Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Crossing the Line — Differentiating between Honest and Harsh


So I got my first Goodreads troll yesterday. Not as entertaining as reading it second-hand on other people’s threads, FYI. But this post is not about trolls, so you can stop backing away from the computer now. What really caught my attention was the fact that I was accused of being mean and nasty regarding a negative review of a book I didn’t like. And that got me thinking, where’s the line between a constructively critical review and book bashing?

Fellow blogger Ceilidh pointed me towards this post on author Mayandree Michel’s blog. Michel talks about negative reviews and how “There is no thin line between an honest review written with no motive other than impartial feedback, and a book bashing that is clearly intended to hurt an author or their work's potential success.”

I find myself forced to respectfully disagree. Reader’s feelings on any piece of writing are clearly subjective. What I think of as the expression of an honest opinion (“this book is derivative and not suitable for anyone looking for a fresh, innovative read”) could possibly be construed by an author, or a fan, as a ‘hater’ comment, designed to stop people from buying the book. This may not have been my intention, maybe all I wanted to do was warn people against unreasonable expectations, but when you make a piece of writing public, be it a book, a review of a blog post, you automatically relinquish the right to criticize people’s interpretations of your work. People will put what meaning they choose to your words, and you cannot stop them. But this doesn’t mean that there IS no line— it merely means that the line blurs once actual human beings get into the fray.

Now of course, as reviewers, especially reviewers of YA books, we all know that negative reviews have become the subject of great controversy in the YA world. And of course, one cannot help but agree that using a review of a book to bash an author, such as in the example provided by Michel in the post, is crossing the line. But when it comes to discussing a book per se, how does one differentiate between an honest review and a malicious one?

Opinions differ, and even the most impartial review of a book may cause different reactions amongst different people. A review that I consider merely honest could seem harsh to someone else. But despite the inherent subjectivity of reviewing, is there still that line in the sand that one can draw between being opinionated and being malicious?

Some things are obvious to everybody. Author bashing, obviously, is a big no-no for any self-respecting reviewer. Ditto, trying to conduct personal vendettas in the guise of honest reviewing. But how about this? How about if I said that that a book was sloppily-plotted and that the heroine exasperated me? How about if I said that the writing was full of clichés and the ending was contrived? Is this being ‘disrespectful’ of the author? Or is this merely an honest expression of my opinion and feelings upon reading the book?

I don’t know what to tell you, guys. This is a question that’s been bugging me, and it’s one I’d like to put out there in the blogosphere so I can get an idea of what people think. Along with another thing that’s been preying on my mind. Why are YA books the ones that are getting so controversial? I think I find more YA reviewers tiptoeing around author egos and fan trolling than any other kind of reviewer. I hate the term Twitard, but how can we blame people for using it when YA threads get more trolls than any other book reviews? When YA reviewers are the ones being told repeatedly that they should be more sensitive in their critique, that they should just abandon a book if they don’t like it, instead of reviewing it. That’s not a good culture to perpetuate, surely? So why is it being enforced on YA reviewers, time and again?


27 comments:

  1. I actually agree with the majority of this. I don't think it's harsh to say something was cliche or that the plotting was off. I think if you are critiquing the book and not the author - by that I mean not saying Author X is totes fug, look at that picture! then it's cool. I mean, I hardly see the problem with saying a book sucks. I don't see a problem with criticzing something. I also notice I think a few of you on here review YA through a feminist lens. Now, as a college educated person, I don't see that as being mean. I see that as you are being deeply analytical. However, maybe I just think that because I had the luxury of education?

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  2. I have to take a break from what I wrote and come back and read it again. If I still have a doubt about whether it seems unnecessarily harsh then I have to put it before an unbiased reader and if they cringe at my words I know I've crossed the line. I often have to do this at work with emails not just book reviews, especially if I post/write it immediately after finishing the book or someone has made me angry. It will affect what I write regardless to my desire not to be combative if I experience something negative just before I write. That includes experiencing something negative in a book.

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  3. As with most of the "rules" that go around, most of that is good advice for people who haven't really found their voice as a reviewer yet. So often, someone tries to write a negative review and just looks like they're sniffing for drama. As with anything else, once you know what you're doing, and you can jump up and down on the rules or even ignore most of them.

    The problem isn't really bad reviews, it's unintelligent ones. Harsh without being able to articulate why they disliked it, other than simply to trash the book and the other without saying WHY. The ideal review, good or bad, steers the books to the right readers and away from the wrong ones. What you see a lot of in blogs is reviews that don't sound so much like a reader reviewer your book as a clique critiquing your outfit. Then there are the ones that call to mind a vegetarian giving a steak place one star on yelp. If one isn't a good enough reader to know they're not the right audience for a perfectly good book and rate it on its own merits anyway, then, yeah, they probably ought to just abandon it.

    A good example of this stuff is Roger Ebert - he's very good about judging art films as art films, family films as family films, etc. You sometimes see him giving 3-4 star reviews to movies he didn't like too much personally, simply because he knows that it's a well-made movie that deserves to find its audience, even if he's not the audience. Consider his review of Dave Chappelle's Block Party.It's sort of the nature of the beast with YA that you get extra drama thrown in. And the fact that there's a good chance that the author will SEE the review is sort of a new thing to have to consider. There were always people mentally giving a book an "ew" because they didn't like the cover and the main character was a redhead or whatever, but now that kind of reaction can get figured into star ratings, etc.If a book is a piece of crud, not deserving of even the audience it goes for, and you can articulate why, then by all means, let 'er rip.

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  4. *sigh* I'm smelling another shooting match in the brew.


    Quite frankly, what I got from this conversation is that you can't be mean, but you can't be nice either. Attempts at being nice were either ignored or quickly brushed off because people, my self included, can't let it go. On the other hand, attempts at putting the conversation at an end in a more firm manner were immediately taken as attacks.


    Seriously, there is no middle ground folks. Personally, if I'm going to be called a bitch and an asshole (and why yes, I do feel offended, even though I barely participated), I prefer at least to earn that label. Marcus Flutie, anyone? Pass me the notebooks and watch me compose haiku.

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  5. Authors are professionals. Reviewers are readers, consumers. Do you see highly regarded, popular authors making remarks on a reader's blog/GR review who happened not to like their books? No, authors are professional adults who have bigger things to do like writing, publishing and publicizing their books. Reviews are for fellow readers with similar tastes. Nothing more, nothing else.


    Why do we treat books as if they're different from any other form of consumable media? We criticize movies, music, cars and restaurants.


    Keep reviewing, Vinaya. Don't betray your instincts or your tastes.

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  6. I think it's going too far when a reviewer says something like they want to punch the author in the face or makes it personal where they make fun of an author's looks. Reviews should be on the work and never on the person writing it. Also, why are some people so bent out of shape if someone gives a book a DNF and explains why? Also if someone doesn't like a book, they have a right to say why. As long as you keep it about the work, then there should be no problem, even if you say it's the worst thing you ever read and give an explanation why.


    Honestly, most of the drama on GR's is due to the YA reviews. I can't figure out why.

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  7. I like the way you put that and I saw several authors on Twitter saying just that about a week ago. I once sat and stared at a review for a while trying to decide whether it should have 3 or 4 stars. I ran the mouse over each star on Goodreads and realized heck I've been going about this all wrong. This is not me saying the book is good or not worth anyone's time. This is me saying whether I liked it or not and why leaving the decision to try it up to the reader of my review.

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  8. Also, as an author, the moment you put your work out there, it's open season. There are no rule to reviewing, sorry to say. So someone who has put down their money to buy the product, aka book, and there's the chance they may be unhappy with it, have the right to say why and in some case become emotional. Is it fair? Some may think it's not, but so is life. If you don't want criticism, even harsh criticism, you're in the wrong line of work. Pull on your big girl/boy pants and move on and start writing they best possible book you can.

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  9. I never noticed that. Did you notice if it was more towards YA authors that are actually young adults versus adults writing YA?

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  10. I'm not sure of the ages. I noticed many YA reviewers are over 18, but I maybe wrong. Also, in the M/M Gay romance world, it can get as bad as what's been happening in the YA reviews at GRs, but it's more the authors who write MM speaking up about bad reviewers than reviewers going after one another

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  11. Wow! I never noticed that. Well with the exception of one book. I thought people kind of went nuts on it. If I feel that negatively about it I just do not review it at all because I have nothing positive to say and I can't find a nice way to say it. I do have DNF and those usually end up in my TBR. I'm doing those wrong also!

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  12. I made a note of this great post on my blog. It is genuinely awful to think that reviewers are being swayed to err on the side of being 'nice' and 'safe' for fear of trolls or prejudicial backlash. As a librarian who welcomes critical reviews, this is not a good practice.

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  13. <--emotional reviewer. I know that I have, on occasion crossed the line I drew for myself. I railed. I then retracted a bit, and analyzed, but to be honest, as a reader and spender of lots of hard earned cash on books, I feel like I should be able to be angry, sappy, happy or ranty if I want too! It's my money, and my free time spent. Reviewers are people too, and have good days and bad days. Good reviews and bad reviews. I say, as long as you are able to sleep at night with a clear conscious, then write what you want. If it doesn't sit well, then fix it.

    I don't ever agree with bashing an author personally. That is to say, so and so is a "Fugly Moron who should eat more hot dogs and give up writing." Or something of that Ilk. But saying something like "So and So totally killed my reading experience because of that mammoth cliffhanger ending, and I swear to anyone who will listen, that I will not buy any more of these books who threaten my sanity" is toeing the line, but... I feel OKAY about it =)

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  14. I think there is extra drama around YA reviews (negative ones, that is) for two reasons, both related to the fact that YA readers tend to be young:


    1. Young people are still at that stage where they self-identify with the things they like. So when you say "I thought this book (that you love and adore) was a pile of crap," they read it as: "You are a person who loves crap," and react accordingly. Older people (not always, but usually) tend to have grown thicker skins and don't take an attack on a favorite book personally.


    2. The things that books (especially YA books) are often criticized for are things that inexperienced readers often haven't thought about much. They're still new to some of the issues and haven't read widely enough to compare. "What do you mean that character was racist?" "What do you mean this scene was sexist and portrayed the protagonist as an abusive control-freak?" "The language was not simple and uninteresting -- I loved it!" Particularly in the case of -isms, it's hard enough sometimes to get adults to accept that you don't need white hoods and burning crosses for something to be racist; young readers often just don't see it unless it's overt and intentional.


    Add to that the natural tendency towards drama and emotion that comes with youth, and you see why you hear about these explosions over bad reviews more often regarding YA books. Then again, when it comes to authors behaving badly, age does not seem to be a factor
    ...

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  15. I am in favor of negative reviews as long as they are tactful and not hurtful. Remember long ago Siskel and Ebert rating and reviewing movies? They made the same type of comments you speak of making about a YA book you may not have enjoyed. I see nothing wrong with this.


    I as a reader want to know about what book reviewers honest thoughts are. What good is writing a review if only the positives are brought out? I want to hear the good with the bad, I want both thumbs up and thumbs down reviews! Otherwise why bother?

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  16. I think you are right. A reviewer needs to state "why" they didn't like a book. If they do, the criticism is honest but not "harsh".

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  17. Thing is, I usually prefer reading the negative reviews, even on books I want to read and plan to read anyway. They are always more honest. The reviews that go "OMG I luvs this book, it's so awesome, this genre is my fav, you'll love it too!" and then go on to rehah the synopsis don't actually help me any. Just because a review is negative doesn't mean I wont buy the book.

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  18. It's a question of degree, context and, to a large extent, style/tone. For instance: there's a huge difference between a review which says "I found the plotting sloppy; the heroine was exasperating" and a review which says "I cannot even begin to describe how bad the plotting was, and the heroine made me want to STAB HER IN THE FACE." Sure, some people might take issue with the former, but the latter is undeniably more pejorative, because it comes across as less objective.

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  19. It's out of line to bring an author into it since your review should be solely based on the book. I would like to think though that I am entitled to writing a review where I can mention the reasons for not liking it. I should be able to express why I didn't like the book because frankly I don't do it to please anyone.I'm honest because I owe that to myself and my readers. If you are okay with positive reviews then why not the negatives. There are after all two sides to everything. I want to be able to say how I just didn't connect with a character, how there were too many cliches to keep me going and overall how the book just didn't do it for me. Sure there's a line between criticizing and being mean/harsh but I think as long as you focus on the book and back up what you have to say its fine.

    Fantastic post as always Vinaya :)

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  20. I want to read honest reviews that give as impartial an impression as possible of any given book. It's impossible to be completely impartial, obviously, but as long as the writer of the review isn't setting out to attack the author, then their material is going to be worth reading.


    Reviews that are mindlessly adoring of an author are just as pointless as reviews that set out to attack them.

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  21. You can review critically, you can review snarkily if you back up your points with evidence (snark is highly subjective though so there is always going to be that risk that you'll be accused of being a bitch. I've gotten that a lot) and you can condemn an author's choices. You can do all this as long a you own your shit and back up what you say.

    But don't be a dick about it. And don't personally insult authors or other reviewers because then you automatically fail.

    The thing that's been most interesting/maddening to me throughout this whole thing is the way that only a certain type of review is being pushed as the only way to go with book reviews. If it's critical then you have to keep softening the blow by saying how the book just wasn't for you. You can't review a book if you didn't finish it and you can't use any type of snarky humour in your review because that makes you a hater troll. I don't think there's any point in rose-tinted glasses if you have serious issues with a book, whether you finished it or not. I seldom don't finish books but if there was a DNF I had a major problem with then I wouldn't stay silent.

    Since bad reviews are the problem du jour for our blogosphere these days, let's not forget the blogs and people who do nothing but give extremely highly praising reviews of 4 and 5 stars with very insubstantial reviews. People accuse us of trolling because we're highly critical but how are those who never criticise at all any better?

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  22. "
    People accuse us of trolling because we're highly critical but how are those who never criticise at all any better?"

    Holy shit you just hit it right on point. *claps*

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  23. To the extent that blog reviews have impacted my career at all (which is very, very little, honestly), I'd say that the inarticulate good reviews may have done more harm than the occasional articulate bad one.

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  24. Eeek, yeah, I've definately put some thought into this issue, especially as I transitioned from reviewer to author. Now I figure I'm reviewing my peers and co-workers, and you don't poop where you work, you know?. But at the sametime I LOVE honest review--reviews that don't bash the author as a person, but mention the (sometimes many) flaws in a work. It makes me #1, trust the reviewer #2 trust that that I'm getting objective information about the book, in thier opinion. It also makes me trust that when they RECOMMEND a book, it holds much greater sway.

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  25.  I agree with you on how some people post negative reviews that look "bad" but are really unintelligent.I definitely agree that the ideal review will steer the book towards the right audience. I have read some books that I don't personally like, but I can tell they are written well, and so try to post to whom the book would appeal to. This is the best way, I think, to state ones personal opinion in a tasteful manner.  

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