3/4/11

To Rip or Not to Rip by Jeffrey S. Savage


No, I’m not talking about tearing up those rejection letters. (Which I am totally fine with, BTW.) Or the latest cute baby video making the rounds. (And this is definitely not me engaging in a chance to slip some potty humor by LDSPublisher.)

What I’m talking about is whether or not you feel it is appropriate as an author to post negative reviews of other authors’ books. Most people have a knee jerk reaction to this one way or the other. “I would never post a negative review of another author’s book. What If they read it?” Or “Wait, are you suggesting that I should say I like a book when I really don’t, just because I’m an author too?

It would be nice if it was that black and white. You read a book, you like it, you tell people. You read a book, you hate it, you tell people. That’s the way it works in real life. And it’s actually a pretty good process. Regardless of whether we’re talking about e-book, hardbacks, traditionally pubbed, or self-pubbed works, I still believe that word of mouth is what turns a good book into a bestseller.

Why shouldn’t that translate to the internet?

Becca Fitzpatrick, author of Hush Hush, wrote an interesting post about a situation where an up and coming author wrote a scathing review not only of Hush Hush, but of many other YA books. Later when this author was looking for cover blurbs, her editor approached Becca and asked for a blurb. Hmmm. Awkward to say the least. I liked this comment by Becca.

“You might think I turned down reading the manuscript out of revenge or to give the author the finger, so to speak. I hope I'm not that petty. The reason I decided not to read the manuscript was because I wondered what would happen if I did read it...and loved it. What if I sent the editor a handful of glowing words, and she decided to stick them on the front cover of her author's book? Would the author love having my praise splashed on her cover? Probably not. In the end, I decided to take the higher road and let the author breathe easy. (It didn't slip my mind that the ultimate revenge would have been making sure my name got on the cover of her book. But again. Higher road. Always the better path.)”

The ultimate revenge line totally cracked me up. That would be the ultimate revenge.

I’ve had a similar experience, where a would-be author savaged (pun semi-intentional) my first Farworld novel. He didn’t just dislike it. He loathed it. It was horrible writing combined with a complete rip off of Harry Potter. Normally I ignore bad reviews. But this guy just seemed to hate me personally. Enough so, that I did some research and discovered that he was an attendee at a conference I was speaking at. I seriously wanted to trash the guy. Instead, I introduced myself, explained that I’d read his review and wanted to know what he hated so much. It turned out that we had a pretty good discussion and we’ve since become friends.

But the truth of the matter, as Becca explained, is that the writing world is so small. If you’re going to become part of it, there is every chance that you’ll eventually run into authors you have read before. And the thing that makes the internet different from talking to a friend is that your words to your friend don’t pop up on the author’s Google Alerts. More than likely within an hour of this blog post going up, Becca will get an e-mail. It will be a direct link to what I have written. Becca will go, “Hmm, wonder what this dude is saying about me and she will come read this.” (Hi Becca!!) A lot of people don’t consider the fact that authors are real people. Who have heard of the internet. And most of us read our reviews.

In addition, even if I decide I don’t like what I wrote and delete it down the road, the internet is a tricky beast. It stores caches of things. You think your words are gone, but they really aren’t. So down the road when you are looking for help from another author, that author can Google and see all the snarky things you said about them.

So, am I saying you should only write good things about other authors, even if you didn’t like their work? Should you say wonderful things and hope they remember you down the road? Unlike a lot of authors, I LOVE Goodreads. If someone hates my book, I really want to know what didn’t work for them. If they liked it, I want to know that too. I hate looking at a book on Amazon that only has six reviews. All of them are five stars, and none of the reviewers have posted another review. It tells me this author got a bunch of his friends together and begged them to give him good reviews. I personally would rather have no reviews than people giving me five stars because they were my friends.

And as authors we should be the most discriminating readers there are. Because we can look behind the curtain at what the author did and didn’t do to make his or her book work. I’ll admit that when I finished reading Hush Hush, I had mixed emotions. (You’ve stopped reading now Becca, right?) Her prose was excellent—especially for a first book. Really well done. Her plot was gripping. Now maybe this is just the dad in me, but some parts of the story made me really uncomfortable. Becca did a great job of walking the fine line between sexual tension and having her main character courting death, rape, and a lot of other bad stuff. If my daughter acted like that, I would lock her in her room until she was forty. So it wasn’t necessarily a perfect read for me.

But here’s the thing. As a forty-eight year old guy, I am not Becca’s target audience. If I go out and rip this book, I’m ignoring the fact that it probably wasn’t intended for me to like. And while I don’t know Becca personally, my guess is that she wouldn’t have a problem with me saying that this isn’t the greatest book for dads of teenage girls. Lu Ann, a Junior High English teacher and fellow writer, loved the book. (She has no daughters by the way.)

Shannon Hale, another LDS writer who I do happen to know personally wrote a good blog post about reading as a writer.

She says, “Reading as a writer changed me completely as a reader. I find I can still appreciate books I dislike because I am learning through them how to write stories I do like.”

That’s pretty close to where I stand. It’s easy to say, “This book stinks!” And maybe to you it does. But if you have aspirations of becoming a published author yourself, you are a lot better off to ask yourself, “What was it about this book—which I may not have liked—that got it past an agent, an editor, a publishing committee, and ultimately into the hands of a lot of readers that did like it?”

I’m not saying don’t write negative reviews. Speaking only for myself, I want to hear what people did and didn’t like about my books. I’m willing to live with some pain to improve my writing. What I hate is one star reviews with no comment at all. Or something like, “Blech.” Blech? Really? You just spent ten hours reading my novel and all you have to offer is Blech? Grrr. But I will say that before you write a less than glowing review, think about what worked and didn’t work for you and why it did and didn’t. A while back, a very nice woman blogged about how Water Keep didn’t have the same character depth as Elantris. Of course it didn’t. One is a middle grade novel aimed at nine-year-olds and the other is epic fantasy aimed at adults who read 800 page tomes.

She was right. But my point is that if you’re going to complain about how a middle grade book doesn’t have the depth of an epic fantasy, consider who the audience is. Consider what the author was going for. Then when you do write a review, you can write a fair review that explains what you liked, what you didn’t like, and why that might have been. I think most authors appreciate an honest review. And if you really hate the book that a lot of people like, maybe you aren’t the best judge of it at after all.

How do you feel? As an author would you be offended if another author ripped your book? If you hate a book by an author you might meet one day, how do you handle it?

19 comments:

Th. said...

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Since we don't seem to have an exclusively critical class anymore, we either need to let ourselves not like books or we will end up with a lopsided criticism. We need to know which books are bad and why as much as the opposite.

In other news, I highly recommend this from Scott McCloud. Which is some of the best advice on dealing with bad reviews I've ever read.

Emily M. said...

I don't write online reviews of books I don't like with at least a B+. The caveat to this is that if I didn't like a book but my kids did, I will write positively about it based on the assumption that they are a better audience for the book than I am.

But I don't necessarily agree with my reasons: I'm a chicken. Every year I've read the Whitneys I have mentally composed reviews of at least a couple of the finalists, going point by point over the things I wish they had done differently. A lot of the things that bug me are easy fixes--I'm not a professional editor, and if something seems obvious to me I wonder why either the author or the editor didn't catch it. I even wrote comments in red pencil all over one book a while ago.

But I don't want to go public with these things. Because the authors are nice, kind, hardworking people who have published books, something I have yet to do. And once a book is published, it's out there. There is nothing else that can be done. Publicly picking it apart doesn't actually seem like it helps the author much. And mostly because I don't want people mad at me.

I don't know that these are great reasons, but there you go.

I do try to emphasize books I really liked

Amie B said...

this is a very insightful post. and something i've thought a lot about as a writer.

i have read books that i didn't like, and i felt i needed to be honest in my review. BUT i always tried to find a way to be polite about what i didn't like and to also find an equal amount of things i DID like.

Stephanie Black said...

Great post, Jeff. I think this is one of those questions where each author finds his/her own comfort level. I'm on the extreme end of things--I don't do negative reviews because I'm so hyperconscious of how much a harsh review can hurt, and I can't bring myself to do that to another author--especially in the small sandbox of LDS publishing. If I don't like a book, I prefer to avoid publicly reviewing or rating it. But I don't think my attitude is the "right" one--I don't think there's any one right way to go about it; this is just what fits my personal comfort level.

I appreciate Amie B's comment about how she tries to be polite, honest, and balanced in her reviews, even when she doesn't like the book. Thank you, Amie!

Anonymous said...

Great post Jeff. Just wonderful.

There is a difference in "finding" ten good things in a book you don't care for as a balance against the ten things you can't wait to mention that were terrible.

It takes A LOT of experience to be an experienced reviewer. Most goodreaders, bless their hearts, are not experienced readers. But they're still a good source. The only problem with goodreads is that they usually don't provide a bio that includes their readings preferences. So, as you say in your post, a goodreads person may love adult epic fantasy and think your middle grade reader sucks big time ONLY because they're not in the middle grader, and they hunger for something deeper that your audience would reject.

That's why an experienced reviewer, though they have preferences, has enough back ground to understand the difference between genres, audiences, and an understanding of who an author is trying to reach with their story.

All reiviews are not equal. And its important for an author to evaluate the reviewer and find out something about their bias. And its good for a reviewer to casually let on about their perferences in the review so going in, anyone who reads the review will know that the reviewer doesn't like mystery or has a hard time with dystopia fads or whatever.

Crazy Redhead said...

Jeff,

I came on LDSPublisher early today, but not expecting to see your post yet. I just have to laugh because it felt weird to see this before Saturday.

I like Annie B's post of an honest review showing the negative and positive aspects of a book. In high school, I remember my drama teacher telling us how to critique someone's performance. We were to always point out at least one good thing and give constructive criticism for the rest.

Emily M. said...

I'll make occasional facebook comments if I'm reading something I don't like, but in general I do not post negative reviews. I don't review a book I wouldn't give at least a B+ to.

But sometimes when I'm reading I wish that I could have been a beta reader and said something like, look, before you publish this, realize that right now your characters are just names. Nothing in language or mannerisms distinguishes one person from the next. This makes them really hard to keep track of. Or, I love what you're doing here, and if you could add some layers, some extra depth, think how much more powerful it would be. Take it through a couple more revisions and see how great it will be. Or, that's a cheesy line and it makes me cringe to read it. I am sure a writer like you can find a better way to phrase things.

But I don't usually publish that kind of thing online, even though it's in my head. I have spoken in vague terms about general issues in books I'm reading, but I try not to single one book out.

How do you balance honesty and mercy, though? If I had a book review blog, I would feel a responsibility to my readers to give my honest opinion. Sometimes that's not kind. I'm lucky right now because my reviewing platform at Segullah means I only post reviews once every few months; I feel no obligation to review anything I don't enjoy. But I do feel an obligation there to be honest, because I've had people tell me they buy books based on my recommendation, and I don't want to steer them wrong.

It's tricky.

Donna Weaver said...

Excellent post. I've heard a lot of comments about not posting a negative review and felt a little conflicted. It’s suggested that we all follow the Thumper rule--if we can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. And that works. To a point.

Both of the books I was recently disappointed with were books that concluded a good series in a disappointing way—the authors broke their contracts with their readers. If I follow the thumper rule, I wouldn’t review these books. Yet what if I’d reviewed all the previous books? Wouldn’t the final book's glaring omission say something?

I like your suggestion to find a balance between the things that work in the book and the things that don't. No book is perfect. Even the books we love have faults.

malibu said...

I don't think we are doing the community any favors by not posting honest reviews. I can understand the hesitation to give an unfavorable review of another author's work, but I see so many 5 star reviews for books that just, well, aren't, that it makes me think less about the quality of LDS fiction in general- because yikes, if this thing was five stars, I'd hate to read a 3. You know what I mean? I don't think we should lay into each other, but I think it needs to be constructive if the community is going to progress.

I also think that a good book is a good book, wether it is for middle readers or grown-ups, and I think most people can recognize that. I hate romances, but I can recognize a good one when I read it. I love epic fantasy, but hated Eragon. I don't think that genre is that important in recognizing quality writing. And I think kids deserve great characters, compelling ideas, well thought out plots and amazing writing as much as the rest of us do.

CS Lewis said, "No book Is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally- and often far more- worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond".

Melanie Jacobson said...

Oh, man. This hits so close to home.

My general rule is that I don't review anything that I can't give at least a B. I hate the idea of posting a negative review, even when I'm pretty sure I've got it right. I'm also pretty resistant to participating in blog tours. I SOMETIMES do it with the caveat that if I can't give the book a "B," then I'll just not post anything and pass the book along at my cost to the reviewer of their choice.

Recently an author acquaintance accepted my terms. I read the book and said I couldn't do the review. She begged for the bad review. Looooonnnng story short, she finally convinced me to post my honest opinion on the grounds she felt like it would generate controversy and more sales. She was right.

I hated the experience, though. I emerged pretty battered and I would never, ever do it again.

And yet . . . I rarely, if ever, believe glowing reviews I read about LDS fiction, most especially 5 star reviews because I read A LOT of it, and there's no way many of the books I've read have earned 5 stars. That's a shame though because some of them are awesome, and scattershot overly complimentary reviews make it hard to weed out the real gems. Well-intentioned but uncritical reviews steer people to books that aren't very good. It hurts the market by potentially turning off readers from some of the LDS fiction that truly is raising the level of the game.

And yet . . . I've learned to keep my mouth shut. It doesn't go on Goodreads if it's not truly four stars or better, especially now that I know how small this sandbox really is.

Jeff Savage said...

Excellent comments everyone. That's one of the best things about posting here. You get such well thought out discussions.

Just to clarify, I am absolutely not suggesting that you be dishonest in your reviews. If you don't like a book, you really only have three options. Post a bad review (hopefully with why you didn't like the book), post no review, or lie and post a good review.

If I wasn't clear enough about this in my post, I hate dishonest reviews. If the book didn't work for you, giving it five stars not only deceives other readers, but might make you look bad as well.

The thing you have to consider is whether posting a bad review or no review is better in your situation. Would you tell the author to his or her face what you are putting in your review. If you would, go for it. If you wouldn't and you spend a lot of time in author circles, you might want to consider no review at all.

As far as book review blogs, that's their whole business. Reviewing books. I want my book review blogs to tell like they see it. Otherwise, what's the point?

Gussie said...

Thanks so much for your excellent post. I work in a county library and often hear honest, spontaneous “reviews” of books patrons have read. The Hunger Games series has been very popular. I don’t like it. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t get half-way through the first book and I didn’t understand why so many people read it—adults as well as young adults. After reading Jeff’s positive review of Hunger Games on another blog, I had to re-think my opinion. The book is actually written so well that I felt I was one of the spectators which explains why I couldn’t finish it.

Th. said...

.

Someone just pointed this out to me and it's terribly apropos.

Anna said...

This got me thinking. How does everyone use their rating system? Does 3 starts mean you don't like it? Does 3 stars mean you liked it enough to read it once, but probably wouldn't read it again? Different "stars" could mean different things to everyone.

Maybe this would be another good post topic.

Anonymous said...

I don't see a lot of book review blogs doing very honest reviews of LDS fiction- most of them seem to love everything. In fact, Shelah Books It is the only one I can think of off the top of my head that is objective and doesn't rave about everything.

As far as stars go, I go by Netflix ratings:
5 stars- love, love, love it!
4 - liked it
3- it was ok.
2 - didn't like it.
1 - absolutely hated it.

I really have to love something to give it 5- we're talking life changing and at the same time some part of me has to be deeply angered/offended/insulted to give something 1.

I am interested to see how others use the rankings...

brendajean said...

Very interesting post Mr. Savage. I actually agree with everything you said. Nothing is more difficult than disliking a book written by an author you love. I have been sent books to review from authors I love and have been unable to sleep over what I may say in a review. (Could I even begin to express my disappointment in the difference between books 1 and 3 of Hunger Games? I really strongly disliked the utter dispair and hopelessness of the third book, but the writing was still exceptional) It is hard to review a book honestly when you don't agree with the content and how the book makes you feel in the end. I ALWAYS check out Goodreads and trust my friends tastes there before I dare crack open a novel by an unknown author and if someone has praised a terrible book just to sugar coat, I unleash my fury of a wasted 8 hours of my life on them. Honest reviews are meant for authors growth and awareness too and we are doing a disservice to not give honest feedback :) Just sayin'...

Heather B. Moore said...

This topic is extremely intriguing. I might even post on it :-)

I've had authors tell me to my face they didn't care for one of my books (believe me, that's not the norm with most authors). I have posted negative reviews, and yes, there is the potential I'll meet the author some day. But I do think negative reviews can be helpful IF they are clear and constructive, and not just plain mean and immature.

I actually value negative reviews a lot, like I said, IF they are constructive and I can use them to make my writing better.

An author can't change the book that someone didn't like--it's too late for that. But they can improve their storytelling skills.

So maybe ask yourself the question of what you are trying to accomplish by posting a negative review. Are you warning someone? Are you just ranting? Or do you think the maybe the author might read it and might, possibly, appreciate knowing what you felt worked and didn't work.

Reading is completely subjective, so although I do appreciate constructive criticism, I am even more eager to find out what DID work for the readers.

So for the question, should authors review books? Absolutely. Should they post negative reviews? If they are constructive. Should they only post reviews of books they love? If there is a disclaimer that they are doing so.

Christy said...

Hmmm. This is such an interesting topic and I waver on what I think of it.

I have a book review blog and most of the books I review are hand-picked and likely to be books I enjoy. I tend to gravitate toward books I might like. However, I do try to point out what was missing or what I would change if I were the author.

I have had instances where I genuinely haven't liked the books given to me to read. In that case, I try to be constructive and include what did work in the book.
I also like to think about whether or not I would be able to discuss the book's flaws with the author to his/her face and that prevents me from making generalizations like "I didn't like the characters." Why didn't I like the characters? What didn't work?

As a book reviewer I feel a responsibility to portray the book as it stands, for the audience it was intended for.

I no longer use a rating system on my blog. I only use the rating systems when I post on Amazon and Goodreads. Books vary drastically and I can't bring myself to pin a number on one compared to another.

Rebecca Irvine said...

Very interesting... glad I am not the only one who does not review books I don't like.