Book Reviews Ramblings

The Ethics of Negative Reviews

If you don't have anything nice to say, should you even write your review?

I interrupt this NaNoWriMo to bring you a very important announcement (when this post is published, it will be day 22; however, as I write this, it is day 3. I am currently ahead with my word count by a mammoth 151 words, and by drawing my attention away from the manuscript, I risk failing—at least I’ll have a scapegoat): This is in lieu of three reviews I had initially promised to post.

I know, I know, how untrustworthy of me. But in my defence, I… well… I changed my mind.

If you take a look at my review offer, I write that I avoid posting 1 or 2 star reviews. And yes, there have been instances where I have not posted a review for this very reason. I write reviews to bring a little more attention to independent books, ones you won’t find sitting on bookstore shelves very often (however, you can order many of them from these shops—by picking up the phone, popping in, or seeing them available for order online—if you’d like to support your favourite, Jeff Bezos-free, bookstore).

However, this sensibility almost changed. I dedicated about four and a half thousand words to these reviews—including the review front and backmatter, as well as cut down reviews for Amazon and Goodreads—which I reasoned was okay. Sure, I thought the books had a number of ‘generic’ issues (wordplay, pacing, plot, etc), but these issues weren’t enough to drop multiple books in the series to two stars.

What was enough, though, were some gender politics in the series that ranged from problematic to toxic, in both the series male and female characters. It felt, to me, as if the ethical decision was to review the books, add the relevant scores to my Amazon and Goodreads reviews, and discuss, at length, the issues I had with these gender politics. My resolve was further cemented by the fact that I downloaded these books from an ARC (advance reader copy, for anyone not down with all the book publicity lingo) website that the author paid to feature their books, rather than reaching out to me personally. Not that I have any issues with ARC websites; utilising them is a great strategy to get more eyes on your book.

But I was wrong.

By posting the reviews, I would have been doubling back against my own words, while doing my damndest to justify that decision. I drafted the reviews along with my additional text about their gender politics, edited it all, and scheduled the post. I even, unfortunately, named the books in my original So, What’s Going on Here? post. I went as far as posting the negative reviews to Goodreads (thankfully, I hadn’t gotten to Amazon before thinking better).

And that was wrong.

I have edited the aforementioned post, deleted the reviews and their scheduling from the site, and removed the Goodreads reviews. But that post has been read. The Goodreads reviews have likely been seen, and very possibly, by the author. My words, while I believed them to be true (and largely still do), would no doubt be hurtful towards the author, calling them out for their perceived sins, and discussing them at length. My intent was to discuss an issue, and hopefully do so well, and enlighten the world to my train of thought, which, obviously, is the only valid one.

But really, it was a shitty thing to do. I didn’t think about how these attacks could be taken personally, I disassociated myself from the author. Something I am deliberately trying to avoid by not posting reviews for books I have a strong distaste for.

No matter how resolute I was, it was a shitty move, and one that I apologise to the author (who I won’t be naming here, nor will I name the books) for. There is no doubt in my mind that they have worked incredibly hard to write the best book they could. And making matters worse, my resolve could have been misjudged. Yes, a number of the Amazon and Goodreads reviews for these books touch upon the issues I also identified, however, there were also a number of positive reviews.

The number of reviews these books have on those websites far exceeds those for the vast majority of books I review here. You—and I once did—could make the argument that with the number of reviews, mine would just be a drop in the ocean, and you may very well be right. However, the other thing of note is that the reviews these books received were by and large positive. Not only was there a large volume of them, each book had a review score above 4 out of 5.

So, this tells me I could have misjudged. I don’t believe I did, and I stand by my thoughts. But a lot of people had very different experiences reading the books than I did, and that’s okay. At the end of the day, do I have a right to tell people not to read those books? Technically, I guess I do. If not to demand they don’t, at least to strongly caution against it. But should you do something on the basis that you technically have the right to do so? Not at all. Or at least I don’t believe I should.

Is all this to mean that I wasted four and a half thousand words and a number of hours reading the books? No, not at all. I don’t regret my reading choices, even when I don’t like the book. There’s always a takeaway, even if it’s negative. I won’t be posting four and a half thousand words, but who knows, I might be able to put those words into an article discussing my thoughts about those gender politics.

And at the end of the day, writing an article about issues I have is far more positive than naming and shaming someone who didn’t meet my expectations. And let’s face it: I’m just one person out of a potentially massive audience, not the authority that authors must adhere to.


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