Thursday, June 12, 2014

I Won't Write a Negative Review ... by Brian Kaufman

Previously posted April 19, 2014, at Brian Kaufman's blog, Rabbit Hole Reviews.

A writer friend recently commented on Rabbit Hole Reviews, noting that the reviews were uniformly positive. I don’t think she was criticizing, but I may be wrong. Her e-mail came on the heels of my rejection of two novels for review, so I find myself wanting to write a post on reviews and how I approach them.

I have been fascinated by reviews for most of my life. Years ago, I fell in love with Straw Dogs (1971). The only reason I went to see the movie was because of Pauline Kael’s review, which called Sam Pekinpah’s work, “the first American film that is a fascist work of art.” That line of criticism and the art it (accurately) described are inseparable in my mind.

After struggling to find reviewers for my last book, I thought, why not write a review blog? And so I started Rabbit Hole Reviews. I write about books I love. My tastes are eclectic (weird) so I can talk about a wide range of stories.

But I won’t write a negative review.

I’m an author. I’ve struggled through multiple novels. Some turned out okay, and some crashed and burned and turned to ash. I know what it costs to give yourself over to a story. And I don’t care how a novel reads—I won’t blast it in a review. Scoring points on a clever turn of phrase doesn’t interest me.

Story #1: When I was in my late teens, I took a writing workshop class from James Crumley (“The Mexican Tree Duck”). One of the students, a senior at Colorado State, had a particularly sharp critical dagger. All semester long, she sliced and diced. The final week of class, she submitted her own work.

And then she cut class the day her story was critiqued.

Her work was awful. I did not participate in the public evisceration of her tale. I understood why she skipped out. I don’t care how unpleasant she was. When someone lies down on the stone alter, you are not obligated to cut out a heart.

There’s a legitimate counter-argument that points to the lack of honest effort and due diligence on the part of some writers. At Rabbit Hole Reviews, we publish reviews for small press and self-published writers. There are a lot of self-indulgent, poorly-written Indy books in print, either in paper or digital form.

But my mom would have a counter to the counter-argument: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Restated from a reviewer’s perspective—I’m telling you what books you might enjoy (not what books you might hate).

If you’re a close reader, you’ll spot a line in every one of my reviews that might be quoted.  Writers and publishers need “blurbs.” And I oblige. With tens of thousands of books published every year, writers need some small edge to market their work.  I make no apologies for my open support of their marketing efforts. If I enjoyed their book, it’s the least I can do.

Story #2: When my novel, Dead Beyond the Fence was released, a local writer (Larry Berreth) was kind enough to review the book. The quote I latched onto was, “Kaufman is the new king of the crowbar.” That blurb sold more copies of my book than I could have imagined, something for which I will always be grateful. Rabbit Hole Reviews is my attempt to pass that favor forward.

Do I like every book I read? Of course not. Some books suck. This is no surprise. Not every baby is beautiful. But every one of them is somebody’s baby. I’m pleased to review books that delight. And you won’t hear about the ugly ones from me, because you won’t know about the ones I don’t review.

Except for one.

Story #3: An author I met at a writer’s conference sent me a copy of his e-book, asking for a review. I didn’t think the book was well put together. I declined, saying the book “wasn’t my thing.”

He wrote back, telling me how lousy my last novel was, and how old and fat I was (I’m not fat). In closing, he explained, “Your a moron.” I didn’t bother to tell him that his poor grammar was part of the problem.


Brian Kaufman is the author of three novels, two textbooks and a series of horror novellas, including Mary King's Plague. He owns and operates Dark Silo Press (a small horror genre press located in Laporte, Colorado). His review blog is Rabbit Hole Reviews.


RichardK said...

I don't think your old, fat, or a moron. Okay, maybe just not fat and a moron.

I think doing a site of positive reviews is a good thing. There are too many sites out there who feel it's their duty to slash and burn any and all creatives. You can certainly put a positive spin on a review regardless if it wasn't your favorite piece.

BTW, I hope you do this when I send you a copy of Coffee Cup Tales.

Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting Brian.

Brian - Thanks for sharing the way you go about reviews. I think it's always a challenge to figure out how to go about doing them, and no matter what one writes, someone's going to be unhappy about it. You're wise to do it in a way that works for you.

John Paul McKinney said...

Thanks, Pat. Thanks, Brian. "Not every baby is beautiful. But every one of them is somebody's baby." A great line that I'm going to remember.I agree with your philosophy. Who needs to hear more negative stuff?

Kenneth W Harmon said...

I have had two major influences on my writing. The first was Nancy Reed, who coordinated a critique group I attended for several years in Washington State. The second was Brian Kaufman, whom I've had the privilege of being in two critique groups with. Brian is a great friend and supporter of writers, as well as a terrific author.

Jan Morrison said...

Pat - thanks again for hosting another interesting writer.

Brian - huzzah, huzzah! A musical that I wrote with friends made it to the regional's best theatre. We couldn't have been happier - we'd had a good run with it in a small theatre but this was the big time. A local reviewer panned it ruthlessly. We think he hated the artistic director of the theatre and saw this as a way to stab her. She wasn't, we were. It killed us dead even with the huge amount of letters written to the editor saying the critic was an ass. He didn't like our sort of theatre - so give it to someone who does! If I don't like country and western music I don't review any of the Cash family. (spent some time as a music reviewer and got some of the same complaints you do) If you work for a large press in a large city then go ahead - people need to know something to be able to choose but otherwise - keep your lips shut. And by the way - you look quite young, slim and handsome! I'd say nothing about it if I didn't think so...
As to peer reviewing in a school setting - the prof is in charge of that and very bad teaching to let anyone slash other's work.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Jan, I hope Brian stops by to read these comments when he gets off work. He'll love yours. :D

Brian Kaufman said...

Wonderful comments. Thanks to everyone who took the time to share a thought.

Especially Jan, bless your heart!

Aaronious said...

Brian, you may be a bull in the proverbial china shop, but you have class while smashing stuff up. Keep up the good and honest work.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I agree with you, Brian!! I won't give a book less than three stars. What comes around goes around, I'm not about to dash someone else's work, and if it was below that then I didn't finish it and can't give it a review anyway.
Stick to your review policy. I think it is very fair.

Dean K Miller said...

Brian...a wonderful thing you are doing. A great spin on providing are books you might enjoy vs. here is a real bonker!

I, too, won't go less than three stars. Most likely I wouldn't finish the book anyway, so why review?

Mar Preston said...

Oh, this says it well. I've read perfectly dreadful books by people I know and like. I felt like a blurb whore when I felt pressured into giving them five stars. I don't do that now. Like you, Brian, I'm only honestly enthusiastic. Thank you for wonderful words.

Jemi Fraser said...

Agreed! I only discuss/identify books I've enjoyed. I don't see the point in posting negatives - there's already enough negative in the world for my liking!

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

That is the same way I feel about reviews. If I don't like a book or can't finish it, I just don't post a review.

Mark Bacon said...

This thoughtful column reminded me of several things. Writers are sensitive. There is a cost to give yourself over to a story. I was in a critique group that disbanded because two of the members could not abide the criticism of the other.
And Kaufman’s story #3 reminded me of a student I had in a marketing class. When I posted final grades, he emailed me to say he didn’t agree with the grade he received and he was particularly bothered because I “put too much emphasis on grammer.”

Elle Carter Neal said...

I'm very selective of books that I review, as I am trying to attract readers who like books similar to mine, not readers who love books I dislike and would therefore have no interest in mine - what a waste of everyone's time that would be.

I also refuse to rate books, and I hate the fact that Amazon forces you to choose how many stars to give a book before you can review it. So I don't review on Amazon. How do you rate a book? Do you take the best book you've ever read, give it five stars, and compare every other book to that? Even if they're totally different? Or do you give every book by default five stars (or three) and then deduct (or add) stars for faults (or earned brilliance). I can't do it.

Donna Volkenannt said...

Thanks for the lively post.
How generous of you to give back by reviewing other writers' books.
Too bad you had the experience with the unprofessional writer. Hope he learns from his mistake.

Donis Casey said...

Brian, I'm committing many of your insights to memory. I've always felt that if one has CONSTRUCTIVE criticism for another's work, the best thing to do is write to him directly. As for public reviews, I wholeheartedly buy into your philosophy.

Eileen Goudge said...

As my former husband, the literary agent, once said, "It's really hard to write even a really bad book." I'm with you, Brian. I won't post a negative book review online. I only review books I like. It's just that I like some more than others.