What Should a Reviewer Do If She Doesn’t Like the Book?

I’ve struggled for a while with the question of whether it’s better, if I’m given a comic to review that I don’t care for, to write a negative review or simply not cover the work. I invariably guess wrong. If I err on the side of “if you can’t say anything nice…”, then the artist tells me he would have rather had the links, even if I didn’t like it. If I write a negative review, then the publisher wants me to have kept my mouth shut.

I’ve been pondering this because Gina Gagliano at First Second recently wrote about her intentions in providing review copies. She says,

Reviewers to whom I send books are not obligated to write reviews! In fact, if they get books from me in the mail and they hate them, I would probably prefer that they didn’t write any review at all. Even if a reviewer gets a book and feels bland and vaguely indifferent towards it, I’ll probably be like, ‘how about you review a nice book from me that you thought was awesome instead of forcing yourself to write something vague and indifferent about this book — I’ll find someone else who loves it to cover it.’

To be clear, I’m not stopping anyone from writing a review — if reviewers hate a book and want to write about it, that’s totally fine. If reviewers feel bland and indifferent about a book and want to write about it, that’s fine too. But if a reviewer gets a book from me and doesn’t want to write a review because they didn’t like it, because they feel that it doesn’t suit their audience, because they don’t have time for it, because they can’t fit it in with the rest of their content thematically that week, you know what?

Those are all perfectly reasonable reasons not to review a book, and I’m fine with that.

I’m really glad to hear it, because I think that’s a great statement that makes me feel better about what I’m trying to do, which is talk about good books — or barring that, to talk about things that I felt passionate about in some fashion. Trying to force out a review when a book leaves you feeling “eh” is hard, and the time and pressure spent doing it could probably be better used elsewhere.


17 Responses to “What Should a Reviewer Do If She Doesn’t Like the Book?”

  1. elwood-edward-howes Says:

    What Should a Reviewer Do If She Doesn’t Like the Book?

    This is always a tough question. I experience this on DeviantArt. When I see something that I like and I take the time to share some of the things reasons why I liked the piece, of course, the artists love that. When the piece has it’s strengths but a marred by a flaw, a critique of the piece praising the strengths and lamenting the flaw also is well received. When I take the time to speak of piece that really was without merit, I always feel bad afterwards. Someone took me to task for such a blunt examination of a piece that lacked merit. Their words still sting today.

    For me, it is much harder to write a complete condemnation of a bad piece. I would much rather encourage someone who is promising to strive to be better.

    My spirits are raised for having praised something that was just off the mark and, conversely, I feel soiled for speaking ill of something that was really without merit.

    L Childs

  2. Johanna Says:

    Are these artists asking for your opinion? I don’t know how DeviantArt works that way.

  3. Charles Knight Says:

    I think the problem is – if you have a review site that fills up with only good reviews, unless it is clear and explicit (and you sort of cover that here with the title) that is the policy, you have a problem.

    The problem is that the reader starts to think you are bought off with freebies or you actually have no critical judgement – next thing you know they are calling you the new comicbookresources.

  4. Johanna Says:

    It’s true, someone who’s only ever positive (or negative) might get a certain reputation. Although one should also consider the content of the reviews themselves — I find a certain naive charm to someone who just loves comics and can always find something positive to say.

  5. John Says:

    This topic speaks to me, Johanna. I never do bad reviews because if I dislike something I rarely actually finish it!!! Not enough time in the day! Unless it’s for PW, then I have to!

  6. hapax Says:

    I love bad reviews.

    I don’t enjoy writing them, mind you (unless a book enraged me down to the depths of my soul) but I very much appreciate reading them.

    Sometimes it warns me off a work that I’ll know I’ll regret wasting time/money on. Sometimes it comforts me when everybody else is loving on something that left me annoyed and baffled (I’m looking at you, GONE GIRL) so I don’t wonder if there’s something wrong with me. Sometimes it lets me know when something is going to fill me with guilty glee and even if the reviewer loathed it, I’ll rush out and get it (ridiculous romantic banter, gratuitous explosions, and SPACE TURTLES? I am *so* *there*!)

    Even a “meh” review can be very helpful in this manner; a good reviewer can be explicit about appeal factors in a “this didn’t work for me but it might for you” way, that can tell me what I want to know.

    So I don’t give a flying flip what creators and publicists want. I’m not their creative writing teacher or their unpaid shill. I write reviews for me, and for people who might want to look at the work.

    Of course, this is how I think. Obviously, every reviewer needs to make their own decision about what they want to write about.

  7. James Schee Says:

    When I did reviews I’d run into that at times as well. I got a book once that wasn’t even a comic, it was prose with some pictures and I just wasn’t interested in it enough to get beyond the first few pages.

    I think it depends on if you have something constructive to say about a book I guess. If the entire review is just how poor this or that is then go ahead and pass. Yet if you can talk about why something doesn’t work, that doesn’t amount to this isn’t how I’d do it, then do that as technical aspects are so rarely talked about. ((My biggest pet peeve, not looking at book for what it is, only what you want it to be)

  8. elwood-edward-howes Says:

    DeviantArt comments

    Anyone can join DeviantArt for FREE and anyone who has joined can comment on any piece.

    The opportunity to comment on another artist’s work arises in one of several ways.
    1) Watch another artist;
    2) Watch or Join a Group; or,
    3) Browse art by categories.
    All of these activities generate a daily set of thumbnails of new pieces to examine.

    Once a piece has been opened, a comment box appears. A second opportunity to comment occurs after a piece has been Favorited.

    For myself, I am most interested in knowing why a piece that I displayed was Favorited. Those are the commented that have the most impact.

  9. Mike Peterson Says:

    I think it depends on whether it’s necessary to comment at all. As you note, there are places that exist to promote the positive — my site, “Comic Strip of the Day” is obviously there to point out good work and I sometimes itch to rip up a particularly lousy piece of work. But it’s not within the mission and there are several snark sites that exist only to rip up work for the amusement of the mob.

    If your mission is overall reviewing, however, I think you have to look at whether a comic has generated enough buzz or created enough marketing that someone is going to be trying to decide whether to buy it. At that point, your obligation is to your readers, not to the artist or publisher: You should either say, “yes, this is great, go get it” or “well, if you like such-and-such, you’ll like this, but don’t expect it to be like so-and-so” or “it’s a complete failure” — but then be specific about why you feel the way you do, and be consistent enough overall that people can interpret your reactions in the context of your established likes and dislikes.

  10. Comics A.M. | ‘Jupiter’s Legacy’ debuts to more than 100,000 | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment Says:

    [...] Reviewing | Johanna Draper Carlson ponders a question that vexes many a writer: Should you review a book you don’t like? Her commenters weigh in as well. [Comics Worth Reading] [...]

  11. Johanna Says:

    I agree, Mike — having a range of reviews from a critic is also helpful in better understanding their viewpoint and evaluation criteria.

  12. Simon DelMonte Says:

    Long ago, I did reviews for a Superman e-zine of a World’s Finest miniseries written, I think, by Karl Kesel. The series wasn’t that good. But I felt it was worthwhile to stick with the job. It was a challenge, but I thought offering less than favorable reviews was doing the readers of the e-zine a service, and maintaining the reputation of the e-zine as a place where the reviews were not just “ooooo, Superman.” No one made me stick with the series, but I think it was a good experience for me.

    And when there was a single issue that was singularly good, I relished the chance to write something glowing, knowing that my readers could trust my assessment after so many months of meh.

  13. ranj Says:

    Quite a while back,I was asked to write reviews about a couple of websites for a friend of mine. These same thoughts were on my mind…..how to criticise….but be polite at the same time!! I did bite the bullet though, and wrote my piece. At the end of the day, I was at peace knowing that it was a piece of honesty in my work….and not just window dressing!! Cheers!!

  14. Brian Says:

    It is something I struggle with all the time. I love and want to support the medium, but I can’t give praise to books that don’t deserve it. And i can’t ignore them either.

    I look at comic book reviewing like movie reviewing. I look at movie reviews for an honest assessment of a movie (or that reviewer’s take on the movie). If the reviewer only reviewed movies she or he liked, then I would only hear about the same movies (or same type of movies) over and over again. Comics are the same way. I want to now what people honestly think about comics.

    So, when I review, I am honest. I am in the lucky position of being able to select almost every bok I review. That means I am pre-disposed to liking it (or at least being interested). So, the majority of my reviews tend to be positive because I love comics and I am choosing the books I review. However, when someone sends me a book to review they are asking for my opinion. They are hoping I will like it. I hope I like it too! No one likes reading crappy books.

    As a review site it is important to publish fair reviews. If I ran a site which was only about promoting comics, then I would only publish reviews which were glowing and positive. But as a review site I try to take a look at as many different types of books as possible and give my honest opinion.

  15. Johanna Says:

    That’s an inspiration, Brian. What a great statement summing it up.

  16. Brian Says:

    Thanks!

    I honestly hate ripping apart books. I know that people put a lot of time and effort into them, especially the independent and self-published books. It never feels good to write a bad review.

  17. Honest Abe Says:

    Johanna,

    If you expect to be considered a legitimate critic, offering an opinion of any value, you must have integrity. Every publisher would prefer to manipulate your review in an effort to maxumize profit. You have to decide if you feel your personal and honest opinion has any value to you and your readers. Any writer or publisher soliciting your review, only if it endorses their product, is also soliciting you to censor your ideas and compromise your ethics.




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