THEY CAN’T ALL BE WINNERS: The Purpose of Bad Reviews

In the run up to Christmas, social media was filled with drama. This time, the debate was over whether or not a ‘Worst Books of the Year’ was an insulting idea. The past few days have seen the backlash in the form of more ‘Worst Books…’ lists. As always, the debate rages on, and will undoubtedly crop up again in a few months. But let’s ask it again now.  Is it a bad idea to talk about books you hate?

First of all: No. People are allowed to hate books, films, games, comics, whatever. You can hate something, and you can tell people that you hate it. As any Star Trek fan will attest, fandom is often united in what it dislikes as much as what it likes, for better and for worse. I don’t think many people will argue on this point. The issue people seem to be taking is one of attitude.

Now, I haven’t seen the whole Booktube video that kicked all this off (i tried, but it wasn’t for me), but my understanding is that it’s not so much the content as the presentation that has people irked. And that’s where there is an issue with negative talk. Comedy often has a target, and when you don’t like something, that thing becomes a target. It’s easier to tell jokes about something when you don’t respect it. There are sites out there that make money off comedic vitriol. The Tor.com watch-along of Under the Dome springs to mind. But this over-the-top hate, often embellished for comedic effect, has unfortunately pulled more innocent reviewers under the bus.

I read a lot of books. I don’t review all of them. Some of that is due to thsi site’s focus on SF rather than other genres, but a lot of the time it is a more individual decision. I made this site to be positive. To tell people about science fiction that I have enjoyed. But ultimately, I’m not a hype man. Much as I love the genre – because I love the genre – when a book disappoints me, I want to talk about that too. I didn’t enjoy Doors of Eden or To Sleep In A Sea of Starsas much as I hoped to. I still reviewed them. I still liked large parts of them. And more importantly, I felt like I had something to say about these books.

There are SF books I don’t feel that way about. I was hugely excited for Seven Devils, but it was probably the biggest let-down of the year. For me. Not in any objective sense, but just to me. It wasn’t the book I was hoping it would be. I didn’t click with the characters, found the plot poorly paced, and the writing just didn’t work for me. I’m currently halfway through Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and it’s dry, sexist and more than a little dull. And that’s fine. It’s a best-seller. People love it, and I’m glad they do. Not everything has to be for me. Not everything has to be for you. Unless it’s for a series reread, I’ll not give a review unless I have something to say. Some morsel to contribute to the conversation. It’s why I may seem harsher on older works than debuts. Because there’s no point in saying ‘I hated this’ unless you can explain why.

Why? because reviews are for readers. You’re not there giving feedback directly to the author, though many authors do enjoy seeing their work appreciated. The point of a review is to tell people about a book. About its plot, or its characters, or its themes. About the reactions it triggers in the reviewer. When I see a good review, I don’t think it’s a good book. I think it’s a book the reviewer enjoyed. When I see a bad review, I don’t think the book is bad, I think it hasn’t found the right audience yet. You can learn as much about a book from negative reviews as from positive ones. Yes, some books are genuinely bad, but I won’t turn away from one just because of a less than favourable review. Furthermore, the mix of reviews build up profiles of review sites. People who read this blog will know I love technical detail, and not so much characters, and so they can find books that match those arbitrary criteria.

The line I draw is that there is no point getting angry for likes. Sure, there are things I hate. Found Families and Edgelords spring to mind, but those hates are not aimed at someone’s hard work. Making art takes time and effort. Blood, sweat and tears. You can hate ideas, and you can hate things, but when you turn that hate against the creator. if you find yourself encouraging random internet goers to pile on someone’s creation, that’s when you’ve gone to far. That’s when you’re the bad guy.

So yes, there is absolutely a point in ‘Worst of…” lists and negative reviews and rants against this, that, and whatever. So long as you’re adding to the conversation, not just trying to chuck in the last word.

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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