In defense of negativity

I got myself a bit riled up by this post — or rather, not the post itself, which is quite good, but some of the comments made by interviewees in the post. It’s about the function and status of book blogs, covering quite a lot of topics including how book bloggers can help small publishers, whether the criticism on blogs is any good, and whether book bloggers should post negative reviews. It’s this last question that gets me all irritated. Well, the second question irritates me too, but the idea that there is no good criticism on blogs strikes me as easily disproven, if only a person is willing to open their eyes and take a look around. But the question of bloggers posting negative reviews is not quite so easy.

I know I’ve written about this before, but what the hell — one thing that’s true about blogging is that it does little good to have an idea buried back in your archives from a few months ago. The post I’m referring to takes the side of freedom to write about books in whatever form you want, positive or negative, but one blogger they interview argues strongly that if you don’t like a book, you shouldn’t post about it. I think this is the sentence that got me:

… if you do not like what you read that is fine – but you do not have any authority to say so publicly and sometimes hurtfully.

Oh, dear. The things this sentence makes me want to say. Which I will refrain from saying, as I do not want to be mean and pick a fight. But I have the right to pick a fight if I want to! And I have the right to post whatever I want about any book I want, and I don’t need any authority from anybody to do it. It’s the absolute language that bothers me — you do not have any authority — whereas if somebody said to me “it might be better if you didn’t …” I would listen and politely disagree but I wouldn’t get angry.

People seem to have trouble accepting just what blogs are and what they do. Now I can understand this a little bit, especially if you are an author and you’d really rather not have random bloggers trashing your work, whom you know nothing about and, for all you know, may not have completed high school. But the reality is that if it’s going to happen there is nothing you can do to stop it. And pretending that there’s some authority out there that grants certain people the right to give their opinions and makes the others shut up won’t help any.

Blogging is a new and sometimes troubling mix of the personal and the public — it often feels like a combination of diary, casual coffee shop conversation, and published work. I can see that it’s hard to come to terms with the way blogging takes that diary or coffee shop conversation and puts it out into the world, giving a public voice to those who would have had none before. “Publishing” now has a new meaning and new connotations. These days there’s publishing as in going through the editing process and appearing in print, and there’s publishing as in typing up a blog post, with what degree of care it doesn’t matter, and clicking “publish.” It’s just not the same thing anymore, and I think it’s better to learn how to deal with it than to try to fight it.

But what I really wanted to say is that it doesn’t make sense to me that bloggers should write only about books they like. No one can stop bloggers from publishing negative reviews, yes, but I also see no reason for them to try to do so. To me personally, it feels dishonest to write only about positive responses, and I’m not sure I’d trust a blogger who never panned a book, ever. But even more significant, I think, is that the attempt to be honest and truthful is more important than an author’s feelings. One lone blogger writing reviews isn’t going to uncover the truth about a particular book — there isn’t any such truth to be found — but her opinions will add to the ongoing conversation about books in general and about that particular book specifically, and the value of that conversation supersedes the feelings of individual people. There would be no depth, no interest, in a conversation with no negativity whatsoever.

Now, really bad-natured bloggers who write nasty reviews are another matter entirely, but still, no one can stop them from publishing their nasty reviews, and any reader with sense will ignore them and move on to better blogs.

So, if you decide you’d rather not publish negative reviews, then you don’t have to, and that’s a perfectly legitimate personal decision, but it’s not one I choose to make. And I do wish people would stop telling me what I’m supposed to do or not supposed to do on this blog where I can do anything I like.

31 Comments

Filed under Blogging, Books

31 responses to “In defense of negativity

  1. Hear hear! I don’t think book critics quite get this “freedom of speech” thing. What they are asking for amounts to censorship. Shameful.

  2. Bravo! Oh, this is an age-old argument here, the blogging just adds another confusing, complex layer to lit crit. Especially when dealing with authors, small publishers, the larger houses–this subject can spiral in a million directions. No one likes to be criticized, in my experience writers are especially sensitive. Some people do use the pen as a sword when it comes to a critique or review. Anne Lamott writes about this subject (minus the blogging componet) in Bird by Bird, and she raises some good points. Honest doesn’t need to be mean, but it can feel that way. Art–in many forms is subjective. Even a commercial success like The Kite Runner have people who love it, but many avid readers hate it. At the end of the day–as a writer–you have to stand by your work. And it’s still America–we can say what we want–good, bad, or indifferent.

  3. Yes, that’s how I regard it — a solely personal decision. I tend to laugh condescendingly (as I did when I read Hill’s comment because, wtf, she’s a blogger and should be smarter than that) when people try to raise that choice to the level of a general rule. I don’t court any of the poor-me arguments:

    1. I slaved over this book for ____ years!
    2. It’s a rough business and I don’t get promo placing at [insert name of your local chain store here].
    3. I’m a self-publishing author/small independent press/blind.
    4. There’s so much negativity in the world! Why would you want to add to that?

    When I get the book in my hands, when I start to read it, I can do and say whatever the hell I want about it. That’s my authority as a reader. You don’t like it, don’t write or publish. Save us a ton of grief.

    I may not have enjoyed Sarah Monette’s fantasy novels but I definitely respected her when I learned that, on her own livejournal, she links to all reviews she finds on the net, positive or negative.

  4. booksplease

    Well said! I particularly dislike it when someone tells me “you have no right …” as if I’m some lesser being who can read books but not have an opinion. It’s important to me to be honest and I would feel very uncomfortable if I were to write untruthfully about my opinion of a book. I completely agree with your last sentence!

  5. I don’t consider myself any kind of serious reviewer, but I reserve the right to be honest about the books I read. I even posted a list of “least favorites” from 2007 that included a book by THACKERAY (whom I otherwise like) that I just couldn’t finish.

    I recently reviewed A Thousand Splendlid Suns, and was actually somewhat nervous about giving my honest opinion–but I did it, anyway.

  6. Dorothy, I’m right with you on this. I’ve read many a vicious, unnecessarily nasty review in a newspaper, and that’s somehow supposed to be ok? Because of this spurious thing called ‘authority’? My experience is that the blog world is full of reasonable and reasoned voices, of which yours is certainly one.

  7. SFP

    The concept that you have to be honest if you’re paid, but should lie (even by omission) if you’re working for free is rather disturbing.

  8. Interesting post, Dorothy–I need to go and read the post/comments that you are referring to. I think it is fair if a reader didn’t like a book to share that opinion with other readers. Readers do that all over anyway–face to face, in book clubs, etc when they happen to be chatting about books. There are certainly lots of reviews on Amazon and B&N and many are not at all nice, but I rarely hear people say they shouldn’t be allowed to share their opinions (and many times they seem far more damning than those I read on blogs). If I don’t like something about a book I will mention it, but I also try and share aspects of the book I enjoyed. It is rare that I will completely not like a book, and I am always aware that the author may indeed come along and read it–I would never want to me intentionally mean and I imagine most readers think the same. Sometimes even a negative review will spark someone to still pick up a book and check it out. The last time I mentioned that I didn’t really enjoy a book I noticed several readers said they still wanted to read it, so perhaps it’s true all publicity is good publicity?

  9. You go Dorothy! I don’t understand the idea that a bad book or a book the reader didn’t like shouldn’t be reviewed. It seems dishonest to me. I know what kinds of books you like and how they tend to overlap with the kinds of books I like and if you read a book I’m thinking about reading and you didn’t like it, then the chances are good I wouldn’t like it either and you have done me a favor. I don’t think it is necessary to be mean about a bad book, but to say nothing at all is ridiculous.

  10. verbivore

    “One lone blogger writing reviews isn’t going to uncover the truth about a particular book — there isn’t any such truth to be found —”

    I love this sentence, Dorothy. And think this is exactly the point. A conversation starts and stops, develops and converges, in a myriad of styles and formats.

  11. musingsfromthesofa

    If one does not have the authority to pronounce an opinion on a book unless one is a published reviewer, how on earth does anyone ever get to be a published reviewer? Perhaps these rarified beings spring fully formed from the heads of their predecessors?
    Any reader is entitled to be negative about any book they have read. Not mean or cruel, but negative.

  12. I love you!

    The very same post — and the very same blogger/author — annoyed me too. Because, like you, I think negative reviews have a place and bloggers don’t need “authority” to post them. To suggest otherwise is, in my opinion, simply ludicrous. It’s the equivalent of telling a newspaper editor not to publish bad news!!

    Thanks for putting into words so eloquently an issue that has been troubling me for quite some time.

  13. Bravo Dorothy! I agree, each book blogger is entitled to their opinion. I personally enjoy reading all kinds of reviews. If a reviewer didn’t like the review, why not? Maybe they just didn’t care for a particular style I enjoy and if that’s the case I’ll still go and pick up the book. Our blogs are personal and I know for me, reviews are about how much I enjoyed the book and why or why not. Yes, that’s not the type of review you’ll find in the NY Times Review of Books but it’s the kind of review I’m comfortable with because I feel like I’m sharing a conversation with my friends.

  14. Once again, you state eloquently what needs to be said. I don’t post a LOT of negative reviews, mostly because if I don’t like a book I stop reading it. However, I have mentioned it a few times when I absolutely hated a book and felt it necessary to express it. I don’t believe that there is a bookish god giving out ‘authority passes’ allowing people to write only certain things. To repeat my mother’s advice, if you don’t like it, don’t read it. (that applies to reviews as well as books!)

  15. LK

    Perhaps much criticism is unbalanced, unfair, or unreasoned — the fact is, any blogger/reader has a right to it. I’m with Melanie: What makes people not only read what they don’t like but also argue against the author’s right to, well, write it? They must feel attacked in some personal way. Weird.

  16. Brilliantly put, Dorothy! This commenter seemed to think that we all write blogs because we have delusions of grandeur – we don’t all ‘expect to be taken as seriously as if you were writing in a national newspaper’. Most of us blog just because we enjoy it and enjoy the conversations about books that develop. My reviews tend to be positive because I don’t spend my hard earned cash on books I know I’m probably not going to like but we all set our own standards and have our own set of ethics about how we express our views; this freedom is the beauty of blogging and the readers have the ultimate power – they can move on. Surely it is much more incumbent on paid critics to be fair and positive when their work is read by so many, and not to just praise their friends and attack their enemies (as I have seen so many critics admit happens during this debate).

  17. This is a great response to that post, which I’ve also been mulling over myself. The idea of not having “authority” to post bad reviews is silly. I think being honest, to yourself and anyone reading your blog, is far healthier. Since we mostly read for pleasure, positive reviews are going to outweigh the negative ones anyway…

  18. I’ve read plenty of bad-natured reviews in the NY Times written by people whose only “authority” was that they had published books themselves. I agree with you. Who would trust someone who never had anything negative to say (says the one whose most recent post on a book was a negative one)? Also, my experience is that book bloggers tend to be much kinder (not trying to be so clever) than media reviews when they do have something negative to say.

  19. Thanks to all of you for your comments! Unfortunately I don’t have time to reply to them individually, but I do appreciate your support for negativity! It’s funny, I rarely write negative reviews, but I do want to defend my right to do so if I get the urge — and I feel like this group of bloggers is among the nicest group out there, but I’m glad we all agree to be negative now and then!

  20. Eva

    I’m pounding on my desk a la House of Commons. :) I don’t often write negative reviews either, but I do point out the negative aspects of books pretty regularly. Otherwise, how would anyone reading the review decide if they should read the book or not?!

  21. Excellent rebuttal Dorothy! I’m sorry that I’m somewhat late to the debate on this one but… I just don’t understand this distaste for negative reviews. And I must admit that, although I respect a blogger’s right to filter out the books they don’t like and write only about the ones they do, I find it rather insipid at times. For me it runs the risk of becoming more a forum for marketing than for opinion.

    But really you hit the nail on the head: nobody has the authority to tell us what to write or how to think. Hill’s comments seem to suggest that bloggers are ok for selling books – i.e. passing on recommendations by word of mouth – but that their critical analysis is worth squat. Apart from the fact that very few bloggers I know are interested in selling anything, I find this as disturbing as SFB does. It means that ‘common readers’ are only valuable insofar as they can blow your trumpet; what they think otherwise is best left unsaid. Dare I say that it is a very mercenary way of viewing your audience?

  22. Caroline

    Dorothy, I’m not a blogger, but a regular reader of your and others’ blogs, and I’m so glad you have put the argument forward for negativity. I come to blogs looking for recommendations from like-minded readers (and consequently, now have the most enormous wish list – thanks, everyone!), and it is far easier to get a feel for someone’s reading tastes when they don’t shy away from posting about what they didn’t like as well as what they did. Thanks to all of you for such interesting and perceptive thoughts on many different types of books – and for encouraging me to try books I would never have previously considered – even ones that some of you didn’t like!

  23. chartroose

    You go girl! This debate is so stale now. If people don’t like what we have to say, then they don’t have to read it. Life’s too short to be arguing about whether or not we are qualified to write OPINIONS, for Chrissakes!

    I also agree with you about overly positive reviews. We all need to be honest about the bad as well as the good.

    I’ve been loving your blog for at least a year. Keep up the excellent work!

  24. Thank you everyone! And particular thanks to chartroose for the very nice compliment!

  25. Oh dear, we shall have to politely disagree! I certainly, though, shan’t say bloggers “shouldn’t” write negative reviews, it’s just not something I do. Actually, even that’s not quite true – I’m quite happy writing a negative review of a book by a Big Publisher which will be reviewed all over the place. My fear is that my review, if of a book from a small press, will be one of only a tiny handful of reviews – and it would cause personal distress to the author if I was negative. I tend to be negative by silence i.e. the less I say the less I like it! Of course, most reviews bring out pluses and minuses. What IS absurd is the idea that bloggers don’t have the authority to write negatively about a book – blog reviews are there to help people figure out whether or not they want to read the book. Bloggers can do that as well, if not better, than anyone else.

  26. Well, what’s most important to me is the idea that bloggers can do as they like, and if people choose not to post negative reviews, that’s fine by me! I do see your point about hurting authors, although I value other things more.

  27. Pingback: Book News and “Fox in the City” Update « Vulpes Libris

  28. I think variety is also the joy of the blogosphere so each blogger will have perhaps made conscious decisions about what they want to present and why and how they want to do it. Personally I’m with Simon on the idea that I just can’t and don’t do negative reviews but that’s all bound up in what I do in my day job which is replete with the negativity in people’s lives and its effects so I just can’t help it. The blog and my reading is the positive balance to that. It might seem insipid and non-combative to many but no one’s paying me to do it, like most I do it purely for pleasure and nor is anyone buying me with free books to market for them. I am the sole chooser of what I want to read and write about and if you could know how many books don’t get past page fifty or less you’d probably be horrified. It would then be so depressing and take me far too long to then finish them and tell you why they were so terrible when effectively it might just be the wrong book for me at that given moment. Plus I’d need counselling because as I get older and hopefully wiser I realise the time left to read everything I want to is getting less. Silence is by far the better option for me coupled with that complete blogger’s freedom to do what I like. But negativity can also be balanced out by having the courage to speak out positively and defend a book that everyone else has hammered and I’ve done that too. I think generally people who read blogs also know exactly what they are looking for and where to go to find it whether that be negative, positive, academic, chatty, etc so between us I think we have effectively created a very balanced community with our difference and one that speaks to and references each other with ease. When did you last read a review in The Guardian that flagged up a good review on the same book in The Times? Bloggers have a generosity of spirit that has breathed new life into the world of books and reading, hooray for all of us I say!

  29. Dovegreyreader — I would be no means say your blog is insipid for being positive in its reviews :) — there are many ways of writing positive reviews and what’s really interesting isn’t the thumbs up or thumbs down, but the reasons why the reviewer thought what she did, whatever it was. And you’re right about the variety out there, and thank God for that; it’s the reason lots of people read blogs instead of or in addition to print reviews. You express the point beautifully.

  30. Dorothy we all speak the same language:-)
    I also know that there is a skill to doing negativity well without carping or being cynical and I know if I went there I would likely get it wrong. This might be to do with working in a very negative and cynical environment which is my bit of the NHS right now. Sometimes I come home from work and could bite the head off a whippet as they say here, and the family all say ‘mother, go and write your blog and do nice things and you’ll feel better!’ and so I do and they are right I do feel better and I bet lots of other bloggers use their blog in that way too, free blogotherapy all round!

  31. Oh, yes, I know just what you mean about blogotherapy! For me, blogging can be like riding my bike — I might feel badly before I begin, but while writing or riding I get so caught up in what I’m doing, that by the end, my mood has transformed entirely!

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