To Review or Not To Review

imagesI went to the theatre last weekend, a long planned visit and one that I thought I would be reporting on here as I worked my way through my understanding  of the production and of the leading actors’ interpretation of their roles.  What I hadn’t banked on was being so disappointed in the performance as to have very little that was positive to say about it. I wasn’t convinced by the way in which the director had chosen to set the play.  I was distressed by the way in which he had slashed the text, which by my reckoning had been cut by about a quarter, thus rendering a lot of the arguments, (difficult enough to follow at the best of times) almost incomprehensible. And, worst of all, the leading actor had been totally miscast. He gave a completely inadequate reading of the main protagonist, a problem that was made worse by his inability to understand how to handle the language.  I very nearly wept for him because he was clearly trying extremely hard but it just wasn’t working.   Now, my question is this: as a blogger what do you do in a situation like that?

If I was being paid to prepare a review of the production for a major news outlet then there would be no problem. I would have to say it was dreadful. I hope I would find a kinder way of expressing myself than that, but my job would be to say to the public, who would be expecting some sort of report, that I would think twice before spending my money. (Quite a lot of money in this instance.) However, as a blogger, who can pick and choose what to write about, do I do that or do I just pass over the experience and write about something else entirely?  Is there any need for me to comment in a negative way when a group of hard working, well meaning individuals have put their all into an endeavour and, what is more, probably know themselves that things are not working out as they had hoped?

The same question arises where books are concerned. One of my favourite authors has just disappointed me big time, to the point where I have found myself seriously questioning whether or not I will bother to read their next novel. (September has not been an auspicious month.) I haven’t reviewed it here because I would have very little that was positive to say about it.  But ought I to?  Perhaps I would save someone else wasting time and money on the book?

Of course, there is likely to be something to quarrel with in any artistic enterprise and I have no problem with adding a critical caveat to what is, in substance, a positive discussion of a work, but to be substantially negative?  I don’t like the idea. It is this which makes me wary of accepting books for review. What if I find that what I want to say is that personally I would never have accepted this for publication in the first place? Some poor soul has probably slaved over that for the last two or three years of their lives. It may be dreadful, but should I throw that in their face?

I would be interested to know how others bloggers deal with this issue.  If truth be told it isn’t something that happens often, although I did walk out of a production at the interval earlier this summer because I thought the play itself was an insult to the intelligence of the audience and I wasn’t alone. Maybe I‘ve just had a bad year and it’s starting to rankle.  Should I post a review that is substantially negative or should I choose not to post at all in that situation.  What would you do?

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26 thoughts on “To Review or Not To Review

  1. I think every blogger is faced with this dilemma at some stage. I made a decision to review only books that I’d recommend to a friend which doesn’t mean that all the books I review are absolutely wonderful by any means. If I’m sent a book that I don’t like I simply don’t review it. Having worked in magazines I know that publishers don’t expect every book they send out to be reviewed. I’m sorry that you’ve had such a disappointing run, though. Fingers crossed your next book/production will hit the spot.

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    • You get bad runs like this every now and again, don’t you, and I should be prepared for it. It was just that I so been looking forward to that production because it was a play not often staged that to have very little positive to say was really really disappointing. Having been a teacher all my working life and still teaching voluntarily in retirement I want to be positive, I want to encourage. All I wanted to do on Saturday was say something like ‘right some interesting ideas here but I think we might need to go back to the beginning and work through them again’. Except, of course, the beginning was something like six months and several hundred thousand pounds ago!

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  2. I review books when I feel I have something to say, good or bad. I’m not a cheerleader for publishers or authors, I’m writing primarily for readers (and myself, obvs). Maybe other readers will see your review and avoid wasting their time, or maybe they will counter with their own view of why they loved it. Sometimes I’ve read a critical review and the thing the reviewer didn’t like is exactly the thing that made me want to read it. The publisher or author might even learn something, particularly if enough reviewers make the same point.

    Review the book you didn’t like (I for one am dying to know what it is).

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    • I think in part Kate, that my reluctance comes from having been a teacher all my working life and knowing the value of being positive as a way of urging students forward. (By the way, my teacher in that respect was the novelist David Lodge, who as a lecturer leading a seminar group could make every student feel that the contribution they had made to the discussion was the one that opened up the entire subject. He’s a great novelist, but he was a brilliant teacher.) Your point about what I don’t like being exactly what may attract someone else is very valid though and I shall think on that hard. Thank you.

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  3. I am from a culture where harsh criticism and snarky remarks are valued (confused with being clever, in fact). I don’t like that. I have wavered a lot between not writing at all, writing something but balancing it with some redeeming qualities, or lashing out. The last one is not a good solution, but I’d rather post something than nothing. I do not trust blogs that find all books awesome in general. I try to soften the blow I give by saying that a book was not for me, but that it might find other readers.

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    • What you say is very interesting, Smithereens and perhaps goes some way to explaining why I am so reluctant to write critical reviews. When I was studying for my Masters I had to go to two weekly seminar sessions. I’ve mentioned one of them in my reply to Kate above. It was run by David Lodge and from him I learned everything I know about making students feel valued. The other, in a different department, was exactly the opposite. Most of the staff in that department were on very short term contracts and there was a culture which seemed to dictate that every week they had to make it apparent how brilliant they were and how rubbish everyone else was. I saw people mangled on a weekly basis until a group of us students who were older than the rest simply refused to go any longer and said why in no uncertain terms. Ever since I have been reluctant to criticise too harshly because I saw some very clever people simply give up. However, I take your point about being wary of too much praise. I don’t think I’m likely to go that way.

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  4. It’s a dilemma – I like my blog to be pretty much a positive place and at my stage of life (!) I don’t tend to waste time with books I don’t think I’ll enjoy. If it’s a real stinker, I abandon it – if there are negative elements I’ll say so (as I just have with Anthony Berkeley!). I don’t tend to slam a book with nasty language because that’s counterproductive – moderation is the thing I think.

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    • You’re right about moderation I think and I do give up on books I don’t get on with. The problem with the theatre is that giving up isn’t so easy, short of getting up and walking out. Mind you, I have done that on the odd occasion and I left at the interval of one production last summer which I just thought was an insult to anyone with even half a brain cell!

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    • I know there are a lot of bloggers out there who inject a funny personality into their blog posts (which can make them fun to read!), but this also means that books they don’t like get a scathing, almost mean review (for those who review negatively) so as to also be “funny.” I review all the books sent to me, positive and negative, so that readers can have a little help wading through the pile of literature that comes at them.

      I also like holding small presses (what I read the most) to a high standard. Just because they have a small team of folks doesn’t mean that the editing or content they publish should suffer. If they’ve devoted themselves to having a press, they need to take it seriously. I often wonder if reviews are what keep a small press afloat or leave it dead in the water. The small presses I’m familiar with in the States often have a run time of about 10 years. The good ones with some financial backing have been around for decades, though. Reviews always help those publishers see what they can do better.

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      • It’s finding a balance between offering helpful criticism and being so damning that you discourage. Of course, sometimes you may come across a writer or a publisher who needs to be discouraged but you’d hope that quality control of some sort would have swung into action at an earlier stage.

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  5. My blog was originally intended as a place to keep a record of the books I read and my feelings about them, so I have always written about every book, good or bad. However, when I write a negative review I try not to be too harsh, as I’m always conscious that the author or their family could be reading it (especially if I was sent a review copy). Usually if I dislike a book it’s down to personal taste anyway – for example, I often struggle with battle scenes in historical fiction – and as Kate has said above, the aspect of the book I had problems with could be the very thing that appeals to somebody else.

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    • I think what is coming through most clearly in this discussion, Helen, is that tone is all important. It isn’t so much that you are being critical as the manner in which that criticism is expressed and the underlying reason for offering the criticism in the first place.

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  6. I do review negatively, sometimes scathingly! But I have a couple of rules that I stick to, to make myself feel a little better. I never scathingly review a debut novel unless it’s already a major best-seller where my review is certainly not going to be make-or-break. I reserve my scathing reviews mostly for the classics or for authors with major reputations, where my review might amuse but won’t really change anyone’s opinion – so Ian McEwan or Umberto Eco, say, are “fair game” – with books like Moby Dick and Lolita (dead authors) an opportunity to work out my pent-up spleen. 😉 If I take a book from a new author for review and think it’s awful, I send honest feedback to NetGalley or the publisher who provided it, but don’t post a review anywhere. And I almost never take a book directly from an author so as to avoid ever having to tell them I hated it – even with blog friends, I prefer to buy their book, and then I can choose whether ever to reveal I read it.

    Everyone is different, of course, but I find that if bloggers only praise, then I find it hard to really get a handle on what their criteria are – negative reviews are great for letting me know if we’re on the same wavelength, and then I know whether I can expect to like the stuff they recommend.

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    • I agree with you about never taking a book for review directly from an author. I think it turns both of you into hostages to fortune. And, your point about knowing what to pick up from recommendations is very valid too. There are bloggers I trust implicitly to recommend something I like and equally some I trust to be on a totally different wavelength, however much I respect their reviewing integrity.

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  7. I rarely review books I haven’t liked, unless they are by dead authors or what I consider undeservedly big names (Dan Brown, anyone?). I’ve recently had the same problem as you, with the latest book by an author I’ve always loved but which I didn’t think was very good at all. I don’t think I’ll be reviewing it. But as you know I posted a guest review on my blog this week in which the reviewer had struggled with a novel by an author she’d previously loved. It was a great review, thoughtful and fair, and we thought it deserved an airing. http://harrietdevine.typepad.com/harriet_devines_blog/2017/10/forest-dark-by-nicole-krauss-guest-post.html

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    • And the word is ‘fair’ because that is precisely what that review was. It came through in every comment as did the reviewer’s disappointment. And I am completely with you about Dan Brown.

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  8. Over the years, I think most of us evolve methods that work for us, personally. My response to what I read is always personal (I met Stanley Fish last week and he was lovely and I got to tell him that I was teaching reader-response theory in my class that day). So I don’t worry too much about being fair. I do publish the occasional negative review when I’ve invested my time in reading something that turned out to be terrible. But I ignore far more than I review. I feel a little bad about it when an author has sent me a book and I don’t review it, but in that case it’s kinder for me to stay quiet, and I feel no duty towards my readers in terms of telling them about everything I read–there’s so much, and I don’t have a focus on newly published novels or anything like that.

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  9. I am so envious about Stanley Fish. I wish i had known you were going to meet him, you could have thanked him for me as well! Your point about the type of fiction you’re reviewing is very interesting. I suspect part of my dilemma was that the production in question is still running and so I felt torn between saying what I thought for those who might be thinking about spending considerable time and money over going to see it and those involved (although why I should think they would ever see my review is a mystery). If you are reviewing books that are already established or have been published for some time then the issue is very different.

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  10. It’s a fascinating question. Bloggers have different views on reviewing, and most are almost too kind, just as literary critics can be too UNkind. I used to be more carefree, because it never occurred to me that any living writers, etc., would find their way to my blog. It is still not entirely clear to me how anyone FINDS his/her way to a blog called Mirabile Dictu. But after a few writers I panned left comments I became warier, because it is not my wish to hurt anyone’s feelings. I read mainly older books, so it is usually not an issue. And I hardly ever finish a book that isn’t good or great.

    Yes, I can see you might not want to hurt the actors in a play! It’s just a matter of how you decide to write about each individual play, book, concert, or whatever. It’s case by case.

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    • Yes, your’re right, it does have to be a case by case basis and I think I might have written about last week’s production if I hadn’t felt that the main actor had been put in a position (inadvertently I’m sure) that made it almost impossible for him to succeed and so I didn’t want to be as critical as I would have had to be for something that he could do very little about. I have had authors find their way to my blog before now but fortunately only when I have been genuinely impressed by their work. Or perhaps the others simply went quietly away cursing me under their breathe and some dire events are waiting for me just around the corner.

      As to finding your blog I have no idea how I came across you in the first place but I will say that when I came back to blogging a couple of months ago, after a couple of years gap and under a new name, yours was one of the first blogs I sought out. I know quality when I read it.

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  11. It almost feels like taking sides, doesn’t it? Do I spare the author (surely a nice person) some pain or do I tell readers my unvarnished thoughts? Personally I publish negative reviews when they’re warranted. If I don’t enjoy a book or find it problematic I think it’s important that people know – otherwise everything would have a 4.5 star rating on Goodreads, rendering the individual reviews meaningless.

    At the same time I do my best to be honest and fair. By being honest about my likes and dislikes visitors can get a better idea about me as a reader and where I’m coming from. I’m also honest about what exactly works and doesn’t work for me so if my hated trope is someone else’s catnip they can adjust accordingly. On the fairness side I don’t post reviews for books I don’t finish, and as scathing as my criticism can get I do my best not to attack the author (though admittedly memoirs can be minefields). It’s a tricky spot, and one I think we each evaluate, reevaluate, and re-re-evaluate over time.

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    • Your comment about Goodreads is interesting, Kazan. I have absolutely no problem at all in giving a book two or even just one stars, but then I don’t leave reviews there. I’m wondering now if that isn’t even worse because I’m not giving the author an opportunity to discover why I thought their work was lacking.

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  12. Thank you for this post! I sometimes wonder why I review books, but I think it comes down to what I originally wrote in my “About me” piece. I love books, love talking about them and like to write about them. Ten years of working as a supply teacher and many more working in churches convince me that it is usually possible to be positive about someone’s efforts and mainly better to be so if there is a choice. I blog about books in the same way; if I hated it I won’t have read it, let alone written about it. I have my own expectations about review copies; I will not request a copy unless I expect something I enjoy, and I will note in my review if I have been sent a copy to review as opposed to buying it. Theatre productions are a different thing; usually I am just sad if the audience is small! Thank you for your honesty!

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    • My real problem with that production was that I could see the actor was trying so hard and simply not able to cope. But that leads to another issue and that is to do with when it is possible to go back and correct something that has gone wrong. The last time I felt this strongly about someone I later discovered that the actor himself was well aware of the problem, but when you have been in rehearsal for eight weeks and everyone else has built their roles around you you just can’t suddenly up and change things. At least with a book you are not responsible for other people’s creativity in quite the same way. I know what you mean about small audiences though. I once saw a production of ‘The Glass Menagerie’ with just three other people. The cast applauded us.

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  13. Pingback: Unfinished Business | Smithereens

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