Positive Negatives

Mike Duran graced us with a guest blog post on Saturday, where he sparked a discussion about Christians giving only positive reviews of Christian books. The implication, of course, is that some Christians believe we have an “obligation” to support our brethren, even if that support is an undeserved five stars. Mike says—and I agree—that this is a disservice. And there’s a side to giving negative reviews a lot of people don’t often think about.

Several commenters shared reasons for positive-only reviews. Diane Graham pointed out that she only reviews books she’d give five stars—er, anvils—to because she always backs up her reviews with a give-away, and she’s not going to purchase-for-give-away books she doesn’t like. A couple of commenters mentioned that they simply don’t finish reading books they don’t like.

I can relate to that. I will generally stop reading a book—even a hundred or so pages in—if I’m just not liking it. However, I will usually post a review of said book because I didn’t like it. I’ve found that it’s the books I love AND the books I hate that inspire me to review. It’s the books that sit smack in the middle—there in the land of “meh”—that I don’t review.

I also tend to read the reviews of books on both ends, but generally ignore those in the middle. When I visit Amazon to check into a book, I start by reading a few five-star reviews, and then I switch to the 1-stars. (I admit, I am a bit skeptical if there are only glowing reviews.) The thing is…those negative reviews are really enlightening.

Negative reviews are important. As Mike pointed out, they show that we as readers have balance and discrimination. And his post had more to do with the idea that we shouldn’t give readers the disillusion that a book is well-written when the craft is poor. But honest negative reviews do something else you may not expect: They can also give positive insight into the book that may not show up in a positive review.

Let me illustrate that with something completely unrelated, then I’ll pull it back to books. A Mexican restaurant opened up in my town, and my husband and I looked up reviews before driving over. There were “negative” comments about the salsa being blended when the customer expected chunky, and the chili relleno being a strip of pepper in cheese rather than a whole pepper deep-fried. The customer was trying to say, “This isn’t good food,” but what the review told me was, “This place is authentic,” and the reviewer probably has an affinity for Tex-Mex. Those negative reviews are what got us to try the place, and we loved it.

The same thing can happen to a book. A writer friend of mine once told me about how she’d  been to a convention where she won a copy of Steven James’s novel The Pawn. She said she couldn’t read past the prologue because it was gruesome. She didn’t like his writing at all. I had never heard of him and scribbled down the info—not because she had “warned” me against it and I wanted to avoid him, but because I like dark and gruesome. I loved the book.

But what if she had played down those elements, trying to force a good review out of loyalty to a fellow Christian? I would have skipped over it, thinking it wasn’t dark enough for me. Writing forced positive reviews might turn off the readers who actually want the sort of writing you consider “bad.”

So the next time you read a book you don’t like, consider writing a review. Maybe even a scathing one. You might actually be doing more good for that author than if you falsely praise it. If nothing else, you’ll be doing more for yourself—your followers will have a better sense of what you really like and don’t like, and they will consider you reliable even if they tend to disagree with you. Setting yourself up as wishy-washy only means that the genuine positive reviews you give will make people disregard your opinion altogether.


About Kat Heckenbach

Kat grew up in the small town of Riverview, Florida, where she spent most of her time either drawing or sitting in her "reading tree" with her nose buried in a fantasy novel...except for the hours pretending her back yard was an enchanted forest that could only be reached through the secret passage in her closet... She never could give up on the idea that maybe she really was magic, mistakenly placed in a world not her own...but as the years passed, and no elves or fairies carted her away...she realized she was just going to have to create the life of her fantasies. She shares that life with her husband and two homeschooling kids. Kat is a graduate of the University of Tampa, Magna Cum Laude, B.S. in Biology. She spent several years teaching, but never in a traditional classroom--everything from Art to Algebra II. Her writing spans the gamut from inspirational personal essays to dark and disturbing fantasy and horror, with over forty short fiction and nonfiction credits to her name.

12 comments on “Positive Negatives

  1. The whole discussion got me thinking (kinda the point), and I agree that only books I love or hate get me energized enough to comment in review form. Books in between may be good but they didn’t light my fire and I have other things to write about.

    One of the best reviewers I’ve read is John Otte of the Least Read Blog on the Web (who has more followers than me, btw, so that name no longer applies). He reviews just about everything he reads, sees and plays and I’ve enjoyed hearing his opinions for almost two years.

    I also agree that any review, good or bad, probably says more about the reader than the book.

  2. “So the next time you read a book you don’t like, consider writing a review. Maybe even a scathing one.”


    You are a rebel, yes you are. But you are right. I know some writers that would throw tamaytuhs at you for saying that-but you are right. Look at the world. Scandal sells. Drama sells.

    “I have to read this and see what all the fuss is about.” Controversy…sells.

    As far as too dark not dark enough, etc., I like dark myself because I’ve written it. But not gruesome for the sake of being gruesome. It must have it’s place. For me, it must always have it’s place.

    Also…I don’t like chunky salsa.

    • Right, Tymothy–drama sells. I once read that that if half the readers love, love, love your book, and half the readers hate it, then you have something :). When all reviews for a book are positive, then it raises suspicion. Heated reviews on both ends, though–you’ve got something hot 😉

  3. As a writer, the only time I would write a negative review of a book would be… well, I might not ever do it. I’ve seen discussions like this before, and the advice always seems to lean towards “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” You may never know when you might be at a conference with someone, sitting next to them, knowing you ripped their work apart. Or perhaps they are the perfect person to blurb your book, but hard feelings linger.
    As a writer, if another writer asks “Can I have feedback on this?” I will gladly give honest, even harsh constructive criticism as long as I know that’s what they’re looking for. And I give it privately.
    Even on Goodreads, almost everything gets 4 stars from me. I reserve 5 stars for true classics that stand the test of time.
    Now, for someone who is NOT a writer, go for it! Give a review! Please be honest, for good or bad. Please avoid gratuitous nit-picking or exaggeration, and stick to specific points like blended salsa vs chunky salsa.
    And that holds true whether you are a Christian, or Jewish, or both, or any/no religion at all.

    • I would not give a negative review for a book I am *asked* to review by someone I know. I will just avoid reviewing the book altogether. And honestly, I try to avoid getting asked. I was asked to do some reviews early on and gave a few wishy-washy ones because I wasn’t crazy about the book, but felt like I had to do something. I tried to present in a “these are the facts about the book, make your own decision” kind of way. Now I only read books I choose to read, and review books I choose to review.

      I most often review post positive reviews, but that is because I’d rather take the time to write a review for a book for which I want to get word out.

      That said, I’ve written some negative reviews on books a lot of people have loved. By Darkness Hid is one of them. I felt like I had to–everyone was raving about it and I couldn’t finish the thing. I felt like I needed to give some balance. Now, if I ever end up sitting next to Jill Williamson and she actually remembers me as someone who gave a bad review, I’ll tell her the truth–I couldn’t get into it, but I still respect her as a writer. I am happy for her success, and if so many people love her books, then she shouldn’t worry about my opinion.

      I do agree with you that negative reviews should stick to specifics. It should never, ever get personal, and don’t just say, “I hated it.” Give specific reasons. You have to be intelligent about it. But I don’t think being a writer precludes me from the right to express a negative opinion.

      • Yeah, Kat. I saw that, and was like, Hey, that’s Kat H. I know her from LGG, and she gave a negative review? On Jill’s book?

        I own all three of the Blood of Kings books, and am working my way through book 2 right now. I didn’t find the first one bad at all, or I wouldn’t have bought the second. But I love fantasy and considered her writing pretty fresh, the surprise ending in book one telegraphed but reasonable.

        But I respect you a bit better because you wrote a ‘meh, so-so’ review on a book everyone’s raving about. I didn’t necessarily agree, I mean our tastes are different. But it impressed me to see a Christian writer giving another Christian writer an honest review.

      • Thanks, Mister Chris :). Yep, that’s me from the LGG! Hah! And I appreciate your words. I still have a huge amount of respect for Jill as an author, and I am looking forward to her new series, in hopes I will like this one. Jill IS a good writer, but her book simply didn’t enthrall me the way it did so many others and I felt I needed to air my opinion about it–not to knock her, but because with SO many rave reviews I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe I’m an anomaly or if others just didn’t want to voice a negative opinion about a Christian book that is making such strides for the spec-fic community.

        Anyway, glad to see ya over here!

  4. I do agree that negative reviews (that are constructive, not attacks) are needed. However, I agree that from a writer it is in poor form. That doesn’t mean I think we should falsely support them either. Avoiding a review of a book we don’t like is likely the best choice. It may seem unfair that we can’t voice our opinions in such a public fashion, however, that’s something that I think comes with our chosen profession. There could be many professional drawbacks to posting bad reviews–those mentioned above as well as what if it gets around to pulishers/editors/agents, or what if readers take notice–esp if those others don’t agree. What’s the old adage? It is better to be quiet and thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt (paraphrased of course).

    • I understand the concern about word getting around if you write too many, or make negative reviews your focus, or write them as rants instead of calmly and intelligently. But I don’t believe an occasional, “This book didn’t do it for me and here’s why,” would give you a bad reputation or make you look foolish.

      I definitely agree that the focus should be on spreading the word about books we love. But I also think stating what we don’t like now and then can add a layer of credibility by showing that we are discerning.

  5. Yes, reviewing another writer’s book takes some diplomacy. But sticking to the facts (I like the chunky salsa analogy) is the way to do it. I, too, have found books I like because of a “negative” review that highlighted some feature the reviewer didn’t like but that I was looking for. In one case, someone criticized a knitting book for having “too much technique and not many patterns.” And of course I like books with lots of technique!

    • Yes, that’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. There’s definitely no need to bash other authors, but putting things like, “The plot moved far to slow for me,” or “it was too heavy on the romance,” can be really helpful.

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