Monday, April 4, 2011

Is It Worthwhile To Review Crappy, Obscure Novels?

I was going to write a review of the crappy, obscure thriller Final Theory for today's post, but as I started writing, I started thinking: What's the friggin' point? You've probably never heard of this book, so it's not like you were on the edge of your seat wondering if it's any good or not. And so then by writing a negative review about it, I've just convinced you never to give it a second thought. 

So why waste my (and your) time? I'm not sure why this just occurred to me. I certainly don't feel obligated to review every novel I read (and I don't). And I don't accept self-published books to review — partially for this reason: If I hate it, then I'm pasting a novel no one's ever heard of anyway, and so it's like adding insult to injury. Sure, if an obscure novel's great — Teddy Wayne's Kapitoil is one example — it's fun to sing its praises and therefore try to find it a wider readership. But an obscure novel being really good is a rarity, isn't it? That's why it's obscure. 

Of course, the deeper issue here is just the idea of the effect of negative reviews. Personally, I hate writing them — but dutifully do so when it's a book people need to know isn't that good; and more importantly, why. To me, writing a negative review is 100 times more difficult than a positive one. It's often tough to enumerate why I disliked it without just saying some form of "I disliked it."

And it's fair to say people don't like reading negative reviews, as well. It's funny how the percentage of "Not Helpful" votes on Amazon increases in precisely indirect proportion to the number of stars you give a review. A two-star review is guaranteed to garner several not helpful votes, a one-star review even more. Even if, by any objective measure, it's a bad book, people still seem angry at you for pointing that out.

I'm interested to hear from you. Do you review crappy, obscure books? What do you see as the benefit of doing so? Do you also struggle writing negative reviews, or at some level, is it therapeutic to lambaste a crappy book?


  1. I write a review of each book I read, and thus far I haven't really come up against a book I've hated. It helps that I'm just reading and writing about whatever book I feel like instead of reviewing ARCs. That said, I don't have a problem writing something negative if I didn't like the book, obscure or not. I guess I never really thought of the point of my reviews as trying to get people to read or not read a book. Though I suppose having a purpose to writing is probably a good idea...

  2. Since I have started blogging, I have taken an oath/challenge to review everything I read. Therefore, yes, I do review crappy obscure books. Because I feel like it is maybe a little deceptive to only review the ones I like? Sort of like only posting the golf scores I'm proud of. I don't know. I do know I hate writing them, but feel like I am nothing if I don't speak my piece.

  3. There have been plenty of times where I've reviewed an obscure book I actually liked. You're right, it is fun trying to find those books an audience. But generally, I agree that a negative review is pretty pointless. You aren't going to steer anyone away from it better than the book has already done for itself. Your negative review may actually encourage some literary masochists to read the thing. Now, I can understand reviewing it in the name of comedy... Maybe if it's one of those "so bad it's good" works. Those books can be rather hilarious, and often they deserve to have mean-spirited/sarcastic things said about them.

  4. I'm with Red and Sandy--I review everything I read, good or bad. But I do feel awful when I post a negative review. Every book is an author's baby, and here I am telling the world the baby is ugly.

  5. I understand your point. It never happened to me for a novel, but it did for movies. When it's not worth writing about, I just leave it aside.

  6. Crappy and obscure may be subjective points,but the decision to write about them or not comes from your purpose in starting a book blog in the first place.

    Some websites revel in bad books while others prefer to give their space to smaller books that need an extra push in promotion there.

    My personal feeling is that if I like a book enough,I'll sing it's praises as loudly as I can and if not,the old saying about "if you don't have anything nice to say..." applies. Trashing a movie or a TV show,however,is something that I feel more comfortable about(so wrong of me,I know).

  7. @Ken - Neurotic assholes unite! Sometimes (like if it's Dan Brown, or Stephen King, in some instance) it is therapeutic to vent. Sophisticated to keep it, I try.

    @Red - Yeah, I never review ARCs either, actually - that's a good point I forgot to mention. Maybe the secret to a better negative review of an obscure novel is to give the specific reasons I didn't like it, but point out why others may enjoy it. "If you're into X, then you may still dig this." But that may be stretching. Part of not negatively reviewing obscure books is simply not to bore my readers, too - the review posts already elicit the fewest comments, and if it's something no one's heard of, and it's something I couldn't even talk MY self into interesting, who the hell's gonna read my review about it? Right?! RIGHT?! ;)

    @Sandy - That's a good point about editing out the bad books. I do wonder sometimes if my readers think I'm nothing but a gusher, because I do tend to skip reviewing books I wasn't a huge fan of, especially if they're obscure. But this is my blog, dammit, and that gives me license to be selective about what gets published here! ;)

    @CircadianHour - Excellent point about reviewing it for the sake of comedy - though dickish, it can be a sort of nice payback for having had to spend hours reading the crappy book. If I ever do a review of one of the Vince Flynn books, that'll be the tack I take.

  8. @Kathy - Yeah, the "author's baby" idea is a thought I often have, too. Plus, I know how tough it is to write fiction, and that which gets published is the top 0.05% of all fiction written, so how bad could it really be? It's normally better than what I could do.

    @Ben - Yeah, when you know it's a turn-off to your readers, why put it out there.

    @lady T - I'd definitely agree that trashing a TV show or movie is easier - not sure why that is. And I think you're right about just determining why you're blogging - if it's to collect your thoughts on EVERY book you read, then by all means, trash the crappy, obscure books. But I'm not sure, as I said, readers really enjoy negative reviews - especially about books they've never heard of.

  9. I was just thinking this the other day when I was writing a review for a book I didn't like and it's not a new book or anything that people might be wondering about. But like some of the commenters above, I try to review everything I read. Plus, how credible are my good reviews if I never have a negative one? In my negative reviews I try to be fair and point out the good and the bad. And if I have nothing good to point out, there's usually a reason I'm so passionate about it. It's hard sometimes because I feel bad for the authors, but I try to be objective. No book is ever going to have 100% satisfaction from all readers!

  10. This post made me laugh - in essence you reviewed the book by telling us it was crappy and saying you wouldn't review it because it was crappy :) LOL

    I review everything I read - crappy or no. But, luckily, most of the books I read are not crappy because I am very picky about what I select to read (like you, I pretty much say no to self published books with very rare exceptions). If I don't finish a book (because it is just too crappy to continue), then I write "my thoughts" which are not a review, but which tell my readers why I didn't finish the book. I don't know - does it make a difference? Maybe, maybe not. Just one of the joys of being a book blogger!! LOL!

  11. I don't review everything I read, and most of the books I read are from my own collection. I'd like to think that I'd give them all positive reviews, but on occasion I've picked a dud and I will write about why I think it is so.
    That said, I tend to shy away from blogs that give every book a glowing positive review. It's impossible to like everything.

  12. I think it's important because people are more likely to have to buy obscure books. This doesn't mean that you are obligated to review them, obviously, but it is nice when there is a trustworthy review of a book I'm interested in, but has few reviews.

  13. I think obscure is a subjective term, other people have obviously bought that book - and it has a 4 star average rating, so without a negative review to question that, someone might purchase based on the positive reviews and then feel the same way you do about it - your negative review could have warned them to start with and saved them a few bucks.
    I read a fair variety - including self published (though I try to choose very carefully) and I review everything I read. I would never write a wholly negative review though. If it's something I didn't like than I will say that, but I will try to do so diplomatically and balance it with something positive. I don't write about books I don't finish (though that is really rare) Describing the negative's isn't the same as trashing a book - its all about the attitude.

  14. I write bad reviews...sometimes.

    I'm more likely to tackle a published work because I feel it had passed through many hands and had several chances to get "less crappy" before publication.

    I have passed writing bad reviews on few self published books because I didn't want to tear down someone's dreams. Self published authors, for the most part, aren't ready for the onslaught they'll get and they don't need me in the mix.

    That being said, the bad reviews I write are far and few in between. As a life long reader I learned not to waste time reading, or even starting to read, a book I'm likely not to like.

  15. I hate writing bad reviews. It's much more difficult, like you said, to explain why I disliked it. I know it's going to take more of my time to write, and normally if I figure many people haven't or won't read it anyway, then I just won't bother. Of course, if it's a popular book, I have no problem writing a negative review and enumerating the reasons why I disagree with the adoring public.

  16. Okay, a book is a book... but if I find it's poorly written and it's been hyped up by critics and everyone around me as a fantastic book; well, that where I'll write a scathing and very honest review of the book... no matter who the author is. I wrote a bad review of 'Under The Dome' because I thought that book dragged so badly I absolutely detested having to go near it; however it's not as though I bagged every novel Stephen King ever wrote; just that one.
    However, if I've read a book that nobody's ever heard of, well, that's where I go out on a limb and say to my followers to keep an eye out for it; that it may come their way if they look out for it. That's the fun of reading books that are a little out there and reviewing them: nobody else has read them. And even though - to us - they may not be what people want, you never know what one or two followers of your blog might be looking for.
    I review every single book I read - good, bad or boring - as I never know what might strike a reader out there as their taste and not mine.

  17. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't. I just go with the flow. I recently wrote a review for Hell Island by Matthew Reilly, totally crappy and probably obscure, but I just thought that I should warn people away just in case. Other books I wouldn't bother.

    I have to admit that even great books that are totalyl obscure i sometimes wouldn't review.

    I do try as much as possible to review every book I read, simply because that my intial goal when I started my blog, but I am a lot more relaxed about it now. Life's too short.

  18. I'll review crappy books, if only to warn others, and I'll review obscure books if I think they deserve more notice, but when a book is both, chances are I didn't finish it and so it doesn't get reviewed.

  19. @Jenny - I agree that positive reviews lose credibility without a few negative ones here and there. I think maybe a paragraph into my negative review of that book few people would've read even if it had been awesome, I realized a much more interesting post would be try to find out how others feel when they find themselves in similar situations. And it has been very interesting! Loving all the feedback.

    @Wendy - You're right - one of the joys of being a book blogger is that you can set your own editorial guidelines. I do this for fun, but I want to have readers and a good conversation, too. And that's why I don't feel obligated to review every book I read - a negative review of a book like Final Theory would've resulted in an unprecedented number of deletes. Writing the post above was a lot more fun to write - and hopefully more fun to read - and it's definitely been more fun in the conversation.

    @Suzanne - Agreed. I'm also skeptical of people who like everything - and even more so of people who hate everything. Folks like that need to really think about why it is they're reading.

    @Amy - Yeah, I agree - that is, when I like the book and hope more people will read it.

    @bookdout - Well, knowing this blog's readership and the fact that I cover 99% contemporary literary fiction here, a thriller published several years ago would be obscure to most readers of the blog.

  20. @Man - Agree with you on opportunities for a book to get less crappy if it's actually published. Though, as I said, since I don't read self-published books, I don't have much of a basis of comparison. I'm just going on logic - if it didn't get published, it's probably not as good as those that did.

    @Amy - Sounds like we're on exactly the same page - especially on the popular book part. Sometimes it's fun being the voice of dissent, if that voice can be firmly argued.

    @Mozette - I also wrote a bad review for Under the Dome - silly novel. ;) And I agree with you that it's fun to discover a book and sing its praises - to be the "discoverer." I believe Malcolm Gladwell calls that being a "maven" - the person who's always telling his/her friends about what's new and cool.

    @Becky - Yeah, I don't see the point in reviewing every book you read just because you thought that was a goal. Why? Life's too short! It's your blog - if you don't think reviewing the book adds anything to your blog or to your experience with the book, why bother?!

    @Bibliophile - Well, we almost agree - I still finish the obscure, crappy book, but like you, there's little chance I'll review it.

  21. There a few points I disagree with here.

    Obscure books - in my opinion - tend to be books that are released independently or have been self-published. (As much as I LOVED Teddy Wayne's Kapitiol - it doesn't fit my idea of obscure as it was released by Harper Perennial)

    These obscure books deserve a review, positive or not, for the simple fact that someone wrote them, and you've read them, and those people deserve a little feedback. Your readers may not be grasping the edge of their seats to hear about this never-heard-of-before novel, but the people that put time and energy into it most certainly would like to hear what you think.

    Writing a negative review, no matter the popularity of the book itself, is relatively easy for me. And most of the time, they tend to come across less as "negative", and more as "constructive". It's all in how you manage your words and compose your feedback. Are you writing it to be hurtful and mean, or to try to show the author what they could have done to make it more impactful or smoother to read?

    To someone's point up above, I suppose it all boils down to your blogs purpose. I personally review every book I read. I wouldn't feel right if I didn't.

    Great discussion points!

  22. I do not review every book I read, but I do struggle writing bad reviews (as do I think a lot of book bloggers). I agree with TNBCC above that even an obscure book deserves a review, crappy or not. And if the book is obscure, it's likely even a bad review will be one of just a few. Whereas the upcoming bad review I'm about to write about a well-known book will be one review of many.

    One thing I'd like to be able to do - with more time and more organization - that I've seen other bloggers do when they write a bad review, is to link to good reviews of the same book. Because just because I didn't like something, doesn't mean that everyone will dislike it. And there might be a counterpoint out there that provides a more complete picture. As I said though, I don't have nearly the amount of time or organization to do that.

  23. I definitely review crappy books, because I notice those books getting play in places like Barnes & Noble, so it's not like no one is going to see them. So I think we sort of have an obligation to let people know what they're going to get with those as well as with the winners.

  24. i don't feel like i'm doing straight 'reviews' on my blog, but 'book-inspired discussions.' and however bad a book is, if i've manged to read it to the end, i'll have something i want to say about it.

    also, like many others, i blog also as a way to keep track of my reading. 'blog' stands for book log, for me. so i post about every book i read, for myself more than anyone else.

    like someone else pointed out (i've lost it among the comments now!) it's about why you write reviews. it's very public-spirited to do it as a way to help peoples book choices, in which case slamming an obscure book is pointless, so i see your point.

  25. @TNBBC - Well, I guess I'd say that you're right - next to any self-published work, Kapitoil isn't obscure. But next to Freedom or The Help or even the 23rd novel by a big-name novelist, it surely is. And then, I guess feeling obligated to review every book you read is a matter of the stated goals of your blog. For me, I've never imagined my blog to be something I'd take too seriously - so I feel no obligation to review every novel I read. I still log my thoughts on every book I read, but often those aren't polished enough for public consumption, if you know what I mean. ;)

    @home - Sure, crappy, obscure books *deserve* reviews just as much as the greatest novel of all time - but not here, they don't. ;) That's an awesome about linking to different review - but, like you, to me that sounds like a lot of work! Unless I'm writing a bad review to amuse myself (and hopefully my readers), I always also try to point out the kind of readers who may like it. That's not always easy, but it's easier than seeking out positive reviews.

    @rhapsody - I disagree that we (presumably you mean book bloggers) have an obligation - that's an awfully strong word. I mean, we run amateur book blogs here - I try to take mine too seriously. If there's something objectionable about the book or something that ticks you off about it, then negatively reviewing an obscure book is cool and fun. And that's why I write this blog - for fun, not because I'm obligated. (All that said, I do review crappy books, too - I was more interested in the idea of reviewing a crappy book that no one would've read anyway, even if it were decent.)

    @Ben - Book-inspired discussions is a great way to describe what I hope this blog is, too. I'm gonna steal that - thanks! I'm with you, that if I finish a book, no matter how crappy, I'll have something to say - and usually those thoughts go into my reading log. Whether or not I have anything to say that's sophisticated enough to add to the "public discourse" about the novel is what I have to decide before I'll put it in on my blog.

  26. I think it depends on how seriously you take your role as a book blogger. If you want to commit to it and place yourself solidly in the sphere - you should review everything you read, absolutely.

    I know a lot of people who don't review books they couldn't finish or books they didn't enjoy - this baffles me. The point fo book blogging (for those making a type of "career" out of it) is to spread the word about books - all books. If you found a book to be poor, you want people to know about it, right?

    Now, if you are just blogging for fun, and really not trying to inspire people to read and/or to guide people toward meaningful or time-worthy books, then maybe it's not as important.

    I do try to review every single thing I read (*qualifier - every book I read - not magazines, etc.) because I want to share with my readers the "good" and the "bad" - and why I felt a certain way.

  27. @Adam - Again, I couldn't disagree more. Even if you're intending to do this as a career or "place yourself solidly in the sphere," as you say, you're under no obligation to review EVERYTHING. Most book bloggers, me included, do their fair share of negative reviews. With this post, though, I'm not talking about being uber-selective and only telling readers about the good and leaving out the bad. I'm talking about skipping a review of a book I'm pretty sure none of my readers would care about anyway. Me reviewing that book on my blog would be kind of like Guitar World magazine reviewing the latest CD by an obscure new age artist. What I'm saying here is that in this case it was more of an editorial decision than one that goes to the root of the "editorial philosophy" of my blog - which, incidentally, is for fun. But that doesn't matter either. I'm pretty sure professional reviewers don't review even a third of all the books they read. And review-focused magazines certainly don't review EVERY book, movie, CD that comes out, right? I think it's insane to expect reviewers to review everything they read - but to those who do, more power to ya.

  28. I definitely don't think every book blogger has to review every book - and I don't mind those who don't; it's your blog, you do what you feel is best for it. I stand by the "best practice" of reviewing everything, though. To your point that you don't want to bother spending time reviewing books your readers won't be interested in - that alone is reason to review it, in my opinion. My negative and or simple "avoid it" reviews are almost just as important as my glowing ones, because it helps me help my readers decide what not to waste their time on - otherwise, like me, they might grab something they never heard of on a whim and end up, like me hating and/or finding no value in it. I suppose I'm just a philanthropist. :)

  29. @Adam - But there's a big difference between books my readers wouldn't be interested in even if they're good (like scientific thrillers or science fiction or YA or vampire romance)and literary fiction or other popular books they wouldn't be interested in because I tell them they're terrible. Again, I'm not talking about avoiding a review ONLY because I read a bad book - in that case, such as for The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest or Under the Dome or The Lost Symbol - I sometimes take almost perverse pleasure in pointing out how bad it is! That's what I think you mean by philanthropy. But just to reiterate - again, that's very different than enumerating why Final Theory is a bad book knowing full well that even if it was the best book in the world, hardly any of my readers would read the review.

    And I still whole-heartedly disagree that reviewing everything you read is a "best practice." In my mind, it's a worst practice. How is it useful to bore 99 percent of your readership just to keep your self-directive that you MUST review everything you read. You have to have a filter. Blogging is not an all-or-nothing proposition, just as journalism isn't. That's why there are editors. If your readers are grabbing something they've never heard of on a whim, and you see that as a problem, then to stop them from ever doing that again, you have to review every book ever published. Good luck!

  30. Okay, I agree, those are two separate issues. If you have a book blog that is primarily literary fiction and classics, for instance, but you enjoy reading the occasional YA fantasy novel - is it appropriate to leave those guilty pleasures out? Sure, I think so! I am an eclectic reader, I suppose, so I have an eclectic audience - which makes me feel the need to review everything equally (which, fortunately, I seem to find the time to do). I am not an editor nor a publisher, nor is my website marketed to "sell" books or gain money - so I don't have to worry about time constraints and whatnot, even if it were an issue. This all has to do with the kind of blog you're running, I suppose.

    I do think, though, if you stick to reviewing primarily the same types of books, which you primarily like, and leave out the junk - it can lead to other problems, like questions of integrity. If every review I read on someone's blog is "OMGZ SO GOOD WOWZ!" Or a more grammatically-sound version of that, I start to wonder if this reader really knows what they're talking about, or if there are ulterior motives.

    I agree with your larger point, though - there are books which I read for pleasure, which 99% of my readers are not going to care to read. Now, most of these books I still review (in much shorter segments, with disclaimers) - but not all. I also tend to not review and/or give very short reviews of the poetry I read, because I honestly don't think I'm an authority on it.

    Lastly, like you mentioned in a comment/reply above - a lot of this goes back to personal blogger preference and motive. I started my blog, for example, because I had an interest in tracking my own reading and what I thought of each read - primarily because my memory is not always too fantastic. This is added impetus for me to put something down in writing for everything I've read - which is more to the point of reviewing for the reviewers sake.

    I still argue your initial point, though, which is about why you didn't review the above-mentioned, self-published book. You hated it, you found it worthless, you don't want readers wasting their time reading a book they may never hear of or need to read. That speaks to my point about why I personally, as a book blog reader would want that review - if the book sucks but there's a chance I might stumble across it in the $1 bin - your awful review might have just saved me money AND time. Be a hero! (Fortunately, this non-review does the trick for the book above anyway). ;)

  31. I just want to put in a vote for bad reviews. I love reading a good bad review. That was one of the great pleasure of reading Roger Ebert's regular reviews. Dorothy Parker also wrote some great bad reviews. As far as I'm concerned, they are a big part of the fun. Who wants to read good reviews all the time? Game show hosts?

    I don't write many of them myself, because I only review books I finish. These days, I've no problem putting a book down if I don't like it at all. So, my reviews tend towards the positive side.

  32. I strongly dislike writing negative reviews. I always just want to say "it sucked" and then make fun of the book, but I also don't want to be disrespectful to the author. So I usually spend lots of time on looking for words that are less hateful I can incorporate into the review. A publication I write reviews for says "try not to say what could have been different about the book" but it's so difficult not to! On my own review website I am more open and less politically correct, but I still struggle.