On Honesty in Book Reviews

Consider this a rec for No Fear Shakespeare’s graphic novels.

Not too long ago I wrote about the fun that is getting a bad review as an author. It’s not something I’m going to cry over (though I sure want to!), because as I’ve also noted here, book reviews are vital for authors, and bad reviews count. We need them to get visibility in today’s algorithm-driven world. Getting a bad review can feel a little like having your loved one attacked, and it’s an exercise in growth to get to the point where we can move past them without letting the critique drag us down. After all, reviews, despite our dependency on them, are not for us, the author. They’re for readers, to find new books, or to know what they’re getting into when looking for that next read.

But reviews, like so many other things, do not exist in a vacuum, and are not created equal. While bad reviews are part of the hustle, and a review should always be honest, there are reviews out there which are, for lack of a better word, simply unfair.

I see it all the time, someone who disliked a book or any type of story and bravely decides to let everyone else know just how lousy the author is, and how their story is garbage. Objectively bad, hot, wet, smelly garbage. They posit their opinion as fact. Which, okay, fair. Authors have to accept that, too, but where it really rubs me up is when they’re based on ignorance of genre or content.

I recently finished The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab. Oh, my goodness, did I love it. I wanted to wrap myself in the lyrical prose and never leave the world. This is my first Schwab title, and I have to say, I will definitely pick up more of her work. One review I saw criticized this exact thing that I adored. The reader didn’t like the poetic elements. Cool. To each their own. But they went on to suggest that narrative works should never be in verse. To which I could only react with a resounding “Huh?” Having graduated high school, I can say with authority that this is far from true. Otherwise, we’ve wasted a lot of time reading Homer and Shakespeare.

Misunderstanding a convention of a genre or era is a common reason for this. I’ve seen criticisms of Romeo and Juliet that find it absurd that the whole of the play, which includes a tragic love story, takes place over three days. Well, in Elizabethan era theatre, it’s a hallmark of the period that plays had to happen within a specific amount of time, or less. In fact, when Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, the scope of the place happens in a time three times longer than what was the norm of previous eras of storytelling, going all the way back to the Greeks. Agamemnon in the Oresteia makes it all the way home from the Trojan War the same day that Clytemnestra sees the signal flames announcing the fall of Troy. Quite the feat!

One of the harshest critiques of my own work was that the fantasy elements were not prominent enough, from a reader who was clearly prefers high fantasy, and did not enjoy my magical realism/low fantasy. When I took to Twitter with these thoughts the other day, Silvia Moreno-Garcia had a few things to say:

Which brings me to my next point. I see this flavor of criticism all the time with books by BIPOC authors. ‘This book is too long with too many characters,’ about Rebecca Roanhorse’s epic fantasy, Black Sun. ‘This violence happens for no reason,’ or ‘There’s no point to the story,’ about Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians. ‘Too many made up words,’ in N.K. Jemisin’s dystopia The Broken Earth trilogy. ‘Why didn’t the author just say this was a cultural thing?’ in Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves. Part of this is being unfamiliar with genre. Some of it is failing to understand anything that is outside a typical Anglo-based culture.

It’s perfectly fine to dislike a work. You don’t even have to have a good reason. I’ve left reviews that were simply, “This is not for me.” It doesn’t mean the book is bad, just not to my taste. What is harmful is using that dislike as an objective fact, to say the book is bad, technically or otherwise, because you’re new to a genre, or an outsider to the non-white cultural background the author is bringing to their work.

It’s something to be mindful of when leaving reviews. Leave a bad review if you truly did not enjoy a work, because honesty really is best. Try to remember that taste is subjective, and that opinion is not fact. It’s fair to the storyteller, and it’s fair to other readers.

One thought on “On Honesty in Book Reviews

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  1. Nice post. Reviewers are obligated to thoughtfully construct their words so readers can get a sense of what a work offers. Book reviewers should read the entire book and be as constructive as possible if they are going to criticize. Readers and authors deserve that consideration. (And no spoilers!)

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