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Hello.

Yesterday I inadvertently created a bit of a firestorm for something I tweeted about book reviews and blanket praise. I feel a bit unsettled about some of the responses and have been told by a few people they are going to blog about it, so I thought I should probably address the teacup-storm too and explain a few things.

Firstly, here is the thing I said that caused most offence:

“There is too much positivity in the book world. Esp in book blogs and on YouTube. Books can’t all be good can they?”

As well as:

“We need a critical culture in books. We need for people to say what they want about a book, for a healthy book culture.”

And possibly:

“Books are ideas. They are debate starters. They are conversation starters. They are meant to spark a range of opinion.”

Some people agreed with this. Some didn’t. Both positions are fine. But then some people got very heated, both publicly and in my DM box.

Now, I just want to clarify a few things:

1. I am not anti blogging or bloggers. This is a blog. I am a blogger.

2. I am not anti positive reviews. Look at the side of this page. I will shout my good reviews from the rooftops. I am a total tart. Good reviews fill me with pride. Positive reader reactions are why I write.

3. I value reviews massively. Too much. I read most of them, even the bad ones (though might be less prone to tweet that one for The Humans that said I had ‘deliberately sold out to become the sci-fi Tony Parsons’). Only this week I nearly wept when one of my favourite writers wrote a lovely, detailed review of a non-fiction book I’ve just written. I had been scared for years of writing it, and that review undid a decade of fear. Never mind sales. That is what a review can really mean.

4. I am self-critical. Every writer has to be. That is what editing is about. I cringe at 60% of what I write. I have been shouting ‘God, I’m shit’ at my Word Doc for the last month. And I would really recommend that you ignore the reviews and don’t buy a book I wrote called The Possession of Mr Cave. Criticism is how you raise your game. A critical culture, when it is devoid of personal grudges and is done from a position of love for an art form, is vital. It raises that culture. It is how, on a grander scale, healthy civilisations work. Debate. Criticism. Thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Critics are needed. If no-one had said ‘no, you’re doing that wrong’ we’d have been wiped out before the Neanderthals. I never went on a creative writing course, but have learnt a lot about my own writing from constructive critical opinion.

5. I criticise things I love. I don’t criticise Manchester United because I don’t like football. I commented about one aspect of book blog/Youtube culture because I value it. I like to think I engage with online book culture. In fact, the precise prompt for the tweet came after researching lots of YouTube ‘vloggers’ (forgive me for hating that word), because I WANT TO BECOME ONE. I have discovered I am vain enough to want to sit in my bedroom and talk straight to camera about stuff. And so I trawled through a lot of (chiefly American) blogs and became mildly nauseated by the overwhelming level of unthinking positivity. I began to feel how Michael Stipe felt when he wrote Shiny Happy People. But it’s no biggie.

6. That said, I was kind of addressing myself. I mean, I have reviewed books before. I have felt the pressure to say nice things I only half mean. I may be alone in that, or not. I sincerely don’t know. There has to be a balance between a personal kindness to an author and a respect for the medium itself. And let’s face it, if a tweet can be hated by you, so can a book. Books are also made of words and opinions and many of them are – consciously or unconsciously – saying things that demand to be argued with. Let’s not patronise books. They are not an endangered species. They are strong and powerful and will outlive us all.

7. The main argument seemed to be that people who review books for free want to choose books they think they’ll like. Fair enough. (Though surely you can never know what a book is going to be like until you read it, even if it is from an author you like, or why review?) Another argument was that authors can sometimes get nasty with reviewers. This is terrible, but true. There have been cases. Authors who can’t accept criticism of their work are a growing phenomenon. There was a case recently of some self-published nut job whacking a reviewer over the head with a wine bottle. What is happening? I defend anyone’s right to give me a terrible review. Any author should. Books aren’t the end of a conversation. They are the start of one.

8. A couple of bloggers said they won’t review me now. Fine. Although I don’t know how that proves your professionalism, or places the book before the author. I am far too much of a nervous wreck to be a hero but would happily take a metaphorical bullet for the right for people to speak their minds without consequence. Also, if you want to be respected as a reviewer wielding the power available to you if someone says something you don’t like is not the best tactic.

9. I love books. I write screenplays as well, but books beat them hands down. A book is the most beautiful art form there is. So much art starts with words. Books end with them too. They are pure and self-contained and apocalypse-proof. I love writing books and, mainly, reading them. There are 180,000 books published a year in the UK. We need to be discerning now more than ever. We need to know our taste. We need to demand the very best of our writers. We all need to raise our game. I certainly do.

10. Life is short. We are all alive for a blink of an eye. If we agree books are one of those things that help us enjoy and explore and comprehend our existence, then we can be free to disagree on the details. Let’s all be friends.

 

 

 

28 Comments

  1. I am a book reviewer. The reviews on my site are mostly positive simply because what is the point in putting reviews on the site of books I hated? If I don’t enjoy a book then the review doesn’t end up on the site. If I have been asked by the author to review their book and I didn’t enjoy it then I let them know that its not appearing on the blog and why. I’ve been treated by one or two authors rather horribly for that! I think the whole point of my site is to direct people to books I enjoyed. Why would I direct them to books I didn’t? Besides, there is no such thing as a bad book but simply a case of the reader not being matched with the right book? Idealistic? Probably! I can’t understand why your comments though would cause such offence amongst reviewers. Surely we are all entitled to an opinion? People get too tetchy and offended too easily. Let’s have healthy debates about books without getting our knickers in a twist and having a hissy fit! Great blog btw!

    • That’s a point I never considered before: why WOULD a reviewer waste time putting up a review of something they didn’t like? T

      They would naturally only want to share things they did like with their audience. I think that alone explains why there is so much “positivity” among book reviewers.

      They’re only acting the way they should be!

      Regards,
      —Vic S.—

  2. Well said Matt. I’d missed this twitter storm thank goodness so had no chance to become annoyed on your behalf. However, it’s about us all and an unwillingness to be discerning critics of ourselves or others. Better to speak the truth and perhaps save the rainforests from being turned into pulp fiction. We seem to have created a generation of positive speak that allows no room for subtle intellectual engagement. Those who wrote negatively are possibly hiding behind the ‘shiny, happy people’ personas because confronting their dark sides may be too disturbing.
    Carry on with your work and ignore the haters. You clearly have an intelligent readership who appreciate what you write. I’ll buy your latest book. Best wishes Jo

  3. bien détaillé et spécifier,les critiques et les avis ne serait qu’un coup de pousse constructif,l’auteur ou l’ecrivain dois accepter de bon ou de mauvaise chicane ou opinion des lecteurs ou les reporters,certainement y a des sujets ou lequel on peut pas les critiquer sauf au niveau de la grammaire ou l’expression,la culture est un sujet sensible perceptible et inconporel donc il faut faire attention a ecrire sur. le livre est un unstrument de auquel on joue avec pour s’exprimer et elargir notre atmosphère d’imagination

  4. well detailed and specify, critics and opinion would be a constructive move pushes the author or writer must accept good or bad opinion or baffle readers or reporters, there is certainly topics or which can not criticize except at grammar or expression, culture is a sensitive subject and perceptible inconporel therefore be careful to write on. the book is a unstrument of which is played with to express themselves and broaden our imagination atmosphere

  5. I see the Online Outrage Machine found you. Sorry that you had to wade through a firestorm for some relatively innocuous and inoffensive remarks. I can see how the first one could require some more clarification—I read it as “We need less empty back-patting,” which I think was closer to your intended point.

    You’re right. In the end, books are the start of the conversation, not the end. I realize that books are near and dear to the hearts of many, but we as a community could afford to calm down about it from time to time. The conversation about books, and their critical assessments, could benefit from more critical thinking.

  6. Bert Wright says:

    Well said, Matt. Ignore the pillocks. “Legacy” reviewing felt no obligation to reward mediocrity and generally excercised a healthy scepticism about the books they were reviewing. Hell, there’s even a prize for best bad review and quite right too.

    The unrelenting positivity is surely the consequence of the free-flow of so-called “independent authors/publishers” via the digital route. Everybody considers themselves a published author these days. An editor who tells an author “no this is really bad, go away and work on it and then come back to me” is now regarded as some kind of buzz-jumping Grinch who enjoys stifling free expression.

    Getting published has become like the franchise, like it should be equal access for all; total democracy, whereas of course, it should be a meritocracy. You only get in if you’re good enough, end of. So now when you have millions of moderately-talented published authors, they not only expect access but unanimous approbation when their books go out in the world.

    Daring to criticise them is seen as another Grinchy buzz-jumping excercise. And all this is a million miles away from what makes for good writing and a healthy literary culture. The lunatics are in taking over the asylum, mate, so better get used to it.

    By the way I run the Mountains to Sea Book Festival in County Dublin and I’d love you to come over and talk about this or just about your newest book if you’re free in March.

    All the best and keep the faith. Bert Wright

  7. Honestly, I don’t think you need to justify yourself. You were right in the first place. Book reviews lose all their value and meaning if they’re all positive. I’m always extremely grateful for reviewers who have the balls to give an honest review so that real book-lovers don’t waste their money on something they are told is ‘the read of the year’ when it clearly isn’t.

    I wouldn’t buy a piece of art I didn’t like just to appease the artist, and likewise, I wouldn’t buy a book I didn’t like the look of just to make the author feel good about themselves. The difference is that you can immediately tell whether or not a painting is to your taste, but for a book, you need a bit of help. That’s why you read reviews, if you are so inclined. Lots of SUBJECTIVE reviews, giving the author’s own OPINION. Book reviews become entirely untrustworthy if they’re always going to be positive. You can address negative elements of a book or say that the whole thing isn’t to your taste without disrespecting the author or the craft of writing. That’s exactly why they’re so important!

    • Well said!

      I think it might actually be a dangerous thing (though not mortally dangerous, of course) for reviewers to hold back any criticism they might have.

      If they don’t spill the beans about something negative in a book, they’re in all honesty deceiving their audience. Which is just plain wrong.

      If it merits being said, then an honest reviewer’s duty is to SAY it! Good or bad.

      Reagrds,
      —Vic S.—

  8. I agree with you that books cannot be all good. I know mine sure as heck aren’t.

    On the other hand, the romance world has just had an author stalking a blogger because of a bad review. As in turning up at conventions and (I believe) the blogger’s house. Anne Rice posts long tirades on Facebook against less than “perfect” reviews.

    Given that sort of atmosphere, I can understand bloggers being reluctant to post honest reviews.

  9. I looked at including book reviews as a regular thing on my blog but it just didn’t sit right with me. I have come to a point in my life where I refuse to read a book that doesn’t grab me in the first 100 pages or so. With that, I don’t feel comfortable writing a review on a book that I didn’t finish. So any reviews that do make it to my blog do have a lot of positivity. However I do also mention things that I dislike so as to provide a balanced review.

  10. I just had to check what you had said, I thought it was bad and now I am all confused.

    People got made cos you said that? What? Isn’t that what we all want, different opinions? The good and the bad? I certainly want that. Neg and pos.

  11. When a reviewer always writes rave reviews I find it hard to take their reviews seriously. Not that they shouldn’t fangirl/boy over really good books but if their reviews are always like that you wonder if they ever actually don’t like elements of books or come across books they don’t enjoy.

    Also if you’re self critical of your writing how do you get anything out there? I’ve written a fair few first drafts but to look at them just to edit makes me cringe

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  14. THANK YOU for stating your opinion on this matter. I, too, am a book reviewer and blogger. I, too, have seen way too many sickeningly sweet reviews that obviously pander to the author’s ego. I have never been afraid to be critical, but I do it politely. I have managed in many cases to remain on friendly terms with authors whose books I have given negative reviews and my constructive criticism has been accepted for the most part. Personally, and I know I’m going to be attacked for this, when it comes to book reviews, I trust reviewers who have a background in the art of reviewing and who are not afraid to state their opinions in a PROFESSIONAL manner, not readers who simplify and pander to publishers and authors.

    This issue was addressed in a thoughtful panel entitled “Critical Reviews” at the BEA Book Bloggers Conference in 2012. A link is http://thequeensquillreview.com/2012/06/09/bea-blogger-conference-part-2-critical-reviews-saved-the-day/

  15. I’m a reader who blogs, sometimes even about books.

    Thank you for writing this post, particularly these two things:Books are also made of words and opinions and many of them are – consciously or unconsciously – saying things that demand to be argued with. Let’s not patronise books. They are not an endangered species. They are strong and powerful and will outlive us all.and:

    Books aren’t the end of a conversation. They are the start of one.

    One thing, though. Books, as much as we may want, don’t stand alone. They often carry the baggage of whomever wrote them.

    I don’t see why a reviewer who is honest enough with him/herself to say, “I won’t review books by (…), because I’m already predisposed not to like them” is any less professional that a reviewer who will read–or at least try–someone’s work because they like that person.

    Otherwise, I agree with you, completely. There is a tendency to try to be nice when reviewing.

    There are those who genuinely love everything they finish–and good for them. But I am a realist and can’t believe that this holds true for all the blogs who only post hyper-positive reviews.

    Some people claim that posting anything negative is mean to the author, even though the review is purportedly about the book. Other people avoid publishing negative reviews to avoid being deemed mean girls and potentially being harassed online for it.

    Yet some more avoid writing anything remotely negative about books to try and protect themselves from incidents such as the ones involving Richard Brittain and Hathleen Hale.

    However, too much positivity not only makes for a pretty unbalanced view of anything, but it also tends to backfire, in at least two ways.

    One, readers who only find rave reviews near the release date may buy the book in droves, only to be disappointed–perhaps problematic plot points or whatever were never mentioned–and post a barrage of over the top negative reviews all over the place.

    Second, I think almost every reader has, at one time or another, been that reader who honestly doesn’t enjoy whatever the latest “most wonderful evah!!!” book happens to be. When that happens, we often question ourselves (what am I missing here?), and more so when we can’t find at least one lone voice who says, “nope, couldn’t get into that, and this is why.”

    And finally, while I don’t hate-read (one of the reasons I don’t read books by people I dislike), there are times when one is fascinated by what one is reading in the same way one will stare at a slow motion train-wreck in a movie. One is at once repelled and riveted by what is happening. I personally do not see anything wrong with writing about such an experience, but every reader reacts differently to what they read, after all.

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  19. This certainly does seem to be a dangerous trend. An honest reviewer’s duty is to share both the good and bad with their audience.

    Anything less is duplicity.

    Why might some reviewers do this? Do they think they’re jeopardizing their status among authors (and their ability to get free review copies in the future)?

    Regards,
    —Vic S.—

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  23. well thought, well written points…
    twitter, and presumably other social site, have revealed great exchanges and ideas as well as the opposite: easily offended users.

    ultimately as users if social media we have also ZERO control over how we would hope our experiences to unfold.

    for me, raised in the late 60′s and early seventies, I got instilled with critical thinking and seeing all points of view.

    I feel quite lucky that I have carrired that thoughout my life. If you encounter someone who does not wish to think critically; it can become almost impossible to have any free exchange of ideas.

    Fortunately there’s seven billion more to interact with if that happens.

  24. I missed the teacup storm and now I haven’t time to comment as fully as I’d like, but agree — book reviews should be thoughtful, critical, honest, real. And love that a book should be the start to a conversation. Out of time, inadequate comment, but loved this post. #eekbye

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