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The Delicate Balance of Book Reviews

There’s a topic circling around again within the writing and book communities about negative book reviews. Everyone has an opinion about what opinions you should share as an author or reader who reviews books. I have a lot of opinions, but this topic is sensitive for me personally and I’ve finally decided I needed to weigh in on it.

Reviews are the lifeblood of any product, but most especially of books because of the quantity of books out there already and the thousands being added each day. Authors sweat blood and tears to get people to review their book after they’ve read it. I love when people buy my book, but I adore when they review it, even if there were parts they didn’t like.

Before we get to the juicy part — the controversy, or rather the controversy for me — I wanted to set out the definitions I use when discussing negative reviews.

What do I mean by negative?

I’m going to be simplistic here because this topic relies heavily on semantics, and I want to lay out the base definition and the way it branches out. A review is a discussion of a reader’s first-hand experience with your book or writing.

This means they have to have read your book in order to review it. There are, of course, trolls out there who review a book they haven’t read because they don’t like the author, the topic, or the genre. I’m not discussing them.

There are also, however, people who write five-star reviews of a book they’ve not read because they love the author and are waiting for it to be published so that they can read it. In the opposite world, there are also readers who 1 star a book to put it on their list to read later, which they change when they read said book. I’m not discussing them either.

Then there are two kinds of negative reviews. A positive-negative review, what I call a critical review, is a reader who details out what they didn’t like about the book so that future readers can know what could possibly be wrong with it (it is subjective, after all).

These are the types of reviews I write, and the ones I find the most value in. They detail what they liked, what they didn’t, and — this is the key part — why. The information included in the reasoning behind the opinion tells me if I’d agree with them or not, and also what most readers found appealing or unappealing.

A bad negative review covers multiple types of reviews. The first type is where they didn’t like the book and simply said it sucked. This review is unhelpful to both future readers and the author.

The second type of bad negative review is one where the reader rates a book one star because the distributor/seller delivered the wrong book, it never arrived, or it was damaged in transit. This is a review of the distributor, not the book, but only hurts the author.

The third type of bad negative review is one where the reader attacks the author or uses language such as, “this is trash,” “the writer sucks,” or “I liked your books until I found out you were a POC (or a member of another marginalized group” — yes it does happen). These types of reviews are nasty and unhelpful to everyone, including the author.

Along those same lines are the readers who attack the author because of the beliefs of the characters in the book and ascribe those beliefs on to the author. For example, someone who writes a character who is racist must ultimately also be racist.

This is when write what you know fails to take into account that the writer may know someone who is racist, or homophobic, or sexist, etc., rather than is any one of those things. Or that they included that character as a means to explore the discussion around someone who believes in this type of rhetoric. However, if the author is racist or other -ism, you can bet their social media will out them and they will be roasted accordingly.

How I review

I’ve been reading as long as I have been alive (minus those baby years, of course) and I love books. I love reading, the way they smell, the feel of them in your hand, or the easy access in a digital format.

I’m also a development editor and writing coach with ten years of experience, and I love helping authors improve their writing. I’m also an author. My first book published in August 2021 and I am scrambling to build up a backlist so that all I do is read, write or market.

What this means is that when I approach a book, I first look at it as a reader — Did I inhale it? Enjoy it? Get stuck at times? Hate or like a character? Then I look at it as an editor — Where are the structural problems? Any plot holes? Any lags? Bad prose? Confusing story lines? And then, and only then, as an author — how can I write this well? Do I do that in my books? I want to write like them!

My book reviews reflect all parts of who I am, but predominantly feature my reader/editor viewpoints. I discuss the characters, the plot, the world building (if any), and what pieces of the book I adored, liked, or found lacking. I do this more from my editor brain, because that is the part of me that can pull apart a novel to see where the author could’ve done it better.

I’ve read hundreds of books and worked as an editor on at least a hundred more. I know how to pull apart a book to see how it ticks, how it is constructed, and where I can see the weak spots. If I point out a plot point, or a spot where I’d like to see the character actually feel the trauma they’ve gone through, I’m looking at it from an editor’s standpoint, because my job as an editor is to take the author’s words, characters, world, and plot and help them make it better.

Some of you may think, “But that is subjective.” Yes, sometimes it is. I do my best to note those comments that are subjective to me. For example, I once read a book whose main character raised stalkerish vibes. I disliked him and the red flags he threw out all over the book, but I still praised the author for writing a character well enough that it created such a negative reaction for me. In that book review, my dislike of the character was subjective as a reader, but my praise of that author was objective as an editor.

That is the point of my reviews. To educate the future readers on what I thought while also hopefully giving the author tools to make the next book even better. If my words help one author write a stronger narrative or character arc, then I call my choice successful, even if thirty other authors read nothing I wrote.

Where self-censorship comes in

The issue isn’t with reviews, how I write them or how others write them. We all agree that bad negative reviews are just bad for all parties who may have benefited from them. However, when reviewers or authors attack each other for writing a review that could be seen as a positive negative review, then everybody loses.

This can look like readers who love a book or a specific author attacking, blocking, and badmouthing a reader (Reviewer A) who didn’t love the book and shared a critical review. This creates a snowball effect:

  • It can quash other reviewers who agree with Reviewer A but are too afraid to state their opinion.
  • It could tempt a future reviewer from not giving their full opinion on a book for fear the backlash could happen to them.
  • And, it causes a big divide within the community that only breeds more negativity and side taking.

This can also look like an author (Author A) telling other authors that they should only provide positive reviews. Author A’s reasoning is sound, and the intent is good — they want to support their author community and see success for other authors and themselves. However, this also has a dampening effect in that it may squash reviews an author wanted to write, which may have been helpful to the reading community and the content’s author, because they are worried they’ll lose the support from the author community if they do so.

I’m talking about me here in both scenarios; I’m the one feeling squashed. I’m a fledgling author who doesn’t want to put a foot out of line in either the reading or writing communities and cause irreparable damage to my writing career. This includes alienating those wonderful writers who support me and my writing, and future readers.

With all the book bans, shadow bans on social media sites, and trolls in the world of books, do we really need more censorship? No, we don’t. For that reason, I am going to continue writing my reviews and being as positively constructive in them as I can. I do not, and have not, posted reviews below three stars because, for me, that means I didn’t finish the book and can’t give it a proper review.

That is the delicate balance I’ve decided on, because I refuse to deny the other parts of myself (editor, reviewer) from expressing themselves in fear of a backlash from the very communities at which my reviews are aimed.

Will this cause problems for me? Maybe. My world builder/husband fears it will, but I can’t live my life in fear. My moral compass and good intentions will guide me and I will do my best not to allow others’ opinions to squash mine while also staying supportive.

And if I fall, I only hope I don’t fall far and that there is something soft upon which to land.

Originally published in The Masterpiece.