Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

Making Nice in Book Reviews

Once again, the “you shouldn’t say mean things about a book/character in a book because you might hurt the author’s feelings” crowd has come out in full force, this time in response to a Dear Author review of Susan Grant’s latest release, Sureblood. In this particular review, the reviewer said that the heroine “made her want to puke” and was roundly chastised by some commenters for being cruel and unprofessional. (To be fair, she also got a lot of support.)

I don’t think it’s any secret that I’ve always been on the side of reviewers sharing their honest, gut-reaction opinions about the books they read. As a reader, I want to know how a reviewer really felt about the book because it helps me decide whether or not I might like it (and in some cases, if a particular reviewer hates a book, it means I’ll probably love it because our tastes differ that much.) And as an author, I don’t want reviewers to be afraid of giving an honest review for fear of hurting my feelings. I’m a grown-up, I put my work out there for criticism by getting it published, and my craft isn’t going to wither on the vine because one reviewer (or even half a dozen) says my work sucks.

(As an aside, I’d rather have dozens of negative reviews of my book available on the Internet than only a handful of very positive ones. Reviews, whether good or bad, equal exposure, and the more exposure a book gets, the more likely it is that readers will know it exists. Few reviews, even if they are all slavishly adoring, don’t do much to help a book get “traction.” The negative reviews might not make me feel as good as the positive ones, but they’re likely to do a lot more for my book’s visibility.)

But all of that said, what I find most fascinating about this debate is that there does seem to be a core thread of belief out there about not going “too hard” on books in reviews that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere else in the entertainment world. I’ve never seen a movie/television reviewer taken to task for writing a searingly negative review. And believe me, I’ve read/heard plenty of really painfully negative reviews of films and TV shows, either on the grounds of the writing or the acting or both. So why isn’t anyone worried about the egos of the poor scriptwriter(s), actors, directors, producers, camerapeople, etc.?

I suppose there may be some fans of actors who DO defend their idols with great vigor, but as far as I know, screenwriters NEVER get the kind of “defense by the minions” that authors of books seem to, and in large part, it’s the SAME job. Yes, a screenwriter’s vision goes through many more people to finally reach its audience than a novelist’s does, but by and large, it’s still about writing, about plotting, about characterization. And as for the directors, producers, and so on…NO ONE seems to worry a bit that their feelings might be hurt by a bad review.

This baffles me. I get that, when approaching a novel, it’s easy to feel a very personal connection to the author who wrote it, and that this doesn’t necessarily translate to other entertainment media (TV, movies, plays, music). But by the same token, I can’t understand how anyone believes that screenwriters, directors, actors, musicians, etc. are any less emotionally invested in their work and therefore any less subject to “ego-crushing” than authors.

I’m interested in any thoughts you have on this. Am I wrong? ARE there people out there jumping to the defense of their favorite screenwriters/directors/musicians? Or is this really something that’s pretty much unique to books, particularly fiction?


  • Leslie Dicken September 15, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    I’ve followed this issue with interest over the last few days. And I can truly see both sides of the issue. As an author, I have gotten bad reviews (“don’t bother buying this book”) and good ones (“this is one of the best books I’ve read”). I’ve never commented on any of the negative reviews. What would I say? What might be taken the wrong way?

    As for the review of Susan’s book, I’m glad it was honest. But I wasn’t happy with the “made me want to throw up” and other such comments. I think it’s possible for a reviewer to write a negative review in a more professional manner. That phrase was Provocative — as if the reviewer was looking for a reaction.

    As for movies, I think they don’t quite compare. SO many people are involved in making a movie, who does the “blame” of awfulness fall to? The producer? The director? The screenwriter? The actors? Yes, there is an agent (usually) and an editor who can also take the blame for a “bad” book — but the heart and soul of it lies with an author.

    I’m sure Susan has gotten negative reviews before. Sure she could have handled the situation differently — and better. But I’m not sure I agree that a reviewer is ok to “trash” a book or character. Not like? Yes. Not want to even finish the book? Sure. But being honest does not have to equal meanness.

    Just my humble opinion on what is obviously a very touchy subject!

  • Jackie Barbosa September 15, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    I agree that perhaps the reviewer could have made her distaste for the heroine known in a less visceral (literally) way, but if she really had that strong a negative reaction (as opposed to it being hyperbole), then there’s no reason she shouldn’t have said it.

    And while I agree that movies/TV shows are “different” because so many more people are involved, it is not unusual for a reviewer to pick out specific elements for criticism–i.e., the writing is bad, a particular actor couldn’t act his or her way out of a paper bag, etc. When a particular element of a film or movie is singled out for special criticism, I STILL don’t see people jumping to the defense of the individual responsible for that item, fearing for that person’s feelings.

    What about art reviews? I don’t get the impression anyone was worried about Andy Warhol’s feelings back in the days when his artwork was getting slammed.

    I just feel that some people have a double standard here. That meanness is a allowed when reviewing any form of art/entertainment EXCEPT novels.

  • Cora Zane September 15, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    I’m not sure it’s a unique reaction to books. If you go to sites like PopEater you see the same thing on the forums there. Fans will absolutely jump to the defense of celebrities, even if the celebrities have done something atrocious.

    I don’t mind a bad review if it is well written and the reviewer shares – in a professional way – what it was they didn’t like about it. They don’t make it personal or vicious, they’re just saying in some way or another “this book sucks” or “not for me”. I can deal with that.

    Trashville reviews are just that – trashy. Their intent isn’t just on tearing apart a book they didn’t like, they are presented in a way geared at tearing someone down personally. There is a distinct difference, and you can usually tell right off which is which by the tone. I’ve read far too many of those reviews on Amazon. Enough to last me a lifetime.

    I’m probably in the minority here, but I feel this is especially wrong to do on an industry forward site, by a professional reviewer. Save the Amazon style reviews for Amazon, please.

  • Lisa September 15, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    Reviewers should be honest, absolutely. Their own readership depends on that. I just don’t get this idea that anything short of visceral is somehow being dishonest.

    DA’s format of addressing reviews directly to authors blurs the idea that reviews, especially blog reviews with comments, are really conversations between readers.

  • Keira Soleore September 16, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    I’ve been very quiet on this topic even though it’s come up again and again and again on the Internet with various fiction authors, not just romance.

    My caveat to an honest review is that it behooves the reviewers to study literary criticism techniques in order to be able to make positive AND negative comments in a technical and professional manner, rather than simply “straight from the heart and gut in whatever language comes first to the mind.”

    I mistrust the “I LOVE IT!!!” reviews as well as the “It made me puke!” reviews.

    I think even Kakutani’s comments about Franzen weren’t professional, and she has zero excuses for her lapse.

    If the reviewers are honoring their profession, and despite it, the authors get their knickers in a twist in a public forum, then I don’t have sympathy for the authors.

  • Arachne September 16, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    It’s not lit crit. It’s a review for the reading public. Lit crit is much less delightful to read.

    The “Dear Author” thing was addressed soon after the blog was started and I don’t even notice it now. It is just a hook for the review and little late to change it now.

    Finally, I’ve seen Ms Grant post there before, so she knew the last bit. Butthurt becomes no one.

    With regard to your question, I haven’t seen anyone jump to the defense of a screen writers/etc UNLESS the screenwriter/etc is also a fiction writer with fans. Stephenie Meyer was somehow involved in the direction of a music video and her fans, as usual, were rabidly protective.


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