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Negative book reviews - and I'll define that what I mean for the sake of this discussion is online reviews of the blog or forum variety as opposed to old print publications - have been on my mind lately for three reasons:

1) I have a new book out that's getting a lot of blog attention (so yes, this is all about me-me-me);

2) it's an evergreen topic on writer forums, in particular focusing on Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer;

3) agent Janet Reid had a terrific post, Your Invisibility Cloak Isn't Working, which included a reference to one top editor saying that a negative Internet presence can lead to her reject that writer's work, including "if they publicly bash a book she's worked on."

That last left a pretty sobering impression, particularly on writers whose works have yet to find publishing homes.

So what's the deal? What can you say and how should you say it?

Well, seriously, this is still America, meaning you can say just about anything except "Fire!" in a movie theatre when there isn't one (a limitation I wholly endorse since I had a great-aunt who had a fatal heart attack while getting trampeled under just those circumstances).

You know what? For me, the decision on whether or not to be negative about another author's work stems more from who I want to be than from any Big Brother-ish fears. Years ago, when I was a Publishers Weekly reviewer, my job necessitated me writing a truthful review on any book I was assigned and a lot of what I wrote was negative. But it no longer interests me to do so. It's not that I don't think my reading eye is discerning, but at this point I've lived long enough to know just how subjective reader response is: it's possible to dislike a book because it forces you to look at yourself in a way that makes you uncomfortable; it's possible to dislike a book because you feel some envy or resentment toward the author; it's possible to dislike a book because of your own misconceptions about what the book was really about; and yes, it's possible to dislike a book because it really does suck.

Me, just because I dislike a book, I don't feel called to be the Town Crier about it.

And yet many seem to hear just that calling. I think of these people as Readers With A Mission. It's not enough that they hate what you wrote and say as much on their blogs, but every time anyone anywhere on the Web says something positive about you or your work, they pop up in the comments section to say, "Oh, I read X book by her and I *hated* it!" These people are real zealots. I sometimes envy them: imagine being so sure, all the time, that every thought you have is the only possible conclusion that anyone should have!

Of course writers have been known to do this too, as mentioned above, with the endless discussions of Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer. As stated in previous posts, I just don't play that. Never mind the fact that I actually did enjoy Twilight, I just don't think it's attractive to bash people who are uber-successful because for the most part it does come off as petty jealousy. And in the case of Ms. Meyer, I recently looked up the pre-pub reviews in the four major trades and noted that in three of the four she received starred reviews with the fourth, Kirkus, being, well, not bad for Kirkus! So what does this say? Are the critics always right? I'll tell you one thing, if other writers want to wear those coveted starred reviews as their own badges of honor if they're lucky enough to ever achieve them, it looks downright foolish to declare someone who received three for a single book as "not a good writer." As for Dan Brown, well, I hope his new book does very well so that his publisher makes lots of money, so that in turn benefits all my friends who are published by Random House; because really, it's better to be published by a company that's making money than one that is not.

Getting back to the Janet Reid piece, do editors really reject books based on what sorts of things they see you saying on the Internet when they Google your name? Apparently, at least one does and I can't imagine she's the only one. So what should you, Unpublished Author (or even Published Author) do if you want to discuss books on the Internet and you are further one of those who wants to discuss books you disliked as well as those you loved? Well, you need to actually learn to talk critically. You need to learn, when finding fault, to say things like, "I didn't care for the deux et machina ending in The Thin Pink Line" as opposed to "Doesn't anyone edit anymore these days???" (True story: that really happened back in 2003. The host of a Chick-Lit forum, who I could tell was dying to get her own books published, wrote the latter about my debut novel. I wound up talking to her on the phone and explained that while I was fine with her hating on my book as much as she wanted, it was unwise of her to call the editing into question since, well, that's the editor she was dreaming would buy her book. She was grateful for the advice and further astonished to discover that the book was intended as a satire - previously she'd thought I was endorsing people faking pregnancies!)

OK, this is starting to ramble, which usually means I've either hit a brilliant stride here (low degree of probability) or I'm trying real hard to procrastinate doing something else (high degree of probability).

Bottom line: you're adults, for the most part. You decide what sort of person you want to be.

Me, for now at least I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing: buzzing books that I'm enthusiastic about, spreading the word about what I think is worthy. Really, I've read 234 books already this year, and I don't have time to review all of them, so I'll just keep telling people about the books I've loved and leave it to others to talk about what they've hated.

How about you? What do you think of all this?  

Be well. Don't forget to write.

Comments
22 Comment count
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Love your post, Lauren and

Love your post, Lauren and could not agree more. My comfort zone is writing about what I love, not what I hate (not that I won't admit reading other's peeves.)

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Randy!!!

I can't wait to read your book! As for being negative, I just always think: Do I really need to voice every thought that comes into my tiny little brain? No, I do not.

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You ROCK, Lauren

I agree with everything you say here, Lauren. And I'm not surprised to hear that people who look difficult or out-to-crucify might be unpleasant-looking to editors. That makes plenty of sense to me. I especially agree with the subjective view of reviewers. A lot of the negative reviews I've seen for my work have been the same sort of didn't-really-get-it review, and that's fine. (Seriously? Someone thought Think Pink Line was an endorsement to fake pregnancies? That's priceless.) I knew certain people wouldn't get my book, and I knew certain people would feel uncomfortable with parts of it. But to say it sucked because there should have been more puppies, for instance, is just kinda silly. (Though really, couldn't every book do with more puppies?) I'm a huge proponent of being positive and happy. So far, it's made my life joyous and I plan on staying that way! And as for recommending great books? Uh--CRAZY BEAUTIFUL WAS AMAZING! I wish you all the luck in the world with it, and can't wait to see what's next from LBL. Amy www.as-king.com

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Cats, not dogs!!!

Don't you know yet that I'm a cat person??? Seriously, though, people telling you the marvelous DUST OF 100 DOGS needs more dogs is as incomprehensible to me as that fake-pregnancy stuff is to you. Now here's the kicker: she wasn't the *only* one who thought I was endorsing fake pregnancies! I want to say, "Jane Taylor is a character and this is satirical fiction, people - it's not an autobiography!" (Thank you for the kind words about CB.)

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Cats

Of course. Cats. Maybe I should have put more of those in there, too. :)

One thing I didn't mention above is something that occurs to me often when I read certain types of reviews. What's become more and more apparent to me is: a lot of people don't understand just how many hands have worked on a book before it gets to the bookstore shelf. While they're flailing around asking, "How can rubbish like this get published when so many real writers write great books!?" I wonder have they stopped to think about the actual process a book goes through before they grew to hate it. Maybe they're just just out to vent their own frustrations toward the author and her stupid plot or dumb characters or lack of puppies, but overlooking the fact that a huge amount of people were behind buying and making and marketing the book seems a little shortsighted. Though I have disliked many books I've read, I just figure they were not for me, and I move on to find the next great one. But each one I have disliked, I have learned from (about writing, myself, publishing, etc.) and that alone, makes reading it a valuable use of my time.

I do believe this second post is proof I have ingested too much coffee today.

www.as-king.com

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HA!

Or maybe you're procrastinating something else too? Anyway, great thoughts, no matter how caffeinated.

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Interesting post, Lauren. I

Interesting post, Lauren. I try to only discuss books in public that I like. As part of "The Book Review Club," I always choose books I'm loving so that I can give a positive review. If the name of a book comes up that isn't to my taste, I may indicate that it's not my personal style, but I try to be careful there. I hope I've never crossed the lines, but we can feel so passionate about books, we may flub up without realizing it.

And, yes, I'm procrastinating. I need to write and hope that somebody likes what I've written. And hope I haven't offended people along the way. It's crazy to be so public while making that journey these days. Writers today are dealing with issues writers in the past didn't have to worry about. :)

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Very true, Kathy.

Dickens didn't have to worry about Google turning up him calling H.G. Wells an asshat. (I'm making that one up.) On the other hand, there are many pretty wonderful things about this Brave New Era - like the vast community of writers one can connect with online, making a solitary profession feel less lonely.

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Great Post!

Loved what you said, Lauren. There is no sense in making a point to exude negative energy. It comes back at ya, anyway.

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negative energy

Oh, I definitely don't need any more of that coming my way than I do already!

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Very thoughtful post

Very thoughtful post, Lauren! While I haven't read as many books as you this year, I still try to post my thoughts on them. I don't try to be negative on any because I realize how difficult it is to be out there trying to get others (to buy and, more importantly,) read a book penned by an author. The most I generally say in a negative sense is that a particular book wasn't my favorite. Most times I just give an overall synopsis rather than "bash" a book. Each book has a particular audience (and perhaps I am not part of it). I guess I still follow the advice of my mother (and all mothers)...if you can't say anything good about it, don't say anything at all!

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Of course there's also:

"If you can't think of anything nice to say, come sit by me" - sometimes, that works too. :) Seriously, it sounds like you've got a good philosophy, Nancy. Thanks for weighing in!

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Time well spent

Lovely post. It's hard to write about this topic without sounding like a Pollyanna and you pulled that off. I think we all get confused at writers and books that are popular but according to us shouldn't be. Years ago, I read a few paragraphs of "The Da Vinci code" and closed it thinking, "Not for me." But that would apply to a ton of books, including many worthy works that simply are not for me or not for me at that moment.

Like you, I would rather spend my time pointing at books that I think people should be reading than waste my time hating on popular stuff. To continue the street talk... people who use the internet as a hyper-negative bullhorn don't hate Stephenie Meyer, they want to be Stephenie Meyer.

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great last line

That last line was awesome, Adrian. Like anything else, it's not true 100% of the time, but it's true often enough (and still a great line!). Btw, nice to see you here - it's always fun to meet new folks. Well, most of the time.

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I was just thinking about this...

since I'm doing a lot of book reviews this month. I try to be honest and fair about the books I review. "I liked this, this not so much, etc".

I think it's easy for me to be positive though. If I hate a book, nine times out of ten I don't finish it. If I don't finish it, I don't review it. So any books I do review are books that had some merit, enough to get me through the whole thing, and I try to bring that out in my review.

(I'm super impressed by your book count for the year, btw. I'm only up to 158 so far.)

:)

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Phew!

You don't review books you haven't finished, so I guess that means you're not like the people who get on Amazon and post one-star reviews and write, "I stopped reading after three pages. No one should read this book." Phew! Seriously, Miriam, I know from my own reviewing days that there's a fine art to reviewing books not strictly from one's own perspective, but rather, by putting oneself in the reading chair of the kind of person the book's intended for.  

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I'm loving this

I'm loving this conversation, and it's inspired me to write a sister-blog later today! But I wanted to chime in on the phenomenon of "I didn't read it and you shouldn't either" reviews. I got a one star review some time ago that was based on what the reviewer's friend told her. "My friend said this book wasn't worth my time." 

I love those.

 

www.as-king.com

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HA!

I'm sorry, but that is funny. Please come back and link your sister blog later - I'd love to read it.

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Reviewing books I haven't finished makes no sense to me.

Especially since there are so many reasons I don't finish books. I can think of at least two books off the top of my head that I started reading this year and didn't finish that were GOOD. Writing, pacing, voice, all of it was fabulous. But I found the subject matter too depressing, and I wasn't in the mood for it.

That's another thing. Sometimes I'm just not in the mood for a specific book. Doesn't mean I might not enjoy it later.

:)

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Exactly.

Of course sometimes people stop reading before even starting. The other day someone posted a favorable review of CRAZY BEAUTIFUL and in the comments section someone wrote that while they were a fan of my work, they had no interest in reading CB because they didn't go for paranormal YA. And then the next person commented, based on that, that they'd pass on the book as well, not liking paranormal YA, and would read another of mine instead. But-but-but...CB isn't paranormal! And the review had never said it was.

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My reaction..

as someone who's written quite a few reviews in the past, is complex. I think the on-line writes busily dumping on Dan Brown et al are really wasting their hot air because a) his books will keep selling anyway b) he's laughing all the way to the bank and c) he's unlikely to change his writing style now. However, I think an objective negative review -- that is, one that measures a book according to its own objectives and compares it with the best in that genre -- can be useful to developing writers. We'd rather hear a positive review, of course, but not all of us benefit from editors who are as strict and knowledgeable as they should be. If there's something I don't know about that's seriously limiting the achievement of my writing, I'd like to learn ... although it may smart at the time.
I too have essentially suspended writing reviews ... mostly so I could devote more time to my own creative writing. Reviews pay little, if anything, although they are a valuable part of the literary world.

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True.

Writers can learn a lot from reading reviews of their work, particularly if the writer develops a good editorial ear, trained to separate valuable criticism from nasty swipes etc that come from a less noble place than the reviewer simply trying to objectively critique the work at hand.