The Utility of Negative Reviews

Oooh, a continuing blog conversation! David Welsh answers my question about promotional quotes and then asks another good question:

I’ve been wondering lately if I might write more negative reviews. I tend to focus on books that I like… I do think I might add more pans to the mix. If I’m excited by a solicitation and say so, then find the actual book kind of dreadful, I try to say so at least briefly, if only to set the record straight.

His reasons for positive reviewing are all good (although edited out of my quote — go to the link), and they are harder to write. (And thus more of a stretch and challenge.) Especially if you try to avoid falling back on your same favorite adjectives, whatever they are.

I would like to see him write more of the other kind, particularly in the situation he’s talking about, where promotion isn’t double-checked afterwards. It’s really hard to know whether you’re not hearing about a particular title because everyone’s got things they want to talk about more, or whether they’re embarrassed about being wrong about promoting it at ordering time, or whether there are political reasons not to say a particular emperor not only has no clothes but has fallen flat on his face.

I don’t think I’ve seen many of the type where the reviewer had high expectations that were disappointed. I see plenty of cases where by the time a book they’ve praised comes out, they’ve moved on to something else (so no follow up), or plenty where they got what they expected, or even some where they were pleasantly surprised. All of those are easier to talk about.

I know there are books where I want to say “we expected good things, and we got THIS piece of stinky carp?” But when you look around and feel like the only one willing to say it, it can be discouraging. (Even the loudest of us are still online, the traditional refuge of the shy.) Better to keep silence as the better part of virtue. Except that that’s not helpful to the customer with ever-expanding choices and a continually limited budget.

Anyway, the reasons to review apply just as much to negative reviews: you want to inform the reader to avoid bad books, you should educate them as to why they’re bad, and you can start a discussion about where the book went wrong (idea, execution, marketing, publication). So David, I look forward to seeing more from you — of whatever stripe.

19 Responses to “The Utility of Negative Reviews”

  1. Jay Faerber Says:

    I’m all in favor of negative reviews … to an extent. But there are certain review sites out there (I won’t name names) that seem to continually review the same books, which they don’t like. The books always get negative reviews, and I just come away thinking, “Why the hell do you keep reading it?”

  2. Scott Says:

    Negative reviews actually influence me much more than positive, as I’ve generally found them more accurate.

    That is to say, I think it is easier for a bad product to be (more) universally recognized whereas a good product is more of an eye-of-the-beholder sort of thing.

    Of course, it could be that I’ve prematurely reached the state of jaded, curmudgeonly pessimist… though I would be skeptical of that. :)

  3. Nat Gertler Says:

    I think that recommendations are actually much more useful than pans. Given the sheer amount of comics product out there and the small portion that most of us who read it at all read, the odds are very good that a recommendation is steering us to a product we would not have otherwise bought; the odds are small that a pan will steer us away from a book we would otherwise have purchased.

  4. Tara Tallan Says:

    The SF bookstore I worked at did just as well by our negative reviews as by our positive ones. It’s important to strike a balance, I think, so that the readers (in our case, our customers) can get a better sense of where the reviewer’s tastes lie. We had a regular customer who would automatically pick up any book that a certain member of the staff disliked, because he eventually came to realize that her dislikes matched his likes. And when we *all* hated a particular book, we had people who would buy the thing just to see how bad it could get. Ultimately, we were just happy to be able to steer a person towards a book they’d enjoy, whether we liked the thing or not (even if this meant sending them to another store). For the customers who just wanted to read the reviews (which we posted on little cards next to the books), having negative ones as well as positive ones to look at was important.

  5. Chris G. Says:

    I think Roger Ebert says the test of a good negative review is whether it has enough information to let someone who’d like the movie know that they should go see it.

  6. David Says:

    I wrote a music review column for several years – something that is about as subjective as you can get. I learned early on to try to set aside my personal preferences and look at the art of the music – the writing, the arrangements, tone, past/genre comparisons, and overall execution. I found that I was able to give reviews based on merit, + or -, not what I had in my car CD player. It’s hard to give a negative review to something you like.

    That’s what I look for in a comic review, an actual review as opposed to a personal rant (unfortunately the majority I see are the latter). Both positive and negative reviews can be good so long as the personal bias of the reviewer is put on hold, or at least acknowledged or already understood beforehand (like Tara Tallan just pointed out).

  7. Don MacPherson Says:

    A negative review can spur some people to pick up a comic just as much as a positive one. I’ve heard from loads of folks who try books I *don’t* like because they specifically see my tastes as being the polar opposite to theirs.

    I’ve also had some negative reviews that generated some small measure of controversy, and it drove some readers to go get the book to see what the fuss was about.

    Johanna, remember the Meridian #1 review debacle in 2000? :)

  8. Johanna Says:

    Jay, I agree that saying the same negative things over and over makes me want to tell people “move on! there are a lot more choices out there”. But I think that leads to a bigger principle: make sure you have something to say when reviewing. Add something interesting or funny or observant or new or unique.

    I also agree with both Scott and Nat. I agree with Nat that it’s rare to dissuade someone from something they’ve already decided to purchase; but I’m with Scott, too, that sometimes, I’m looking for help paring down my want list.

    Tara, great stories! Love the experience comparison. I have readers like that, who buy what I hate.

    David, always a good idea to remember that distinction, that there’s a difference between like/dislike and good/bad.

    Don, no, you’ve stumped me. Which is a pleasant surprise. What was it?

  9. Michael Denton Says:

    I think David is speaking of wanting a critique rather than a review – I think a review can be just “I liked it or didn’t like it because…” (not that it would be the best review) versus a critique that analyzes the work.

    I find both helpful. I’m completely in the camp with Tala, however. Knowing a reviewer’s likes and dislikes allows me to benchmark my own tastes against the reviewer. Without negative reviews, I can’t get a good sense of if we agree on dislikes.

  10. Don MacPherson Says:

    Johanna, I was referring to the never-ending Usenet threads in response to my negative review of Crossgen’s Meridian #1. I critiqued Joshua Middleton’s art from sexualizing a character that appeared to be a girl aged 11-14. In one panel, we see her panties.

    Supporters of the burgeoning Crossgen tore the review to shreds, suggesting, among other things, that I likened the comic to child porn and that I must want to see young girls as sexual beings.

    I was writing for the incarnation of Comics Newsarama at the time.

  11. Tim O'Shea Says:

    DOn, I remember that dust-up well, sir.

    All I know about negative reviews is that one (when I panned Michel Gagne’s Spore in the back of Detective) led to a new friendship (with Gagne).

    And that this recent one by Graeme
    ( convinced me that other than FF, I can miss out on Millar.

  12. Brigid Says:

    I think it’s important to point out the negative as well as the positive, but comics, like people, are never all good or all bad. I seldom find a book that has no redeeming features at all, and when I do, I usually decide pretty quickly that it’s not significant enough to write about.

  13. Crocodile Caucus » Revealing the reviewer? Says:

    […] looking at the value of negative reviews, Johanna inspires a tangential thought for me when she says that negative reviews are harder to […]

  14. Marc Mason Says:

    I struggle with this. The last thing I want to do is come off as a cheerleader and do nothing but positive reviews. But when I read things that suck, a good chunk of the time, I don’t have the energy to sit and critique them in-depth… because just getting through reading them was torture enough.

    So when I do publish a pan of a book, it is usually something where I’ve sat the book down and had an explosion of thoughts about the book’s flaws, etc., and why it didn’t work. And as Jay said above, that’s usually when you avoid nasty notes from publishers and creators- a thoughtful critique written without malice allows for respectful dialogue. It also makes a positive review from a writer mean more.

  15. Alan Coil Says:

    I wrote reviews for a short time. (Don’t bother looking for them—I stopped because I bored myself.)

    I found writing positive reviews to be so much harder than negative reviews. In fact, tearing apart a crappy book was too much fun. When writing a positive review, I felt, as others have mentioned, that I was just being a cheerleader.

    But it is important to have negative reviews so that readers know to stay away from some books, and that some creators know they need to do better.

    I wouldn’t even attempt to critique a book until I had some training in how to critique.

  16. Jamie Coville Says:

    When I give a book a bad review I do it with the intent of informing the creator of what I think needs to be improved and/or why something isn’t working.

    A lot of my books are by new creators and they typically need the help. While outright bashing might be fun (if you don’t have to look the creator in the eye again) it isn’t very helpful.

  17. Johanna Says:

    I’ve known people who got carried away by the idea that they were “coMUNnicating with the CREator” in reviewing the latest DC or Marvel. I think that’s a bad approach. For one thing, if you seriously want someone to improve something, they’re going to respond much better to private conversation. For another, it’s kind of presumptuous to think they care what you think, as opposed to the hundreds of other readers.

  18. Jamie Coville Says:

    For Marvel/DC stuff? Yeah the creators probably don’t care so much. Same likely goes for those that’s been around the block a few times with other publishers.

    For the type of books you review, this wouldn’t be the way to go.

    For the people putting out their first comic? I’ve been thanked for the advice.

  19. Johanna Says:

    True, there are distinctions between different types of books.




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