Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Must a Good Review Criticize?

This question's been on my mind for some time now and partly coming from recent discussions on The Speculative Scotsman where negative vs. positive reviews were discussed (here). I needed to get something down now while I have a few halfway coherent thoughts floating around.

Now I ask the question this way because anyone can criticize and therefore a review that criticizes may not always be good. But, to be able to criticize well and believably, one must have some type of knowledge. In addition, we are all fallible humans and therefore there can hardly be any novel that would be "perfect" and averse to criticism. So, criticism could technically be directed at anything.

On the other hand, is it a crime to refuse to find fault if the book is so good that the criticisms would just be pedantic? Do we feel we have to find fault to show that we are knowledgeable and can be trusted? Do readers feel this same way?

Personally, I feel that I respect a review that isn't afraid to criticize a work. Not every novel is for everyone. If a blogger continued to berate anything and everything, then I would think they are trying too hard to find fault. It's a thin line, one that I'm sure gets crossed constantly. I (yes, even I) have been known to give a fully positive review, but I have also given some negative ones. Not that I'm saying this about myself, but should we trust a review more if it is purely positive as long as we know the blogger is willing to give a negative review?

It's almost like standing on the other side of the fence. It's hard to give a negative review full of criticism when everyone finds it positive, but I think it's also hard to give a positive review when everyone finds it negative and then to stand by it.

Yep, that's where I brought it, full circle. Anyway, thanks for baring with my ramblings. It's late and I'm sure I'll wake up in the morning thinking, what the heck was I talking about?!?!


  1. Well criticism doesn't only have to be negative, Bryce. I think a good review should be informative, offer instructive criticism and honest.

  2. @Elfy - very good points. Honesty is the best when it comes down to it. People can tell when you're fake.

  3. I find this a really interesting question, both the points you've made and the original discussions over on Niall's blog. Having written a couple of less than glowing reviews recently, I do find myself wondering about the value of negative reviews. I do find it mildly distressing that negative reviews seem to encourage more responses.

    As a reviewer, you can do no more than be honest and present a balanced view. Whether that involves telling the world that the book was just not for you, even though the rest of the people who have reviewed it loved it, or whether it involves going into detail about why you think a book is bad.

    One tip I was handed by the lovely Kat Hooper is that, if you are going to embark on a negative review, your best option is to at least offer some positive points before ripping into everything that is bad. This not only gives a reader of your review more perspective, but it also encourages others (including the author) to take on board the negative points since you have shown yourself to be more objective.

    Also, never just say that a book is bad. Be prepared to offer reasons as to why this is so. For example, if the 1st person narrative style is not to your tastes, let people know because they might actually prefer books written in that style and hence seek it out, whereas they might not have done if you'd just said the book was bad.

    Those were just a couple of idle thoughts on the topic - definitely something worth discussing!

  4. I think you need to read the whole book before you review it. If I don't like a book I stop reading it. Therefore I will never write a negative review.
    In former times I read every book until the end. But nowadays I don't want to waste my time.

  5. I have to say I am lucky enough recently to have not read a book I really don't like at all. I try to find more good things of the book I read, and may add a few things that confused me or bothered me. But I like thinking on the positive sides. And try to be honest in my reviews, but not cruel and mean. I try, don't know if it comes out that way. *shrug* Sometimes I feel my reviews don't sound as positive as I was about the book. I don't know.

    I do like that there are people out there who may not care as strongly for a book as others do. That is going to happen. Not everyone reads or cares for the same styles, plots, and adventures in books. That to me is a given and I like to see that at times, makes me think on the book a little bit and curious to read it.

    Great discussion idea!

  6. I think too many reviews focus on a 'This was good, but That was bad' mentality. They should be a more organic exploration of the novel, it's mechanics and its themes.

  7. Aidan, you got a point. Even people who read a lot tend to pigeonholing. Good and bad is like black and white.
    It is the gray which is the interesting one.

  8. I write reviews, not so much to encourage or discourage other readers from trying certain books, but because I find that sharing my thoughts about a book helps me enjoy my reading experience even more. I don't have anyone to discuss these books with (all my friends turn their noses up at fantasy) so reviewing is the next best thing. So when I criticize or praise a book I'm just expressing my thoughts and opinions as they came to me while I was reading. Most books that I read have some aspects that I enjoyed, otherwise I wouldn't bother finishing them, so even if I didn't like the book as a whole I will mention the parts that I did like. But I would never criticize just for the sake of criticizing. And only once did I tear a book apart, because I was just so disgusted with it that I couldn't think of a single good thing to say.

  9. I'll echo Aidan's sentiment. It's a liberating thought really. Come to think of it, being pedantic is sometimes exactly all that's achieved. Hah! I will now only write what I want to - I am an empire of one!

  10. Thanks all, good commentary all around.

    @magemanda - I like that, even with a negative review there's got to be some positives - taking the other side in a way.

    @ediFanoB - Going with a "sunk cost" approach, the economist in me likes it. I give up on books more than I used to, but I will still finish the occasional less than entertaining book.

    @Melissa - I'm jealous, that's a good reading record. Sometimes it's hard to be as positive as you'd like in a review, but for some reason it's really easy to be as negative as you'd like to be. :)

  11. @Aidan & ediFanoB - Good point and something I need to think about when reviewing. Some books may achieve an emotion or purpose while at the same time lacking in many areas - i.e. Eragon and Twilight

    @Simcha - I'm dying to know what book you tore apart. :)

    @Peter - Isn't the word pedantic a bit pedantic?

  12. I think a review should be an honest opinion. This means books are vulnerable to all our individual whims and moods but it also means that over all if you follow me for any length of time, you should get a feel for where our tastes meet and which recommendations to take. :)

  13. @Hagelrat - Awesome! That's an important step to take I think. :)

  14. If you really want to know, it was Charlaine Harris's most recent Southern Vampire book (I don't remember the title). It was just so poorly executed, with characters walking in and out of scenes for no reason, an uninteresting plot, and then a completely unconvincing torture scene - it was just awful. It made me want to reread the previous books in the series to reevaluate if any of them were actually any good (though I didn't bother).

  15. @Simcha - Thanks, that's good to know although I haven't even tackled the first book. I find it hard to start a series when I know there's already a whole heap of books out there. :)

  16. Well these are very easy books to read. I think I read the whole series in a little over a week. If you watch True Blood then it's interesting to compare the books to the show, though I would suggest reading the books first because it can get confusing otherwise.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.