When Book Reviews Go Bad: Negative reviews and how to cope
The New York Review of Science Fiction (NYRSF), Locus, SF Chronicle, and The Internet
Review of Science Fiction devote the bulk of their pages to reviews. Genre magazines and
e-zines frequently contain a book review section. And many newspapers (such as The
New York Times and The Washington Post) and literary magazines include a nod to
science fiction books.
Within the countless opportunities for a genre book to be reviewed lays the potential for
an unkind opinion.
I weep for the souls of the trees that died to make this book. - SFX magazine
"Reviewers are like snipers, aren't they?" says Greg Bear (Quantico). "Not responsible
for the emotional carnage of a quick shot in the dark. Reviewers, writing a really negative
review, are not at all like doctors cutting away gangrenous flesh -- they are flies, buzzing
cheerfully as they try to lay their little eggs in stinking piles."
Stinking piles of eggs aside, nobody likes a critic, particularly an author who is on the
receiving end of a negative and very public judgment. While some authors can shrug off a
poor review with ease, other authors feel as judged as the book itself.
Charles Coleman Finlay (Wild Things) says, "'[A Publisher's Weekly] review began 'In
Finlay's meandering first novel, a heroic quest fantasy..." By the time I got to the end of
the second phrase I felt like I had completely failed as a writer.
No amount of prior success guarantees future good mentions, as writers of genre classics
such as David Brin (Tomorrow Happens) have learned. And despite his many awards, he
feels the sting of negative reviews.
Brin says, "Lest I give a false impression of maturity…I am -- of course -- sensitive to
criticism that seems hurtful, off-target or unfair. I try to develop the ability to absorb
what's useful while shrugging off the rest, and I am making progress. Maybe in another
hundred years I will have this fine-tuned enough to do it well."
An author can receive bad reviews on work that has taken months, and perhaps years, to
produce, whereas a review takes only a few hours to research and write. Bear says,
"Writing a novel is hard -- panning it is remarkably easy."
Panning is not just easy: some reviewers take delight in hatchet jobs--reviews with no
purpose but to stab. In a hatchet job, the book, the author, and the author's mother are all
savaged in an orgy of venom-laced adjectives.
But many readers enjoy a hatchet job -- I know I have -- which can turn a review into
the same entertainment that makes reality shows so popular. The quotes scattered among
this article are all hatchet-like: laugh-out-loud funny with more than a touch of savage.
Fortunately (or not) for authors, these quips are more memorable than the books they
I have . . . come across some truly awful books. And yet not a single one of them has
managed to cause me quite as much gastrointestinal distress as has [this one.] -
Science fiction is a close and insular community, and bad reviews of one book can be
ignored when the author's body of work is stellar. And even mediocrity and badness can
be celebrated in the right circumstances (after all, science fiction fans are the community
who regularly read aloud "The Eye of Argon"*). But can a poor notice scuttle the career
of new author before he/she has a chance to blossom, or sink a mid-list author into the
depths of obscurity?
Brin believes "the people who are vulnerable to bad reviews are -- as always -- the new
and aspiring writers. But it's a plain fact that one hugely effective positive review can do
more good than twenty bad ones can harm you."
But to Bear, the answer, most likely, is no. "I don't think reviewers have that much power
these days…. In my experience, single reviews seldom make much difference in sales.
Cumulative reviews from many sources make more of an impact. As time goes by…they
simply vanish, except on the Web, of course, where they may linger long past their
Bad reviews do indeed linger on the Internet. Amazon.com maintains a long-lived
database of reviews, removing only the reviews that are inappropriate or obscene.
An account with Amazon.com can turn a mere reader into a world-read book reviewer
with his/her own profile. (Amazon.com even ranks their reviewers.)
Some authors, such as CJ Cherryh (Pretender), find these and other bad reviews easy to
dismiss. "The quality of reviews in our field is not the best. More often, they're high
school book reports revisited, and only reflect the reviewer, not the book."
[The second book] stinks, and the stench is so bad that it reaches backwards in time
and taints the [first] volume. - SFBook.com
However, not all negative book reviews are dashed off by vengeful students.
David Hartwell, publisher of NYRSF (as well as an editor for Tor Books), says the
reviews in his magazine "discuss the strengths and weaknesses of good books…. When
we do make an exception and print a negative review, it is because we feel the argument
of the reviewer has merit beyond the application to the particular book."
Hartwell says, "One must have a well-thought-out aesthetic position from [which] to
observe the text." The people who write the best reviews are "…people who can write,
and can read with detachment from the story, at least in retrospect…. The reviewer's
feelings about the book count, but feelings do not, must not replace thoughts and ideas,"
As to the quality of reviews, Hartwell says, "Most of the best reviews are revised before
publication, just like most of the best fiction. Several drafts usually means a better result."
John Joseph Adams, who reviews books (formerly for Kirkus and currently here at the
Medicine Show) says, "I don't think there's an art to writing book reviews. It's a skill to
be learned, sure, but I wouldn't call it art, not like writing fiction is an art.… [I]t's
important for the reviewer to remember that people aren't reading your review because of
the review itself; they're reading it to find out about the book."
Some reviewers prefer not to give negative notices. Adams says, "Generally, I would
prefer to ignore books I dislike when it comes to reviewing, rather than write up a
negative review…. My own column here at the Medicine Show predominantly covers
books that I really like a lot. This should not lead readers to believe that I like everything
I read. Nothing could be further from the truth.
"I think it's important to be discerning, but also to be fair and open-minded."
The occasional good parts of the book weren't really all that good at all; they just
seemed that way by comparison to the other even-slower parts. I found the …
footnotes to be slightly more entertaining…. - SF Signal
Bad reviews are bad by their mere existence, and worse yet, "Reviews are one-way
missiles; writers are seldom allowed to fire back, for ethical reasons," says Bear.
But it seems that bad reviews are not all bad news.
Finlay believes that "very bad reviews are the next best thing to good reviews. If people
are talking about your book passionately, it's more likely to reach some readers who'll
like it but would never have found it otherwise." A bad mention can better than no
mention at all, particularly for those readers who are skeptical of reviews.
Jacqueline Carey (Kushiel's Scion) says, "I'm sure [a negative review of a book] piqued
the curiosity of a number of readers who might not have picked up the book otherwise."
Also, poor reviews of his book gave Finley "good insight into the way people read how I
write. It's certainly going to change the way I approach certain narrative choices in future
But even though bad reviews can be good, what can be worse than bad? Is there a
hierarchy of badness?
Some bad reviews are worse than others, and the worst reviews, according to Finley, "are
indifferent... A really scathing review at least moved the reviewer, and it often provokes
contrarian readers to go make up their own minds. An indifferent review is the kiss of
So indifferent is worse than bad. But Brin tells of a worse review than an indifferent one:
"The worst review...did not diss me at all. It was intelligently written and often on-target." This particular review was the worst he ever read because any positive asides, he
believes, were removed by the editors as part of "an attack piece" against the genre.
[It] isn't a bad story, it's just not a very good one. - Strange Horizons
Some bad books actually do deserve a public flogging, written under deadline and for a
paycheck, unloved even by the authors themselves. Book reviewers who give negative
reviews are, to some, heroes who throw themselves on the grenades of bad books so other
readers do not have to suffer.
Adams reviews books because, " I want to point readers toward books that I think are
worth their time…. Life is too short to waste time reading bad books."
And reviewers ultimately save readers time: it takes a few minutes to read a review, to see
if a book is worth the time and money spent. A negative review, if it provides a valuable
service to a reader, becomes a necessary evil.
But there is good news about bad reviews: no matter how many barbs are lobbed at a
book, nothing is universally reviled. For every bad review out there, a book has its ardent
defenders. Even the least critically acclaimed book can find a place in a reader's
heart. And with enough word of mouth, that book can earn enough royalties to soothe the
sting of a snubbing.
Here is some advice for still-green authors new to the front line of the creative battlefield:
- Think about what the critic is saying.
Carey says, "Obviously, my intention [to deconstruct Tolkienesque epic fantasy] wasn't
clear to that reviewer, so the comment is constructive in terms of forcing me to think
about how I could have better executed my idea."
Brin says, "No matter how good you are, there is always some way to become 'even
better.' Hence you need to be open to the bad news, as well as the good." Brin believes in
this enough to create his own acronym: CITOKATE ("Criticism Is the Only Known
Antidote to Error").
- Don't read reviews:
Cherryh reads no reviews, neither negative nor positive. "If they're good, I might divert
my writing to try to please. If they're bad, I'd feel bad, and maybe be tempted to change
my writing to please. In either case, not a good thing."
- Stay cool.
Carey says, "Readers' expectations are something authors can't control…. Taste is
personal and reviewers are only human."
- Remember, it's nothing personal.
"We review books, not writers," says Hartwell.