Blog 1 year ago

Ask Alice: Are bad reviews actually bad?

Ask Alice is an online column produced by the #LoveOzYA team, and written by our Secretary, Alice Boer-Endacott, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay.

Ask Alice is designed to unpack all aspects of the Australian young adult literary scene, so if you’ve got a question, go ahead and Ask Alice!

Few things feel like more of a personal attack than being told that someone doesn’t like something that you’ve done.

That’s only intensified when the subject of this critique is something you’ve made and spent a lot of time making. I often suspect that’s why academics can be so vicious; because there’s so much time and energy invested in trawling through data and there’s something so personal about putting forward a theory or idea. If there’s even a minor critique of your work, it can feel very much like a personal attack.

That’s a principle which extends to those who write. One of the reviews of my books which has stuck in my mind simply reads “boring and a lot of fluff.” Well, at least they didn’t make a hypocrite of themselves when writing the review. But I have a distinct memory of reading the review for the first time and thinking, wow, thanks for treating the months of my life I spent writing this book with such thoughtfulness and respect.

Except the thing is even a review like that has a certain value to it. To help me answer what exactly that value is, this month I’ve recruited the expertise of Allayne Wesbter, author of many fabulous books including the CBCA notable novels Paper Planes, A Cardboard Palace, That Thing I Did, and most recently, Selfie; Steph Conlon, a Senior Library Assistant; and Marianna Shek, librarian-in-training whose middle-grade and young adult stories have placed in various awards, including the Wakefield Press YA Horror Anthology competition.

From my own academic research (and yes, I do indeed have to swallow my pride when I receive any critique on my academic as well as my fiction writing), I can tell you that we need to start with an important distinction.

There are, broadly speaking, two types of reviews: formal and vernacular reviews.

Formal reviews appear in traditional media publications like The Age or The Atlantic. They’re generally written by people who are paid to be some form of literary critic. These reviews often focus on the book’s technical aspects: key themes, the writing, or even the general structure. They’re also written in a formal register.

Vernacular reviews on the other hand, are what we currently encounter the most. They’re written by, well, everyone else. They appear on social media platforms such as Goodreads, TikTok or Instagram. While they can focus on those aforementioned technical elements, they’re written by anyone – not a trained literary analyst or critic – and they’re a lot more personal in content.

Steph noted that these kinds of reviews “are more accessible than formal reviews, especially because a lot of ‘formal’ book reviews like The New York Times and The Australian Book Review are protected by paywalls.”

Marianna articulated reviews in a way I really love, referring to them as “a way of communicating a person’s experience of an artwork.” Especially with regard to vernacular reviews, it’s important to remember that what’s being shared is not just someone’s thoughts on a book, but the subjective, personal experience of a person as they read it.

At this point, it’s worth delineating between a review which indicates a reviewer didn’t particularly like the book, and a review which contains an unpleasant tone and ad hominin attacks against the book, the author, or both. Sometimes the line can be a fine one; especially if a book evokes a strong response within a particular reader, or if the book could have been written with more consideration toward certain sensitive themes or content. However, for the purpose of this column, when I say ‘bad review,’  I refer to reviews which critique a book in a way that is relatively polite and considered, but ultimately conclude that they did not like the book and probably would not recommend it.

So, after that rather lengthy preamble, that brings us to the question: are those bad reviews actually bad?

If you’re an author, you never really want to see that someone doesn’t like your work. But, as Allayne acknowledged, if she encounters a bad review of one of her books, after getting past the initial reaction of wanting to “stick my head in the sand,” she acknowledges, “There’s actually something far worse than a bad review: silence […] A bad review means your book is on the radar […] That’s why we publish lots of books. Not everyone likes the same thing.”

While a bad review is an inevitability, a sufficient number of posts about a particular book still means that it’s on people’s radar.

While I’m not entirely sold on that universal truth behind the adage ‘any publicity is good publicity,’ there is a grain of truth in it. We exist in an environment where most of us look to peer recommendations as a means to guide us in all manner of decisions – not least of which is our next read. Although a glowing recommendation is often going to nudge us toward a particular book, often the hardest part of trying to sell your work is making people aware of its existence.

So for authors, provided the reviews of their work aren’t overwhelmingly negative or lacklustre, a review in which the reviewer concluded that they didn’t like the book is far from a disaster.

That benefit of publicity and awareness-raising manifests in recommendations of people who put books into the hands of others, such as booksellers and librarians.

Not only does a bad review still mean that booksellers and librarians may be aware of books which otherwise might slip by their notice, it also gives them information about how books resonate with others beyond their own subjective and personal response to a text.

Marianna confessed, “I enjoy trawling through Goodreads and reading the three-star reviews. Three-star reviews are the most interesting ones because the readers usually have ambivalent feelings towards a book and are not just gushing about how much they love the work.” Similarly, Steph noted, “It interests me to analyse what other readers disliked about the book and why [because it helps] my readers’ advisory skills.”

I think Marianna summed it up best when she said of reviews that reading them can give her “fresh insight that I may have missed.” Especially when you’re recommending a book, the personal preferences of individuals have to come into play. I love fantasy books, but it would be pointless to recommend any kind of fantasy to my friends who love non-fiction. They simply won’t like it. Equally, if I know someone prefers books that are fast-paced in tone, I’m unlikely to recommend something that has quite literary prose.

Booksellers and librarians have their own set of preferences. A bad review can help inform understanding of who to not recommend a particular book to. Equally, it can simply help inform a more robust recommendation that gives the choice back to the reader. That might look something along the lines of: “if you’re after a book about sports, try X. Some people said they found it a bit slow to get going, but I really enjoy it.”

When thinking about whether or not a bad review is actually bad, I come back to a couple of things Allayne said. First, “Writing [and] publication always, always will be subjective.” However, provided the review at least goes some way toward substantiating why the reviewer didn’t like the book, much like Allayne, I appreciate that “someone is prepared to devote their time, deep thought and consideration to my art, and talk about it, which (to me) validates its existence. Provoking discussion is a good thing!”



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