A couple days ago while listening to OPB, my area’s NPR-affiliate, I listened to a debate about the value of negative book reviews.  That link takes you to a podcast of Tuesday’s program.  This debate begins at 17:05 and ends at 37:30.  Lee Siegel is a critic-turned-writer who has recently decided to stop writing anything negative in his New Yorker reviews.  Fleur Macdonald is the editor of The Omnivore.

Siegel’s argument can be summed up as negative reviews being, to use his word, passé and that the modern times require treating authors with kid gloves and wrapping us in cotton.  He continued to say that many reviews are political or written out of personal vendettas.  When asked if he regrets his own negative reviews, he said no, and defended them because he believed in what he said.  He went on to say that reviews in general are now irrelevant, and reviews need to focus on the positive.

Fleur countered that entertaining readers is never passé.  She conceded that personal motives can affect negative reviews, but that many readers are enjoy writing “hatchet job” reviews.  She mentioned a book she actually bought due to a bad review, and pointed out that negative reviews will be the place to find out if certain books, ones based on fact, make a lot of factual errors.

Both did ultimately agree that newer authors should be treated a bit kinder, though Fleur does not believe this means that nothing negative should ever be said.

The ah-HA! moment came when Siegel admitted that his change-of-heart came after he started writing and was subject to a negative review.

Fleur scored a slam dunk about how the reviews are for the readers, not to stroke writers’ egos.

From the standpoint of a reader, every book out there has small moments that can be fluffed up into positive reviews.  After a while I get bored reading nothing but positive after positive review that reads like a personal friend of the author wrote it.  The reviews that seem to take “if you can’t say nice, don’t speak at all” to heart only give once side of the story.  What do reviewers note like?  That which does not appeal to one person might be exactly what appeals to another.  I personally have read books and seen movies I might not have if it weren’t for what seems like negative reviews.

As a writer, the negative reviews can be more helpful to improving my writing and finding where I’m not connecting with readers than the positive reviews.  Of course it’s helpful to know what readers like to know what to continue doing.  But it’s equally, if not more, important to know what the readers dislike enough to speak about.  As I said last Wednesday in my post on a lack of research, the small things can jar a reader out of a story.  The rest of it can be spectacular, and the writer can do more of that, and be praised for the positive.  But without the errors pointed out, those grating little pieces of glass in the bottom of your foot will remain.

Stephenie Meyer famously ignores anything negative about her books.  She does this so hard that her brother, Seth, filters all of her e-mail for her.  This includes constructive criticism.  He is so convinced that “it would be ignorant to believe that criticism of any kind does not hurt the person to whom it is directed” that anything critical, no matter how constructive, will not reach his sister.  If only she had listened to the negative or constructive criticism fans tried sharing about their disgust over a teen boy, Quil, “imprinting” on a toddler named Claire (“imprinting” is when a werewolf – who it turns out aren’t really werewolves when Stephenie wrote herself into a corner – and a human are subject to a magical bond that they can not break, and that means they are ideal sex partners, a perfect pairing to pass on their different number of chromosomes).  Few fans took it well when a teen boy and a toddler were made into sex partners, even though they’re supposed to wait until the younger one reaches 16 years old or so.  But her refusal to listen to her critics, her own fans, led to Jacob Black and Bella and Edward’s NEWBORN daughter imprinting on each other.  As you can imagine, even fewer fans were comfortable with a 16-year-old boy and a newborn being magically-connected sex partners.  This might have been avoided had Stephenie not shielded herself from the reviews that weren’t about farting unicorns that poop rainbows and glitter.  Instead fans of the first three books returned Breaking Dawn en masse.

Reviews, both positive and negative, are our performance reviews.  Those who buy books are the real bosses of authors.  Without their money, authors don’t get paid unless among the lucky few who get a small royalty.  “Write for yourself” doesn’t entirely work if you’re hoping to get others to part with their money.  If you ignore those who will pay you, ignore their reviews of your performance that could help you avoid the same mistakes in the future, you will have fewer people buying your books, or worse, people so angered that they return them.

Constructive reviews, including criticism, are how we learn how to improve.

So yes, we need these reviews.  We need the good and the bad.  Now what we don’t need are the reviews by people who openly admit hating the genre and so insult a book for being that genre, or reviews that are nothing more than hating on an author with nothing useful about the book.  But that is the topic of another blog post.