Every Book Review Has a Target

Here’s how I learned that a bad review can hurt:

Back when identity theft wasn’t a worry and Facebook’s founder was still in high school, people would post personal ramblings and thoughts to the public web for all to see. In 1999, the heyday of Blogger and Friendster, I went with the crowd and started a personal blog. I was a big reader then, but was still a decade away from working as an editor. But I had an urge to review books, and the blog seemed like a good place for them. In 2006, I reviewed a one particular book, a very personal and intimate vanity-press memoir. The story was gripping and personally relevant to me, but the book felt rushed and the writing could have been better. I said so in my review.

When someone puts their life into words, they’re displaying not just their writing but the story of their entire life to the world. A few days after I posted the review, I got an email from the author. Let’s call him “Joe”.

Joe was clearly upset at the review. We corresponded for a little while, and he must have thought I knew what I was talking about, even if he didn’t like hearing it. He sent me the first chapter of his next book, asking for advice. It was the story of his home city, from its heights to its dirt. I immediately wanted to read more of this fictionalized account. Even though he had asked for them, Joe never responded to my notes on the chapter.

I later decided that singing the praises of a good book was fun, but reviewing a bad book can be heartbreaking–for the reviewer and the author. Joe still hasn’t come out with that book.

Over the last few years, I’ve wondered if I discouraged Joe, but now, re-reading the original review, it’s not as terrible as I remember: I pointed out the good parts of the book along with the bad. And there were good parts. Today, the book’s Amazon reviews include words like “miracle”, “perseverance”, and “splendid”.

I’ve since written articles that are book recommendations, but haven’t written any bad reviews. Reviews (when they’re negative) are designed to keep readers away from a book. Editorial criticism (before publication) helps improve the book, in the hopes more people will enjoy it.

It’s not surprising that I’ve since found work as an editor, helping writers. I think there are people who enjoy writing reviews of books that tear them to shreds, but I’m not one of them. Constructive criticism is best done in private.

Book reviews are not the same thing at all as an editor’s criticism, but there are similarities: Both should identify the faults of the work, both should look for its virtues. I enjoy doing both of those things, but not in public.

When I’m editing a book, I feel like my criticism has a purpose. Once a book is in the wild, it’s time to move along and write the next one. Once the book is published, aside from making the author feel bad, what does a negative review achieve?

In public, I’ll stick to telling people about the books that I love, and save the criticism for the writers who want it.


Thanks to the following folks for helpful editorial advice: Standback, Jed Oliver, Ladybug Killer from Stack Exchange; and Julie Goldberg of Perfect Whole.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a free sample edit. He’s also the guitarist in the band Baroque & Hungry, he rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when the mood strikes him.

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7 thoughts on “Every Book Review Has a Target

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  1. When I started my blog I decided very early on that I wanted to talk about books. Although I occasionally discuss other topics, the vast majority of my posts involve discussing books (at this point I have somewhere around 135 book reviews on my blog). While the majority of my reviews have been favorable, there are a few books that I didn’t enjoy that I felt deserved poor scores.

    For every book review, I try to explain the overall score that I gave the book. I was told by one of my music teachers years ago that it’s not enough to simply say “I liked it” or “I hated it,” you really need to be able to express your opinion as to why you did or didn’t like the book. There are plenty of times when I’ve disagreed with other reviews that I’ve read, but as long as the reviewer has reasons to back up their opinion then I can accept it.

    1. @rebeccaoftomorrow – Thanks. I have no issue with book reviews in general, I just don’t like writing them myself. I’ll leave the dirty work for others who are more critically inclined. If not for reviews, selecting a book would be more difficult and time-consuming.

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