if you haven't got anything nice to say (about a book), come sit by me
Only positivity allowed
Nick Hornby writes a column for The Believer called “Stuff I’ve Been Reading”. But it only features some of what he’s been reading, because the magazine’s editorial policy is not to slag anything off. If he doesn’t like a book, he can maybe make reference to the fact that he opened it (as long as he doesn’t reveal its title or any identifying details) but that’s it.
I’m sure a lot of authors would like to live in a Nick-Hornby’s-review-rules-world where everyone with a negative opinion of their book keeps it to their own fool self. A world without Amazon one-star ratings, where every newspaper reviewer says “brilliant”, or puts up and shuts up.
A case of the boo-hoos
I’ve seen blog posts from authors where they dwell on bad reviews, wondering what they’ve done to deserve it, moaning how misunderstood they are. I’ve seen tweets from writers who feel the Goodreads community shouldn’t be able to just give star-ratings with one easy click (and without a degree in Comparative Literature). Don’t we know how hard they worked on that thing?! And I’ve seen authors comfort each other with “Oh, what do they know!”-style messages.
I reserve the right to be a moody author
I know I’m one to mock. I haven’t had a book published, but if someone criticises something I’ve written, even if their critique is unintelligent or unintelligible, I feel hurt. You can tell me a thousand times that it’s my writing they didn’t like, not my personality, but if there’s a way to prise the two apart, I haven’t found it. Is there any writer who is even halfway decent who doesn’t pour their soul into their work?
So I get how hurtful it must be when a book you’ve slaved over for years is dismissed with a one-star rating (not even a review!) or some hastily typo-ridden type on a book-selling site that shows the reader didn’t understand what you were trying to do at all.
But should people really never write anything negative about a book, in case the author is hurt by it?
Criticism is stigmatised
Some people think so. You’ve probably heard that old quote about how they never erected a statue to a critic. Maybe your parents told you that if you didn’t have anything nice to say then you should, to quote Shaft, “Shut yo’ mouth.”
Author Don Miller goes as far as saying that those who criticise someone’s work should go and make something themselves instead:
Perhaps we should not put our energy into criticism, we should accept the challenge to squash what we do not like by creating something better. And when we have done so, we will realize how hard it was to create the thing we dismissed so easily.
I totally disagree.
Sure, it’s stupidly easy to lay into someone’s work without taking the time to consider the person behind it, the hard work they put into it, and how well it does what it sets out to do (as opposed to whether it’s your cup of tea or not). It’s not really fair to lay into a book or any other creative endeavour without having some respect for its creator.
But overall, I think negative reviews are a good thing.
When you ask someone to read your book, watch your film, or listen to your album, you’re asking them to give you time and money — two of their most precious resources. They have no reason to want to do so. But if you get a great review from a source they trust (whether blog, newspaper, or word of mouth) they just might.
Reviews perform an essential function: they help us to understand what we might like. They also make us think about why we appreciate some forms of art more than others. And we shouldn’t assume that just because someone doesn’t want to or isn’t capable of creating something similar, they couldn’t possibly appreciate it. Some readers are fabulous at divining the intentions and impact of a book without being authors themselves (or ever wanting to be).
Any review which seriously considers what a writer was trying to say and deconstructs how well they do so is a gift. Whether it’s positive or negative, it’s a worthwhile engagement with that writer’s work, one any author should be grateful for. I’ve even bought books after a negative review, because on reading it, I realised the writer’s tastes and mine were completely opposite.
Sure unfair and unconsidered reviews stink, but it’s still a few seconds someone took from their life to express their feelings about your book. You affected them, even if not in the way you hoped. Plus, that’s the price we pay for freedom of speech. When you get criticism you don’t like, it’s always worth considering the source. (And maybe seeking therapy for your self-esteem issues if it still crushes you.)
“Reader, I hated it”
I started my writing career as a book reviewer. I have to be honest: it wasn’t because I loved books (although I do), it was because I thought it was a good way to become a freelance writer and get free books in the process (it was).
Early in my time as co-editor of Trashionista, I realised that people were actually taking what I said seriously. That’s an enormous privile
dge.* It also means that although I would only give what I thought were valid criticisms of a book, my responsibility wasn’t to the author, it was to my readers.
I wish Nick Hornby’s editors weren’t so afraid of being thought mean that they’d let him discuss which books he doesn’t like, and why. I think his readers would appreciate it. And (sorry authors) I think that’s what matters most.
*My mum pointed out that I can’t spell. Thanks, Mum!