Thursday, February 11, 2010

Bad Reviews

by Jessica

Despite the fact that fewer people are looking to traditional venues to guide their book selections (something Jane addressed earlier this week), it seems to me that a negative review still has significant capacity to do damage. I’m speaking in particular of Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic, a widely anticipated debut novel from the author of the much praised collection You Are Not a Stranger Here. The subhead in Michiko Kakutani’s February 7th New York Times review reads “A Lumpy, Disappointing Book.” Ouch. Although this does not accurately capture the whole of the review--the same sentence continues “at times, gripping and keenly observed”—I imagine that the folks over at Nan Talese/Doubleday were less than delighted. I read the book as an ARC over the summer and I admired, but did not love, the novel. The comparative coldness of its main characters (here criticized by Kakutani), however, seemed to capture something of the zeitgeist, the culture of corporate malfeasance and unabashed greed that precipitated the recent collapse of the financial industry.

So now my question is, to what degree do bad reviews affect your reading/buying decisions? Do you pay attention to damning print reviews from heavy hitters like New York Times or the New Yorker? Every so often, a spectacularly awful one piques my curiosity. Jane’s post and the subsequent reader responses seem to indicate that reviews, especially old-school print reviews, don’t hold the power people in publishing think that they do. And yet. Reviews are part of building word of mouth; sooner or later, someone, somewhere, needs to know about a book in order to read it and comment. A write up like the one Haslett got can quiet the potential “mouths” (actual or virtual) upon which we increasingly rely.   

 What say you? Does a lukewarm-to-scathing write up give you pause?  If you need help finding some examples of either, check out theworstreviewever.blogspot.com, a blog devoted to wound-licking in the wake of bad reviews

13 comments:

  1. Bad reviews can affect whether I'm interested in a book, but it depends on the whole of the review. If I see clues that the reviewer is someone I'd disagree with, it often makes me more interested in the book.

    I have seen too many reviews where the reviewer is just massaging their own ego to actually take any review on it's own terms. And that feeling is even stronger in this day of user reviews, where you have to read the top and bottom reviews before you can get an idea of what really matters.

    (I mean, how many times have you read a horrible review of a favorite restaurant online? I really top notch authentic ethnic restaurant will always attract terrible reviews from people who seem to hate anything but chain restaurants with plastic food.)

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  2. Depends on the reviewer - and, frankly, we've all seen so many unhinged reviews from Kakutani - I read her reviews for what they say about *her* not about the books. Among novelists I know, it's a badge of honor to have been excoriated by her. That's why the NYT usually covers the big books that she bashes with another review - in Haslett's case, I think he'll be covered by the NYT Sunday review section too.

    More generally, though, whether I trust a bad review depends on the evidence in the review itself. If it's thin, it's thin - can't take a reviewer's word for it unless I know I like his or her style. And I can't think of a reviewer like that for books (though, for films, I can name a few.)

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  3. For me, a bad review doesn't necessarily affect whether I'll buy the book. If it's a well-written review, I can usually tell whether my taste differs from the reviewer's; and of course, some reviewers hate everything, so their opinions should be taken accordingly. There are very few reviewers now who are a pleasure to read, whose reviews will be erudite and informative, and some of them are careless readers who miss things or fail to make connections. I miss reviews I could sink my teeth into, where the reviewer had grappled with the book. It's a rare reviewer I would take at his word.

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  4. There are certain kinds of bad reviews that will turn me off a book. A review that talks about idiot plots or despicable characters, for instance, turns me off. If the review says the action is too extreme to be believable or is too talky, that's a selling point.

    As a writer, though, I have to admit that the really negative reviews make me laugh. I've received a 1.5-star review where the reviewer didn't seem to understand what was happening in the book. ::Shrugs:: it's inevitable and I'm sure it cost me readers, but if word of mouth couldn't win them back, I'm doing something wrong.

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  5. I have to say a damning NYT or New Yorker review tends to stay in my mind, although if the author of the review is somebody whose work I don't like, I rethink.

    But, like Harry, I read one-star Amazon/online reviews for a laugh. They can be informative, too: if a certain type of reviewer hates a book, that often indicates it's my kind of read.

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  6. I never let a review be the deciding factor in my choice to read a given work, unless it's from a close friend whose opinion has proven to be in line with mine in the past. I would much rather pick up the book and spend some time with it myself. It doesn't take me long to decide if I've got a keeper or not.

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  7. Last month, I read the first five chapters of an AWFUL memoir that was given a great blurb by one of my favorite authors. My husband, whose literary tastes are similar to mine, just threw down a book he hated which has been given dozens of fantastic reviews; I picked it up, started reading it, and will definitely make it to the end -- it really IS fantastic.

    So bad reviews do give me pause, but they don't put me off entirely. There's just too much subjectivity involved. And why should Michiko Kakutani and I see eye to eye on what makes a great book when my husband and I don't?

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  8. A bad review will make me look for other reviews. If they're universally awful, I'll skip the book. But I'm most interested in what regular readers have to say--the comments on Amazon, from my friends and family. Then I'll read the first sentence or two and decide.

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  9. I personally don't pay much attention to the reviews. I read the back cover and the first few pages. If I like the story line and the voice I usually buy it or put it on my wish list for another date. My tastes don't always agree with the tastes of NY Times.

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  10. I loved YOU ARE NOT A STRANGER HERE so I'll certainly read his novel and make up my own mind.

    I think a bad review is more damaging to new writers.

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  11. Yeah, a bad review would likely keep me from buying/reading the book if this was an author I had not read before. If it was from an author I have read and liked it would have less impact.

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  12. Sometimes it's not a printed review that can derail a well written book. Last week the Oprah Winfrey show aired a disappointing, error-laden account of diabetes that put most of the blame on the patient and went on to suggest that diabetes could be cured through lifestyle and personal care. While this may be true of type 2 diabetes, it is not the case for type 1. I wonder what affect this sort of "you-get-what-you-deserve" exposure had on sales of the wonderfully written Diabetes Rising, by Dan Hurley. His book does more for raising awareness of diabetes than that phenomenally popular talk show (applauding your work on the book was my original reason for coming to the website -- job well done!). Perhaps Mr. Hurly should make a plea to be on Oprah to set the record straight.

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  13. They don't affect what books I buy, just like bad movie reviews don't affect the movies I choose to go see.

    I buy the books that interest me and always remind myself how subjective this business is when I do hear something negative. I might not agree.

    What will keep me from buying a book is if an author is going wacky online about a review, which has happened a couple of times.

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