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How Mean Should a Negative Book Review Get?

September 30, 2013
Has anyone ever written a negative review of this book?  If so, it better not have been mean!

Has anyone ever written a negative review of this book? If so, it better not have been mean!

I don’t like admitting that some writers might be too smart for me.  Yesterday I was reading an article on The New Yorker website about “hatchet job” negative book reviews when I got lost.  There were a lot of names I didn’t recognize and words that I didn’t immediately know (I don’t look words up in the dictionary very often anymore), so I lost interest.  But the topic of mean/nasty book reviews intrigued me. 

The author’s point (or one of them) was that British reviewers still go for the “hatchet job” while American reviewers go for the more gentle approach.  That makes sense to me.  The United States has been inundated with anti-bullying campaigns for years, and maybe it has taken hold in the literary community.  Writers like Dorothy Parker and Gore Vidal (and a bunch of old book reviewers whom I had never heard of), who were once celebrated for their literary insults, would now be viewed upon as literary bullies.  I don’t know if Great Britain has gone anti-bully.  I watch sessions of the House of Commons just for fun every once in a while (I have no idea what they’re talking about), and I don’t think any of the speakers I heard could sponsor any anti-bullying legislation with a straight face. 

I guess the “hatchet job” was more common in the United States a generation (or two) back.  I’d also guess that some of the “hatchet job” reviews were more for the ego of the reviewer than for the education of the reader.  Dorothy Parker and Gore Vidal were known for insulting other writers, but from what I’ve read (which is a tiny percentage of everything they’ve written), their insults weren’t very good and their comments weren’t very insightful.  As school children, they might have been bullied (pure speculation on my part) for being snooty, not for being clever, and that might have contributed to their mean-spirited negativity. 

Part of the problem is that people aren’t trained to give or take criticism.  A couple decades ago, I was in a writers’ group where we were encouraged to start our critiques with statements like “If I were writing this, I would take this approach,” or “If this were my selection, I would focus on this character instead of that character.”  It was positive but still constructive.  There wasn’t any “This was good,” or “This needs more work.”  It was a difficult standard to maintain.  About a year into the group, a member threw my manuscript on the floor and called it a waste of his time.  That wasn’t constructive.  It was kind of mean and negative.  And it wasn’t clever.  At least Dorothy Parker and Gore Vidal tried to be creative in their insults. 

If anything, book reviews today have gone too far the other way.  Now there are too many too positive reviews.  The positive review has become just another sales technique, which is okay as long as we readers are aware of that.  Between sock puppets, friends of the author, and reviewers not wanting to make anybody angry because they’re trying to sell their own books, it’s tough to trust book reviews anymore. 

During my first year of Dysfunctional Literacy, I wrote several negative reviews of popular books, but I hope my negativity had a point.  I wrote that Stephen King uses too many clichés in his newer books (and his older writing wasn’t nearly so lazy).  I wrote that John Sanford’s characters all talk the same way.  I wrote that Sue Grafton’s alphabet mystery series was a really stupid idea (but she found a market of readers who follow her books, so that gives me hope that readers will go for some of my stupid ideas too).  My reviews were negative, but I hope they weren’t mean.  I’d read them again to find out, but reading posts that are two year’s old can be painful. 


The New Yorker is not meant for me.  I’ll admit that.  The article that I mentioned is an example where the author has taken an interesting topic and then lost me after a few paragraphs.  I’d criticize the article for being longwinded and rambling, but then I’d leave myself open to accusations of being ironically mean-spirited for writing a “hatchet job” on a New Yorker article when I claim to not appreciate “hatchet jobs.”  So I’ll just say the topic was great but the article wasn’t for me.  I hope that isn’t negative. 

But enough about me!  How negative should reviews get?  Have reviews gotten too positive recently?  Do you even trust book reviews anymore?  And finally… does anybody read The New Yorker on a regular basis anymore?

  1. I think there should be a balance between negativity and outright bullying. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “This book didn’t work for me, and here’s why _______.” If you go with the “This author is an absolute moron and all work by him/her is a utter waste of paper and the English language,” approach, then it’s bullying. Everyone will have an opinion, and you open yourself up to that when you put anything on the internet or write a book or anything of the like. Some people will like it, and some people won’t, because everything sees the world a bit different.

  2. thewriterscafe247 permalink

    The only negative reviews that are mean are the ones where to just seems like the reviewer is being negative for no real reason. If the reviewer happened not to like or get the book and write a review to that effect that is not “mean”. Books are going to get negative reviews. What does it mean? Does it mean that critics are only allowed to write reviews if they are going to say only nice things? Writing is a tough act so writers need to either grow a thick skin or get out of the business. Negativity for negativity’s sake is the only kind of mean review.

  3. toniwaverhouse permalink

    Negative reviews essentially mean you think people should be reading something else, don’t they? There was never anything wrong with being selective about what you read…after all what you read influences what you write and a serious writer doesn’t want a mind impressed by stories of angst ridden vampires, text message acronyms or love in the time of social networking.
    Nothing wrong at all.

  4. Hi DL … interesting post. I have shared it on my Facebook author page so that the writers that follow that can also read it.

  5. A negative review, in my opinion, should provide information on why the reviewer didn’t enjoy the book. Not “it was awful” but more along the lines of “the character development was too thin and made it hard for me to get into the book.” Reviews are more for other people that may want to read that book, not for the author. I think some people forget this when writing reviews.

  6. I don’t rely on critics and I don’t know anyone who reads the New Yorker anymore:) I either read the book liners or other synopses…..I think back to one of the oldest adages, “those who can do…those who can’t write literary review:)”…slight paraphrasing.

  7. That’s reviews…not review…durn grammar:)

  8. I think that plot structure, word usage, research (if applicable), and plot logic are all fair targets. The author’s intellect, background, and social/political leanings are not. Dorothy Parker and Gore Vidal both targeted the writer as well as the writing. An introduction along the lines of, “it’s a stupid book and i hated it,” will probably send the reader away before the reviewer has a chance to defend his/her position.

  9. I am British so brace yourself for some harsh words 🙂

    I like a bit of both. I don’t see the point in ripping someone’s work to shreds because at least they did the work, which maybe Mr Reviewer never did, but I also don’t go for gushy, let’s never be negative and hurt their feelings nonsense. If you don’t like a book, say you don’t like it, giove decent reasons why not and leave it at that!

    And as far as the New Yorker goes I used to love it but since they NEVER print any of my poetry I read it less….grudge holding? moi? never.

  10. Very thoughtful post!!

    I think when reviewing anything there needs to be truth. That doesn’t mean that reviewing gives you the green light to bash the **** out of someone; after all, the author has out a lot of work into their writing but at the same time we can’t be expected to like EVERYTHING. I am of the mind that constructive criticism is ok. I think some people get very brave behind their computer screens and enjoy the “power” that comes with reviewing. But at the end of the day the author IS a real person. We should be careful not to aim to smack them with our cruel words, but we shouldn’t wrap them in cotton wool either. If we did that, where is the truth in our reviews??

    What I have difficulty with is the ambiguous “star rating” process – what is a 3 star book? What makes it “3 star”? There is too much ambiguity in that system!!

    But personally, I HATE giving low scores and bad reviews; I just picture the author in a dank, dark room reading my review and taking it to heart…. So I always aim to include “what I liked” to soften the blow!

    • Agree that star ratings are stupid. They’re just as stupid when used to review movies or games. Shallow readers allow star ratings to inform their opinions. I find if there’s star ratings, readers won’t read the entire content of a review — or at least they won’t read it all that closely. Star ratings are all about categorising. They encourage us to lump dispirit works together, never mind that some just aren’t comparable! And don’t get me started on thoughtless one-star reviews, where the criticism ultimately boils down to ‘This book — no matter how finely it’s written — isn’t really my thing, my style, my genre’. That is NOT sufficient justification to write someone’s hard work off.

  11. As a performance critic (drama critic) I deal with some sensitive groups sometimes what I say is between the lines, but my harsh criticism is always balanced with what would improve the performance and bring it more in line with the playwright’s intentions.. Sometimes actors are doing a play that is just bad. Most of the time it is the director’s at any rate. Most theatres live for the positive reviews. The negative crushes the creative spirit. For the professional groups, I have a different standard, I expect more, and I will be blunt about saying what’s wrong; they will know I am right. But they are the first to ask me to come back. I don’t like reviewers who can’t review. It’s easier to be witty and funny when a play is bad than when it is good. My goal is to give it an honest appraisal and put it in perspective for others. I review books or articles with the same goal in mind, audience first.

  12. Love the cartoons. Check the reviews but do not necessarily believe them. Respect the long form booklets on simple subjects. Actually despise the book because they never print my poetry either.

  13. Love the cartoons but hate the mag. Cause they won’t print my poetry either.

  14. I don’t think that if you are critical of a book, a restaurant, or an action, you are a bully. We learn and improve from constructive negative comments. Sometimes you will agree with the comment, other times you will not. If both parties are open and honest and willing to see more than their own reflection, progress is made. What is really troubling is when comments are based on an unshakeable bias. I disagree with what you are saying therefore I will bash your writing, call you names and make you look like a fool, but no way will I ever consider that you are right.

  15. I know a guy who reviews books for a mid-sized literary review magazine. He’s not ALLOWED to write negative book reviews. He’s told to find something positive to say about every book he’s assigned. I feel like that’s the new standard, but how helpful is that to people who depend on these reviews to choose what to read?

  16. Great topic. Pretty much echoing most others’ sentiments: as long as criticism has context, it’s fine. User review sites, like, attract some truly feral critics, which is dismaying. I guess that kind of feedback is part of the game of publishing. If authors choose to take it to heart, then they might be in the wrong line of work. Every valid criticism is an opportunity to improve, I say.

  17. John T. permalink

    I reviewed Robert M
    assie’s 2011 book on Catherine the Great for Slavic Review (Spring 2013), pp. 162-63 and was horrified to see that this ‰yssia “expert:” cannot read Russian andf that his book is full f errors and omissions! It amazes me that hecould be so ignorant ad yet smehow have acquired a big reputation. I really think he’s lost his marbles at 82! How could so many people be so fooled!! John T. Alexander, emeritus, University of

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