The OF Blog: It's okay to say that a book sucked donkey balls

Monday, May 24, 2010

It's okay to say that a book sucked donkey balls

When browsing through a few of the sites listed on my blogroll, I came across this Q&A of (mostly) British bloggers and authors concerning negative reviews.  While I was not surprised by any of the answers (I mean, what is an author going to say, other than yeah, it's not much fun reading those, but that reviewers have a right to voice their opinions and perhaps something can be gleaned from the criticisms that can be used to strengthen future stories), it did serve to remind me that yet once again there are several blog reviewers, especially those who are relatively new to online reviewing, that are uncomfortable with the idea of saying negative things about any particular work.

If anything, the lack of negative criticism can reflect badly on the reviewer; the author will doubtless get his/her fair share of negative comments from Amazon reader reviews.  If a work being considered generates only a lukewarm response and you don't respond to it, just state why and move on.  Sure, there will be authors who use Google Alerts and Addictomatic to find any mention of their name, but most of the time, nothing bad happens.  If anything, if a reader reads only positive praise and later discovers that the reviewer apparently doesn't know his/her ass from a hole in the ground when it comes to what is a "good story," then what benefit has that reviewer supplied the readers?

Differences of opinion occur.  For example, say Pat of Pat's Fantasy Hotlist and I are reading the same book.  Chances are that he's going to love certain elements that I won't and vice versa.  But each of us would have given an honest assessment based on personal preferences and the readers of our pieces would know, based on a history of such reviews, that there are things of merit within a flawed work and that what appeals to one type of reader will not appeal to another type and so decisions can be made accordingly.  But if a blogger never bothers to state flaws that s/he has detected in a particular work and really isn't engaging with the work as a whole, then who is benefiting?  I doubt the readers are, or even the reviewer.

Honesty is a valuable trait in most anything.  In reviewing, I believe there is value in being honest and stating baldly that if a particular work sucks donkey balls, then it sucks donkey balls and here is why.  Sure, that reviewer may have misinterpreted certain elements (errare humanum est) and may, in some case, be called out for it, but even that is preferable to a Pollyanna-type scene where everything is either praised or politely and gently ignored.  Why some have a problem with that is not beyond me, though.  I understand the reluctance to state strong opinions, especially those that may spark arguments.  But I'd much rather see arguments started than to see too many middling to poor works getting a free pass.

I sometimes ask myself, "What Would H.L. Mencken say?"  Not that I would agree with much of what the hypothetical Mencken-Reviewer might say, but at least there would be something to the writing that would reveal more about the work being reviewed (and the reviewer) than anything approaching the tepid, timid pieces that are often put forth (sometimes I'm guilty of not being strident enough in discussing what bothered me about a particular work).

So yes, feel free to say that a book sucked donkey balls.  Or perhaps a hairy baboon's filthy asscrack.  If it conveys your opinions better than an avoidance of exploring why a story didn't work for you, then why not be honest with yourself and just state right out what you're thinking?  It sure beats worrying about the consequences of raising any negative points about a work.

12 comments:

Jonathan M said...

I had a thought reading your post that I want to articulate before it fizzles away.

I think that it is simplistic to present this issue as a dichotomy between honest reviewers and dishonest ones who pull their punches etc.

Looking at my blog, I don't *publish* that many negative reviews because when I'm writing for myself, life is too short for bad films and books. I give up on them and I move on. So my output selects for books and films that I got something out of... if only enough stuff for a review.

Conversely, when I review for other people like Niall or Tony (or Paul) I have agreed to write about a book or a film and so I am compelled to a) finish the bloody thing and b) articulate my thoughts in a sustained manner.

So I think that part of the 'problem' with the lack of negative reviews is too many people publishing themselves.

It's not a big ask for someone who has agreed to read and write about a book to put out a negative review if they did not like it. But it's a much bigger ask to get a self-publisher to finish a book they dislike and then write about why they disliked it.

So I think that medium does play a substantial role here.

Harry Markov said...

It depends. As always.

If the reviewer chooses to not finish the book, then is he entitled to an opinion? Should he/she bother and will these comments on the unfinished novel come off as a warning or insult?

And what is a negative review to begin with? I think most people associate the negative with the scalding, scathing book bashing.

Anonymous said...

I think Jonathan is right. When I buy a print magazine, I don't want to read negative reviews. They cut down trees, take my money and time to say: "Look here, this one, seen it? Here try to remember it, and when you see it again: DO NOT BUY IT!"
Then I wonder if there wasn't enough good books to talk about in the first place. Why should I invest time in a book I shouldn't read anyway?

Now, with online stuff it's a bit different. When I read online review, it is mostly because I've searched for a book I've heard of, and now I want to know whether it fills up my needs or not. So, for online reviews negative reviews aren't per se a bad thing. (Though I wonder, whether the reviewer, who wrote stuff like "The book sucked monkey balls", is trying to write a entertaining text instead of an informing text. When I want to be entertained, I read short stories, when I read reviews, I want to be informed.)

But then there's Jonathan's observation: Most bloggers are selfpublishers. Why should they invest time in a bad book? Why should I?
Life is short.

Oliver

Paul said...

I agree with the thrust of what Jonathan is saying. I don't really do many negative reviews because I choose to read what I want to and then write about it, and for that reason I have avoided getting on anybody's "lists" for books.

If I was to read a book that was terrible I would have no problem saying so though, as well as why it was so bad. If someone wanted to argue I would refer them to those points, I have no problem with being a critic when I have to be.

That being said, I have a finite amount of time and I'd rather use that time to try and convince people to read Gormenghast, Grendel, a Cisco novel, a Ford short story collection, etc. than bag on a fantasy novel I know I probably won't like. I don't see it as being dishonest, more as time and effort efficiency.

Martin said...

I think Jonathan is right.

Um, Oliver, I don't think that was what Jonathan was saying.

A question to throw out there: is the likelihood of a reader having something interesting to say about a book at all related to its quality? I don't think it is so I'm not convinced self-publishing is the whole explanation here. Speaking personally as a blogger, I'm just as likely to have something to say about a bad book as a good book. I don't deliberately seek out bad books, I don't discuss every bad book I read but sometimes it is a bad book that I feel like I have something interesting to talk about.

And this leaves aside entirely the fact that books don't fall neatly into "good" and "bad" but are very often a mixture of the two.

Martin said...

I think Jonathan is right.

Um, Oliver, I don't think that was what Jonathan was saying.

A question to throw out there: is the likelihood of a reader having something interesting to say about a book at all related to its quality? I don't think it is so I'm not convinced self-publishing is the whole explanation here. Speaking personally as a blogger, I'm just as likely to have something to say about a bad book as a good book. I don't deliberately seek out bad books, I don't discuss every bad book I read but sometimes it is a bad book that I feel like I have something interesting to talk about.

And this leaves aside entirely the fact that books don't fall neatly into "good" and "bad" but are very often a mixture of the two.

Larry said...

Oh, I agree that there isn't a dichotomy here, Jonathan, unless it were within the reviewer him/herself. That was what I was thinking about foremost in writing this, the reticence that we in general have for expressing opinions that aren't all that pleasant for readers or for us ourselves to consider. You mention several reasons when a negative review may be warranted and reasons why the reviewer may avoid it (I'd go so far as to add that sometimes I don't want to give any sort of extra publicity to a story that I didn't enjoy, so I rather it die the death of silence).

But I also believe that if a work is to be reviewed, then unless it is one of the few "perfect" books out there, noting problems found with its structure, writing, pacing, etc. is doing a service for any potential reader. Imagine if there were no negative reviews of the batshit insanity of a purported "philosophy" that's expressed in Terry Goodkind's books. Would we want that? :P

Harry,

A reviewer is entitled to express his/her opinion. Just beware of it being uninformed in places and people calling you out on it, as may be their wont.

A negative review to me is a review that covers a book's deficiencies as well as its merits and finds the deficiencies to overpower the story's strengths. Nothing more than that. A negative review can be stated very civilly (despite the provocative title I chose, most of the negative reviews that I've done have been very civil in tone) and the reader can learn more than just that Reviewer X trashed the book.

Oliver,

I truly believe that if there were no criticisms of a story, then after a while, a distorted view of what's being published ends up being presented to the readers, who in turn may decide that the entire reviewing enterprise is untrustworthy.

Paul,

I understand the time/energy argument and there is nothing wrong with it. In fact, I love the promotion of those authors you mention! However, I also feel that when reading a book, if that book's weaknesses aren't noted somewhere, then the risk increases of a distorted picture of that book's relative strengths and weaknesses.

Martin,

Good points. I don't envision myself reading a "good" or "bad" book when I begin reading a book that I may choose to review (and sometimes, my opinions change after a re-read, as evidenced in several of these re-read commentaries I've been doing lately). But if writing a review is just an extension of my engagement with a story's warts and beauty spots, then why not just state what each is? As you note, it certainly makes for a more entertaining and rewarding review read than if platitudes are piled up or condemnations without surcease are cast down upon the work at hand.

Paul said...

I definitely agree Larry. For example, I love Perdido Street Station, but if I were to review it I would still say I find the middle section (the "monster hunt" part) overly long and paced unevenly. I think some people have trouble with the idea you can still love a book despite its faults. Like you said, there are very few (if any) perfect books out there, and more people need to embrace that fact.

Larry said...

You bring up a point that I sometimes fail to be mindful of, that of how for many people, the idea that a good book can have notable flaws is a rather foreign concept. That might explain certain reactions I've read over the years to certain reviews and to certain books.

Gabriele C. said...

I can understand the Life's too Short to Read Bad Books-attitude - in fact, I share it - but I think if your blog focusses primarily on reviews, you should read the bad ones, too, and write reviews about them. As reader, review blogs are part of my book buying decision process, and if I know there will only be good revies (like in case of Liviu), I tend to skip them. Fortunately, there are some blogs I keep coming back to when I'm curious about a book and whether to buy it.

I totally agree about good books having flaws - fe. I'm a Malazan fan, but I can see why some readers have problems with the series or gave up on it, and I agree that some more editing / cutting would have made the latter books better.

Cindy said...

I carry the belief that if you picked up the book and read the majority of the book and you are a book reviewer (especially if you got a review copy or such) then you should post your opinion on the book. After all something made you want to read the book, so why not let others know what you thought?

Too many reviewers are afraid of not being chummy with authors and saying what they really feel about a book for fear of backlash. I personally think if you word it without bashing completely then it should be ok.

Martin said...

I should really have picked up on this comment earlier:

Most bloggers are selfpublishers. Why should they invest time in a bad book? Why should I?

Because you don't know a bad book is bad until you read it.

As it happens I've just read Jonathan's review of The City & The City over at The Zone. He loved the first third but thought it tailed off badly (this is a brutal reduction of his long, fascinating review). So it is not a good book or a bad book but rather a book which showed an extreme amount of promise and then failed to deliver on this. At the same time, this leaves the review as quite a strongly negative review.

Going back to Jonathan's comment in this thread, I find it hard to believe that this review would have turned out differently if it hadn't been a review for The Zone. It is obviously a novel he engaged with very strongly from the outset and I doubt that as soon as it went off the boil he would have though "oh, that's a shame, no point writing about it for my blog then". So, whilst I'm sure medium plays a role, I still think the type fo reviewer plays a bigger role but it is less a case of honesty than the way in which one engages with a text (ie I don't think most bloggers engage that strongly).

 
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