“A Book I Don’t Like” does not always equal “A Bad Book”

Reviewing a book–whether on a blog or just informally in discussion with friends–is a responsibility. Please do it justice!

One thing I’ve VERY much learned as a graduate student in literature is that I have read and will read tons of books that I don’t like much. Sometimes, these books are just simply BAD.

The pacing is bad. The story is convoluted and difficult to follow. Characters are wooden or don’t remain true to themselves. Certain words and phrases are repeated all the time.

These are all signs of bad writing, in my mind, when they apply to a text that has been published within the last ten or twenty years. Some of the books I work with professionally are really old–written centuries ago–and I feel strange judging them as “bad” when artistic standards were so different back then.

However, there are certain negative things I could say about a book that imply it was not to my taste, but not that the novel was poorly written, incohesive, or poorly edited. Before you speak (or write) badly about someone’s work, remember that you have every right to say the following, but that statements like these can be more matters of personal opinion than a critique of artistic merit. Be descriptive when making the following statements about a book, so that those on the receiving end of your written (or verbal) review can better judge how you’re reacting.

  1. IT WAS SO BORING! Why? Was the subject matter something that doesn’t interest you? Was the book literary fiction, and that’s not your thing? That book might still be interesting to someone else. On the other hand, is the pacing far too slow? Does it feel like the writer’s really trying to draw you in, but the characters, say, are too ill-conceived and poorly described to make you care about them? That’s a big difference!
  2. IT WAS SO WEIRD! SO MANY CRAZY THINGS HAPPENED. Does this mean the book is poorly constructed? Does the writer not properly prepare you for shifts/progressions in the plot? Do characters contradict the presented images of who they are, with no given or no believable explanation for the changes? Or was it simply a sci-fi time-travel novel, when you’re more of a realist? What matters here is whether the story is cohesive as a unit, in and of itself. If it is, then it’s not necessarily poorly written if you found some things odd about it. It just might not be to your taste. Certain tones and certain genres allow for the out-of-the-ordinary to occur.
  3. I HATED THE ENDING. Maybe you wanted a happily ever after, for instance, and didn’t get it. Well, you’re certainly entitled to have wished for the book to end differently. Ask yourself, though: Was I prepared for the ending I received? Does it make sense given the way the story progressed from the beginning to the middle and beyond? Can I understand a reason the plot played out the way it did, even though it wasn’t my first choice? Did the author realize I might have preferred another ending, and take steps to give my closure? If the answers to these questions is “Yes,” maybe consider saying, “It wasn’t for me,” something that shows your reaction is personal, instead of something like “It was horrible” or “It’s a total waste of time.”

It’s one thing to dislike a book (or movie, or tv show, or work of art). Everyone has a right to their feelings and a right to express them. But please do consider: just because you disliked something doesn’t mean others will, and it doesn’t mean the product is necessarily flawed. When giving a negative critique, be as specific and as clear as possible about WHY you didn’t like it. Not only will that help direct people who would enjoy a good novel toward it (and those who wouldn’t away from it), but it will also provide wonderful constructive criticism for someone who needs to vastly improve their writing, if delivered respectfully–and perhaps privately.

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17 responses to ““A Book I Don’t Like” does not always equal “A Bad Book”

  1. Victoria,

    A very important distinction here.

    I try to be scrupulous about differentiating between books I am not drawn to, for whatever reason, and books that are simply deficient. I am not drawn these days to biographies- too much detail for me, not that interested. Those can be very well written and constructed books- just not for me as a reader. Or I might encounter a book in a genre I often enjoy, like suspense fiction, and just hate the book. Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code” is an example. One compliment I often give a great book is to say that “I could never have written that book.” In Brown’s case I say the same thing- just not as a compliment.

    A very thoughtful post. Thanks.

    Tom

  2. I often have to bite my tongue when discussing books. But I do know that it is a very subjective area. I have trouble with some of the classics and when people go on about them, I think “did you really read it?” I also have a few “books of shame” that I really enjoyed reading, but I know that they’re pretty lacking in literary value. To each, his or her own!

  3. I adore this post. Simply love it! I once wrote a post when I first started blogging about people who read something outside their comfort genre and then trash it (ie “I hated this romance. There wasn’t enough gun violence and car chases for me.”). Additionally, when I’m commissioned to write reviews I let the author see it first before I publish it, just in case their book simply wasn’t my cup of tea. My critique partner’s book, for example, was exhausting for me to read. It was a literary fiction, which I don’t usually read. But I wanted to support him, so I read it. But I was sure to point out its strong points and the fact that people who normally read lit-fic would probably enjoy it very much. Reading is so subjective, you know?

    • It really is subjective, I completely agree. And just so you know, I admire you daring to read and review lit fic, because I never could trust myself to do that. I just have to read too much lit fic in my day job, and I feel kind of negatively toward it at the moment, haha. Sounds like you went about reviewing it really, really appropriately.

  4. This is such an on topic post for me. When I fist started my blog, I thought that I would just go on Amazon and chose a few here and there from the promos and write a review. I really never expected it to boom the way it did. Once I hit Twitter, I had more requests than I could handle. We all live and learn from our writing mistakes, even if it is on a blog. My first review could have, and should have, been more diplomatic. It was the type of book I normally do like, however, it was poor written and edited. I should not have reviewed it nor made my first review a negative one..but that aside, I realized that I really had meant to say that I would review another book of hers, providing it was an improvement, but I didn’t say that. However, that chance has presented itself. Her publisher sent me a request on Goodreads. He asked me if I would be interested in reviewing her new book. My first thought was, well, she got a publisher, so I assume it will be professionally edited this time. The interesting thing about this is that it is being published as a serial,, and I was sent episodes 1-4. I usually only do reviews on complete works and I usually only review an author once, because it is normally their debut novel. Since I felt kind of bad about that first review, I told him that I would review it. If you are not familiar with how the serials work, as the author is writing them they are getting feedback on the published episodes, so the reader is participating with the author as they are writing it. Once the reader buys the e-book, the new episodes are added for free. I find this intriguing. If I do like it, I don’t have a problem with buying it to get the other episodes. The reason I started this blog is to find the new talent that could possibly be overlooked in a traditional setting. I hope that is the way it happens. I also corrected another mistake in my blog. I should have set the type of books that I wanted to read. I am not fond of biographies and was mentioned earlier, non-fiction, zombies , or most Christian fiction. I thought that I would be able to read anything and be able to give an opinion on the writing and structure as you pointed out. I like to still think that I can. The problem is, without narrowing the field, it becomes too much. So, I listed new submission requirements, and hopefully this will help. My problem is that it is hard to say no to anyone needing a review! Sorry, this is so long! Wow, I need an editor too! πŸ™‚

    • Dear Rebecca, no worries! Thanks for sharing. I had no idea people were still publishing serials nowadays, or that you could do it via ebook. that’s kind of fabulous. Life, as is you, is definitely a learn-as-you-go kind of dance (love John Michael Montgomery and my country music, ha!). Kudos for giving that writer another shot and learning how to better review. I don’t review as yet… might need to start at some point. It’s just kind of a scary thought for me.

      • It definitely is scary. When I finally got serious about writing, I knew from all the reading I was doing, that I would need to start asap on getting a platform going. The best way, according to the “experts” was a blog. But, here I was, no publishing credits, what in the world could I possibly blog about? What did I love to do..or as Jane Friedman says: What is my passion? With that criteria, that is how I came up with the book review idea. At first I was wondering if I could do it. Who was I, such a novice, to give my opinion on someone’s blood, sweat and tears? Writing jis so much more that putting words on paper and creating a story. The writer, anyway the best that I have read, dig deep and open a vein and put it on paper. It isn’t easy to do that. I think that was partly responsible for my fear in getting started until so late in life. But, anyway..back to my indecision. So, what to do and if I did do this, what would make my blog any different than the hundreds of other bloggers that review books? That is when I came up with the idea of dedicating my blog to newbies like myself. I was convinced that there had to be gems out there that may have gotten lost with all the others. So that is how Becky’s Book Notes came to be. It is still scary. I hate to say no, I really hate to be critical, but at the same time, it is important to be honest, but constructively. I have taken critique classes (ages ago!), but I remember that the first thing we were taught was to always start out on a positive note and say something good about it. Even if most all of it is bad, there is always something positive to say. That is what I try to do. Another long letter, maybe I will try NaNoWriMo next year..I am one wordy novice..lol πŸ™‚

        • best of luck to you and your blog! really great thoughts here, and a wonderful blog idea!!! it’ so true that it’s necessary–but difficult–to keep the “constructive” part of criticism in there!

  5. Thank you so much! I hope to get more interaction on the blog. Some people are commenting, but they are mainly writers too, which is great of course, but I would love to get more reader interaction in there.

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