Should Reviewers Give Bad Reviews?

To my surprise, I discovered a debate about the ethics of bad reviews.  It involved much blustering, ad hominem attacks and ridiculously obscure literary references, so here are the simplified arguments:

For: People have the right to voice their opinions.

Against: Reviewers should keep bad reviews to themselves because they hurt authors, especially new authors.

Now, the argument I came across mostly applied to national newspaper reviewers giving bad reviews to new poetry, but sort of degenerated to encompass all bad reviews by anyone, including bloggers.  That’s why I’ve chosen to write my own opinion on the topic, not only to get rid of the ridiculous rhetoric, but bring a little sanity to the debate.  Here we go…

First off, attempting to censor the internet is like trying to forbid a teenager from seeing their girlfriend/boyfriend—it only heightens the appeal.  Secondly, we need to talk semantics.  ‘Bad review’ is generally a misnomer because in nine out of ten reviews with that label, the reviewer has found at least one good thing to say about the book.  ‘Bad review’ usually implies that the reviewer simply hated it and wants to completely trash the book and the author, which is far from the truth.  A review with honest, thoughtful criticism is better than a review where the reviewer praises the book to the heavens while lying through their teeth.

And let’s not kid ourselves here.  Would you trust a reviewer that only gave 4 and 5 star reviews?  To me, that says they’re either lying or they love every book they read, even the ones that are truly bad.

I’m not going to apologize for giving 1 and 2 star reviews.  I’m not even going to apologize for the 0.5 star review I gave once.  Why?  Because I wrote my honest feelings about those books and I like to think I had genuinely constructive criticism.  If I didn’t publish reviews on books I didn’t like, not only would I have less content, I’d be selling myself.  When I started my blog, I promised to tell only the truth about books and I have.  I am not about to censor myself because one bad review might prejudice my admittedly small following against an author.  And frankly, I don’t think many other bloggers would.

I don’t see many issues in black and white, but this is one of the rare cases where I do.  You’re either completely for free speech or against it.  You either want bloggers to put their honest opinions out there, or you want to silence them—well, parts of them.  Again, let’s be honest with ourselves: Are our egos so inflated that we actually think one bad review by a blogger will ruin a new writer’s chance at gaining a following?

Of course not.  One bad review is not going to hurt authors.  In fact, sometimes I read reviews where the reviewer hated the book and went on to buy it because the premise actually sounded good to me.  I know a lot of people who are the same.  Yes, a lot of bad reviews will harm a new book, but in that case I have something thoroughly cold-hearted to say.  If your book is getting a large amount of bad reviews (70% or more), it was probably meant to fail.

So what do you guys think?  Should book reviewers keep it to themselves if they didn’t like a book?


  1. tryingtowriteit

    I hate made up or sycophantic reviews which are becoming more and more prevalent in the world of self-pub. Give it the review you think it deserves. In fact, bad reviews can actually be good for a book as “readers” often do not trust reviews which are all five star and this shows that just like in the real world. Some people like it and some people don’t.

  2. stevepoling (@stevepoling)

    I think a “bad review” means different things to different people.

    Let’s say you write a book and I say, “you’re a poopy-head and so’s your book” that’s a bad review in that it says nothing of substance to warn away potential buyers of your work. or “you’re a genius, and so’s your book.” is also a bad review for the exact same reason.

    I’ve been in a lot of peer writers’ groups and heard a lot of critiques. in these groups the “review” is good when it provides actionable intelligence for the writer to improve his work.

    But if I review your work in the New York Times (like that would ever happen–not you, me), then my critique isn’t going to help you revise the work, or even do a better job on the next novel. It’s there to warn assist the pubic in their book-buying decisions. And if the review is brutal and snarky, it provides some dark humor at the writer’s expense. “We’re not laughing with you, we’re laughing at you.” In these cases, the writer just needs to grow a thick skin and realize there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

    A good review should serve its purpose. To assist the writer. Or to assist the reader. And remember, “If you don’t have anything nice to say… sit next to ME.”

    • Carrie Slager

      I’ve done my time in writer’s workshops too and I definitely know what you mean. I got comments that were three paragraphs long and I got comments that were ‘Good job. Check out my work’. I think that as long as your review is honest and doesn’t trash the author personally, there’s nothing wrong with a little constructive criticism.

  3. Pete Howorth

    Well no, reviews works both ways, if a crappy author only ever hears good reviews then he’s going to keep on writing crap. They need to be told constructively why their book was a poor read so they can improve on their next offering.

    And if you’re normal and you are geniunely interested in reading a book, poor reviews won’t dissuade you. It’s like movies that get poor reviews, you make your own mind up.

    • Carrie Slager

      That’s what I was thinking! If truly terrible writers never, ever get bad reviews then they’ll just keep going. And if everyone stayed away from movies with bad reviews, we’d all be watching art-house flicks. So bad reviews don’t really do anything, even if they’re in a large publication.

  4. Caleb Flanagan

    Here’s how I look at reviews:

    A bad review is one that does nothing to help the reader/potential reader decide if they actually want to read the book.

    A good review is on that does help the reader/potential reader decide if they want to read the book.

    Anything beyond that in my opinion and you start to drift into subjective opinion on what is and isn’t “good” or “bad.” I do my best to write my reviews in a way that something thinking about reading the book gets a little extra information on what the book might have in store for them. After getting that information, hopefully they can make a decision one way or the other. If they do in fact make a decision, then I wrote a good review and accomplished my goal. If they leave the review still undecided, then I didn’t accomplish my goal and should revisit what I said.

    I don’t care which way my reviews lead people to go, but as long as it helps them make an actual decision, that’s good enough for me.

  5. Grace

    I don’t use a star-based rating system on my blog because I think it’s an arbitrary construct, but on Goodreads almost everything that I read gets a 4 or 5 star rating. I don’t have a problem rating a book lower if I don’t like it, but it doesn’t happen often because I generally pick books that I’m pretty sure that I’ll like. The ones that I don’t are anomalies. My reviews point out the strengths and weaknesses of a book, and there are a lot of times when people will comment that my negative reviews actually made them want to read the book. Different people like different books for different reasons, and what appeals to me or annoys me won’t necessarily be the same for other readers.

    • Carrie Slager

      That’s also very true. When I write a bad review for a book that really wasn’t for me, I’ll usually say so. For example, if I write a bad review for a chick lit book, then I always mention that it’s not my favourite genre and things may be different for any other potential readers.

  6. The Masquerade Crew (@MasqCrew)

    I don’t think reviewers should refrain from telling the truth, but I also think the hate raters out there are hurting the industry just as much as those who never write a bad review.

    I haven’t given any 1 or 2 stars yet, but that doesn’t mean I won’t. I tend to like most of what I read, and I like to think of it as a scale. If a 5 is super great, a 1 needs to be super bad. And I just haven’t read a super bad book yet. Of course, I don’t read as many as others.

    One of our reviewers has given some 2 star reviews, but even she hasn’t given any 1 star reviews, though she told me some of her 2 star reviews were close to be 1 star.

    • Carrie Slager

      The hate raters do hurt the industry, but I like to think that people can tell between trashing and genuinely constructive criticism. I read between 150 and 200 different books a year, so I guess you can say I’m a cynical reader. It takes a lot more to impress me than it does other people, which is why I give out a lot more bad reviews than most reviewers.

  7. becomingcliche

    I am considering dumping Goodreads altogether because there are some authors who can’t put on their big-kid underpants and call it a day. It creeps me out to no end when I receive a book for reviewing and the author immediately friends me. Their interest in what I have to say indicates a lack of professionalism and is a huge warning bell that they may not be able to handle an honest review.

    I am a writer, and criticism can be painful at times. But if I can’t stand the heat, it’s time to quit.

    • Carrie Slager

      I don’t really mind it when an author follows my blog or twitter account, but when they interact with me a lot more before I’ve put out a review, it is kind of off-putting. That’s likely due to my old fashioned sensibilities, but still. However, I honestly don’t mind staying in touch with authors I gave good reviews to. Krystal Wade is one example and she keeps me up to date about ARCs and such.

  8. Devina

    I think reviewers should be honest, authors shouldn’t be fed false approval nor unwarranted malicious criticism. Authors have to be told the truth so they’d know in what areas they need to improve on and they can only do this if reviewers review their work as it is to them.
    Writers, most of them and especially the new ones, are bound to feel bad when they receive negative criticism but they need to suck it up and work on it since such feedback isn’t necessarily bad but actually good advice.

    Oh and here’s an article @MissWendyD tweeted from the Washington Post on the ‘niceness’ of reviewers on twitter: Thought it might interest you if you haven’t read it already.

    • Carrie Slager

      I haven’t read it, so thanks for the link! I definitely agree with the author; reviewers need to tell the truth about the books they read. We can’t just be recommendation machines, nor should we make it our mission to tear books down. Each reviewer needs to find their own balance between honesty and good taste. I’ve found mine.

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