There was recently an article published by the New York Times online, in the book review section, by writers Francine Prose and Zoë Heller. In the article, Do We Really Need Negative Book Reviews, the writers offered different perspectives, Prose opining that it is better to tell the truth, and Zoë Heller, surmising that it is cruel to banish a “bad” book from public existence by ignoring it.
As readers, we look to reviews –good or bad, to signal whether we should purchase a book. The reason I pay close attention to bad reviews instead of good ones is simple; reviews that offer too much praise has often led me to feelings of disappointment.
There is a book of particular notoriety (and a movie in the works), that I was so anxious to read that I grabbed it off of the shelf at the grocery store, tore the covers open — I HAD to consume some of it before I got to the checkout line. But upon reading the first chapter, standing in the middle of the aisle my shoulders slumping in disappointment, I ended up putting it back on the shelf. The book was not only written in present tense, it was a “bad” book. One of the worst I had ever had the misfortune of coming across, and yet thousands of readers love it. I wrote a bad online review and found there were many others… thousands of reviews from fans and critics alike. These reviews seemed to ‘feed’ the popularity of this book.
On the other hand, I often find myself buying a novel I’m interested in to see if it is as bad as reviewers say it is. Some of the books I find are amateurish but entertaining, and others are surprisingly good reads. Going in with low expectations, I’m usually pleasantly surprised. Critics are often much harsher than they need to be.
Reviews indicate to me, that people are reading a book and therefore, the work is of some importance. So authors fear not, even bad reviews are good. As Heller stated, the worst thing you can do to an author is ignore their work. Take for example my first book…
When I was 8 years old I wrote my first poem, won a contest, and had writing fever ever since. As a teen I walked around with a notepad and pen in my hand, and spent most of my time sitting alone in the park, writing my thoughts. This resulted in a collection of poetry I eventually published as an adult. Today, my godmother still carries that notepad around in her possessions, some twenty five years later. The work was important to her – it resonated with her. The feelings I’d written about were universal and reflected a dark part of her childhood – we shared that bond through written words and conversation. So does it hurt that I sold only a handful of copies? That I never received a single review? Absolutely. I had hoped to touch people just like my godmother, people who have found themselves in similar life situations. While some might argue that poetry is dead, word of mouth is everything. Someone in need of the material may not be able to find it, but no one is talking about the book of poetry – good or bad, so the book languishes. In this sense, readers who chose not to review the book, had unintentionally (or not) condemned it. When readers review a book, they are doing the author a favor.
In the article, Heller also quoted Pace Siegel of the New Yorker and Isaac Fitzgerald of Buzzfeed, book critics who publically vowed ‘never to write a negative review ever again’. To this, Heller wrote,
“…I would ask them to consider, is how authors feel about being reviewed. Pace Siegel, most writers do not write merely, or even principally, to escape from or console themselves. They write for other people. They write to have an effect, to elicit a reaction. That is why they scrap and struggle, often for years, to have their work published.”
While some of this is true, it is too much of a generalization. The reason we write depends on the author. My earlier work was quiet, a bit tragic and depressing, what some would consider serious literary works. Today, I write romance novels. I started after making the decision to eschew dating more than a decade ago. A vow that lasted fifteen years. I consoled myself by not only reading and writing romance, but valuing a happy ending. I want to finish a book with a smile on my face even if the outline of these stories are horribly clichéd. As a writer, I genuinely want to make people happy. To me, that goes beyond merely wanting to elicit a reaction.
Good reviews are good, but they can also raise expectations in a way that can hurt the author. Bad reviews hurt, because of the time and effort authors put into their work. The truth, however difficult, can be hard to take. However, a bad review is also good, because it encourages discussion about the work, even in the event that it’s just a silly little book.
– E. Hughes.