As usual for a Sunday morning, I spent it browsing Twitter to see what the people around the world are up to, and then this little gem popped up from Gollanz fantasy author, Sam Sykes: Now we can assume that this was said in jest, but it did bring up an interesting thought. What responsibility do we as reviewers have to write bad reviews? Working in the book industry, we are bombarded with proof copies, courtesy copies and advanced review copies of forthcoming titles and unfortunately not all of these titles are good. There are many reasons for this, either the book doesn’t resonate with you as the reader, or there are major plot/character flaws or the book might just be formulaic and bland. The question, as a reviewer, arises in whether we should let the public know about this or not. Should we let the author know? In letting the public know, you may hurt the sales of a title, all based on your own personal, biased opinion on a book. Satirist and essayist Dorothy Parker is quoted in The Algonquin Wits (1968) to have said about the novel Atlas Shrugged:
This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.
Now, we don’t all have the eloquence of Ms Parker, but she had a point. Why pretty up your opinion of a novel? To spare the feelings of the author? Would your honest opinion not help the author improve future novels? Well, it depends on the nature of the opinion. Take a look at the following quote from Ms Parker:
Well, Aimee Semple McPherson has written a book. And were you to call it a little peach, you would not be so much as scratching its surface. It is the story of her life, and it is called In the Service of the King, which title is perhaps a bit dangerously suggestive of a romantic novel. It may be that this autobiography is set down in sincerity, frankness and simple effort. It may be, too, that the Statue of Liberty is situated in Lake Ontario.
The book in question here was of course In the Service of the King by Aimee Semple McPherson. Now Ms Parker’s comment was scathing in its delivery, but it does show that the book lacked certain key aspects that would have made it better.
The Guardian has made a of sport of writing bad reviews and they disguised it as an award. The Bad Sex Awards have become an annual institution in the literary world. You can read our roundup of the Bad Sex Awards for 2011 here.
I think that at the end of it all we can conclude that a bad review is not necessarily a bad thing, but as with everything in life, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.