Thoughts on Writing negative reviews

During the few short months that The Unseen Library has been up and running, I have been lucky that I have enjoyed all the books that I have reviewed (Joe Ollinger’s 10,000 Bones did receive a somewhat critical review, but there was more to like than dislike). After all, writing something positive is a much more easy and enjoyable task than writing something negative – that’s why I review books and not, say, country music or reality TV.

A few weeks back I received an email from an author asking if I would be interested in reading their upcoming book and writing a review, to which I agreed. However, when I got around to it, I felt that the book in question suffered from a number of major issues, and was consequently tasked with writing a negative review. No doubt those of you with a great deal more experience than me have found yourselves in this situation countless times before. For me, however, it was an unfamiliar situation and I felt unsure how to proceed, leaving me at a crossroads.

At first, it seemed as though I was simply making a choice about what is a fair level of criticism for a book. It was from this perspective that I chose to write my review from. However, the more I think about it, the more it seems to be a choice about what I consider the role of a reviewer to be.

                The consumption of literature is a highly subjective process, something upon which we can all agree. So what, therefore, is the purpose of a review? Surely we are not so conceited as to believe that, as reviewers, we are an authority on quality or taste?  Of course not. While the act of reviewing does involve offering opinion on the merits of particular piece of writing, it is, perhaps more importantly, a critique of our experience of engagement with a text. Indeed, from a phenomenological perspective, a text’s structure allows for an almost limitless number of reading experiences, from sublime to hellish. Why should any experience be given more credence than another simply because it more closely resembles an experience that the author may have hoped a reader to have?

So what about the future? How will I approach the task of writing negative reviews?

The value of a review is intrinsically linked to how accurately it portrays the reader’s experience of a text. The subjectivity and uniqueness of our own individual experience of reading a book is exactly what requires us, in the event of needing to write a negative review, to approach the task with a no-holds-barred mind-set. Anything else would be an inaccurate representation, and betrayal, of our own experience.

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