Talking about books I don’t like.

How I talk about the books I don't like.

In a recent newsletter I shared a dilemma with you: how do I talk about books I don’t like here on the blog?

This topic is especially relevant right now. Right after that newsletter went out, I dove headlong into summer reading guide prep. I’ve read a dozen novels this month that won’t be published for another month or five: novels that haven’t been reviewed yet, novels that I can’t feel out by listening to other readers’ opinions.

A whole lot of them just aren’t very good.

I don’t want to slam anybody’s book. Real people write novels, after all, and I don’t want to stomp all over their work. But I don’t want you to waste ten hours reading a book that’s not any good, especially not if I knew it and could have warned you!

In the midst of this inner debate, I read something in Lauren Winner’s memoir Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis that is shaping my approach to dud novels. She wasn’t talking about book reviews; she was probing her complicated relationship with her mother. No matter. She introduced me to art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s rules of thumb for reviewing works he doesn’t like—or, as he delightfully puts it, “work that isn’t immediately congenial.” He asks himself:

What would I like about this if I liked it? That is, I sort of project in my mind somebody who thinks, “Wow, this is great, this is what I like.” And sometimes that idea in my head persuades me, and I come around. I come around a little bit. Sometimes I agree to disagree.

He goes on to say:

If that fails, then I sort of back up and say, “What would somebody who likes this be like?” Then it becomes sort of sociological. Then I’m writing about a taste. Sometimes I might think it’s a reprehensible taste in some way and write negatively. Other times it’s just, “Look what camel has walked into the tent.”

My friend Heather, who works in publishing, says there are no bad books, only books that haven’t found the right reader. I wouldn’t go that far. I’m careful about what I read, and I’ve still read some pretty horrible books. (Most of those just needed another round of edits, but that’s another story for another day.)

But there’s a lot of truth to what Heather says. We read for different reasons, we approach books with differing expectations, we all have different taste. When I’m talking books with you, the most unhelpful things you can say to me are I liked it or I didn’t. I need to know why, and how. I need to know where the story stumbled and where it sung. I need to know what you specifically loved, or exactly what turned you off. If you don’t give me details, how can I know if I would like it or not?

This spring, prepare yourself for a lot of delicate reviews of books I didn’t like. I’ll be using this framework, and I’m hopeful—excited, even—about being able to discuss the books I didn’t love (at all) in way that feels fair, and gentle, and useful.

Do you hesitate to criticize books you don’t like? How do you approach this subject? Any tips or advice?

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  1. Brenda Klaassen says:

    If I don’t like a book, I try to explain in my review what I did not like and why. I realize that some people will think the book was wonderful. I try not to tear down the author as a person, I keep the negative to the work itself and try and say one positive for every negative.

  2. Emily says:

    I think grad school robbed me of all my sensitivity! I remember what I hard time I had pointing out all of an author’s or work’s shortfalls at first, but by the end of my schooling it came naturally: weaknesses were the first thing I saw. I try to read charitably and find the best the writer has to offer, but I also want to hold the writer to high standards. Writing is hard, certain writing projects are hard, and like anything else in life, we don’t all do it equally well. That said, grad school taught me to offer concrete criticism and suggest growing edges. Harsh words in and of themselves otherwise seem cruel and unnecessary.

  3. Jamie says:

    When I don’t like a book, I tend to be pretty blunt about it. (I have left a LOT of 2 star reviews on Amazon!) Though, like the other commenters, I think it’s extremely important to point out what/why and to avoid bashing the author as a person. I rarely try to offer constructive criticism, though, because (aside from editing) what makes me dislike it may be a plus for someone else so suggesting a change to it would be pointless.

    I often find that one and two star reviews can sometimes be the most helpful. They tend to be the most efficient and accurate way to find out if a book is subject to something that is going to make me want to throw it across the room – petty/whiny/selfish heroines, horrific lack of editing, inappropriately cliff-hanger endings, etc.

    I find this to be especially true of books that generally get raved about. For example, I loathed Jen Hatmaker’s “Seven”, despite its garnering of mass praise nearly everywhere. When I read the one and two star reviews (after the fact), I found that the handful that there were all said largely the same as my two star review. If I’d read them ahead of time, I could have saved myself the aggravation!

    I appreciate that you are willing to discuss books you didn’t like here on the blog. Life is too short to read everything, and the more information we can get to help make informed choices the better! 🙂

  4. Erica M. says:

    If I don’t like, a book, I try to be specific about why, because I think that puts a negative review into the realm of “constructive criticism”. It’s something I’ve been striving to do lately when I write a review. Usually if it’s something that just hit me the wrong way, I’ll acknowledge that it’s more about my taste than the book itself. Other times (like that dragon series I attempted to start), it’s concrete problems that should have been addressed during the editing process, and I tend to be a little more severe on that, because even self-published authors need a good editor.

    I’ve been thinking on this a lot, especially with the Kathleen Hale debacle back last October and the way E.L. James seems to be handling the accusations directed at her books. There’s been a lot of dialogue in the literary world about author-reader relations and how negative reviews mesh with the increased author presence on the Internet. It’s pretty interesting stuff.

      • Erica M. says:

        Her most recent Twitter response to a concerned abuse victim was a gif of someone getting a book thrown at them. (She deleted it after backlash.) I’m amazed at how clueless she seems to be sometimes…

    • Kate says:

      I immediately thought of the Kathleen Hale incident when I started reading this. Since I mostly use Goodreads as a way to track what I read and less for the community aspects, I hadn’t been aware of all the drama there, and am perfectly happy to just keep out of it!

      You make an excellent point about editing. If I truly dislike a book, I generally don’t even finish it, but many of my low score ratings are given to books with nonsensical plot twists and inconsistencies, “padding,” or just poor writing that could have been tightened up.

  5. Amy C says:

    Different books have different strengths (or weaknesses) and when I find myself in the middle of one I just can’t connect to, I try to figure out why that is, and how my expectations differed from what the author created. When I read a review I’m not looking for a plot synopsis; rather, I want to know if the characters are well developed, if the author’s descriptive powers are appropriately employed, etc. A big difficulty for me is reading a book which has been edited poorly. If I find myself being jarred by incorrect grammar, misused homophones, overly repetitive descriptors, I lose my mental place in the story. It doesn’t need to happen very often before I set the book aside and move on. There are just too many wonderful books out there waiting to be found!

    • Anne says:

      “When I read a review I’m not looking for a plot synopsis; rather, I want to know if the characters are well developed, if the author’s descriptive powers are appropriately employed, etc.”

      Me too!

    • emily says:

      ***A big difficulty for me is reading a book which has been edited poorly. If I find myself being jarred by incorrect grammar, misused homophones, overly repetitive descriptors, I lose my mental place in the story. ***
      Amen, sister!

  6. Ana says:

    If I don’t like a book, I typically just don’t review it. I only blog about books I enjoy, because a book is kind of like someone’s child, it’s their creation, and I don’t want to stomp all over it. I’ve also discovered that there are a lot of widely reviewed books out there that I don’t care for–I usually feel like I’m the ONLY one in the world not in love with the book (ie Hunger Games), and I don’t think sharing my opinion would be all that helpful, and would really only spread around negativity. I do always share if there’s something the reader needs to watch out for–for example, I read a book recently, and I liked the book, but it was so violent I wouldn’t reread it, or read the sequel.

  7. Kym says:

    i think this may be the third time you’ve written about this, if the post indicating a recent book you hated is included. I appreciate that you care for the author’s feelings, but I think there is a big difference between being critical of an author’s work and being critical of an author. There’s no need to be needlessly rude or personal, but thoughtfully explaining why you didn’t like the work is different.

  8. I’m so glad you posted this! I review almost everything I read so that I can have a personal record of it. My reviews are lengthy enough that I can usually get into both the good and the bad and the whys for both. And usually I’m not nervous about posting my true opinions because it’s unlikely the author will ever see it anyway. But recently I agreed to review an upcoming release but after reading it, I can think of very little good to say about it. I’ve been wondering if I should let the publisher know or if I should just try my best to cast it in a positive light while still mentioning my reservations. But I like your idea of trying to imagine a reader that would like it because I can actually think of several who would like this type of book.

    So thanks! (And I’m very much looking forward to your upcoming reviews of books you didn’t like!)

  9. I didn’t worry about this before blogging / social media. If I hated a book, I told people so. But after blogging, I posted some blunt reviews and had the authors respond. I had forgotten that authors are actual people. (I blame my INTJ-ness!)

    Now, I try to be honest but in such a way that, if the author actually read my review, s/he would be able to take it as constructive criticism (or not). And then there are things like “too much violence or bad language” which is so subjective depending on the reader. I point out when something is not to my taste (because I don’t want anyone coming back to me with “You recommended this book but it had three chapters of graphic violence!” or something) so that people reading my reviews can make their own decisions.

    Anyway, so many problems that irk me with books (fiction or non-) are editing problems. Those are not necessarily the author’s fault. And you can mark me down as another person that appreciates one or two star reviews, as long as the reviewer tells why they marked down the book. I find them a lot more helpful, even for books I end up loving, than the 5 star “This book is the best thing since Gutenberg invented the printing press” type thing.

    It is helpful to remember that, usually, we’re critiquing a work not an author, but as a wannabe author myself, I can tell that the distinction can be difficult. The novel that you’ve labored over for ten years is as much your baby as the toddler running around your house. It must be hard to understand why everyone doesn’t think your baby is as cute as you believe. 😉

    • Anne says:

      These are great thoughts. (I’ve had the same experience with authors commenting on my book reviews! It was kind of cool and kind of terrifying. 🙂 )

  10. Hannah says:

    I wonder if it makes a difference whether you’ve been asked to review a book or whether you simply chose to. I’ve been asked to review books and, in that case, it’s easier to privately contact the author before the review goes live and say, “Just to be honest…I found such and such wrong with your work. Do you still want me to review it, no matter what?” If they say no then you’re off the hook. If they say yes, then at least they know what they’re letting themselves in for. That seems kind and fair to me.

  11. When I started blogging, I thought that I would just keep the negative comments to myself. But then I embarked on reading all the Newbery books and blogging about that, and there are some rough ones in the beginning (I’m naively hoping that the later ones are all fabulous.) I tend to still look at positive aspects of them–as a writer we can learn from what doesn’t work as much as what does. It’s been a little easier with these older books since the authors have all died, and some of what is troubling is that what was acceptable in the 1920s (racism etc.) would never win the Newbery today. I’m looking forward to seeing how you handle the limitations in the novels that you didn’t love.

  12. Kim says:

    My mother is a book reviewer, and she always explains really well what she thinks about a book without directly labelling it as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ book. That way, her readers can decide for themselves if they think they are going to like the book, because everybody looks for different things in literature. So if a book isn’t written great, or maybe even bad, some readers might still consider it worth reading because of the story or something like that.
    I also think it’s very important for a website to sometimes criticise a book, because it shows that a reviewer isn’t only able to like something, but also knows how to explain that a book doesn’t have a lot of literary value for example.

  13. It’s tempting to bash bad books, but I know someone worked so hard to bring the book to life! If I leave a book less than three stars on Goodreads, I do try to explain why so other readers can form their own opinions. There’s only one book I genuinely hate—it’s a memoir that felt very self-serving. There was a lot of name dropping, and part of the book didn’t seem to be the author’s story to tell. Now THAT’s something I’ll go out of my way to warn people away from.

  14. Kristy says:

    I read your blog every day, Anne. And sometimes I don’t always relate to it (like the mom stuff) but I always enjoy your insight about books. However it irks me that you have brought up (twice!) the subject of books that you have disliked but you have not told us what those booKS are. I trust your judgment and mine. Just tell us already.

    • Susan says:

      Yes. We are readers here because we’ve come to value your thoughts and opinions. So share them, please.

      You are a classy gal and I’m sure you will frame it in a constructive way. But, as Kristy said, just tell us already, so we can more clearly decide how to use our time and resources

  15. Hannah Beth Reid says:

    Just last night at my book club we were discussing that sometimes we just aren’t in the right point in our lives to read a certain book (too distracted for something detailed, too emotional for something difficult, etc.)

  16. Renee Warren says:

    I LOvE it! I found your site about 6 months ago and I have enjoyed every book that I have read from your recommended list. Personally, I am quite a busy person with very little time to read more than a book a week. The books I get to read are very precious to me and I truthful don’t want to waste that time with a book that’s not up to par. I think a review of books you didn’t like with details of your reasons would be helpful to many, thanks so much-

  17. jeri says:

    ooops! I gave a verbal review of a book one time and it offended the readers. I said, “there are so many good books why waste time on smut?” I was taken to task that I was “reviewing” the readers and their book of choice.
    I appreciate your sensitivity.

  18. Beth says:

    Talking about books you don’t like is a tricky situation–I find myself struggling with this all the time as an English professor because I know that often if I praise a book, my students are more excited to read it, but if it’s a book I struggle to enjoy (even though old dead guys said it should be part of the canon), they tend to struggle with it more. I usually tell my students that they don’t have to like everything we read, but it’s important to occasionally read books we don’t enjoy to help us figure out what types of books we do enjoy reading. I try to keep from letting them know if it’s a book I love or hate until after they’ve read it, so they can form their own opinions and sometimes they’ve helped me see value in books that I felt like I “had to teach” but didn’t really appreciate.

    I sort of take that same approach with reading reviews–I don’t read them until after I’ve read the book. When I’m choosing a book to read, I read the back cover/jacket flap or the equivalent on Amazon and that’s it. If I read it and hate it, then I read reviews to know that I’m not alone or to see what other people loved that I missed out on. I often find that if I sit down to read a book everyone else has been raving about, I end up disappointed because I’ve gotten my hopes up so high–or if it’s one they hate, I tend to not even give the book a chance.

  19. Debbie says:

    I am a retired school librarian, elementary/middle, and have recommended books to thousands of children. There are always going to be books you hate and someone loves. For one reason or another that author and book did not speak to you, but will to someone else. There are many a Newberys I don’t like, nor do children. Newberys are the best of the best. Talk about what was good in the book, the plot, the characters, setting. Talk about the flaws. Mention what you didn’t like and why. I had students who alway read books I didn’t like, because they knew that they would like them. We just had different taste. When choosing a new book to read I read both the good reviews and the bad reviews because the bad can give you more insight into the book than all the glowing ones. The motto of school librarians is “The right book to the right child at the right time”.

  20. liz n. says:

    There’s a difference between a book that is bad and a book that didn’t appeal to you, so I think it’s always more helpful and more honest when that clarification is made in a book review. And while many negative reviews veer too close to author-bashing, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with talking about why you don’t like a book. Artists of all kinds work very hard to create whatever it is they create, and one of the bravest things they can do is put their creations out there for the world to see, read, hear, feel, etc., but the fact is that not every person like every thing, and along with being brave enough to put your creation into the world comes being grown up enough to handle criticism.

    It’s the same with recommending a book to someone: you love it, they read it, they don’t like it. It isn’t that the person doesn’t like YOU, it’s that you have different tastes in books.

  21. Aimee says:

    I really appreciate your critical reviews. I remember that you explained HANDS-FREE MAMA wasn’t your favorite. I bought it anyway when the Kindle price dropped and then took several long months to slog through it (I could only deal with a couple pages at a time before I lost interest), wishing the whole time I had listened more carefully to you. It also makes a huge difference to me when you let us know about foul language, abuse, and other possible triggers. I’m a pretty conservative reader because what I see and hear affects me so deeply. You are right to remember that authors are real people with real feelings, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to love everything they create. And when every single review I read is overwhelmingly positive, I become suspicious that the author has somehow bribed reviewers. I agree that knowing why someone does or does not like a book is tremendously important as well. “I hated it!” tells me nothing. Thanks for your hard work and your conscientious reviews!

  22. Breanne says:

    Such an interesting topic and I’m glad to see you developing it more, I was hoping you would after your newsletter!
    There are some books that I read because everyone seemed to love them and I didn’t but I don’t always know how to say it without criticizing the author. Hands Free Mama is a recent example, I wanted to like it but several chapters in, I just didn’t. I finished it to see if it got better, I didn’t think it did.
    It’s a hugely popular book and one I was hesitant to be too honest about.

    Good post and good comments, I’m thinking a lot more about what I say about a book and that’s always a good thing!

  23. Sarah M says:

    If I’m reviewing a book I didn’t like, I sort of follow the high school editing rule: say something nice about it first, then say what needs work.
    I’m glad you’ll be reviewing books you didn’t like–it seems like you have liked almost all the books you read! I know what I like to read now, and so I rarely pick up a book I’m not that interested in, but there are a few disappointments here and there. I find it’s often because of the mood I’m in or something, more than the book.
    Sarah M

  24. My taste in books has changed so much over the years . . .

    For example, the book “Dateable” by Justin Lookadoo and Haley DiMarco which I thought was enlightening and powerful as a young teenager, now honestly disturbs me. They gave some great practical tips on maintaining purity in relationships, but looking back that was about the extent of its usefulness. Their dismal view on young marriage was a turn off . . . We all know the statistics . . . But for those of us who have chosen the path of young marriage in spite of the obstacles ahead? This book was depressing and unnecessary.

    I felt throughout the book that the authors genuinely cared about Christian teenagers being on the right path, so I considered e-mailing them. But there was a point in the book that Justin Lookadoo said something to the effect of “Don’t tell me you are the exception until you’ve been married to your high school sweetheart for fifty years, because even if you do marry young, it will end in divorce.” So I decided not to waste my breath.

  25. Susan says:

    I belong to a very lively book discussion group. We seldom read books that I like (my taste is very similar to yours, Anne), but I always read the books. I’ve come to realize that, though not to my taste, what I can like about the books is that they lead to very lively discussions. I’ve learned to appreciate the social, moral, and legal issues a book deals with because they make me think and refine my position on many things. Taking this approach, I am able to overlook technical inaccuracies, bad grammar, choppy style, poor character development, and other personal bugaboos in the books. I don’t know if this approach will help you struggle through some books you don’t enjoy reading, but it certainly helped me cope–and learn–from the process.

  26. Allison says:

    Thank you for this topic! I appreciate everyone’s comments. While I agree that each of us do have our own tastes and topics that we want to read about, for me, there are a few “absolutes.” First, I want a well-written book. I want good grammar, well-written paragraphs, no spelling errors, writing that is at an appropriate adult level, etc.

    Second, while I am not a prude at all, I personally do not care for a book that is filled with graphic sexual content or foul language. I understand that this is my personal taste, but IMO, I read for the STORY, not to read 15 pages of how the hero took her virginity…and then 20 pages later how she was raped (10 pages of description), yada, yada, yada! If the only “story” in the book is connecting the different times there is a sexual experience between characters, then to me, that is neither well written nor worth my time.

    Third, I truly appreciate hearing from both authors and readers about books I am interested in. I love knowing why an author chose to write the book, what inspired him/her and so on. Hearing from other readers about books I have enjoyed is always interesting, and sometimes another review brings out a point I may not have thought of!

  27. Tim says:

    I don’t hesitate to say I didn’t like a book (Remains of the Day and Heart of Darkness come to mind in that category), but I try to restrain criticizing books just because they weren’t to my taste. That’s not to say I never criticize; I just try to base the criticism on more than the fact I didn’t like the book.

  28. Barb says:

    Thanks for this! I joined a book club last year & it’s been challenging to express what I like or dislike, especially in our group of brilliant, well-read ladies. I will be applying these principles.

  29. This is verrrrry, verrrrrry interesting from the author’s perspective — what others think of books (which is really not our business when it’s about our own work), how I handle books that aren’t for me, and what I think about “bad” books.

    I’m with Heather on that last one, though I wouldn’t have been 15-20 years ago. But the more I read and the more I write, the more I understand there are people who can do a number of things with stories that I can’t. I see this even in books that don’t click for me. Every book has its reader. Some have a broader readership than others, but neither popularity or obscurity are an indicator of worth.

    When I first published in 2012, I wrote a writer’s manifesto to kind of feel out the sort of writing life I wanted to live. One of the things on the list was “I will not disparage others’ books, genres, or talents but will find value in what they create.” There are still times a certain book doesn’t work for me. I choose, though, to discuss it privately with a friend, to get a sense of their experience with the same story. But I never forget that book works on some level for someone else.

  30. Jamie says:

    I think constructive criticism is important. And if I value someone’s opinion, I love to hear what they think of a book. Plus I read a lot of stuff from many different people with spiritual discernment and I’m always glad when they give a warning or recommendation.

  31. One more thing: In my teaching days I encouraged my students to think about like vs. enjoy rather than like vs. not like. There is always something we can pull from a book that worked for us on some level, made us think, etc., even if it’s a stretch. “I didn’t like it” shuts down the opportunity for conversation.

    Okay. Soapbox speech completed. 😉

  32. Katherine S. says:

    While I don’t envy your dilemma about how to write polite, yet accurate reviews, I must say I am jealous that you get to preview the books! Looking forward to reading your reviews at some point in the future.

  33. Sarah says:

    When I started doing some book reviews, I read posts on “how to” review a book. I read some advice that was similar to what your publishing friend said. Like, you might not be the right audience, but there is an audience for every book. (I agree that with you that that idea might be a stretch).
    It still hasn’t stopped me from slamming one author and her book because it was a personal/how-to type book full of personal anecdotes, which I felt were undermining the thesis of her book and were hypocritical. I honestly couldn’t believe it was published and that people like it. I found the book upsetting and potentially hurtful for other people, too, considering the way the book was marketed.
    Other than that, I am a wuss and I try to only review books that I love and can recommend. I do a write up on every novel/book I read (even if it’s just a few sentences), so if I didn’t like it, I try to hypothesize who would find it useful, who would enjoy it more, or if the fact that I listened to audio or read it made a difference.
    Also, I enjoy classic novels for what they are–a glimpse of the time period. I don’t always rate them highly or recommend them to friends, but I can appreciate what they did for their time period and society, how they influenced later writers, and how they are a part of a literary tradition.
    I’m glad you wrote about this subject! 🙂

  34. Angela Mills says:

    This is exactly why I don’t review books. I logically know that thoughtfully pointing out what didn’t work for me isn’t an attack on the author, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Maybe because I’m a writer, or because I’m an INFJ and HSP and hate the thought of hurting anyone. I could easily talk about it in person with a book club or something like that, but I wouldn’t want to post it for everyone to see. I’m super glad others do, though, because it warns me off some books 🙂

  35. Dawn says:

    “I’ve still read some pretty horrible books. (Most of those just needed another round of edits, but that’s another story for another day.)”

    I would love read a post about this. Is it just me, or are books these days edited more poorly? I’m not just referring to grammatical/spelling errors. I also mean too many books are unnecessarily long these days.

    • Anne says:

      “I also mean too many books are unnecessarily long these days.”

      You’re right. I’ve heard numerous publishing pros say many nonfiction books don’t need to be book length: the author doesn’t need 80,000 words to make their point. The same goes with many blogger-to-book deals. I love a good Kindle single and wish more authors would embrace the 20k words or less format instead of publish a bloated book.

  36. Kathryn Dean says:

    This is a tough one. Like you, I try to remember that there is a writer at the other end of my review…a real person who poured her heart and talent into this book. The only negative review I’ve publicly posted lambasted Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret. I felt bad about it later. It disappointed me so greatly because of how much I LOVED her other books (What Alice Forgot, for example. LOVED it). The Husband’s Secret dealt with too much tragedy in a somewhat light-hearted way in the sense that her characters are just as snarky and well written as in her other books, but, to me, it didn’t seem to fit with all they were dealing with. It seemed to make light of their poor life choices which didn’t mesh with my moral compass.
    Good luck with your thoughtful reviews! I look forward to reading them.

  37. Bri says:

    This is an interesting topic! I think that ultimately, a reviewer’s loyalty should be toward potential readers and not to the author. Of course, at the same time, it’s important for reviewers to remember that the author is a real person who has worked hard to create something and put it out in the world.

    I really appreciate the way you review books. I have read way too many blogger book reviews where they only gave gushing, positive reviews with no negatives/downsides/”this is written for a particular audience” disclaimers, etc. and it later became clear that the author was a good friend of the blogger. It feels more like advertising than an honest review. It’s made me largely distrust book reviews by most bloggers (other than you), even when I really like the blogger. Especially after being very disappointed by some of the books I’ve read after these reviews.

    All that to say, honest reviews that can point out some positives AND negatives of a given book, regardless of which way the reviewer leans, are much appreciated by this reader!

  38. Amanda says:

    I like the taking a step back approach you shared. About 5 years ago, I decided to abandon reviewing books. There’s an art to a thoughtful book review, and I just don’t have the patience to write them. I also know that I have SUCH particular tastes that any review I write probably wouldn’t help many others. I don’t have any problem saying I don’t like a book, I just normally say it wasn’t for me. It might be for someone, ha.

  39. Katie says:

    I love this post & the variety of perspectives in the comments! A few things come to mind:

    First, I agree with many previous commenters that a good negative review should criticize the work itself rather than attack the author. It’s possible for a reader to effectively & sensitively convey the reasons they didn’t enjoy a book without descending into author-bashing. That said, writers do need to be held to high standards. Yes, they may have worked hard & poured heart & soul into creating this book, but what if that book is legitimately just, well… terrible? As a reader, I want reviewers to be honest. Reviews recommending books are great for building up my TBR list, but I also like to hear about what I might want to think about avoiding.

    Finally, I think the whole issue of author-reader relationships has been massively exacerbated by the growth of social media & the expanding online presence of public figures (such as authors). Writers aren’t just reading reviews of their work in the printed press anymore, they are personally interacting with their readers & reviewers on Goodreads, on Facebook, on Twitter, and on blogs. I’m not a writer, but I think this really raises the stakes for them & takes everything an author reads or hears about his work to a much more personal level.

  40. Des says:

    I can’t wait to read these reviews and see how you handle this challenge. I need this skill set desperately for my book club! I find it fascinating that I’m not dealing w/ the author of the book but the woman who recommended we all read it! 🙂 I get very attached to my recommendations and so do others. Thank you so very much for your time and thoughtful opinions. You’ve got skills!!

  41. Carrie says:

    As someone who reads reviews, I appreciate when someone is clear about what she likes and doesn’t like about what she is reviewing. I tend to stick to a few reviewers whom I respect for their candor AND their ability to not be mean or snarky. Many times, I have picked up a book even though a reviewer didn’t particularly like it because through the negative review, I could still tell that I might like it myself. Honesty and kindness are possible even in a negative review.

  42. Arenda says:

    I don’t hesitate to negatively review a book if it’s warranted; I’m happy to give lavish praise where it’s merited, and equally happy to point out poor writing, under-developed characters, etc. I don’t think a book review needs to be gentle or delicate; it needs to be honest. I’d rather you were like Simon Cowell, straight-up telling us about the ghastliness of certain books, than like the friendly but indiscriminate Paula Abdul. It’s Simon’s ability to give negative reviews when necessary that makes him trustworthy.

  43. Charlene says:

    I’m just hoping the books pictured in the blog are NOT ones you didn’t like: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, etc. If so, you MUST go back and re-read them.

  44. Rebecca says:

    I worked in a bookstore for over a decade and also had the opportunity to read advance copies. I found that there was a difference between authors who had a great! idea but needed some quality editing and authors who just didn’t manage to capture what they saw in their head. You also need to take into account the book’s sales. King can get all snobbish about writing but authors like Meyers have made a fortune off of their writing so obviously they struck a chord with a certain crowd. And of course there is the matter of taste … Oprah’s Book Club was humongous back in the day. She’d announce a book (frequently without warning the bookstore chains) and everyone just HAD to read it. I never could, though, because she chose incredibly depressing books. I read books either for information (I have whole bookshelves dedicated to history and theology) or for escape (and right next to them are my campy SciFi novels). To sum all that up, yes, I’ll critique books, but because I spent so many years in the book business I’m very good at coming up with a reason a book could appeal to someone. For instance, I never read 50 Shades and don’t plan to but when I was asked my opinion I’d usually laugh, say it wasn’t really my taste but a lot of people seem to like it. They’d laugh with me and go buy a copy. The only instance I’ll wholeheartedly pan a book is if it’s a kids book and it has an unacceptable element (like graphic sex. You’d think that wouldn’t happen but it has).

  45. Heather says:

    I haven’t had time to read all of the comments (though they seem very thought-provoking), but I want to thank you for articulating this so well for me. I rarely read negative reviews of a book on Amazon (though I always read the negative reviews for anything else I plan to buy!) because I find so much of it is a matter of taste. I avoid them because so often what people don’t like is just a matter of style. And I especially hate comments like, “the author’s tone was condescending” because that is usually a matter of how one reads it. I can’t wait to hear your discussion of books that weren’t for you.

  46. Jill says:

    I believe reviews say more about the reviewer and where they are than the book or the author. I’ve reread books I had previously raved over and was left wondering what I loved so much. The contrary is also true of books I didn’t like but hadn’t given specifics about: I reread it and wondered why I was so ornery about it.

    i don’t believe any book serves any two people exactly the same experience. We all come to it with differing backgrounds and hopes and so the journey will be different for each of us.

    I appreciate when reviewers give a heads up to profanity, violence, and sexual encounters or vulgar descriptions. These tell me immediately I don’t want those images or words in my head and I can move on to another book. I appreciate when a reviewer describes why they claim the writing is good. We each perceive well-written pieces according to our experience and expectations.

    Kindness and honest appraisal of why a book was enjoyed is much more appreciated, for my part, than a blanket statement of judged worth.

    • Anne says:

      Great thoughts, I especially love this: “I don’t believe any book serves any two people exactly the same experience. We all come to it with differing backgrounds and hopes and so the journey will be different for each of us.”

  47. Heather says:

    I think the key to criticism is maintaining respect. If you lose respect for the author or the art, it becomes derogatory and spiteful. Don’t attack, explain. For example, I don’t insult an author I don’t like, I explain–with examples from their works–what I don’t like and why. Think of the criticisms you’ve received. Did you respond to the hateful quips or to the thought provoking remarks? What helped you grow?

  48. Amy E Patton says:

    I think this topic really struck a chord with your readers. I know it did with me. I am grateful you broached the subject and I look forward to hearing how you continue to work through it. It is interesting you wrote this post when you did. Last week, I wrote a challenging review on Goodreads about Kristen Hannah’s Fly Away. What I have discovered is that my harsher and more negative reviews tend to be longer than the good ones. I do this in part to give depth to my opinion and to share both the good and the bad. I liked what one of your commenters said about how the best book reviews aren’t synopses but actual reviews- who needs a synopsis when you have the back of the book anyways? I value your recommendations. I have learned we share similar taste and similar tolerances. I see you suggest books outside your interest with your book matching posts. So, keep up the good work. Keep reading all those books and sharing the love!

  49. 'Becca says:

    I think it’s important to review books you dislike as well as books you like, but as several people have pointed out, explaining the reasons for your opinion is crucial. I find that a lot of positive reviews gush over things that turn me off of the book, and that’s just as helpful as a bad review that criticizes things I would like–it’s still information, and learning about the reviewer’s tastes simultaneously with learning about the book is interesting.

    My reviews of Between Here and April and Our Lady of the Lost and Found were pretty scathing, but I tried to explain what it was I didn’t like. I’d guess that the authors would feel hurt reading these reviews, though. I heard from the person who loaned me Our Lady of the Lost and Found (which I’d not yet returned; we live far apart) saying, “Oh, I’m sorry you didn’t like it. I did.” but with no further detail. I was kind of disappointed and wondered what she saw in it, but when we saw each other I felt unable to ask without the risk of sounding sarcastic, like, “So, you LIKED this book WHY?”

  50. Amanda A says:

    I, personally, don’t care to explain why I liked or hated something. I’m a bit more open to sharing the why when it comes to books. But I don’t see the need for people to know the why. I don’t like it. I love it. I have my reasons. If someone presses me for the why I just repeat “because I don’t”. I don’t know why I don’t care to share but if I say I like/don’t like something I think that should be enough for a person.

  51. Marie says:

    What a timely post. I’m supposed be on my way downtown right now to meet Amy Stuart, author of Still Mine at her publisher’s office Simon & Schuster Canada. I feel horrible but I can’t go down there and gush and fake it and pretend like I loved the book because I didn’t. I wrote the review as honestly as I could. But I didn’t have the heart to face the author and be honest about my feelings about her book. I imagine hearing criticisms about your art is like hearing criticism about your child, both equally heartbreaking.

  52. I usually only review books from publishers that I think I’ll like. But it doesn’t always turn out that way. The harshest review I ever gave was to a Study Bible last year. Ummm… Not for Genesis thru Revelation. It had a few articles in the front of the Bible but very few actual study notes. It was not really a Study Bible by any definition. The one good thing I could say was it had nice large font for people who need it.

    When it comes to fiction, I realize how the bestest of friends can disagree so I try to be honest that what I don’t like may be something another reader won’t mind. That a like or dislike is a personal opinion.

    I love your new podcast. It is just the right length to listen to while washing dishes, even if my Amazon Wish List is doubling.

  53. Amanda Nevin says:

    I rely heavily on Goodreads, Amazon and reviews when deciding whether to buy a book or not. I find a constructive negative reviews most helpful in deciding on a book. I don’t pay too much attention to one star reviews unless it’s from a reviewer I trust. Conversely I don’t believe every book you pick up is going to be a five star read. So I don’t trust a reviewer who gives every book they read 4 or 5 stars. I read a lot and review almost everything on either Goodreads or amazon. I only give 5 stars to books that I absolutely love or that change me in some way. If I don’t like a book that has tons of positive reviews I acknowledge that the book might work well for others and say why it didn’t for me. Personally, I would enjoy if you did the same.

  54. Noga says:

    I’m joinging the conversation way after it’s ended, but still, I’d like to add a thought. When I was 18 I was tour guide in a Field School located in the Jerusalem Hills (Israel). This is a profession that demands constant learning, and once in a while we would go on study-tours with veteran tour guides to deepen our knowledge or get to know a new area, trail, or topic. Our time was precious (we often had very little time to study between tours)- and so we were all very upset one day when a study-tour was exceptionally shallow and unhelpful. On the way back, I ranted to the Field School manager about the time wasted, and all the productive things I could have done with it instead of going on this lousy tour… ANd this is what he said to me: “Noga, there’s no such thing as a wasted tour; from every tour there’s something to learn, and this time- it’s how NOT to give a tour!”. Also with books- a book I “hate” is one that teaches me more about the genres, eras, or writing styles that I actually enjoy. *This is also an opportunity to tell you, Anne, how much I appreciate your podcast. It’s opened new reading worlds for me. Thank you!

  55. Brandyn says:

    I’m in a very different situation than you, Anne, because I don’t have any expectation that other people are reading my reviews. When I review books on Goodreads it’s for my benefit – so one year or five years later I can remember what I was thinking.

    My favorite trick when reading other people’s reviews of contentious books – find detailed 3 star reviews. 5 star and 1 star reviews tend to be overly emotional; a 3 star review will highlight the good points and some bad and will give me a clue whether the issues with the book are things that bug me personally.

    • Debbie says:

      When I was selecting books for my library, I always read the negative reviews for a book. Negative reviews point out the flaws. This helped me in making decisions if it was a good selection for my students and teachers. However most books purchased had the most positive reviews, unless it was something my student would eat up regardless of quality, like Goosebumps.

  56. Kayla says:

    I will share negative reviews on my instagram account, but I struggle with it. It helps in knowing that, with my smaller account, the author likely won’t see it (as opposed to on amazon, etc. where they might be reading all the reviews), because I really hate ever criticizing someones creativity! I always remain respectful and try to explain why it didn’t work for me and then I try to include examples of how it worked for other people I know, if that applies. I do find it incredibly helpful to read negative reviews when it’s explained why it didn’t work for them. It helps save my time and, in some cases, my money. I’ve also seen people explain that a book doesn’t work for them because of a certain trigger, which can be especially helpful to other readers.

  57. Vicky Agnew says:

    There are several reasons to dislike a book — bad writing, formulaic storytelling, and the absence of any likable characters. I struggle with the last one because a book full of unlikeable or unrelatable characters doesn’t mean a book is bad for most people, but it does for me. This is the tension I have with books by Zadie Smith. When I close one of her books, I think, “God, I wouldn’t want to meet any of those people, and this book was a waste of time.”
    I don’t know many people who would call Zadie Smith’s books a waste of time – so this is my guilty secret.

  58. Rosalie says:

    I’m super excited about this! Anne, I love your blog and your work and you, but I don’t always love the books you love. I feel like it’s more than half. I always see why you enjoyed them, why you recommended them, and they’re never do bad I can’t finish them (I always give it 50 pag before i give up and I don’t give up on your recommendations). But I’m wondering if our tastes are different and maybe I’ll like some of ones you didn’t. Who knows. I’ve found some favorites by reading other works by the same authors. For example, I thought This is How it Always Is was strange and too “woowoo” but her other book Goodbye for Now was inventive and sweet. Thanks for all you do on our behalf.

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