Note: I wrote this post on Friday, but I wanted to edit it, so I didn't publish it yet. Then, I read this post, "I Love Bad Reviews", by Justine Larbalestier this morning. And she said what I wanted to say, but better. That's what I get for waiting! I'm still posting mine, but I highly recommend reading Justine's thoughts on the matter.
Every couple months the blogs seem to blow up about the issue of negative reviews (I've only seen this in the YA blogs, but perhaps it happens elsewhere). I feel pretty strongly about the issue, so I thought I'd share.
First, I think it's a problem if bloggers look at reviews as a service to authors to help improve the authors' writing. Authors have plenty of people to help them with their writing--crit partners, writers' groups, agents, etc. Truthfully, it seems pretty egotistical to think whatever you have to say is going to be so monumentally earth shattering that it will drastically improve the author's future writings. If you see problems, the author most likely a) already knows or b) doesn't see them as issues. Therefore, writing reviews with an author audience in mind seems wrong.
So, that means book reviews are for two basic purposes:
1) To allow you to express your thoughts on books
2) To inform other readers about books
Both of these are worthwhile and important purposes. I write my reviews because I desperately need somewhere to get out my thoughts (my husband only wants to talk so much about books he hasn't read!). The OCD part of me likes the style, organization, and feeling of culmination reviewing each book I read gives me. I read many other blogs to be informed about books I might like to read.
So here's the thing--if book blog reviews are for those two purposes, then I see no reason not to write critical reviews. If I review to express my thoughts and then lie about a book that stunk, then I'm not achieving purpose one. And if I write a more positive review than the book deserved, then I'm failing to accurately deliver on purpose two.
My absolute least favorite types of reviews go something like this: "Yelping Chihuahua Archers by Suzy McSaddlepants was an amazing book. The story hooked me and the style was so amazing it took my breath away. I highly recommend this book to everyone I know! It gets 15/10 triple sundae heart points!" Because if all you do is uniformly praise every book you read (and what the heck does "the style is so amazing" mean?), then your reviews are completely meaningless. (I will make exceptions for blogs that announce upfront that they will only review books they love.) To me, you become untrustworthy as a source.
Now, like most others who have weighed on this issue have noted, I don't advocate trashing an author ("McSaddlepants is a total loser and should obviously leave the writing profession and instead become a grave digger, dig her own grave, and die.") or trashing a whole genre because of an author ("Saddlepants' failure to write a compelling young adult dystopian post-modern Western clearly demonstrates that the genre is tired and overdone."). However, I think it's okay to be critical. It's even okay to come across as harsh. You're writing to express your own thoughts and to pass those along to readers--and I want the truth.
I've written a number of harsh reviews. I loathed The Tattooed Girl (from my review: "This book is terrible. Truly, terrible. Not boring terrible, dense terrible, or cliched terrible- just terrible.") and One Hundred Years of Solitude ("One Hundred Years was an intolerable continuum of tedium."), and I said so in my reviews. Of course, Oates and Marquez are famous, well-recognized writers, and neither book is YA.
But I also criticized recent YA releases like Wildthorn and The Line because I did not feel they were good books. I try to specify why, since certainly aspects that bother me might not bother another reader. But, as a reader, I don't want to waste my time on something I won't enjoy, so I appreciate knowing the faults up front.
I do have a couple things that make it easier to write what I think: I have very low blog readership and I don't hope to become a published author. I suppose if I had tons of readers ready to pounce should I say something wrong or was sending out queries I might be more paranoid and thus cautious. I'm also not receiving ARCs to review, and like it or not, I think being a common recipient of advance books (and wanting to continue to be a recipient of such) probably does play a role in the way reviews come out.
So, here is my final thought: YA community, please keep writing thoughtful, critical reviews. The best of YA doesn't get recognized if everything that comes out is deemed absolutely fabulous.