Prompted by the current kerfuffle about book reviews on Goodreads, I’ve been thinking about what, for me, constitutes a good or useful review, and reached the conclusion that overall tone is vastly less important than the lucid contextualisation of arguments. By which I mean: when we react strongly to something – whether positively or negatively – that reaction is contextualised by our existing beliefs, morality, tastes and biases, none of which will necessarily be shared by anyone else, and without at least basic reference to which our reaction will not be useful or even comprehensible to others. For instance: say I have a strong aversion to sex scenes, a nonexistent interest in or knowledge of baseball, and a preference for stories which feature multiple points of view, and I unknowingly pick up a book where the characters have sex, talk constantly about their shared passion for baseball, and which has only one narrator. Clearly, the odds are stacked against my liking this book, and particularly if I’ve chosen it under the misapprehension that I’d enjoy it – say, for instance, because a well-meaning friend with an imperfect knowledge of my tastes recommended it to me – then chances are, I’m going to be disappointed. This does not, however, mean that the book itself is terrible (although it certainly might be) – just that I was entirely the wrong audience for it.
A good review, no matter how negative, will openly contextualise its biases for the reader: I don’t like sex, baseball or single narrators, and therefore disliked these aspects of this book. A mediocre review will hint at these issues, but fail to state them clearly, such that a reader could easily mistake the reviewer’s personal bugbears for objective criticism about structure and narrative flow: the sex scenes were unnecessary, all the baseball was boring and it would’ve benefited from multiple POVs. A bad review won’t make any attempt to explain itself whatsoever – instead, it will simply react: this book is terrible, and I hate everything about it. To be clear, that last remark could well appear in a good or mediocre review as part of an opening gambit or conclusion; but in those instances, the reviewer would have also tried to distinguish their own hangups from whatever else they thought was wrong with the book, so that someone who didn’t object to sex scenes or baseball and who enjoyed single narrator stories (for instance) would be able to make a reasoned judgement about whether or not to read it.
The same principle applies to positive reactions, too: a gushing review is useless if it fails to explain exactly what pleased the reviewer so much, or – just as importantly – if it doesn’t state the reviewer’s personal preferences. This is particularly relevant in instances where the presence of a beloved narrative element might cause the reviewer to ignore or overlook flaws which, were that element not present, might undermine their enjoyment. Personal taste is a balancing act, and one it pays to be aware of. For instance: I love trashy disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow, Twister and The Core, all of which are ludicrous to varying degrees, and all of which contain noticeable plotfail of the kind which, in a different context, would have me ranting and raving the whole way home. I give disaster movies a pass because I expect them to be illogical; but if a similar species of illogic ever crops up in a fantasy film, my husband can vouch for the fact that I’ll spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy dissecting it afterwards.
The point being, a good review doesn’t just tell us about the story: it also tells us a bit about the reviewer, which lets us judge whether our tastes are roughly aligned with theirs – at least in this instance. After all, people are complex, and it’s rare for any two people’s likes and dislikes to always be in perfect alignment. A good review should function a bit like a Venn diagram, showing you the circle of the reviewer’s relevant biases so you can put your own beside it and see how much – if at all – they overlap. Which isn’t to say that a total absence of agreement is useless; all you have to do is reverse the judgement, like making a mental note that if Friend X says a particular film is terrible, then it’s probably going to be awesome. (I mean, come on. We all have this friend.)
For me, a reviewer’s tone is only important insofar as it helps me to contextualise their tastes. I tend to enjoy reviewers with an evident sense of humour, because it suggests to me that they’re not above poking fun at the things they love; and as I don’t always take things seriously, that can be as a refreshing change from earnest adoration. Which isn’t to say that I never enjoy serious reviews – certainly, I tend to write them myself – only that I hold them to a slightly higher standard: comedic reviews can make for enjoyable reading even if their usefulness is limited, whereas straight reviews have nothing to recommend them but their usefulness, and should that be lacking, there isn’t much point to them. That being said, I’ve little patience for comedic reviews that are more concerned with abstract jokes than actually making a point. Humour might help to emphasise a good argument, but it isn’t a substitute for one, and in the case of negative reviews, it can sometimes feel like it’s being deployed purely or primarily to conceal the reviewer’s lack of relevant insight. A good review isn’t simply about your gut reaction to a book: it’s also an explanation as to why that reaction should matter to other people.
Which brings me to the subject of negative reviews in particular, and my personal approach to them. While I completely understand that some authors choose to refrain from posting negative reviews of their peers’ work, this isn’t something I feel comfortable with. The reason I review at all is to engage in conversation about a particular work, and the idea of abstaining from that simply because I tell stories as well as read them isn’t one that appeals to me. It’s important to note, however, that I’m not a big name author – quite the opposite, in fact – which means that, in the vast majority of instances, my public dislike of a book will have little to no impact on its sales, its general perception and the self esteem of the author. Should that situation ever change, I might well rethink my policy, or at least be extremely judicious about which books I review, because as much as I enjoy writing about stories, popularity (I think) comes with an inherent responsibility to use it, well… responsibly. And the thing about speaking to the mob – or fans, or readers, or any other large group people inclined to pay attention to you – is that you can’t control its reactions, or account for the comprehension of its individual members. And while that doesn’t preclude you from having opinions, it should certainly behoove you to consider what the negative consequences of voicing them might be.
But, I digress: for now, I’m a little-known author more widely recognised for her blogging than her books, which gives me comparative leeway to talk about the things I dislike without worrying that I might accidentally break someone else’s career. (Even so, while I sometimes post positive reviews on my blog, I restrict any negative ones to Goodreads, which feels like the more appropriate place to put them. To me, this is a meaningful professional distinction: unless I actively want to cheerlead for a particular author – and sometimes I do – reviews, whether good or bad, belong on the review site. Simple as that.) And when I do write reviews, I always try to think about why I’m bothering. It’s not my policy to review every single book that I read, or even a majority of them: I only do so is if there’s something about a given story, be it good or bad, that seems to invite discussion. In instances where it’s a negative thing, I try to be very certain about what, specifically, I’m objecting to. Am I morally outraged by something in the text? Does a particular character rub me the wrong way? Does either the plot or the worldbuilding have a hole in it? Is the writing style jarring, or does the author have narrative tic I find irksome? Is it a combination of factors, or just one thing in particular? It’s important to stop and ask these questions, particularly if your emotional reaction is a strong one. Don’t let the popularity of a book overly influence your critical judgement of it, either: by all means, be angry and flabbergasted that something you didn’t enjoy is selling like hot cakes, but unless you’re making a specific argument about successful trends in fiction, keep it out of the review – after all, you’re trying to asses the book itself, not pass judgement on its readers. (And if your review is less about the strengths or failings of a work than it is about mocking its fans, then I’m going to count it unhelpful, and therefore bad.) And even if you are discussing narrative trends, blind anger at their existence is ultimately less useful than a lucid deconstruction of what they represent and why you find it problematic.
Ultimately, I think, a useful review – even a negative one – should invite conversation. If I dislike a book, I’ll strive to say so in a way that opens the issue up for discussion; which isn’t to say that I’ll always succeed, only that I find the idea of actively trying to discourage discussion incredibly problematic. Making someone feel stupid for liking something – or not liking something – isn’t an outcome that appeals to me: I’d much rather invite people with different opinions to contribute to the conversation than surround myself exclusively with like-minded people, whose agreement – while certainly flattering – does’t teach me anything. Which is also why, on occasion, I’ll actively seek out negative reviews of books I like: to see if other readers might have picked up on something problematic or interesting that I missed. I’ve had some genuine epiphanies about writing, narrative, implicit bias and tropes by doing this, and if you can bear to see something you love being criticized without wading in to defend it, I highly recommend giving it a try. But of course, it only works if the reviews you encounter are useful. They might be cheeky, snarky, serious, lighthearted, deadpan or investigative in tone, but so long as they contextualise their arguments, you could well be pleasantly surprised.