Sunday, August 30, 2009

Going Negative

Myra, at her blog Writing Finally, brought it strong today as she scolded bloggers/wannabe authors who trash published writers and their work. I encourage you to read her post, but since some of you are afraid of links, her main points were these:

1. If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.
2. The publishing world is small, and when you attack a writer you may be hurting your own publishing chances, because not only are you ragging on the writer, but on every person in the industry that championed the writer's work.

I'd like to respond, and in doing so, I intend to denounce a trend I've both read about and witnessed on writers' blogs.

First, some of the criticism is out-of-bounds. Myra uses Stephenie Meyer as an example. Full disclosure: I read the first three Twilight books and didn't especially care for them. It's not that I have a problem with vampire books. I could even overlook the often purplish prose and the overuse of certain adjectives (smoldering). I didn't care for the main character, Bella. I was hoping one of the Cullens might enjoy her with some fava beans. For me, that did it, but I'm a picky reader.

I think the above is fair criticism. I think far more critical criticism is also fair. What is not fair is to personally insult the woman who wrote the book. Ripping on Ms. Meyer for being a Mormon or for being a stay-at-home mom before she hit it big or for what she chooses to wear to the tabernacle is below the belt and just looks petty. That said, when you write something as popular as the Twilight series, you're going to bring out the crazies on both sides.

What bothers me are the bloggers/wannabe authors who take Myra's advice too far and never, I mean flat-out refuse, to write anything critical of any book ever. A lot of these folks claim to be book reviewers.

Roger Ebert did not only review movies he liked. John Green does not have the luxury of reviewing only those books he enjoys.* If you're going to claim to be a reviewer, you have an obligation to share both those books you think are excellent and those you think blow a big one. Otherwise, you risk losing all credibility and end up like my Uncle Dell,** who has never seen a movie he didn't love. When Uncle Dell talks movies, I smile politely and think about something else. (How much bread we have left, for instance.)

To not review a book because you're worried about hurting your own chances in the publishing industry strikes me as particularly weaselly. It also doesn't say much about your opinion of those in the publishing industry. Writers, both published and unpublished, regularly soothe their own egos by telling themselves that this is a "subjective business." Agents tell writers the same: "Don't take it personally; it's very subjective." Yet we assume that if writers (or agents or publishers) read a bad review they're going to forget all that subjectivity crap, add the reviewer's name to their enemies list, and make damn sure that little punk never gets published. Come on. Writers (and agents and publishers) are grown-ups. They can take a little fair criticism. And if they can't, maybe they're playing in the wrong game.

Agent Michael Stearns says it better than I can when he explains why he hates not ranking books he "loathes" on Goodreads:

But I hate doing that. Feels monstrously cowardly to me. Part of what Goodreads is about—the part of it that I love—is that it is a dialogue about books and how well they work (or, if they don’t work very well, why they don’t). It is not a bleacher full of cheerleaders. It’s a giant book club, and my friends and I, we’re there to discuss what we read. I may not love your novel, but who cares? I am just one person. (And have you met me? I’m a tin-eared crank, “nothing but a young curmudgeon” according to one old lady who shook her cane at me after the Rutger’s One-on-One a few years back. Who cares if I like your published novel?) But politeness suggests I need to play nice with others and never say a word against anything by anyone who may later be a position to help one of my clients. So I censor myself.

It seems that of all the people who should not be censoring themselves, those who ardently defend the First Amendent and become righteously indignant when a book is banned should be at the front of the line.

And they should bring their bad reviews with them.

*In this link, John apologizes for a bad review he wrote of Lauren Myracle's ttyl. It's a good post, but my favorite thing is that Lauren Myracle responds in the comments. Her view is in line with mine: Sure, bad reviews stink, but writers have to deal with them. As Ms. Myracle says, "Only whiner babies make a stink."

**I don't have an Uncle Dell, but I do know someone who thinks all movies are great. I've used "Uncle Dell" to protect the guilty.


Corey Schwartz said...

I completely agree with you!

Tracy Edward Wymer said...

If you can't take the thought of someone not liking your novel, then write obituaries.

Myra said...

My post was in response to another post I read earlier today, which wasn't a review of Meyer's books, but a deluge of nasty comments on her entire person. This is unacceptable to me professionally.

I review books I don't love, but I can generally find something to like about them, or at least something I know another reader will like. On the rare occasion that a book righteously pisses me off? I don't mention it.

Why? Because I can be a snarky beeyotch. I dearly hope I will one day be published. I know not everyone will like my book. But I am a mentally competent adult (shut up PMM) and I know I've chosen a vocation that opens me up for criticism. I however, was raised by my mother, so I should be fine. But I'd like still to avoid as many snarky beeyotchs as possible. "What comes around goes around." (Granny said that, too. So did Cypress Hill.)

PMM, I'm sure Bella would've tasted lovely with fava beans. And I totally thought the line below that said you were a picky eater.

I am glad it did not.

Andrea Brokaw said...

There's a huge gulf between respectful critism and outright bashing. I believe anyone who gives a book the time and effort of reading it has a right to the the former. The latter is at best childish and inane.

And you don't have to have been involved with a book's production to be seriously turned off by authors issuing attacks. Someone verbally assaulting a book I enjoyed is going to have a hard time getting onto my to-read list. Personally, I liked the Twilight books. Your lack of adoration doesn't bother me in the least though because you weren't mean about it. But some of the attacks out there are insane. I've even seen aspiring authors abuse Twilight fans, even authors who are targetting teen girls who love the paranormal. It's self-destructive.

Kelly said...

I read Myra's post and I agreed with it for the most part. I think you can diplomatically say you didn't care for a character or book without throwing it under the bus. Also, personal attacks against the author are just childish.
I don't do book reviews on my blog for one of those reasons. I'm too nice. I respect that authors actually got published (like I want to one day), and I don't want to be negative to someone in the industry I want to be part of. But that doesn't mean I don't appreciate honest, tactful reviews either. I don't want to waste my time reading a crap book.
That said, I did seriously enjoy the Twilight series. :) Though I was Team Jacob. Edward was way too controlling.

Amy Allgeyer Cook said...

Amen, brother.

Kimberly Pauley said...

I've got two different perspectives on this -- as an author (since 2008) and as a book reviewer (since 1998).

On the one hand, while I don't *like* negative reviews, I can appreciate that not everyone is going to like my book. That said, I don't understand why, if you don't like a book, any reviewer feels the need to trample it into the earth. Sure, point out some flaws and say why you didn't like it. That's okay. But don't call the author's intelligence into question or wonder whether their children are ugly.

As a reviewer, I will review a book I didn't love and I have written reviews where I included critical comments. But I do always try to balance that with some good points. If I completely hated a book to the point it made me want to throw it across the room or it invoked my gag reflex, I don't review it. What's the point? There are books that I absolutely hate that other people love. It isn't so much that I'm concerned about other authors or publishers hating me (though that is a valid point in this industry), but that I realize that I am one person with only one opinion -- mine. While other people may or may not find that opinion useful, who am I to try and convince other people to completely stay away from a book (and what other reason is there to completely trash one?)? Take, for instance, Ellen Hopkins. She's a wonderful writer and poet. Her books are very successful. I personally just don't care for them. When I receive one of her books in for review, I pass it on to another reviewer (who generally loves it). Readers get what they are after (a thoughtful review of a book), the reviewer does too, and I don't have to wonder if my own personal dislike is coloring my review of it (that said, I have reviewed one of her books in the past and I did find some good things to say, as well as bad ones and Ellen was kind enough to respond to my review with clarification).

Maybe it comes from my goal as a reviewer -- I'm not out to make myself feel good or to improve my writing credentials or to make a name for myself. I run YA Books Central as a way to encourage kids and teens to read and to promote literacy and to help authors and readers connect. But my goals may not be everyone's goals.

Sorry for the longness :-) I am a writer, after all.

Kimberly Pauley said...

Ooooh, and wanted to add that I think Ellen Hopkins ROCKS as an author and a person. See for an example.

I just personally find most of her books not to be my thing. *sigh* I feel a little guilty about even mentioning an author specifically, especially one who is really such a great force in YA lit, but felt it would be better with a concrete example. Part of my problem is that I tend to like books with happy endings. It's just me.

Anita said...

My newspaper column is not a book review column, but a book recommendation column. Big difference. I only write about books I want to recommend, because it seems a waste of time and 400 words to suggest books NOT to read.

Also, I don't complete books I don't like (though I usually give a book a good few chapters before making that decision), so I can't speak knowledgeably about books I don't like.

MG Higgins said...

I'm at work. You're Bella and fava beans comment made me laugh really loud. It was a little embarassing and not very professional of me. I agree with your post. Very interesting.

Tina Lee said...

Thanks. It's a great conversation. As a writer I have found this all a lot to sort through. I totally appreciate the links!

Paul Michael Murphy said...

Thanks for clicking the links, Tina.

Anita, I know. And I could rarely review books I don't like because I never finish them either. But there are those out there who quite seriously fancy themselves "reviewers," right down to the complimentary ARCs, but who will not write a negative review. That's cheating. Recommend if you wish, celebrate all you want, promote books by authors you love, but if you're not going to be an honest reviewer, then call yourself something else.

Big Plain V said...

I agree with you in theory, Senor Murphy, but one must also consider the question of ambition; I only feel motivated to review books I was excited about. Sucky books make me basically want to shrug and move on.

I do my reviews on FaceBook, by the way, in case you want to go there and read all my reviews (like five) and then write your own counter-reviews to counter my mostly rave reviews.

(Hey, remember how when your blog was new, you didn't want to do the follower thing because you were afraid no one would follow you, and then I encouraged you to do it and you did it and now you have more followers than me? Yeah. That sucks.)

Monica said...

I can't write negative reviews, either. There's always something positive to say. I dont know if that makes me a bad reviewer, or not...

Tracy Edward Wymer said...



Myra said...

I want to see PMM write a negative review and post it on his blog. And no, it can't be of Twilight.

Paul Michael Murphy said...

Myra, I have the perfect book and it'll even tick off a couple of my earliest followers.

Give me a while, though. I read it back when I finished bad books and I should read it again just to reinforce in my mind how awful it was.

Tracy knows what I'm talking about.

I think, though, to be fair, I should make that day "Bad Review Day" and encourage everyone to write about a book they didn't like. Because man does it drive me nuts when someone says, "I just read this awful book" and then they don't tell you what it was. Sack up.

Jason said...

I do not read book reviews before I buy a book so maybe I do not understand where you all are coming from but maybe I can offer a different perspective. Whenever I purchase something of value (over $100) I do as much research about that product as possible, including reviews by actual customers. I do not only read the reviews of the people who loved the product but I read the ones where they hated it. I usually find good info in the negative reviews. Someone usually has a problem with the product that everyone else doesn’t mind, but that problem may be something that would bother me. I recently was camera shopping and found a camera that I really liked, but several of the negative reviews talked about the flash taking a long time to warm up. I have an 18 month old, that would have been a terrible camera to own.
Some of you have mentioned that it may just be your personal taste that makes you not like the book. I think that is exactly the point. I would probably read a specific persons reviews because I find that you and I like the same type of story written the same way. If you choose not to review a book that you didn’t like, you rob me of that review. Worse yet, if you don’t tell your true feelings about a book that you didn’t like I may buy it based on a half hearted review.
But again I don’t read book reviews so maybe I am way off.

Anita said...

When I get a book published, please don't review it if you think it's bad. We go back, like, almost a year.

Amber Lough said...

Ah you are so right. And now you've called me on it. I must post a "serious" review in the near future.

Yat-Yee said...

I agree, to not write a review because of the fear of retribution from the powers to be is weaselly. But I often censor myself when I review, because I think authors need encouragement in large doses, and honest criticism in smaller doses, usually from people who know them or people the authors respect.

After all, who am I? So when I write something negative, I try to keep it objective, and something that isn't personal.

Authors don't need harsh words, and I don't write them not because I am afraid I'll get on some enemy list, but because harsh words and condescension never work, for any good. And also, the authors I know are all passionate about their books and have tender spots for them and it seems just a tad cruel.

Also, hopefully people may treat me the same way. (I can hope, can't I? that this treat others the way you want to be treated business?)

Myra said...

Did you just imply I "sack up?"

In TEN years of minor league baseball, not ONCE did anyone ever tell me to "sack up." Nut up, yes. Sack up, no.

I like it.

(Word Verification ... treashur ... hmmm.)

Paul Michael Murphy said...

Myra, having briefly forgotten that you just read an ending that you hated, I did not intend the comment for you. It was meant to be a generic criticism. But if you feel the need to sack up, by all means...