When I didn’t like a book that others loved, I feel dumb. I wonder, what's wrong with me? Sometimes I'll go to amazon and read other reviews. The positive reviews help me to see what I was missing, but it’s nice for me to read the negative reviews too, just to see if anyone else had the same problems I did with the story. I personally never write negative reviews--if I don't like a book, I just don't review it, because there's enough to laud out there and I just don't groove with lots of negativity in my life. But I have found it comforting to read when others saw a story the same way I did. I think we’re all vulnerable creatures in some ways and don’t want to be alone. But it would be a mistake if I assumed that my negative reading of the book was the only valid one.
In the same vein, when I love a book, I like to go out and see what praise others are singing for it. I love to enjoy a book with others who felt the same way. The internet provides a wonderful platform for community, for finding other like minds.
It also creates an anonymity that makes it easy to act in a very different way than we would face-to-face. I've never yet experienced a rude fan who would come to me in person and say, "You suck. Your books are boring, I hate them..." and so on. And yet I've had a few emails or blog comments to that effect. For the emailer/commenter, it probably feels fairly innocuous because they're anonymous, just writing words on a screen. But on my end, the effect is the same as if someone had yelled that to my face. We're still figuring out this whole internet and email business, I think, but whenever we forget that those usernames out there are fellow human beings, it's time to pull back and reevaluate. I would suggest this life code: never put into writing what you wouldn't say to someone's face. And after that: it might be time to question what you're willing to say to someone's face.
So, are negative reviews of a book important?
I’d say, yes. When I was younger, I didn’t feel like I had permission to dislike a book. If my teacher assigned a book, it was understood that this was a GREAT book. And if I didn’t like it, I felt ashamed and wondered what was wrong with me. I now believe that the reading experience is not all about the book or the reader, but a responsibility shared equally by both [see here and here]. So in some ways, I think it’s wonderful that people, especially young people, have a forum like the internet to express their opinions and learn to trust their own judgment. But the forum ceases to have value if we aren’t using this opportunity to learn how to express opinions in a productive way.
First let’s look at the purpose of reviews. Who is a book review for?
In my opinion, a book review is most assuredly not for the author. Never, in no way, absolutely not. Did I mention that it’s not? ‘Cause it’s not. I’ve blogged about this before, but for some this may be an alarming declaration. So lemme ‘splain.
Negative reviews are not helpful to a writer. Not everyone is going to like what you write, and there is no possible way to write something that will appeal to everyone's tastes. We're all individuals. A writer has to write a book to herself. That doesn't mean that writers shy from criticism. The rewrite process I go through with all my books would've made me weep and curl up into fetal position when I wasn't used to it. Many people read my manuscripts, including my editor, and with each draft give pages of notes about what is wrong with it and what doesn't work. I myself am a harsh editor of my own work. I spend months and years searching for ways I've failed with the story and for ways to improve it. I consider every criticism of the manuscript very seriously. It's an arduous, often painful, and completely essential process for writing the best book possible. The positive outcome of this torture is that by time each of my books is published, I feel very confident that it was the absolute best I could do and the story that I wanted to tell.
Although I’m pleased with it, not everyone will be. While negative reviews are inevitable, they're not instructive to the writer. At the worst, it throws me off, shakes my confidence so that writing that day or week is very hard. That's not the reviewer's fault, it's mine, but it may be why some writers avoid all reviews (I read what comes my way but don’t seek them out). It may be important for that reviewer to express their opinion, but that opinion is not helpful to me personally. The book is already published, there's nothing I can do to change it, and most likely I wouldn't change it if I could. I wrote the book that I wanted to read. Besides, I couldn't possibly listen to everyone. What some people loved, others hated. When people tell me things they don't like about my books, all I can do is acknowledge that they have every right to have that reaction, and then move on.
But doesn’t the negative review count as constructive criticism and help me improve as a writer for my future books? No, it doesn’t. This may be harder to explain. The writer Gene Wolfe said something like, “You never learn how to write a book--you only learn to write the book you're writing.” Writing a book (a unique book, not a formula book) is so complicated, I never learn how to do it. I’m struggling right now writing my tenth book as much as I did with my first. Post-publication criticism of river secrets, for example, isn't helpful to me in writing forest born. The criticism that applies to one doesn’t work for the other. It only serves to make me feel stupid. I've received some emails from (former) readers who were clearly not trying to give helpful feedback but rather doing their best to hurt me. It's not fun. I'm not sure why people do that. I guess they're hurting and they think they'll feel better if they hurt back. But those cases are rare--I believe the majority of negative feedback is meant well. However, I the author am not the ideal audience for it.
Positive reviews are not helpful to a writer, either. Strange perhaps, but true! I’m not going to lie to you--positive reviews absolutely lift my spirits and can give me new confidence to keep going with the book I’m working on at the moment. It is so lovely to see that the project I bled and sweated over is well received and discovered by like minds. And when the praise is born of kindness, those positive feelings are quite buoyant and can help me through rough patches. But it doesn’t actually make me a better writer. The praise is for a project already completed, and what I did well then doesn’t apply to what I’m doing now. Too much praise can turn into a burden, as with many writers who receive major awards for a book and then lose their confidence and don’t write another for fear of not measuring up. Don’t get me wrong--I’m not counseling you to stop writing positive reviews of beloved books or sending fan email to your favorite authors. This information isn’t meant for the reviewers, but the authors--never believe your own press. Both positive and negative reviews are inevitable for a published book, and authors know that we have to work to try to balance all that and not take in too much of either, lest we sink.
So, if a review is not meant for the writer of the book, then who?
Other readers, of course! (You knew that already, you are so smart.) [EDIT: Here I'm discussing personal reviews, such as anyone can post on amazon. Reviews in professional publications are often for librarians, booksellers, etc., as commenter Jen points out.] Potential readers can see if the book sounds like something they might like. Those who have already read the book can use the review to open up a discussion, discover nuances they missed, and so on. A review can turn the intimate experience of reading into a conversation that enlightens both sides.
That is, when it is a conversation. Here let me offer a second life code: try to express opinions as just that: opinions. And respectfully allow for disagreement. It hurts when people hate a book we loved. It feels like they don't just hate the book but hate us too. A loved book is so closely tied to our hearts, our personalities, when someone condemns that book it feels like they’re condemning us as people.
At the same time, it feels lousy when a book we abhor, others adore. It can make us feel like outsiders, idiots. And worse if we don’t like a book and those fans of it tell us we’re dumb for disliking it. We’re not dumb--just different. And no need to try and make the others feel dumb either. Say there’s a guy who has a crush on you, but you just don’t like him. Does that mean he’s unworthy of love, unlovable, and that anyone else who likes him is an idiot? Of course not! You two weren’t right together, but surely you’ll be happy for him if he finds love elsewhere. I think that metaphor works rather well, actually. I think it’s so important to acknowledge that every reading experience is unique--no book exists in a vacuum. A story is half the book, half the reader. We can claim our own reading experience and still allow others theirs.
To sum up: book reviews are intended for fellow readers; writers must work to, keep ourselves unaffected by both positive and negative reviews; and acknowledging opinion and expressing it respectfully on or offline will make the warm and fuzzies multiply like tribbles. So, tribble away, my friends. Tribble away.