Is it a bad review or a negative review? Is it a review or reader reaction? Or is it an attack? I’m asking you, authors.
Recent days have brought this distinction to my attention in several ways. If anyone hasn’t heard of the meltdown aimed at BigAl, either you don’t follow these things or are very lucky. Other reviews have brought other reactions, some in the same venue as the review, others off stage, with or without names.
If our books are our children and we wish them to be loved and accepted for who they are, and invited on frequent play dates (especially if the siblings are invited too), then reviews might be considered as babies. A “good” baby is happy or at least placid, eats regularly and sleeps predictably, coos, giggles, and interacts with adults in a pleasant way, and doesn’t shriek for extended intervals. But this isn’t goodness in any moral or value sense. Babies who do shriek, who nap irregularly, and get tired of peekaboo first aren’t bad babies — there is no moral or value element here either, and we don’t call such children bad. There are easy babies and there are challenging babies; using the right nomenclature puts them into perspective.
Before labels of good or bad apply to commentary about books, one needs to identify the kind of commentary. Is it a review, an opinion, or an attack, disguised thinly or not at all? Once you know, you’re prepared to deal with it better. Of course, just because a baby is a baby doesn’t mean that the shrieking and other behaviors become miraculously easy to cope with, but they have context that should drive our responses.
Readers can and frequently do leave their opinions out for others to read, and that’s great. Of course, we’d all rather hear “I loved it” rather than “Ick,” but opinions are going to be all over the map. There is nothing so well-done that someone won’t hate it, and nothing so poorly-done that someone won’t love it. I have seen numerous comparisons lately of opinions to assholes: yes, everyone has one. That universality doesn’t mean invalid.
If one mistakes a reader reaction for a review, feelings are easily hurt. “This story has elements “j” and “k” in it, and I hate “j” and “k”, therefore this story is a 2″ is an opinion. If that reader doesn’t clarify with words what prompted the two, assume it’s reader reaction, driven by something the author may never know, and go on about life. If the reader is disappointed that the author wrote a different story than reader was expecting, either an expectation mismatch was set up with the blurb, genre placement, or marketing, which are things to be learned from, or that reader has some preferences that drive opinion. If the reader expresses disappointment that the story is set in medieval times but features steam engines, the reader has noticed a legitimate flaw.
What separates an opinion from a review is the quality of reasoning that goes into the formation, and a good reviewer shares that reasoning. Examples help, but may be too huge to include. The reasoning may be flawed, but as long as it’s not an attack masquerading as reasoning, the very flaws may be illuminating. Perhaps the reader who does not know the work as intimately as the author does can’t spot the mismatch, but “them’s the breaks.” It can also be, and this has happened to me, that the author is too close to the story and sees what was meant, not what is there. The reader has only the words on the page to go by.
If it’s an attack — recognize it, take it for what it’s worth, which may be only that ‘this person has this bias.’ If “this” defines out as “X– has a bias against plot holes and weak characters” there is some rethinking to be done, because this is review territory.
If it’s “Y— does not believe that z— class of persons should even be writing this type of story and therefore this is a bad story because a z— person wrote it,” there is some perspective to be gained. It’s an attack, however nicely phrased: an ad hominem attack.
It becomes nicely circular that if an ad hominem attack is invalid because it defines the rightness or wrongness of an argument, (or the goodness or badness of a story) by who advanced the argument or wrote the story, and therefore the sort of person who makes an ad hominem attack should not be taken seriously… Back away slowly — there’s no other good course. There will be no changing of minds, and attempting to do so over a review will result in the entire internet coming to gawk. Just don’t. And whining about it in public without engaging Y— directly still defines the whiner as someone who hasn’t learned certain elemental lessons.
There are more direct attacks. “The English language hates you,” is an attack. “The profusion of adverbs every time character Q— appears becomes overwhelming,” supported by a quote crawling with -ly, is not. That’s review: the statement is supported by example, with some reasoning laid out, and others who like adverbs know the basis of the statement and are free to disagree. “Character F— is a jerk” is both an opinion and an attack. “Character F— is a jerk because he does A and B, which leads to C,” is not an attack, it’s merely undiplomatic.
Diplomacy, unfortunately, is optional in reviews and opinions, and absent by definition in an attack. Gird your loins if you’re going to read, because all of these things go in the same text box, sitting next to the same ticky box, and there is no way to know what’s there until you read it.
A review is a review by its reasoning — if the reasoning is sound the review is good, independently of the star rankings. Critical thinking differentiates good from bad; the results of the thinking can be positive or negative or a mixture of the two. Unsubstantiated warm fuzzies make a bad review, though it may be a very positive opinion. It has value, though it shouldn’t be mistaken for something it isn’t. We call a baby “good” when we mean “easy-going” and it’s common to follow that pattern by calling a positive opinion a good review. We should not call something a “bad review” when we mean “negative and we hate it.” But by all means, let us call a review bad if it’s negative without a soundly reasoned case.
No matter what sort of commentary the book gets, whether review, opinion, or attack, that commentary is still a baby. If it’s positive, an easy baby, coo back. Cherish its little gummy smile. It makes everyone feel good. If it’s neutral, appreciate it for what it is, you may learn something that brings smiles later. And if it’s negative, no matter if it’s an attack — it’s still a baby. We do not scream at or shake even the most challenging babies. We recognize them for what they are, and sometimes, we have to park them in a safe crib and go take a few deep breaths.