What’s the Point in Writing Bad Book Reviews?

If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. I can still hear my mum’s voice reverberating up from my childhood. I’m sure you’ve heard something similar. But does this advice apply when it comes to writing book reviews?

When I’m looking for a new dishwasher or vacuum cleaner I like to read online reviews. Especially the bad ones. I read good reviews to compare different brands and models, to see which ones have the features I’m looking for.

When I find something that seems to fit the bill I start reading the bad reviews. All those one-star diatribes. What I’m looking for now is a pattern. I figure any appliance can break, but if I find a string of complaints about the same thing alarm bells ring. I don’t want to buy a vacuum cleaner if a dozen different reviews say the motor died within six months.

Both good and bad reviews tell me something about the product. What works, and — just as importantly — what doesn’t.

But what about book reviews?

I believe book reviews are different. Product reviews generally state objective facts, albeit with some hyperbole involved. It does this amazing thing! Five stars. That bit snapped off! One star. But book reviews are often less about facts and more about how the book made the reviewer feel. Book reviews, like movie reviews, are largely subjective.

Most reviews do have some facts about the book of course. The title, the genre, who the protagonist is and the premise of the story. But whether the review is good or bad, one star or five, is based on whether or not the reviewer liked the book. Which all comes down to personal preference. One reviewer’s limpid prose is another’s stultifying stodge.

“A review should help readers decide on their next book, and should help introduce a book to new readers.”

Does that mean I don’t read book reviews? Not at all. Not only do I read book reviews, I occasionally write them, too. But I usually steer clear of bad reviews. Just because a reviewer didn’t like a book doesn’t mean I won’t like it.

Do you have a friend whose book recommendations always hit the mark? I do. I also have friends who devour books that I simply can’t get into. When I see a one star review on Goodreads or Amazon I have no way to know whether the reviewer shares my taste in books. How much weight should I give their opinion? What they hate about a book may be exactly the thing that appeals to me.

When I write book reviews with this in mind. I only review books I like, and I try to explain what kind of reader might enjoy it.

Do you like to have your socks scared right off when you read? Are you willing to forgo achingly drawn characters in favour of a helter-skelter plot with explosions and gunfights? Are you looking for a love story that makes you swoon so hard you might actually cry if they don’t kiss, like, RIGHT NOW? By identifying who I think might like the book I hope I’m helping people decide for themselves whether my review applies to them.

Why I don’t write reviews for books I didn’t like

Well, for a few reasons. One is the flip side of why I don’t read bad reviews. The fact that I didn’t like it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an audience. My bad review could harm somebody’s chances of finding a book that they’d enjoy.

Which leads directly to the next reason. At a time when thousands of new books are being uploaded to Amazon every single day, it’s harder than ever for books and readers to find one another. The way I see it, a review should help readers decide on their next book, and should help introduce a book to new readers.

Every negative review impacts the author. I’m not just talking about hurting their feelings. It also hurts the chances of their work being discovered and read. I know how hard it is to finish a manuscript, and then to edit and cut and reshape and hone and polish until every sentence gleams. After all that effort, why would I want to diminish the author’s chance of finding an audience for their work simply because it wasn’t my cup of tea?

When it comes to writing book reviews, I think back to what my mum taught me growing up, but with a minor tweak. If you can’t say something helpful, it’s better to say nothing at all.

I asked on Twitter whether people write bad book reviews, and if so, why. One response I got was interesting. @BrekkeWrites said: “only if it’s a super hyped book, so that others who hated it won’t feel alone.” This is an interesting way of looking at it. Kind of a negative-review-as-support-group thing. Which is helpful in a different way. Not so much for people deciding whether to read a popular book, but for those who’ve read it and don’t see what all the fuss was about. I can see where she’s coming from, and in this case there’s no risk of keeping a book from finding it’s audience — clearly it already has.

How about you? Do you ever write bad reviews of books you didn’t like?