On Negative Reviews and Cowardice and Anxiety and Enthusiasm

Earlier in the week I was alarmed to find out about all of the GoodReads related drama. There’s a lot of it. Too much to write about here. I rarely interact with other people on GoodReads. I merely catalog reviews from The Well-Read Wife there when I have time. The main source of drama is a site that popped up called Stop The GR Bullies. This site targeted bloggers who they considered bully reviewers and published a rehash of the bloggers actions. For the most part the actions Stop The GoodReads Bullies found so deplorable were snarky or harsh comments or reviews by bloggers on GoodReads about books. *gasp* So how did the site deal with this? By publishing personal info about at least two of the bloggers in question. They even published in one case local restaurants a blogger likes to hang out at effectively putting a target on the blogger’s back in public. This behavior disgusted me. But it also caused me to think about the way I approach reviews on this site. I’ll discuss this later in the post. Shortly after reading about the GR Bullies drama, I read a post on the blog Dead White Guys by Amanda Nelson that really inspired me. In the post Amanda says the following statement:

Negative reviews are necessary to sustain a rich, interesting, HONEST literary culture. If we’re all rainbows and sugar-puffs because we’re scared of hurting some author’s feelings, we’re doing the book world at large a disservice. (Read full post here.)

Her post struck a chord with me, because I am scared of hurting feelings. However, she is absolutely right.

This was the starting point for the following post that I wrote a few days ago but was unable to publish because my WIFI went out:

On Negative Reviews and Cowardice and Anxiety and Enthusiasm

Growing up I sought the comfort of reading. Books were my escape and my refuge.  Through reading I could solve mysteries with the Bobwhites.  I could have Holden Caufield’s courage. Lady Brett Ashley’s outrageous wit and charm.

I loved to discuss books with my friends. Argue passionately for books I loved and just as passionately for those I despised. In ninth grade when everyone was declaring his or her love for On The Road, I sheepishly admitted my dislike the novel. I thought it was borrriiiing. I much preferred Ginsberg and Burroughs to Kerouac as far as the Beat Generation went, and I would happily explain why. I loved Stephen King, but if I came across a book of his I didn’t like, I had no problem letting my friends know, “Don’t bother with this one. It’s not as good as his others,” I might say. Then of course I would explain my reasons for not liking that particular book.

I felt comfortable giving friends my unfiltered, negative opinions about books, because I trusted them.  To bare your soul about a book is a hard thing to do. I have (almost) no problem declaring my enthusiastic love for a book or author on The Well-Read Wife, but when it comes to channeling that same enthusiasm in a negative manner I freeze up. I am terrified. My anxiety overtakes me and most of the time I don’t review the book on the site. I am scared to let myself go freely in a negative direction.

I am Jack’s Raging, Anxious Older Sister

I have reviewed a handful of the books I didn’t enjoy on The Well-Read Wife because each one had a redeeming quality I felt I could offset my negative remarks with.  I feel like I am cheating myself by only reviewing books negatively that I can put some kind of (albeit small) positive spin on. I desperately want to share reviews of books I felt were just plain not good or ridiculous, but I’m scared to do it with the same enthusiasm I use for the books I love.

I mean what if I really disliked a book and took a photo depicting why I disliked it? I take funny pictures inspired by books I enjoy.  Would people think I’m mean spirited if I did the same for books I didn’t like? That is the problem. I am enthusiastic. I am boisterous. Any wholly negative reviews I write will also reflect this side of my personality. I worry about this. I worry about everything else too though. I worry sometimes people will think it’s idiotic when I like a book so much I put a picture of myself with it.

I am a coward.

I read quickly. I can discern usually in the first forty pages or so whether I am going to like a book or not. I can usually tell from the direction the plot is heading or the narrative voice that a book is not for me. I drop books like this after the first forty pages as if a bee had stung me. I don’t like this. So, I just won’t finish it. My time is too valuable to waste reading books I don’t enjoy. This is what I tell myself. But really I’m scared. I’m scared I will piss off the wrong person, and they will confront me.

I read recently about an online reviewer who has been harassed. Her personal information was put online and she received a threatening call at home. This infuriated me. It is exactly what I’m afraid will happen to me. I don’t believe any of the authors I have ever reviewed or will likely review would ever engage in this sort of behavior. I have only received one or two polite emails in response to negative reviews. But what about their fans? This scares me.

I’m not going to be scared anymore. My behavior is akin to cowardice, and I owe myself better. I’m going to try to push through at least one book a month that I’m having trouble reading and share my unfiltered view of the book within the tone and tenor of my site. What is usual tone and tenor of my site? If you’re a regular reader, you know sh*t can get weird up in here. So it will be along those lines. Though I promise never to post a picture of myself taking a dump on a book I don’t like. That would be crass. I’ll just keep those pictures to myself in a photo album titled Dumps. However, I could easily end up enjoying a book that starts out slow or that seems like something I won’t enjoy from the very beginning. I am not in any way going to be purposely seeking out books to review negatively.

I know there are some sites that don’t publish negative reviews at all. Sites that choose to promote and review only the books they enjoy. I don’t see this as a bad thing. Not at all. There’s room for every kind of review site in the blogosphere.

My point here is that I have had a desire to review books negatively with the same level of over the top fun I have with books I enjoy. Not in a mean spirited way, but in a fun, satirical way. I’ve just been really scared to raise my freak flag all the way up. Thanks to the bravery of other bloggers I’ve chosen to grow and evolve as a book blogger in a direction I’ve wanted to go in for a while.

Since writing this I have come across two articles for and against “enthusiam” on the site Book Riot. Coincidentally, I mention enthusiasm a lot in this particular post, and I think most people would describe me as either being enthusiastic about books or batshit crazy. I am clearly “pro enthusiasm.” However, I can see where the author is coming from on the other side of the argument as well. I have studied critical theory. I have an undergraduate degree in English Education and attended graduate school for English with a concentration in creative writing. I can wax intellectually on plot structure, narrative voice, and theme among other things. However, that’s not what the space I’ve created here is for. It is for book reviews not critical essays. Some books call for a discussion of the elements I mentioned within the review and other books do not.

Click here to read more about the GR Bullies controversy.

FYI: For the record I have never published a positive review on The Well-Read Wife of a book I didn’t enjoy. When I write for RT Book Reviews I don’t have the luxury to pass on reviewing a book I don’t like. This has been an exercise in courage for me. I typically review one book a month for them if I have time. I cried the first time I had to write a negative review for the magazine. It was really hard to know that my words were going to go in a national print publication and possibly have a negative impact on the author in some way. I take writing for RT Book Reviews very seriously.

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Comments

  1. says

    Well said, and I totally agree… discussion about books is important and enjoyable, and negative reviews is yes part of that. Anyone who puts anything out there — book, movie, blog, art, whatever, is putting forward their work and their beliefs, and in a free world that is asking for comments good and bad.

    Negative reviews aren’t the same as attacks, and people who attack the writer are cowards. Go ahead and disagree with the review, loudly and passionately if you want, but do it the right way.

  2. says

    I totally agree. Negative reviews are also, IMHO, par for the course and without honest feedback, some of which is negative, how does the author expect to improve (Unless of course they’re ok with spewing forth crappy literature). One of the beauties of living in a country like ours is that we can voice our opinions (as long as it’s not something like shouting fire in a crowded movie or otherwise completely and utterly obscene) and not have backlash from our government etc. So in short, as long as it’s done respectfully, keep on rocking the honest reviews, negative or otherwise!

  3. says

    Both positive and negative reviews are important, not to mention entertaining. I have enjoyed the debate between people who like and dislike 50 Shades of Grey.

    I can appreciate a negative review of the work itself, but hate when people land on authors with both feet. It’s tough to get a book from inspiration to publication. That’s got to be worth something.

  4. says

    I asked you about this in a comment not long ago, because I noticed the lack of negative reviews on your site. Personally, I find a reviewer to be more trustworthy if she writes negative as well as positive reviews. Of course, reading a negative review about something I love can be hurtful, but it also prompts me to think about why I disagree with the negative remarks – which really isn’t a bad thing. 🙂

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