Thursday, January 11, 2018

How to Write a Review of a Novel You Didn't Like

I don't know a single person alive who's enjoyed every book they've read. I know a lot of people who try really hard to like a book because "everyone else" has loved it -- me included. But it doesn't always work because reading is super subjective. And that's OK.

Faced with a book you don't like, you have a myriad of choices. Easiest? Close the book (or switch off your e-reader) with a sigh and move on to the next. Life is too short to hate-read and your TBR is out of control anyway. But say you finished the book? Also super easy? Go mark the book as "Read" on Goodreads without giving it a rating or review. (You get credit towards your yearly reading goal this way, too.) 

But I don't want other readers to fall down the same trap I did, thinking this was a good book when it's not, you say.

And that's where the slippery slope gets slippery.

"Good" books are subjective, just like "bad" books. Yes, there are some things that make one book stronger than another -- clear goals, motivation conflict; character development; proper editing; progression of plot -- but even a book that has all of these things isn't universally loved. And I totally get wanting to warn others because friends don't let friends read "bad" books. So, if you must, a few suggestions:

  1. Focus on the BOOK and what you didn't like about the STORY or even the WRITING. One 2-star review of my recent release, A BRIT COMPLICATED, says: What a disappointment this book is. It started well enough, but the writer couldn’t refrain from going down the sex route. Being a little older than sixteen I found it unfortunate to say the least. Perhaps the author will grow up one day. I think of myself as quite grown up normally -- except for those times I'm dancing around my living room lip-syncing Taylor Swift with a wooden spoon microphone. But unless this reviewer is my neighbor, that kind of comment takes away from the overall point of the review. (Which is that there is sex in a contemporary romance book, but that's another thing altogether.)
  2. Remember, the story is FICTION. I just finished reading WARCROSS by Marie Lu, which is a YA fantasy. I loved it. The Boy loved it. But there are over 300 people on Goodreads who've given it 1 star, including someone questioning whether Lu knows anything about gaming, herself (she talks about her love of gaming in her acknowledgements) and another reader who questions in detail the whole virtual reality scenario she's created in the book. Um, it's her book and her world and just because she's set it up differently than you, the reader, would have done it doesn't make it invalid. Inconsistencies are one thing, but the glorious thing about writing/reading fantasy is that it can be way outside the proverbial box.
  3. Reconsider your 3-star review. I've read 3 star reviews where the reader absolutely LOVES the book and 3-star reviews where the reader HATES the book, which proves everyone has a different rating scale and 3 stars is confusing. On my scale, 3 stars is kind meh. If you genuinely don't like a book, give is 1 or 2 stars and own it. Likewise, if you enjoy a book, 4 stars is always better than 3.
  4. Whatever you do, do NOT @ the writer in your bad review. Most writers stay away from their reviews on Goodreads because GR is a platform for readers, not for authors. Avoiding reviews on Amazon is a little harder because the only way to know if your promo dollars are working is to keep one eye on your sales/rankings. If you put a bad review on a retail site, eventually we'll see it. Keyword being eventually. In other words, go ahead and write a bad review as you must, but for the love of God, there's no reason to tweet or tag the writer so he/she knows it's out there. 
Pretty simple, right? Anything you'd add here as either must-do or seriously-please-don't etiquette?


Ann Bennett said...

I thought you were going to tell me how to review a bad book by a writer who has asked me for a review. That is one without an easy answer, eh.

I am that woman who gives everyone 5 stars. Yes, I notice homonyms and misspellings. Sometimes I get lucky and notice sentence fragment which is a miracle in that I could write a book in phrases. Sometimes there is something implausible that rips me from the story. But in the end, I give 5 stars with no guilt. Because every book is that writer's creation or view of the world. I have learned something new.

I don't use book reviews to buy books. I have a TBR list that will take a few lifetimes to accomplish. So I read books written by people who have taken time to talk to me at conferences. I also read books based on the synopsis. And yes, I am a book snob. I read excellent, literary novels written at least a century ago.

There are a few books written and self published by people that are poorly written that I gave 5 stars. The book means something to them. It meant so much they rushed it to publication willy nilly. So I give them 5 stars. Sometimes we all deserve a ribbon. Believe me, I never have gotten a ribbon or a book completed.

Besides, people should make up their own minds about the merit of a book. It's not like they cost so much. And if cost is the problem, there are libraries and thrift shops.

The only books I don't give 5 stars to are the ones I have not read to the end. Nor do I review Mr or Ms Blockbuster. J K Rowling really does not need my thumbs up to sell her books. As much as I love Steinbeck and Dickens, I don't review their books. They are on the shelf today for a good reason.

Carrie Beckort said...

Great advice! I'm one of those readers who mostly reads the 1 and 2 star reviews on books I'm trying to decide on. I ignore those that fall into your first category. I'm sometimes shocked by the things people complain about in books. I know reviews are opinions, so I usually look to see if several have gripped about things that annoy me in books (which changes on any given day).

Brenda St John Brown said...

I agree with you -- writing a review of a book you didn't like when an author has requested the review is tough! I think there's always something positive to say but writing that type of review is definitely a fine balance!

Brenda St John Brown said...

Yes, agreed. My pet peeve is terrible editing and if lots of people complain about that, it's a no go for me.

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