. For instance, I did read one review of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. The reviewer started off with a rant about novels with the word “Girl” in the title. I was completely turned off. sigh.

        I’ve done very little in the way of book reviewing, myself. My idea of the best book review is one that exhorts readers to “read” the book by mentioning the book’s strengths and, simply put, readability. I think if I don’t care for the novel, e.g. Fifty Shades of Gray, then I wouldn’t review it. So far as negativity, hmmm, I think a book’s weaknesses should be discussed but only with the idea of the reviewer looking forward to the next effort rather than telling everyone that this novelist should stop writing!

        I’m all over the place with this response…which reveals the fact that I haven’t a clue. :-/

        I do intend to try my hand at reviews in the near future. One of my blogging buddies is about to self-publish a novel…within the next year I think, and I’ve promised to “review” it. I’ll definitely let you know how it goes. 🙂

        • Haha, I completely understand what you mean about “People on the Go!” Especially here in New York, I know so many people whose opinions can all be found in NYTimes Reviews or The New Yorker, etc.

          To be fair, I didn’t like The Girl on the Train very much, did you?

          I agree that criticism should be constructive and forward-looking, not in the “you should never write again!” type of way.

          I’ll definitely look forward to reading your review of your pal’s book. How exciting to self-publish a book!

          • The Girl on the Train? I did like it as a mystery thriller. As a matter of fact, I was surprised that I got caught up in the novel as much as I did. I was hooked by the alcoholic and terribly unreliable narrator, which surprised me the most because usually alcoholism in novels and movies turns me off. But, I probably won’t read it again. For me that’s the problem with mystery novels, after one read that’s it.

            But back to the narrator. I liked her-I think- because of her tenacity, even in the face of her inability to come to grips with her own issues, i.e. childlessness, obsessive, and alcoholism. Quite a list, huh? I think perhaps I put up with her as well as I did because I had just finished reading, The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. OMG, I got so sick and tired of the meanness of the narrator in that novel I almost couldn’t finish the book. I had to sludge through 300 + pages of hostility, meanness, and misunderstanding and finally on the last page there’s a hint that she’s gonna be okay…what?

            And then there’s the great novel The Secret Life of Bees which I loved and intend to read again and again. Have you read it? By Sue Monk Kidd. The narrator is a young girl running away from an abusive father. Kidd’s depiction of the black women in the novel is so well done and so powerful. I often wondered if Kidd wasn’t influenced by Toni Morrison. The novel had “that” kind of power.

            Sorry for going on and on. 🙂 But one last thing! Self-publishing. It is exciting and scary all at the same time. I’m interested in how it goes with my fellow blogger who has stated that she wants to self publish. I think it’ll be a few months yet, but I’m watching closely. I really haven’t made up my mind as to whether or not I want to go that route.

            So, thanks for reading and responding. Hope you have a great day!

  4. This is a really good post and a really important one. The act of criticism (and I mean the art of reviewing as opposed to the art of slating) is one that is at its best when it takes stock of its own form. Namely: when you are reviewing a book, you’re embarking upon an incredibly individualised experience. I think that’s so important. Of course, we like to make recommendations, and we like to enter in to a conversation about a book or topic that is taking place. But in doing so, we’re entering in to a conversation that has preceded us and will succeed us. Whenever I write a negative review – and that is relatively rare – I always try to make sure that there’s an awareness that it is my relationship with the book that has possibly impacted upon my dislike. Again, the book might be “bad” in places, but a review is not only about the text, in my opinion, but about the relationship between the reader and the text. I find that a recognition of that really helps the review process.

    • Thank you for pointing out how unique and individualized each person’s reading experience is. Sometimes I balk at subject matter that makes me uncomfortable, which definitely tints my reading experience in ways that others may not relate to. One reason why I love book reviews (both reading and writing them!) is that it helps me process my own experience and place it within a larger historical or cultural context. Do you think there are no bad books, and simply a question of tastes? Or are there some books that we should collectively agree on as terrible garbage books?

      Of course, now I’m going to peruse your blog for negative reviews. 🙂

  5. I don’t like it when I have anything negative to say, but not every book is going to be perfect for every reader. (I’ve only ever gone to town on a book once and even then I thought I was pretty polite about it.)
    If I do have something negative to say about a book, I try not to make it the focus of my review. I usually note all the things I liked early in the post and leave the things I didn’t like until towards the end; but I always finish on a positive. I don’t want the last thing that people read to be a negative, because that’s likely to be the thing that’ll stick with them, and unless I state it explicitly, I never want to discourage people from reading something. I prefer to give people an idea of what to expect in the hopes that they’ll read it for themselves and make up their own minds.

    This was a really great post and it’s definitely something us bloggers should give more thought to!

    • I like your format for “negative” reviews. I think ending on a positive note is always a good thing to do. However, I agree that everyone’s tastes are different, and it’s exactly that discussion that makes blogging so much fun!

  6. Great post! This is also comes at a good time for me. I just read a book for review that I disliked very much. I don’t like having to give a really negative review, but I’m also not willing to lie. I do think it’s important to deal with it rationally though. It’s no use throwing around insults – that makes for a dumb negative review indeed (that 4 caste system is perfectly accurate if you ask me). Good criticism – saying “yeah, that sucked” is not it. I think negative reviews are fine as long as they explain why it didn’t work.
    I’m also all for still encouraging others to read the book and find out for themselves, because after all tastes are different.

    • Yes, I agree — everyone has different tastes, but sometimes a book could actually be poorly written or have a lot of plot holes which are all completely rational critiques of a book. Are you going to be posting your “negative” review soon? I’ll be looking forward to reading it.

      And yes, I agree — I thought that four quadrant review system was very accurate! I’ll strive to always stay on the “smart” side of the graph 🙂

      • Well, the book I’m writing the review for is for an ARC of a book that will be published in November, so I want to wait a bit longer before actually publishing it. BUT I’m actually in the process of writing another negative review for a book I own and I want to finish writing it this week and publish it this week or the next- so you can check that one out soon! 🙂 I’ll make a note to leave you a link if you want 🙂

  7. Sometimes it’s almost irresistible to be snide, especially when you find a run of books that are not to your taste or are just badly written. I wrote two negative reviews in two weeks recently, but I gave evidence for my point of view, so someone with different tastes can judge for herself.

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