IN DEFENSE OF NEGATIVE REVIEWS

Following an exchange of thoughts on a worst reads of 2020 post on Re-enchantment Of The World, I’ve decided to write a bit about writing negative reviews, and the abundance of positive reviews one encounters.


I’m sure some of the more critical readers of this blog are at times baffled by all the positive reviews they see for – let’s be frank here – generic, uninspired produce. That is very noticeable on Goodreads, where new titles often harvest +4 scores quickly, and also in the blogosphere negative reviews are fairly rare.

That most books published today are generic needs no proof. Still, let me refer you to this brilliant piece on Speculiction, that looks at book titles of Fantasy published around 2018. The proliferation of accessible word-processing, cheap laptop computers and ever better and cheaper printing methods have flooded the market.

Everybody with a creative inclination and enough spare time can write a book nowadays. Our culture seems to laud free expression and believing in your own, unique self, and that seems to trick lots of people into thinking they are artists too. The dedication of Herbert and Tolkien to write their big books by hand or on a typewriter simply isn’t necessary anymore today. Editing has never been more easy.

But while Joseph Beuys claimed that Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler in the 60ies, his beef was with the fact that not everybody could study at an art academy in Germany at the time. So rather than a call for everybody to start writing books, Beuys’ ostensibly democratic dictum should rather be read as a call to learn how to write books first.

Pulp and generic writing have always existed, but whereas the pulp around 1960 was published in short books of about 140 pages, today it seems growth is an inescapable law for books too – new titles averaging 450 pages instead, often as a part of a series. While they have a cultural veneer, big publishers are in the sales business first and foremost: selling more volume = more profit.

I could add e-readers, self-publishing and free blogging as factors, but the gist is clear: the speculative fiction reader is overwhelmed by new titles this day and age.

This phenomenon isn’t restricted to speculative fiction, by the way. I have followed the metal scene actively since the early 90ies, and also in metal there is an exponential proliferation of bands, albums, releases. For fringe genres like black or death metal there were only a handful of labels, and one could more or less keep up with everything released if one was so inclined and had the money or enough tapes to trade. But with success comes a bandwagon, and somewhere between 1995 and 2000 things mushroomed.

Similar causes are easily pointed at here as well, and technology is a big part of it: everybody can make a very decent home studio with just a laptop and one mic. Top notch recording & mixing software like Audacity and Bandcamp are free. Designing a decent album cover similarly isn’t that hard anymore as it was in the early days of MS Paint or xeroxed fanzines. On top of all that, Bandcamp and others have solved the problem of distribution. 

That leaves marketing as the sole problem – both for the aspiring metal band, as the big publisher of speculative fiction. And as technology, the internet and free time steadily become more available in developing countries too, the pool of creative humans becomes bigger and bigger with each passing day. 

Enter negative reviews.


The value of reviews is often debated.

There are those that claim to never read reviews. They “do not need reviews.” If that is the case: how do they decide what to read next?

The answer is simple: they just read what is picked for them by marketing. Sure, they might decide between book A and book B when they’re in the bookshop, but those decisions are based on superficial stuff like the cover and the blurb: marketing again. Hell, even which books are displayed prominently on the store’s shelves is marketing. The same goes for Amazon’s algorithms.

Some keep relying on the Awards for guidance – but even the old trustworthy prizes are no guide anymore. The Hugo’s have become politicized, and the popular vote has always been a strange marriage of trends, group think and clever marketeers. Originality is not the main factor, as anybody who has read A Memory Called Empire and enough other SF can attest too.

I could not read without reviews. A big part of deciding what books to buy is reading reviews. In a way, I consider this blog as a kind of curating service to others. I spend countless of hours of reading other reviewers, on different platforms – blogs, Goodreads, Amazon, LibraryThing, and traditional newspapers and magazines. If I come across a title that looks interesting, the first thing I do is go to Goodreads and read reviews of people I’ve friended over the years, and who’s tastes I can more or less assess – for one does not need to only assess the books themselves, but also the reviews.

The crucial step is what happens after: I filter for 1 and 2-star reviews, and read those. That habit has saved me a lot of time and money.


The problem is: new books tend to have far fewer negative reviews. What’s happening there?

The answer to that question would merit proper research, and would make a good topic for a PhD in literary science, but as I’m not part of the academic world anymore, and my time is limited, I will leave you with some preliminary thoughts on the matter.

An important reason is the trepidation that some reviewers have to writing negative reviews. Over the years I’ve come across many people voicing some kind of variant of “I don’t write negative reviews”.

Some don’t do so out of a sense of respect: the author put their soul into writing this book, and that deserves respect, not some nagging review. Other people try to stay away from “negative energy”, and that includes writing negative reviews. And yet others think taste is such a determining factor, that writing a negative review is so subjective that it is basically useless. Finally, some reviewers don’t trust their own abilities, don’t feel adequately schooled in literary criticism to voice negative opinions – the book got published, it must have some merit, I guess I’m unworthy, not this book? The fact that there’s the persistent stereotype that reviewers are just failed writers doesn’t help to embolden the potential negative reviewer.

Another factor is the fact that some reviewers don’t review books they did not finish out of principle. This is reinforced by some readers that tend to dismiss DNF reviews right out of hand.

When taken together, these two factors clearly tilt the available reviews to the positive side.

I’m not immune to these considerations myself. I do write negative reviews, and I often enjoy writing them  – the Irulan motto underneath my About page is a bit of a give-away – but after I got a ton of backlash for my review of The Algebraist in the Iain M. Banks Facebook group, I decided not to post my lukewarm Transition review there. I guess I was naive in thinking the majority Banks fans would be able to have a rational conversation based on the arguments in the review, instead of a shouting match.


That takes me to another set of factors: the social.

At times, I have the feeling that a significant part of early readers are fans part of a fandom that seems to like about anything with the label SF or Fantasy, and for these readers reading is more a matter of identity and not so much literature. Especially all the politically correct SF that has come out the last 5 or 10 years seems to confirm that. After Gamergate, the entire saga of the Puppies and their ilk seems to indicate that an important part of speculative fiction has become part of the Culture Wars. If your reading is the act of a culture war soldier rather than the act of a lover of culture at large, that kind of tribalism gets you into cheering for the like-minded more easily rather than being critical.

These fandom readers also tend to favor the new over anything else: I’m truly baffled by some readers that only seem to read and review books published the very year they read in it – some read over 50 or 100 books published today, 2020 or 2021. There are not even books from 2015 or 2010 in their feed, let alone books from the 1980s or 1950s. Readers like that easily lack historical perspective – unless they have been reading for 3 or 4 or 5 decades. Especially young readers might fall prey to the cult of the new, but either way, if the bulk of the stuff you read is generic contemporary stuff, that becomes your baseline.

But even for those not part of that part of fandom, there is an unavoidable pressure to conform. I have hesitated too when rating a book publicly on Goodreads. It’s simply harder to click 1 or 2 stars than it is to click 3 stars when everybody seems to rave about the book. I can’t remember the specific titles anymore, but I have occasionally given 3 or 2 stars while I actually wanted to give 2 or 1 stars. I don’t do that anymore, but believe me, it took some courage to rate The Return of the King 2 stars only. Two stars mean “it was ok” according the Goodreads scale. That’s not even a bad rating, if you think of it.

A reason that is specific for Goodreads is that people tend to have their own star rating system. That doesn’t always translate well to the Goodreads system – all the more as they don’t work with half stars. And the Goodreads scale is tilted towards the positive: only a 1 star rating is truly negative, so if you just use your own scale, a rating of 2 out of 5 stars – that is essentially negative to most people – becomes an “it’s ok” on Goodreads. It would be helpful to publish the average scoring of every user next to every of their scores, not just on their profile page.

Entertainment seems to trump everything these days. Also in Hollywood plot holes or consistency don’t seem to matter anymore. As Ola G has put it in the discussion I referred to at the very beginning: “I don’t see too much critical reception of any kind of cultural artifacts lately – as if their only purpose was escapist entertainment and whatever crosses that bar is just fantastic and no questions asked.” Maybe we have become old farts – I’m guessing people said similar things 50 years ago as well. Still, marketing and focus groups tend to determine a director’s hand more these days than 25 years ago, or at least, that’s the way it seems to me if I just compare the big commercial movies.

There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, I enjoy a nice beach read too, so here we get to the crux of the entire discussion: what is good? What is quality? Taste remains a strange thing to discuss.

A final factor, more specific to book blogging, are ARCs – Advanced Reader Copies: the promotional stuff publishers send out in bulk to e-readering reviewers these days. People tend to be more positive about books received like that, out of thankfulness and respect, and out of fear of not getting anymore in the future. It’s easily imagined and all to human to add half a star or a star if it’s an ARC – it undoubtedly is an unconscious mechanism for lots of reviewers. ARCs tend to operate as a feedback loop, as publishers stay away from reviewers that are known to be very critical.

As ARCs are cheaper than ever to distribute via e-mail today, my guess is they are distributed much more widely than 10 or 20 years ago, resulting in even more positive online reviews.

I have received a few ARCs myself, but by self-publishing authors only. I didn’t finish any of the manuscripts, and common decency told me not to write a review in that case. These people payed for the paper and the postage – I don’t own an e-reader, and postage to Europe is ludicrously expensive for American authors. On top of that, some of these books were so bad I dropped out of them after 20 pages – and that’s just not enough material to base a review on.

All the talk about “honest review” or “in exchange for an honest opinion” is obviously well meant, but it’s clear ARCs skew reviews to the positive side.

In short: Sturgeon’s law also applies to reviews.


If you think of other factors, or have a different perspective, don’t hesitate to comment. It would be very interesting to hear from people that work in publishing.

And if you are a reviewer yourself, please, do not withhold the reader community your negative thoughts. They are a matter public service.

41 responses to “IN DEFENSE OF NEGATIVE REVIEWS

  1. I have no qualms in writing a scathing review, even for a genre that I normally garner a lot of rose tinted goggles towards. I am currently slogging through a book I am dreading to even think of what I will be writing about it. I also have Salty McDave that comes in occasion to tear a book a new asshole… This was a great piece you wrote man. My wife and I also recently the very biased views of people that vote for books of the year on GR, people will vote for an author without reading the actual book that is up for voting. This meant that for the sci/fi and fantasy section got flooded by votes for books that were utter shit compared to others that was part of that voting list. It is so demeaning to other authors that take part in this. When I write a review I try stay away from spoilers, but if a book pissed me off I will state why and give a good example of it… Also how early to your post was I this time hahaha

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the kind words! Yeah, Goodreads should be a bit more though about those kind of thing, I’ve seen ratings for books that don’t even have ARCs. On the other hand, I guess it’s impossible to police… It’ll always be a competition amongst authors in a way, and it sucks to be undeservedly on the loosing end.

      One thing that negative reviews do is give more symbolic credit to the positive reviews one writes, so in that sense they help the authors you really like.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. On top of that, some of these books were so bad I dropped out of them after 20 pages – and that’s just not enough material to base a review on.

    That is where you and I disagree on this subject. I’ll gladly crucify a book or an author, for 20 pages of utter drek.

    The rest of the article? Great stuff and I tend to agree with most of it. I’ve seen the same trends, felt the same pressures and that in turn has shaped how and where I review. I don’t do ARC’s any more because of the pressure. I don’t review at Devilreads because of the cesspit of evil socialness alive and well, lurking to devour any reader unwise enough to state an honest opinion. I gave up on facebook in general years ago and never even tried to break into the twitter scene.

    Based on my sentence, I tend to go even further than you though. Does it bother me that you don’t take it as far as me? Not a bit. Nor does it bother (very much, if I’m honest) when people don’t review DNF’s or do 1 star reviews, IF I know about it from the get go. Then I can make the choice about whether I actually want to follow them or trust anything coming out of their lying by omission pieholes 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • I do agree 20 pages might be enough for a negative review, but to me it would be much harder work, because I’d feel I would practically need to go over the material on a sentence by sentence level in search for arguments of why I found it bad, and usually I don’t feel like writing such a review.

      I do like Goodreads, it’s all a matter of friending the right people – on the other hand, my opinions aren’t nearly as controversial as yours, so that helps too I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

      • 😀 See, for me I’d just list off 2 badly constructed sentences and call it a day. There’s a reason my posts tend to be about 700 words long, hahahaha!

        I have found, even recently, that I tend to be drawn towards shitstorms of faceless people. I’ll hear someone mention an author and off I go down the rabbit hole and then I’ll read some fan’s review and react to that and before you know it, the author and I are declaring WWIII on each other and stuff.
        So I do well, very well I think, one on one. But throw me in a group situation and suddenly, it’s not good 😦 This is a repeatable pattern I’ve seen in myself in almost every place online I frequent. Definitely a fault line in my character.
        But you are completely correct, my views on a lot of social subjects don’t make things any easier 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah luckily I’m past the point I start books with sentences that are constructed badly – I’ve learned to to my research. Generally, I don’t encounter books anymore that are outright and clearly bad after 20 pages. But that makes it harder because at it is less clear why it’s bad, it’s harder to express as well.

          That’s one of the things that make negative reviews harder to write at times, and that might also withhold some people from writing them – a factor I didn’t include in the text.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Welcome to the Club of Old Farts 💨!
    I never have got problems after publishing a 1-2 star review for an ARC. Not in the past (when books where physical and we had to manually copy review fanzines), and not with today’s Netgalley eARCs. Of course, one has to be bold enough to withstand the rage of fanbois. But the publishers are in fact happy with honest reviews. That’s my experience and the few discussions I had with publishers.
    There are two thoughts I‘d like to add:
    1. Even four star reviews can contain a hidden, opposite meaning. For comparison, take working testimonials – in Germany it is not allowed to put in any negative remark. The art is in weighted formulations, like the difference in „outstanding“ and „very good“.
    2. many readers don’t want to read negative reviews. Because they fear to be discouraged or to find only rants. Look at many of those negative hotel reviews which don’t say much about the hotel itself worth for your consideration. People are just not accustomed to a profound literary criticism.
    Most of your other items I can only say: you nailed it. With the exception of the return of the king.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for adding your experience with ARCs. I guess the passage in the text is too harsh then. I’ll see if I can edit it. That’s what I like about comments.

      Good points on the stars vs. the actual review. I’ve read reviews of people rating a book 3 stars and in their review actually pan it. I don’t really understand why one wouldn’t lower the rating then. It’s also won of the reasons why I don’t have stars on my blog. I’d rather have people read the words. At times I do include them, if I feel my words need extra ooomph. I sometimes do this for 5 star reviews, or 3/5 stars, which means something like okay but not much more for me.

      Good point on the role of readers themselves.

      As for Return of the King, maybe a little bit of context helps to understand that specific rating: I rated LOTR as a whole 4 out of 5 stars as a reading experience today, but 5+ as a work of art.

      Liked by 1 person

      • But there is much truth with your argument concerning arc reviews: I usually disregard this first wave of reviews mostly because of the hyperbole.
        As always, one needs to know reviewers you can trust – maybe especially with arcs

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Like you, I do read reviews, starting with the one and two-star ratings, which sometimes tell me all I want to know. As for the first 20 pages not being enough to justify a review: if the first 20 pages are pure dreck, there’s no reason to assume the book will improve. And speaking of Goodreads, today’s News and Interviews: “45 of the Most Anticipated Sci-Fi and Fantasy Novels of 2021” I’d be very surprised if even one or two will be more than generic or outright garbage.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Usually really awefull books are clearly awefull after 20 pages indeed, but as I explained in a comment to Bookstooge above, it’s harder to write such a review.

      What’s even harder are the books that aren’t clear pure dreck, because they might redeem themselves later on.

      I’ll take a look at that Goodreads page in a second, but I can already imagine. It seems to me Fantasy is even worse of as a genre somehow. Must be because it caters to all those teenage boys hoping to be the unacknowledged son of the king.

      The Game of Thrones tv series probably added to the general malaise of the genre too. If they could get away with such mindless BS, who can’t? It’s actually a great example how quality control is outranked by commercial interests. Who are the people that thought the final seasons were good? Mindless zombies? And how many of those exist and read books?

      Like

  5. There is a documentary on Netflix now about Pauline Kael, the famous movie reviewer from the last century. She got into a lot of trouble for writing scathing reviews. One director even stopped making movies for a while after one of her bad reviews. On the other hand, she recognized movies that other reviewers panned and sometimes made them famous, like Bonnie and Clyde.

    Watching the documentary What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael I realized she reviewed movies very differently from other reviewers. Even though she was intellectual and witty, she went by her gut reaction. The film had to be entertaining. She ended up liking a lot of movies others thought crappy in their reviews because she found something entertaining in them.

    Negative isn’t always negative. And positive isn’t always positive. I think the key is to find reviewers on the same wavelengths as your tastes. And it helps when that reviewer is consistently honest about their reactions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, as I wrote in a comment above, if you write negative reviews too, that adds symbolic value to your positive review.

      As another commentator wrote as well, after some time, I simply don’t trust reviewers that only write reviews that range from 3,5 to 5 stars.

      What I’ve also learned is that there are zero reviewers out there whose taste align exactly. That’s to be expected obviously, but it is always a bit of a letdown if occasionally a book recommended by someone you trust doesn’t work out – and maybe even worse is the other way around: highly recommending a book to someone, only to find out they didn’t like it.

      Like

  6. My perspective on negative reviews is that, especially on a personal blog, it gives your readers a sense of what you like, and they’ll know to what degree how their own tastes match or diverge. That way, if someone likes what you like, and you favourably review something they though they’d hate, you might guide the towards a book they end up loving.

    Equally, disliking something is a good thing if you’re able to justify it — same as liking it, in fact. I browse around a lot of blogs and see a lot of positive reviews for ARCs that are so generic they could be sold in bulk, and they’re — if anything — more off-putting than negative ones that at least give you a sense of what’s in there to respond negatively to.

    Leaving negative reviews doesn’t need justifying; leaving only positive reviews is the disease.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah those generic reviews strike me as odd too. Some might be written by people or bots paid to write them, but on the other hand, I also think there are simply huge swathes of people who simply are very enthusiastic about generic stuff. Not surprising if you think of it, because for who would all those publishers print all those books?

      Agreed that only positive reviews are the disease: without any negative reviews, what’s the worth of somebody’s recommendation if they seem to like everything – even if they don’t, and don’t report on that?

      All that has let to the fact that I simply don’t trust the bulk of early reviews anymore.

      Like

  7. Great blog entry Bormy. Echoes a lot of my own thoughts. I am not afraid to post a negative review, but I put a lot of weight on explaining precisely why I dislike things. I’m trained as a scientist so I want to be analytical about it. Not just for the reader of the review but also for my own understanding. Plus, when it comes to art, there is no reason why a negative review cannot be a perfectly valid view.

    There are some bloggers I follow who praise every book they review. I find myself losing interest in these bloggers because I get no sense of how books compare to one another. Or, like you said about reading books from decades ago, I get the sense that such reviews do not situate the book properly against the whole history of the genre and relative to the high points of the genre that have already been produced in the past.

    I stopped trusting positive reviews and/or hype about any book published in the last few years. Reddit groups have a new darling book every year but also stop talking about darling books of last year or the year before. I guess some hyped books didn’t have real staying power then. So now it is 2021. I look at which books from, say, 2010 or 2015 are still being talked about now and that gives a better impression of staying power.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Yes, time is an important tool to sift out the rubble. Agreed very much on your other points too: I don’t trust blogs that only write positives.

      The analytical mindset might be something that separates one kind of reader from another kind of reader. I can’t help it to analyze what I read either, and as such, plot holes and inconsistency and unoriginality bother me a lot more than somebody who likes to read with the flow. When I read, I always have a pen handy to take notes. I’m not saying one kind of reading is better than the other, at times I wish I could just leave the analyzing too, but I’m afraid it’s just the way I was built. I could say trained too – but I guess there’s a reason why I studied literature in the first place.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Interesting points, Bart, and very valid too. In respect of star ratings, since I tend to avoid self-published books and titles which don’t live up to their promise after a couple of pages and a quick skim, I tend to give 3, 4 and 5 stars on Goodreads on the basis that up to 60, 80 or 100% of the content has approached expectations. On my blog I don’t even bother with stars, leaving my words to speak for themselves.

    I also don’t apply for ARCs any more so don’t have the temptation to go easy on any negative criticism or assessment. And I’m not desperate for newly published books — only a handful of titles I reviewed this last year came out in 2020 — and there’s no pressure to be among the first to get a critique published.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I usually don’t do stars either, for a similar reason. The problem for me, living in a non-English speaking country, is that I buy most of my new books without being able to skim them. That would effectively help.

      On the other hand, over the years I think the number of books I buy that are absolute misses for me has diminished, one learns to select better. In that sense Eon by Greg Bear really took my by suprise.

      I’ve only read two fiction books published in 2020 so far, Piranesi and the new KSR, both 5 star reads. I bought the KSR instantly, as I’m a bit of a fanboy, and I wanted to give him one last chance after 2 letdowns, but it took me a couple of months (and other reviews) to order the Piranesi – whereas my younger self would have instantly bought that too 5 years ago, just on the merit of Clarke’s debut.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Excellent post. Over the last 7-8 years I’ve made many of the same observations that you have noted above. You can count me among those who don’t appreciate this trend of increasing numbers of bloggers/reviewers losing sight of the fact that reviews are primarily for the benefit of prospective readers (not authors), ergo negative reviews also serve a purpose.

    I’ve reached the point where I am mistrustful of most reviews. I now dismiss out of hand all reviews that are posted before a book’s publication day, and I generally ignore the early reviews as well, only making exceptions for the small number of people whom I trust to write instructive reviews that don’t read like a press release issued by the author’s publicist.

    Funnily enough, on Goodreads, I always check out the 3 star reviews first.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, appreciated! Like you, I don’t trust early reviews either. These tend to be written by either fanboys, or readers that like about anything – the kind of reader that mostly reads only new stuff.

      I filter for 3 stars too, but usually only after I’ve first read the 2 and then the 1 star reviews. Depends a bit on the author too: e.g. authors that are too difficult or too cerebral for the general public tend to have too many 1 star reviews that don’t say a lot 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. When I reached the part of your post where you say that the 1 and 2 stars reviews help you decide over any given book, I found myself nodding emphatically in agreement: this is what I do – first thing – when I’m curious about a book I would like to read, because it’s through the negative reviews that I can discover the possible flaws that might ruin the story for me.
    As for writing negative reviews, I have done my share – and so far I have been lucky enough not to have encountered any kind of backlash from “fanboys/girls”, probably because I remain within the confines of the blogging world and of Library Thing, where the environment is far more relaxed than in places like Facebook (or GoodReads, which I used but abandoned) where the average “citizens” are more inclined toward polarizing flame-wars.
    The ease in writing and publishing you quoted at the beginning of your article did indeed encourage many to try their hand at the writing business, and of course this means that there is a good number of sub-standard books out there – one of the reasons I decided to close my blog to submissions, since it’s hard having to tell someone, who certainly worked hard on their book, that I did not like it; not to mention that after a while, trying to slog through stories I didn’t enjoy felt more like work than the joy of reading I want from my books…
    As for ARCs, these days I try to request only those I feel keenly attracted to: a policy that – with a few exceptions – guided me toward enjoyable, even amazing reads. But when I stumble over the not-so-good story now and then, I have no qualms in saying so. With respectful restrain, granted, but with total truthfulness… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I sign it all, what you are writing about, with both my hands. In Poland the situation looks the same. The tendention is to lower the level in all aspects of culture or scuentific consciousness.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I obviously agree, but that was to be expected, as the post was inspired by the discussion we had on Re-E. There are too many new books (millions per year, worldwide…), too many reviews, too much conformity, that’s for sure. Internet is a huge part of the problem, but it also offers a solution – we select our sources of information and inspiration.

    Reading tried and trusted blogs, paying special attention to well-written negative reviews, reading books that stood the test of time, and not only the latest stuff – it won’t solve the wider issue modern society faces, but it will limit our exposure to bad quality books. It works, as we both enjoyed most of what we read recently. I had to think really hard what to include in my “worst of 2020”, choosing “best of” was also difficult, but only because most of what I read was at least good.

    But it goes beyond that. At work, I have to be diplomatic. I don’t need that here, in my free time, spending time on my hobby. It’s emotionally satisfying to publicly blow off some steam…

    Last thing – you mention political correctness and I agree. In Poland, though, most local fantasy is right wing. Just as shallow and tribal, but also homophobic, misogynistic, anti-European etc. I actually often appreciate PC, in comparison. Definitely the intent behind it, if not each manifestation. I’m reminded of why it was invented in the first place.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I didn’t talk about that, but now that you mention it, the internet has allowed for a proliferation of reviews. There used to be some kind of gatekeeping mechanism as to who wrote reviews, but that has totally disappeared. So it doesn’t only have to do with more books, but also more reviews. Good remark, thanks.

      Agreed too that negative reviews are at times fun to write, indeed, blowing of steam as you say. I hadn’t looked at it like that, but it is very much the case. Writing a good negative review is a way of getting even with the author for wasting your time 🙂 While they are usually fun to write, paradoxically they are also often harder to do well because I want to be dead sure about what I write and the arguments I bring to the table.

      Usually I’m weary of transparant politics in books, whatever side of the spectrum its on, but I agree, I’d rather have the non-bigoted variant than the bigoted one.

      It got me thinking: I have actually no idea of local fantasy or science fiction written in Dutch. Maybe it exists, but I have absolutely no clue. If it exists, it’s not visible at all in the mainstream media, and also not internationally. It surprises me you do have it in Poland, your language community isn’t that much bigger (37 million Polish people vs 24 million that speak Dutch), at least not in absolute numbers. We do have some speculative fiction translated to Dutch, but less than before – in the 60ies they translated a lot, I’m always surprised what I find translated into Dutch from that aera in the second hand stores, it borders the incredible. Seems like it was much more vibrant back in the days – but I guess the most important factor is that most fans can read English nowadays, and have shifted to reading originals.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, for one, your people are better at English. I’m in Malmö quite often, and genre bookshops there don’t have much in Swedish – their customers don’t need translations. And the local market is even smaller than in our countries. In Poland more and more people possess workable English, but not necessarily good enough for leisure reading.

        Now that I think about it, the distribution of language skills might influence what gets published in Polish – people like me read mostly in English anyway, and the “true patriots” look for local content that has lots of Polish history, Polish glory (alt history is quite popular) and manly men 😉

        Apparently the current younger generation (teenagers and 20-somethings) created some demand for genre literature that isn’t so right wing, but I’ve yet to research the issue. Certainly the misogyny and various phobias of the old timers are more and more discussed in the liberal media here…

        Liked by 1 person

        • Interesting, the demographics and their skills certainly play a role.

          As Dutch is a germanic language too, English comes more naturally for us. Plus there’s no dubbing on tv or in cinemas, that’s a major factor too. I’ve had significant contact with Swedes too in my twenties, their English is even better: also germanic language, plus they start teaching it early on, whereas we here in Belgium only start teaching it at twelve, putting more stress on French from 9 of 10 on, as that’s the country’s other language.

          Liked by 1 person

  13. Thanks for the shout-out, Bart! I’m happy to have contributed to this discussion – obviously I’m in agreement with you on the topic. I think there’s also paradoxically the tribal groupthink to be considered. If you say a bad word about something a whole tribe adores, you can easily get into trouble as the tribal thinking will prevail most of the time and result in making you the outlier/outsider. Still, it’s worth it, for the our own quite dispersed tribe 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah groupthink is surely part of that, I used the word too in the article. It’s the same reason I doubted to give The Return of the King just 2 stars. We’re social animals, nothing to be done about that 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  14. This is a fascinating post that has really got me thinking about my own approach to reviewing. I want to leave a comment here, but you have inspired me to write my own post addressing some of these points you made so well here. Thanks Bart!

    I really dig your approach to reading reviews. I never thought to filter for 1 or 2-star reviews. From now on, I will try it. I usually just check what my “friends” said about the book, then read a sample of the “most recent” reviews. I also have a quick scan of the reviews on Amazon, focusing on the 3-stars.

    Having just checked on Goodreads, in 2020 I rated only eight books “2 stars”, and nothing “1 star”. My average rating was “3.6 stars”. I’ve never posted a “DNF review”, although now I’m tempted to. There was one book I DNF’d last year after reading 150 pages. It was Lovecraft Country. I might post a “review” of it this year. (I don’t really know why, but until now I felt that I shouldn’t review a book I didn’t finish; like, if I did, then I was breaking some kind of review-etiquette. LOL!)

    Liked by 2 people

    • 3.6 is a good average imo, mine is even a bit higher, 3.7. Lots goes into selection of what you read in the first place, and if that goes well, your average follows.

      The most recent reviews are, especially for new books, not a good sample imo. Many fans there.

      I don’t check Amazon reviews for fiction, maybe I should.

      Looking forward to your post on the matter!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, exactly. Our own selection of books to buy and read usually guarantees they won’t be terrible. But we do sometimes open a book and find it disappointing. I admire your more critical approach to reading and then writing your reviews. When I say “critical,” I mean literary criticism, how you approach a text. Your deep and thoughtful analysis always makes me a bit envious, but I really enjoy reading your reviews. I sometimes feel like I’m writing a high school book report when I’m struggling to write mine 😂

        I remember the flak you got for your Algebraist review. I re-read your post and the comments today. It was ironic how the “angriest” comments were very poorly written, from a grammatical point of view. I wonder if they even bothered to read to the end of your review, or just saw red when they realized you DNF’d it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hey thanks! I guess all these years at uni studying literature did pay off 🙂

          And very true: there is a correlation between the content of some comments and their general level of literacy.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I really liked “Lovecraft Country”, I’ll probably review it at some point in the near future, but I already started writing about something else…

      I think DNF reviews are ok, as long as you don’t pretend you read it all, I’m always interested in what made someone so annoyed with a book they couldn’t finish it 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • Really? That’s cool! I will look forward to reading your take on it. Yes, I believe it was a popular book and I was excited to read it. It just didn’t work for me. Now I have to figure out how to put the reasons why into a coherent review. 🤔

        Liked by 2 people

  15. I like this topic. As a new author, reviews are an important part of marketing and building a readership. I know that my books are not going to be enjoyed by everyone, and I always accept reviews as what they are- someone’s opinion.
    Many reviewers will inform authors if they have a negative review and allow the author to say if they want it posted or not. Fair? I suppose. You don’t want to slam a book for not fitting with your tastes, but if a book is poorly written, don’t other readers need to know? That’s what reviews are for.
    I appreciate honesty. Here are a few examples from one of my books:

    “Overall, I have neutral feelings about this poetry collection… Perhaps it just wasn’t for me.” – Exactly, I can’t make someone like my books.

    “I thought the pieces in this collection were mostly okay. I’ve read much better but there are much worse collections out there.” – Well I’m glad I’m not the worst.

    I’ve written a couple of posts on this topic. If you prefer that links are not posted, feel free to delete them.

    https://linesbyleon.wordpress.com/2020/12/15/the-importance-of-reviews/https://linesbyleon.wordpress.com/2021/01/07/more-on-reviews-i-didnt-like-your-book-this-much-she-said/

    Last word: Love the blog. Lots of discussion which is important when it comes to books!

    Leon

    Liked by 1 person

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