Blogging: Too much positivity?

2000px-Day-template.svgLate last year the author Matt Haig tweeted that book bloggers were being too positive: not every book published was wonderful, he said; he could do with a bit more criticism, a little negativity now and then. Of course he’s right – lots of books should never have been published in the first place and few are entirely brilliant – but he caused a good deal of upset.  When I looked in later things were turning nasty as they sometimes do on Twitter but not usually in my neck of the woods. His publicist had tactfully stepped in no doubt seeing valuable coverage for his next novel disappearing noisily down the drain but several bloggers were more than a little put out. The following week Haig wrote a short opinion piece in The Bookseller standing by what he said but written in more emollient tones – that’s what having more than 140 characters will do for you.

My own stance is that I felt Haig was being a little unfair but he didn’t deserve to have mud slung at him. Perhaps he should try buying a periodical like the TLS who pay their reviewers to think long and hard about the books they review, although it’s a small world – even reviews in the broadsheets may not be entirely objective. Bloggers blog for the fun of it, because they love reading and often because they want to share their pleasure with others. There are bloggers who review negatively but that’s entirely up to them. As long as a review is honest it hardly matters if it’s a little over enthusiastic. After many years of reading titles for work that were not always my choice I made a decision to write here only about the ones I would recommend to a friend. Anything else and I’m more than likely to have given the book up. What do you think?

49 thoughts on “Blogging: Too much positivity?”

  1. I can’t comment on others. But I enjoy writing reviews for the books I hated reading and I happily post them. And I adore the enthusiasm book bloggers have. I think Matt Haig is being slightly harsh and misguided.

    1. I think you’re right. It’s entirely up to the blogger – as long as a review is honest that should be enough. And I can see the attraction of the occasional hatchet job!

  2. This is an interesting point…I find myself more compelled to review a book if I’ve enjoyed it and feel passionate about it. If I don’t enjoy it, I have less to say about it and I tend to forget if very quickly. I also work for the Penguin Random House group which can mean that my hands (or thoughts!) are tied. It’s a difficult one. I don’t enjoy reading bad reviews either unless they’re brilliant (and often hilarious) hatchet jobs.

    1. Ah, yes – I can see that it’s tricky if you work in publishing. I tend to look to bloggers to recommend out of the way titles and so I’m not really interested in negative reviews.

  3. Agree… really interesting point. Not started blogging yet, so purely from a readers point of view, I’d rather read positive & constructive reviews than negative ones… guess I like to encouraged & ultimately will interpretate the points being made myself as to whether something is to my taste & worth reading

    1. That sounds as if you may have blogging plans, Poppy. I’m in the market for recommendations although I have quite strong opinions about what’s likely to appeal and what isn’t.

  4. I think Matt Haig didn’t look at many sites (he later claimed he as talking about vloggers) before he made his claim; I read plenty of unfavourable reviews. For me (and I do review books I didn’t particularly enjoy, I struggle to give up on ones I probably should, although sometimes they make interesting reviews), a review should offer the reader a sense of whether they would like the book or not, in which case they need to be critical rather than gushing or a hatchet job. If I really love something I say so but someone would need to know whether their taste aligns with mine to credit that with anything. I really dislike reviews that are all about someone’s personal opinion; I want to know about the book, not whether an individual liked it (or elements of it) or not.

    1. Yes, there was a degree of backtracking brought on, I suspect, by a wee bit of publisher intervention! After browsing around the blogosphere for a while I think readers find the blogs that best suit them. I look for a brief sense of what the book’s about rather than a blow-by-blow account then a few points on what’s particularly good, or bad if the blogger has more perseverance than me. In my own reviews I’d always mention something I didn’t feel had worked and why but tend not to labour it as I’d have given the book up if I didn’t feel they were minor points.

  5. I think as a blogger you have to write what feels right. I have come across a couple of books this year I didn’t rate well, but it was honest.

    At the same time it gave an opportunity to readers to pick up the book for themselves and make their own mind up. But I guess it needs to feel right with you first.

  6. Very interesting – and I agree with you. I read and review for pleasure, so tend to select books which I know I’m going to enjoy and which I want to share. And it’s actually fairly rare for me to read a book which doesn’t chime with me at all – of course my enjoyment is on a spectrum, but on that basis most of my reviews tend to be positive. Many of the blogs I enjoy seem to be built on a similar premise – bloggers have the freedom to curate a series of recommendations and to focus on the things they are passionate about, rather than ploughing through books they don’t enjoy because they are obliged to.

  7. I’m tempted to agree that having ‘gushing’ reviews of everything can devalue the books that are truly outstanding. I very, very rarely give ‘5 stars’ – perhaps that’s the old teacher in me coming to the fore (top mark is only for the teacher?) – but I also very rarely give one star, as I’ll have long stopped reading if the book is so bad.

    However, I do distinguish between my personal blog (where I tend to highlight mostly the books I enjoy and recommend) and the books I review more ‘professionally’for other sites, such as Crime Fiction Lover or Necessary Fiction. In the latter case, I feel I owe the reader an honest and more nuanced opinion, whether positive or negative. However, I also point out that this is my personal opinion and that other readers (who like action thrillers, for example, or have different reading tastes to my own) may think differently.

    1. Interesting that you have two different approaches, Marina. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, though, transparency is the key. Gush is just a bit dull unless you explain what provoked it.

  8. I think there needs to be some sour in with the sweet, occasionally. I love reading and writing blogs because I feel like it’s almost a chance to discuss books with fellow readers. I want to know the good, the bad, and the ugly, but mainly the good. I try to be balanced in my reviews. I appreciate things I love are not always what others will love, but that’s why reviews are interesting. I love the introductory “what drew me to this book” type paragraphs. They help you understand where the blogger is coming from. I don’t think there’s a need to destroy books in a blog review, surely absence speaks louder than words in that respect anyway?

  9. I quite enjoy reading negative reviews – but they do have to explain themselves… I will do the occasional one myself. Most reviews are however positive – and I think this is mostly because we get good at picking books we’ll enjoy to read…

  10. I think it is definitely more of a challenge to write a review about a book that I didn’t like, but personally I like to read a well constructed 1 or 2 star review to understand what the detractors might be, because sometimes they may be an issue for me and sometimes not – but I don’t like it when there is an imbalance of positive reviews, that makes me suspicious. I write reviews to keep a record of what I have read and to try and understand what I am reacting to in the book and why a book might appeal or not appeal. Of course I am aware others read the reviews and so I carry a sense of responsibility to both other readers and the author to be sure I don’t express unfounded opinions and that is a challenge I really enjoy, to force ourselves to dig a little deeper.

    It is completely normal that there will be diverse and extreme opinions on books as we all have different tastes and expectations and if a book is pitched correctly we should be able to navigate our way towards those that will appeal to us.

    As readers as well, we are all drawn towards reviewers we trust and rely on, whether they are bloggers or in the media, readers who discover that a reviewers got it wrong for them won’t trust that source as much in the future or will note their differences, it’s a personal choice. I like how on Goodreads we get to see the opinions of those whose reviews we follow thought of a book, before the wider, unknown reading community. To say there is too much positivity, to me just suggests that a reader hasn’t found their like-minded reading community, because there are plenty out there with opposite characteristics, but ultimately the only reviewer that will absolutely match ones own thoughts on every single book – is you!

    1. Such an excellent and thoughtfully expressed comment, Claire. One of the reasons I blog is to make me think about what I’m reading rather than simply letting it wash enjoyable over me. And I think you’re absolutely right – you find your own community and if you want to be challenged a little there’s lots more out there in the very busy blogosphere.

  11. Personally I prefer to read blogs that express a range of opinions about books, the bad alongside the good. That’s the only way I can really gauge whether my tastes align. Plus I actually really enjoy a strongly written negative review. I think some of the best criticism comes from understanding what you didn’t like. I must be weird because I also find negative reviews much easier to write myself, because I feel less emotional and don’t gush like I sometimes do in positive ones.

    But that’s entirely a matter of preference, and I know lots of bloggers prefer only to recommend books they loved. I think it depends what your blogging is for. For me it’s about charting my reading life with all its ups and downs, and so I write about books I loved, hated and didn’t finish equally. For others it’s about sharing wonderful books and talking about them in the community. You can see why there would be fewer negative posts in that case. 🙂

    All that said I have occasionally strayed into some areas of the book blogosphere where every review is a 10 line love-in and every second post is a blog tour about the next most amazing thing ever. Those bloggers are out there, but I don’t think it’s the norm.

    1. I don’t, either, Victoria. Such blogs much be pretty tedious, unlikely to generate any discussion. I’m in complete agreement with your point that it’s up to the individual blogger just as it’s up to readers to decide which blogs suit them best. There’s a multitude out there to choose from!

  12. lonesomereadereric

    I largely agree with what’s been said. Since I write myself, I’m generally sympathetic with an author’s efforts so that when reviewing a book I’ll focus mostly on what I found positive and if I have something negative to say it will be paired alongside what I found strong about the book. I know how heart-sickening it can be to put so much effort and emotion into your creative writing and then have it slammed down. As people have said, book blogging is done out of passion. If I were paid to write a review and I genuinely thought thet book was a failure I’d write an honest well-argued negative review. But if I read half a book and don’t enjoy it I’ll usually just put it aside and not bother writing about it on my blog.

    I did have an interesting reaction once when I reviewed AL Kennedy’s latest book of short stories. She wrote to me that I was too generous – as if she wanted me to be more critical. It seemed a curious reaction to my enthusiasm for her stories. Maybe blogs can come across as too gushing at times because posts about books are much more personal and emotional reactions rather than the kind of clinical observations about books you can get in some periodicals.

    1. Interesting reaction from A L Kennedy, Eric. I wonder what she meant. I agree with you about respecting the amount of effort that has gone into a book despite what the reader might think about its merits. I also think it’s very hard to expose yourself to the world in the way that writers must when their work is published for all to see, and to criticise. A mixture of joy and trepidation.

  13. I follow Matt Haig on Twitter but hadn’t been aware of this particular storm.Maybe the reason many bloggers are mainly positive is because as we are reviewing for fun, we choose what we read very discerningly. I haven’t got time these days to read things I am not pretty certain I am going to love that’s one reason I longer going after many review copies -maybe that makes my blog a little unexciting. I once wrote a less than effusive review of something I had been sent but emailed the author to warn him and explain my reaction. He emailed back to say he was delighted with the review. So maybe a little more criticism would be no bad thing. You have given me things to think about.

    1. I wouldn’t call your blog unexciting, Ali. It has the mark of someone who knows what she likes which for those who read blogs to find out about books they might want to read is no bad thing.

  14. If I’ve received a free book, from an author or via a giveaway, or if I’ve been granted early access through NetGalley or Edelweiss, I do feel obliged to give a full review. However, I am absolutely honest with my opinions and star ratings. I do not like to be in a position of having to come up with nice things to say about a terrible book. ‘Hatchet jobs’ i.e. negative reviews can be great fun to read (and write), but I agree with others that the opinions must be justified. I’ve only ever written one fairly terrible review, of a self-published pamphlet, and though I’m sure it stung at the time, the author did come back to me nearly a year later and thank me for the comments — he said he’d used them to significantly revise, and hopefully improve, his text.

    1. Well, that’s impressive. You obviously did him a favour – food for thought. I don’t review everything I’m sent – sometimes it’s a matter of time, sometimes, taste – but I do make my reviews policy clear on my ‘contact me’ page so that publishers are well aware of what to expect. I know from my old reviews editor days that they can take a something of a scattershot approach and don’t expect every one who’s sent a review copy to cover it.

  15. I guess it depends on what sort of negativity he means (I’ve not read the bookseller article). If it’s ranting for the sake of it, with no real criticism, I don’t see how the inclusion of that is any better than the lack of it. I enjoy it when lit bloggers write about why they didn’t enjoy a novel, rather than why they think a novel is intrinsically bad, but I’m not offended by the levels of positivity either. (Saying that though, I know I’ve had a rant or two in the past on my blog.)

    I think as you’ve said, lit bloggers predominantly read and write about what they love or would recommend, so for the most part that would only be positive.

    1. The basic thrust of his argument was that bloggers tend to gush – not his word but I think that’s what he meant. When it comes down to it, it’s your blog and you can do what you want to, to paraphrase a very old song, is my motto. I must pop over to yours and see if I can track down a few rants!

  16. Interesting discussion above. If I like a book I tweet about it but if I don’t then I tend not to say anything in public. I don’t review books as I know how much time and effort goes into writing one so I’m reluctant to criticise anyone’s else’s labour of love. In saying that, I read review blogs and do want a balanced review rather than someone only gushing about a book.

    1. I sometimes think tweeting is just as powerful in getting the word out about a book you love as reviewing, Helen. I think those of us who do review derive a great deal of pleasure from it but, you’re quite right, it requires effort and time.

  17. This is a very interesting question. I often find myself reviewing books that I love, but mostly because I choose to read feminist crime fiction, and I’m lucky to get to know the authors and to be pro-active in what I read (vs. being sent lots of books to review).

    However, your post hits home, it really does. A few weeks ago I was reading a book that I found sexist and racist, but that another blogger had loved. I was not feeling great at the time, so I took responsability for not liking the book, but not entirely, I still think the narrative was sexist and racist. I don’t know whether to review it, because I couldn’t read more than 48 pages. I don’t think my review would be fair, but I would really like to write something about the book. It’s all very complex.

    1. That’s a tricky one, Elena. It sounds as if it’s something that you need to let settle and maybe come back to – perhaps not write a review but a post on the dilemma you find yourself in?

  18. I agree with him. I get totally fed up with people writing every book up as if it’s the best thing ever written and all the backslapping that goes on between authors and reviewers. And then I get the book only to discover it’s mediocre at best. What’s the point of reviews if they all say everything is great? I want to know what the flaws are – it won’t necessarily put me off reading the book unless it’s a flaw that annoys me. But as often as not, even after I’ve read a review I know nothing that the blurb hasn’t already told me – except sometimes I know all about the twist at the end that the reviewer has kindly given away!

    I love reading reviews on the blogosphere but I’m more likely to read blogs where the reviewer tells me what they liked, and didn’t like, about books in terms that help me to come to an informed decision.

    1. Hmm.. I take your point but I do feel that he was a bit too barbed in his comments on bloggers who, after all, are doing it for free. You’re right about back slapping although that’s not entirely confined to the blogosphere. It’s a matey old world out there! I think the solution for most of us is to find bloggers/reviewers whose opinions/taste we trust and stick with them. Works well for me, anyway.

  19. I always choose books on the basis that I should enjoy them and usually I get it right… so I rarely write completely scathing reviews but they are not always gushing with praise either. I accept review copies from publishers rather than directly from the author though as it’s impossible to be truly objective otherwise. I like that bloggers are mostly positive though. The Internet is a scary enough place as it is.

    1. It is, indeed! I agree with you about accepting books from authors: if a publisher sends me a review copy and I don’t like it they know it won’t get a review – that’s part of the deal – but it’s much more personal with an author. I’ve done that three times but wouldn’t do it again.

  20. How intriguing! I could have sworn I saw a tweet from Matt Haig a few days back in which he said that negative reviews (of his own book, I presume) stung, until he’d looked over the reader’s other reviews and decided s/he was an idiot (my choice of word – he said something a little pithier). I feel it must have been something he said in an emotional outburst rather than from statistical analysis as all the bloggers I know and read are generally balanced in their reviews and discuss both books they liked and ones they didn’t. But then I often complain that these throwaway remarks about bloggers seem to be based on reading a handful, if that, of blogs. I would like to have been a fly on the wall in that publicist’s office on the afternoon it happened!

    1. Me, too! I suspect it was one of those comments made at a bored moment when reviews for his own book weren’t yet on the horizon. I don’t imagine he was expecting the wave of opprobrium that broke over him as a result.

  21. I’m with you. I rarely give up on a book, but I do actively seek out books I’m going to enjoy.
    Plus, I love reading, so it has to be either very bad, or definitely not my thing to get a bad review. Having said that – bad reviews are muck easier to write ;o)

    1. Glad to hear we are as one, although I’m not sure negative reviews would be easy for me – too much need for justification. Now hatchet jobs, that’s quite another thing!

  22. Interesting discussion. I don’t tend to finish books I dislike unless I absolutely have to. But if I do write a bad review it’s easier to write if the novelist isn’t on Twitter…

    1. Twitter can be inhibiting, it’s true. I’m with you on the giving up books front, Kate. I used to look on it as a failing but now feel that it’s pointless to continue with something I dislike.

  23. I think all that matters is that the review is honest. That’s why I like reviewing for Rosie Amber’s Team, because she gives us free rein to express ourselves, ha ha! Seriously, no-one wants to read review after review of gush, gush, gush; on the other hand, some people use their book blogs only to recommend books they love, so it’s fair enough! It’s reviewing for Rosie that gives my own book review blog some balance; I wouldn’t choose to continue with a book unless I could give it at least a good 4*, so if my reviews were just my own reading choices my blog, too, would look a bit gush gush gush….

    Having said that, you can give a good review without it being all praise. The most important thing is that a review gives the reader a clear picture of what to expect if they buy the book. One of the problems, I’ve noticed, is that some book bloggers (partic those run by younger girls, for romance and chick lit), see 5* as the standard for any book they liked, and apologise if they ‘only’ give 4*. I think a reviewer should start from 3* and go up or down as they go!!!

    1. I think we’re in broad agreement here, Terry. I couldn’t agree more about the gush – I do think that some less experienced bloggers tend to assume they have to perform for the publisher who has already gushed quite enough about the book! As you say, it’s quite possible to make a criticism in a positive review by pointing at an example of what didn’t work for you.

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