Should Authors Write Negative Book Reviews?

As anyone who visits this blog or follows me on Goodreads can see, I’ve been pretty invested in book reviewing lately. It’s something I started way back when I blogged for Let The Words Flow and continued through my still-ongoing stint contributing for Paper Droids. I enjoy it, but lately, I’m questioning the practice.

I most recently reviewed Eleanor Herman’s Voice of Gods and Legacy of Kings. I was thorough and honest in my reviews, and even mentioned in my review for LoK that I want to be more straightforward with my reviews and ratings; I used to be the kind who would mostly rate books 4 and 5 stars for pure enjoyment factor and never really look deeper. Now that I’m a more “serious” writer, I want to take a more analytical eye to the works I read.

But while writing these, I felt an old, nagging worry resurface from the days of my very first negative reviews: what if the author reads this? Am I building up poor writer karma for myself? And what if, one day, I meet that author?

Do authors and aspiring authors have any place in book reviewing?

I reached out to Sara Letourneau on this topic since she also writes reviews in addition to her own work, and she had this great insight:

I both agreed and didn’t. I want to play it safe, but I also want to explore different ways of writing and reading. I want to keep my blog active and create a brand. But what kind of brand am I really forming by writing these reviews? It dawned on me that it might not be as positive as I thought–especially now that my Goodreads profile is that of Author instead of Reader.

I wanted to write about this because I was genuinely torn on my answer and writing is the only way I come to conclusions on difficult topics. I read a few articles and forum threads, reached out to Twitter, and eventually came to a conclusion. But before I go into my ultimate decision, I want to discuss the pros and cons I came up with:

The pros – or, why I write book reviews in the first place

  • Writing about what you’ve read helps you form stronger bonds with the material, improving your memory of its characters and plot. My memory often seems unaware that it belongs to someone only in her twenties, and so I enjoy reviewing because I too often forget the details of even some of my favorite books.
  • Knowing you have to write a review makes you read more analytically. At least, that’s the case for me. We all begin our writing careers as readers, and it can be difficult to separate “reading like a reader” from “reading like a writer.” I like to think I fall somewhere in-between—I read both for enjoyment and to improve my writing—but sometimes I could use the extra prod to dig deeper.
  • The book reviewing community is a wonderful place. There are a few rotten eggs including trolls, flamers, and plagiarizers, but it’s also an incredibly fun community filled with brilliant minds who engage with and look out for one another. I love talking about books, and since not a lot of people I know read what I read, this community gives me a place to do that.
  • You get advanced copies of unreleased books! This is the wrong reason to start reviewing in the first place (and it certainly wasn’t mine), but it’s definitely a perk. I’ve always craved the ability to get ARCs and read the latest and greatest before anyone else, so I thought reviewing more regularly would give me the credibility I needed to receive early copies and build rapport on NetGalley.

The cons – or, is it worth the risk?

  • You never know who you’ll meet. Say you write a negative book review—albeit a thoughtful and analytical one*—and a few months later you meet that author at an event. Conferences are a great place to pitch your work, but if that author finds out you’re that reviewer, you may have a hard time making many connections there. This doesn’t even have to be out of any malice on the author’s part, either—people talk, and even though it’s a creative field, publishing is still an industry and all industries have politics. Someone who hears about your negative review may simply decide that you’re not professional enough to work with them.
    *Note: for the sake of this post, I’m talking strictly about constructive reviews; I don’t think aggressive, snarky reviews have any place under an author’s pen.
  • Writing reviews takes time away from your actual writing. I’m going to quote Redditor ThomasEdmund84 on this one: when discussing the cons of book reviewing, he said, “I got addicted to reviewing and oftentimes ended up focused on getting reviews out and getting fake internet points than writing my own stuff.” This is so true. In my case, at least, I already feel pressured to read certain ARCs and new books so I can get a review up ASAP. I’m not sure why—I’m not a book blogger. I used to write recommendations for books I enjoyed because I was bubbling over with excitement for them and had to talk to someone about them, STAT, whether they were new releases or old favorites. So why am I now focusing on reviewing instead of spending that time on my own writing?  Why am I making reading a job, instead of letting it be the relaxing learning experience I’ve always enjoyed?

I’ve come up with twice as many pros as cons, but the cons are probably three times as daunting. The second con is something I’ve felt immediately: earlier this year, I purposely cut back on the amount of unpaid blogging and writing I did on the side to make more room for my creative work, and yet I’m falling into the same traps of spreading my time too thin again. Being a regular book reviewer is a full-time job in and of itself, so not only is it taking whatever little creative writing time I have away from me, it’s also making reading a chore. Not good.

The first con is a much slower, creeping terror, one that causes a great deal of anxiety for me (and has in the past). Example: I used to know a writer who’s now successful. After we lost touch and (s)he got published, I read some of his/her work and wasn’t thrilled. I didn’t understand the hype. But instead of keeping that to myself, I went ahead and gave some low star ratings on Goodreads and a very short, but negative, review. I don’t know if (s)he ever saw my reviews, but I never heard from him/her again—even when I tried reaching out some time after.

This was dumb. This wasn’t just a person I could bump into in the future; it was someone I already knew, albeit not well. But we were never particularly close and hadn’t spoken in some time, so I figured “what’s the harm in being honest?”

Turns out, plenty. I was convinced that I screwed up royally and I still think I did. There’s no way to tell, without being completely tactless, if this author saw what I wrote. Sometime after I started to feel guilty about this, I wrote a post on my old blog both congratulating him/her on the success and apologizing for my review. There’s no way to know if that post was read, either, and I eventually decided to remove it because it felt too desperate and called attention to something I wanted forgotten.

I’ve yet to run into this author, but if I do, I have no doubt that it’ll be tense. Even if he or she never read my words, I know I’d feel incredibly paranoid—and that itself would make the meeting awkward. This is a situation I never want to encounter again. At best, I’m risking complete paranoia over something that may or may not have been read; at worst (and I say this knowing full well that I don’t have many blog readers, but it’s STILL a possibility), I’m insulting a future peer and potentially tarnishing my name with them, their literary agent, their publisher, and all the other people who put work into that book. Why put myself in that position when book blogging isn’t a major part of the career I’m working toward?

Since then, I’ve struggled with this royally. There have been a few works I’ve read by authors in my network that I didn’t enjoy, and since I hate being anything but 100% honest, I struggled when rating them on Goodreads and deciding whether or not to review or even rate them at all. Ultimately, I opted to avoid reviewing the books of anyone I know that I didn’t enjoy, because it just wasn’t worth the risks—not to mention hurting someone’s feelings.

So I think it’s obvious what conclusion I’ve come to. The internet is a public place and what you write can and will be found. Ultimately, I have to agree with author Kristen Lamb who, in her blog Three NEVERS of Social Media for Writers, put it pretty simply: “Our BRAND is AUTHOR, not ‘book reviewer’ Book reviewers have to be forthright to be taken seriously. This means some books will get shredded. This can undermine how our fellow writers feel about working with us as authors.”

Of course, this isn’t definitive and I’m sure some people can find a balance between the two. There are exceptions to this rule—after all, I’ve definitely seen Stephen King really rip apart a few books. But until we reach King Status, it’s probably wise to stick with the old “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything” route. And, of course, this does not apply when you’re personally asked for an honest review or constructive criticism.

So, if you see my more negative reviews come down from Goodreads and my blog, you know why. I just don’t think it’s my place to continue sharing these—after all, as much as I fancy myself an analytical reader, I’ve yet to publish a novel of my own. So who am I to judge?

If you’ve stuck with me this long, I’m really curious to know what you think about this. If you’re an author of any kind—published, self-published, not published at all—how do you handle reviews? Are negative reviews off-limits, no matter how constructive and kind they are? Let me know!



Book Review: Voice of Gods by Eleanor Herman (Blood of Gods and Royals 0.5)

Voice of Gods
Eleanor Herman
3/5 Stars

Update (8/31/15): after reading most of Legacy of Kings and being very close to DNFing it, I dropped this from a 4-star to a 3 star rating. I thought the novella was entertaining enough, but had a nagging feeling as I was writing this that I was being too generous with my rating. After being reminded of all the issues that annoyed me in this book though Legacy of Kings (and a whole bunch of other issues, which I’ll get to in my review of it when I finally finish it), I decided to be more realistic with my opinion.

That being said, the following review has not been altered from its original form–only the star rating has.

Legacy of Kings is one of those new books that I’ve seen everywhere since I first encountered it and shelved it on Goodreads in June. I was determined to read it early but didn’t get any response from NetGalley on either of the two editions I requested. No matter, though—I soon discovered that there’s a (free!) e-novella prequel to LoK called Voice of Gods, which I just finished reading Tuesday when LoK was released. According to the synopsis, it goes a little something like this:

As the end of an age approaches, gods whisper horrors, families scheme for power, and one woman may hold the secret to a lost legacy.

At 19, Ada of Caria yearns to take the Snake Blood throne from her mad older siblings—and seeks the help of a young orphaned girl named Helen, the first True Oracle to have walked the earth in more than three hundred years.

Helen may be able to channel the voice of the gods, but she hates her gift, and will do anything to get rid of it—even lie to her best friend, Myrtale, the priestess-princess of Epirus who is destined to marry King Philip II of Macedon even though she loves another. And in the shadows lurks a handsome green-eyed stranger who has more at stake—and more to lose—than anyone could possibly imagine. Amid jealousy and heartbreak, torrid affairs and secret rendezvous, it is spoken by the gods that either Helen or Myrtale —newly named Olympias— will carry the destiny of the known world within her womb.

The prequel to LEGACY OF KINGS, VOICE OF GODS traces the intricate web of love and betrayal that led up to the birth of history’s most powerful leader, Alexander the Great.

My reading speed for this one started off somewhat slow, then picked up very quickly: as I explained in a Goodreads comment to a reviewer who criticized the first chapter of LoK (which I completely understand and had the same criticism of, myself—but more on that when I review LoK, as I’m reading it now), it seems as if Herman takes a chapter or two to really get into her groove.

Voice of Gods begins with Helen escaping from Koinos—a man who takes in abandoned girls and works them at the loom until they are “of age” and then prostitutes them. Because Helen is an oracle, though, he wants to sell her off to the Aesarian Lords, men who seek magical beings to experiment on them. Helen is desperate to get away and escapes in the middle of a furious storm, and when she realizes she needs to get across the breakwater to travel from the mainland to an island, she is conveniently pulled into the ocean and spit up onto an errant, unmanned canoe that is pushed to shore by a perfectly-aimed wave.

Moments like this made me cringe in the beginning—“can you say deus ex machina?” was all I kept thinking for pages to come—but those moments quickly passed and didn’t impact the story too heavily once things got going. Coupled with the prophecies that were composed mostly of cheesy rhymes, I nearly stopped reading, but I’m glad I kept on.

Because regardless of any minor grievances, Voice of Gods is an engaging read that made me genuinely care about the characters. Helen reminded me a bit of Morgaine from Mists of Avalon in that she constantly has a duty to fulfill and is used as a tool rather than treated like a human—passed from home to home, princess to princess for their own strategies—and I genuinely wanted more for her.

I loved the complex female relationships and the fact that Helen sees sexuality as a privilege instead of viewing her friends as harlots for having healthy sexual appetites. It’s rare to find a YA heroine these days who a) doesn’t hate and compete with every other female character in the book and b) doesn’t slut-shame other girls for having sex or being comfortable with their bodies, so VoG was refreshing in that sense—especially given the time period and the idea that an oracle is “impure” if she loses her virginity.

Overall, Voice of Gods fulfilled its duty in getting me interested in Herman’s historical fantasy world, and I was excited to start LoK yesterday. I’m hoping we get more information about the “handsome green-eyed stranger” in the novel, as I felt like his role—which seems pretty major from the synopsis—wasn’t fully explained in the novella.

Did you read either Voice of Gods or Legacy of Kings? I’m eager to know what others think!

Book Review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

dark-places-book-coverDark Places
Gillian Flynn
5/5 Stars

Libby Day was just seven years old when her evidence put her fifteen-year-old brother behind bars. Since then, she has been drifting. But when she is contacted by a group who are convinced of Ben’s innocence, Libby starts to ask questions she never dared to before. Was the voice she heard her brother’s? Ben was a misfit in their small town, but was he capable of murder? Are there secrets to uncover at the family farm or is Libby deluding herself because she wants her brother back? She begins to realise that everyone in her family had something to hide that day… especially Ben. Now, twenty-four years later, the truth is going to be even harder to find. Who did massacre the Day family?’

Holy. Cow. Welcome to my Favorites shelf, Dark Places.

This is one of those books that I can sit on forever and not know how to properly write about. Because if I had it my way, this review would be passionate, incoherent babbling and fangirling over Flynn’s crisp storytelling and addictive writing and how I hope to be just like her when I grow up. I’ve recommended this novel to a few people over the past few weeks since I finished reading it, and every recommendation comes with some version of the same sentiment: if I can write half as well as Gillian Flynn someday, I’ll be content.

However, that’s not a real review—not that Flynn’s work even needs my meager addition six years deep in 5-star ratings. When Stephen King calls you “the real deal, a sharp, acerbic, and compelling storyteller with a knack for the macabre,” you don’t need much praise from an aspiring author with a handful of blog and twitter followers in her little corner of the internet. But praise I will, because even if no one ever reads this review, even if it convinces no one to give Dark Places a try, this is one of those books that insists I think—and write—about it.

I read Gone Girl and thoroughly enjoyed it, but once I heard about Dark Places and saw several reviewers I follow on Goodreads rave about it—all of whom are smart, witty, well-read women I’ve come to admire and whose literary opinions I trust—I knew I had to give it a try. Gone Girl was great, but I didn’t find most of the characters as relatable as I would have liked (I actually found Amy the most relatable, personally, which is a terrifying and humbling realization) and the ending was disappointing; this isn’t the case with Dark Places at all. In fact, I’d say the only similarity Dark Places has with Gone Girl is Flynn’s ability to make you care about and relate to selfish and inarguably horrible characters, no matter how much you’d rather not.

You have Libby, who has run her inheritance dry and willingly freeloads, and steals from, people who sympathize with the once-little girl who survived a traumatic tragedy. Then there’s her brother Ben, who may or may not have been responsible for the murder of their two young sisters (also both very unlikable, both in their own ways) and  mother. Tie up the knot with their mother’s inability to properly care for her children, an alcoholic father, and a whole other cast of seedy characters, and you have a book full of despicable people who should turn any reader away from the book in disgust. True to the Gillian Flynn style of characterization, of course, they do the total opposite and pull you in.

The book is a page-turner if I’ve ever read one. I read 100 pages on the airplane while homebound from Greece, then devoured every bit of it I could over the next several days until I finished it. There aren’t many books that leave me groaning in disappointment when I reach my stop on the subway—usually, I’m eager to get as far away from the New York City transit system as I can, as quickly as possible—but while reading this novel, I cherished every spare moment I had to read it. Nearing the end was a conflicting experience: I wanted to finally know the truth, to verify or disprove my speculations IMMEDIATELY, but realizing I’d be closing the door to the mystery, emotion, and terror in this story for good left me struggling against the pull to slow down. The resulting effect was something like a dreading, morbid need, which is exactly how I’m sure Libby feels as she gets closer to the end, herself.

Of course, I can (and probably will) re-read Dark Places, but it will never be the same as working my way through the story for the first time and spewing out frantic, constantly shifting speculations from scene to scene. I’m moving on though, and what better way to get over Dark Places than to delve into Sharp Objects? I’m addicted to Flynn’s dark prose and I’m hoping she has another novel coming out soon because, standing at only 243 pages, this one isn’t going to last me long.

Oh well. There’s always the movie (which is SO well-casted, by the way), which I’m seeing Saturday! Please excuse me while I go scratch my itch—and I suggest you get your hands on this book in my absence.

Have you read any of Gillian Flynn’s work? I’d love to discuss it with fellow readers and writers, so feel free to reach out!