Counterpoint on Reviewing Bad Books – Calling a Spade a Spade

I’m going to take a break from reading to argue with my wife on the internet.  I don’t see how this could possibly go wrong.

In her post “Not a Rant” on reviewing bad books, one of Gill’s key points is an early line, “I know the key to a good ‘bad’ review is constructive criticism…” We hear this all the time, often in the form of the “sandwich” method of criticism – place the tasty yet preservative filled meaty criticism in between two bland, tasteless pieces of white bread praise.  I’m not sure where the mayo fits in there, but I’m sure it’s important in holding the whole thing together.

While there is some value in criticizing constructively when correcting a student, a co-worker, or even when editing an author, I believe when writing reviews of books for potential readers, constructive criticism is unnecessary at best, and misleading at worst.

The intent of constructive criticism is to help the person being criticized do better next time.  However, reviews are not for the author.  They’re for the reader.  The reader needs to know the truth about the book as it is published.  They do not need to know what should be put on the author’s personal development goals on their next performance review.  The classic term for a reviewer was a ‘critic.’  Make no mistake – your job is to criticize.  So do it right.

If a book is lacking in a particular area, it is the reviewer’s duty to call that out so that potential readers are aware of what they are signing up for.  Plot holes as big as pot holes?  Characters so thin they make a cardboard cutout of Wayne Gretzky from the back of a cereal box look substantial?  A world that doesn’t follow its own rules let alone ours?  Bad writing is bad writing, and should be called out as such.

As a reviewer, your job is to sound the alarm and warn readers – highlight the good books out there so we don’t waste our time on bad ones.  Telling them the ways the author could have done something better is just weaseling out of your duty to try and seem like you’re being nice.  It potentially creates false expectations – “the characters could be improved by giving them more depth” gives a different impression that “the characters are one-dimensional and make no surprising decisions throughout the story.”

I’m not saying be harsh just for fun.  Don’t be nasty, but don’t pull punches.  Speak truth.  So by the time I wake up tomorrow, I expect the comments section to be filled with a dozen notes on what a horrible, nasty piece of writing this was.  Well, at least one anyways.  And I know for a fact she won’t hold back on me.

TWhite Design

TWhite Design

5 thoughts on “Counterpoint on Reviewing Bad Books – Calling a Spade a Spade

  1. Two thoughts in answer to this post:
    1. Some of the books I go through are reviews the publisher has asked me to do, and I am finding that most often if the book is “bad,” the formatting, editing or even package content is part of what I don’t like. So, when I say constructive criticism is important, I mean more for the author and publisher.
    2. Another vein that I might mean when referring to constructive criticism is when talking about a book that I personally did not enjoy only because I am the wrong reader. So, a valuable piece of information to a potential reader might be, “I found this book quIte boring, but someone who knows the field might find it extremely helpful as it was full of obviously well researched information.” I would consider this constructive criticism of sorts, though it might be more aptly named “personal reaction” or something similar.

    Overall though, I actually agree– call a spade a spade no matter how fancy it’s dressed. 🙂

  2. These are some interesting arguments. I review a lot of books and when I read something I don’t like, I always wonder if it’s just because maybe I don’t like romance novels, or murder mysteries, or memoirs. Or if I read something that is written well, but is too dark and brooding for me, I wonder if it’s also just a matter of taste. I do admit that, even though I know the reviews are for readers, I often think about the author. So maybe I’m just a softy!

  3. Totally agree. When I read something that isn’t well done (especially a non-fiction book that has shoddy research) I have no compunction about saying what is wrong with it.
    heh I actually wrote an 11 page report on the errors in that ‘Triumph of Christianity’ book because it irked me so much.

  4. Agree with you that if the book has serious flaws, the reviewer needs to point these out – otherwise I don’t see how you can build credibility with your own audience. it doesn’t mean you write anything that is rude, offensive or over the top – it’s just an honest appraisal

  5. Thanks for the comments.

    Gill – yes, I see how for the reviews you were doing your approach makes more sense.

    Mom, I agree there’s a part of it where taste comes into play. I think reviewers should be up front about that. “I hate romance novels in general and this one in particular,” May provide some value. “I hate romance novels in general but I loved this one,” can bring a new perspective on a genre you may not have considered before.

    Brent – I remember being mightily impressed by that report.

    Booker – you nailed it.

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