Reviews. Honestly.

cryingLately I’ve read a couple of postings from book bloggers I follow who have been debating whether or not to say negative things about books they’ve read. There are a couple of reasons for their not wanting to stray from the path of four- and five-star niceness: They don’t want to hurt authors’ feelings, or they don’t want to incur the wrath of those whose books they pan. I understand their hesitation. Occasionally authors or their fans get in a snit and argue with the reviewer in the comments section of the blog, which is never pretty. I’ve seen talented bloggers give up on their websites, and that’s a shame.

The trouble is, if all the reviews in the world are good ones, readers exist in a hard-to-navigate literary Lake Wobegon, where all the books are above average.

I don’t review books, although I will recommend the ones I like. I’m an author, and I don’t feel comfortable panning fellow authors. (I know there’s a proud, entertaining history of this, but I don’t exist in the world of The New York Times Book Review.)  Of course, as a writer I want all the reviews of my books to be glowing. It’s natural. Negative reviews sting–especially when the reviewer is able to make me see her point. Really awful reviews, ones that are the review equivalent of a drive-by shooting, usually make me laugh, at least at first. For example, here’s an excerpt from an Amazon review about book I wrote:

RUN! Don’t even make eye contact with this book. I think I would have much rather ate a bowl of pig vomit than to have gone through what I did with this book.

Yikes!  I don’t know about you, but if something I’m reading gets to the pig vomit stage, I quit reading and put the book in the thrift store pile or return it to the library. Would I like to be able to erase this review from public view? In my imaginary, me-centered world, yes. (Nicer still if I could erase it from my brain!) Yet there it sits after nearly a decade, and according to Amazon, four people have found the review helpful. Believe it or not, it’s those four people who make me glad the bad review remains on the website. Hard as it is for me to accept, those four readers saw something in that review that spoke to them. I’d like to think that it’s their loss…but maybe it saved them from wasting their money on a book that they really wouldn’t have liked.

I’m a reader. I buy most of the books I read in order to support fellow writers, but since I’m not rich, I like to increase my chances of spending my money on something I’ll like. I often sift through reviews on Amazon and Goodreads before buying. More than anything, I appreciate honesty in reviews. Who hasn’t been stung after snapping up a book that every professional reviewer raves about, only to discover that in your own opinion it’s a little, well, pig-vomitty? Goodreads and Amazon are useful because they allow us to seek out other readers whose interests are in sync with our own, and who are are willing to point out aspects of sometimes wildly popular books that some might find toxic. Often I learn a lot about how much I can trust a reviewer’s opinion by looking at what she pans as much as the books she raves about.

So I hope bloggers and reviewers won’t pull back from being their enthusiastic, opinionated selves. If I send out a review copy, “in exchange for an honest review” means just that. Although I will tweet links to good reviews, I rarely comment on the review itself, good or bad, because I think author surveillance can have a dampening effect on book discussions. But I read all the reviews of my own books, the positive and the negative, and appreciate the time each reader takes both to read the book and to comment on it.

Where do you go for book recommendations?


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