“If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I appreciate the spirit of this well-known adage, which encourages kindness, appropriateness, and respect for others’ feelings.
Yet, human beings are human, and even good intentions sometimes miss or misapply a principle.
Let’s say you go to a symphony hall to hear an oratorio from a group on tour. The choir’s pitch is too sharp, and they fall out of sync with the orchestra several times during the performance. Your friend, who couldn’t attend this evening of the tour, plans to buy tickets for tomorrow night. But you don’t mention the choir’s issues to your friend. You think, “If I say something, word about the choir’s poor singing might get around to everyone, and I don’t want to hurt the choir members’ feelings. After all, performing in an oratorio is no easy task.”
Yes, I’m a believer in the “If you don’t have something nice to say” adage, but well-intentioned people can misapply it sometimes.
And the adage is sometimes misapplied to the practice of book reviewing.
Reviews of books at retail sites are meant to help other readers/customers make informed purchasing decisions. It’s word-of-mouth happening online. (And, yes, reviews can inform a potential reader without giving away plot spoilers!) Book reviews on sites like Goodreads and book blogs are also word-of-mouth, meant to give people an idea of what books they might want to check out. Many times, those reviews also spark social interaction and book discussions, as they should.
But how balanced and meaningful would those discussions be if readers only mentioned what they liked about the books they’ve read, never what they disliked? How can customers make informed decisions about the books they buy if the retail reviews never mention a book’s errors or weaknesses? If no reviewers ever speak up to say that a book wasn’t for them, how honest is that?
Some readers feel uncomfortable about posting reviews for books they didn’t like. “I don’t want to hurt the author by saying something negative, so maybe I’ll write a nice review and leave out the bad stuff…or I won’t review the book at all. Besides, it’s just my opinion. Other people might love the book.”
Well, now. Art, literature, and their related reviews are subjective. Even when you think a book is wonderful and you give it a good review, that’s also just your opinion. The fact that you love a book doesn’t mean or guarantee that other people will love it, too. But even though others might not enjoy the book you praised, it didn’t stop you from sharing your opinion about that book anyway, right?
I understand having the desire not to hurt authors. However, your book reviews are first and foremost for other readers, to let them know what effect(s) a book had on you. Any benefits to the authors are secondary, and many authors actually prefer to steer clear of reading reviews of their books. Some authors write as they wish and aren’t incredibly concerned about readers’ opinions either way, and other authors are good with the critiques their books receive during the writing and revising process, so they’ve already gotten all the feedback they’re looking for.
Besides, not all book reviews (which are primarily for other readers) have to be flattering to authors. But they’re all supposed to be honest, whether the reviewers liked the books or not.
Did you know there are readers who won’t purchase a book by an author they’ve never read before if the author’s books only have glowing reviews? The readers suspect it’s just the author’s friends and/or superfans posting biased praise. So having some reviews from people who weren’t wild about an author’s books lends credibility to the author.
Also, critical reviews can help to sell books when one reader’s “dislike” is another reader’s “like.” For instance, someone may write in a review, “This mystery novel had way too much romance for my taste.” Then other readers who love healthy helpings of romance in mysteries see that point as a plus.
For me as a reader, critical book reviews, not glowing ones, are what finally sell me on books a lot of times. And by no means am I the only reader who sees that happen.
As for the possibility of critical reviews or comments hurting an author’s feelings… Well.
As an author who chooses to read reviews of her books, I wouldn’t want reviewers to only issue compliments and to avoid mentioning points of criticism at all costs, as if to coddle me. That would be like false respect.
Writing and publishing is serious business. I’m passionate about what I do, and I work incredibly hard in hopes of making a real difference. But I won’t know what real difference I’m making—won’t know how I’m truly affecting the audience I’m writing for—if readers aren’t honest. If they liked a book of mine, I want them to be free to say why. If they didn’t like a book of mine, I want them to be free to say why.
And hopefully they can say it without spoilers, or they can at least caution fellow readers with spoiler alerts first. 😉
It isn’t mean not to like something. (My personal love of green beans isn’t kind and considerate any more than my dislike of lima beans is cruel and heartless.) Being completely honest in a book review doesn’t mean you have to be ungracious. You can tell the truth and be sincere without being a jerk or attacking the author as a person.
This post continues in Part Two.