Death of the Author, or, Why Negative Reviews are not Constructive Criticism

Guest writer Whitley takes a look at writers and reviews


Writing a book doesn’t take hard work. That’s too mild a phrase. It takes blood, sweat, and tears, heart and soul, sleepless nights and days of flailing around in a panic. It takes rejection and perseverance and no less than three cases of literally banging your head against a wall.

And when that much of your soul is in part of your work, hearing that your novel, your baby, is nothing more than a product can come as a harsh blow. “No! No, not this! This isn’t your measly old average business arrangement! This is literature. This is magic. Haven’t you seen the tumblr quotes?

But the sad truth is, once you start charging money for it, even magic becomes a commodity. I think this is a fact that too-often left off those advice lists for new authors1 2 3. It’s a hard truth to accept, but it’s still true; you’re asking me for money. I am giving you money in exchange for a product or service. That’s capitalism in a nutshell, and no amount of heart and soul changes that fact.

When I review, I fervently believe that reviews have nothing to do with authors. I am reviewing a product, not a person. I will even sometimes address comments to the product itself (“Book, why did you do that? Bad book, no cookie.”) because I know that I’m dealing with a thing, not talking directly to a person. (Although that does beg the question of why I’m talking to it…) Regardless of an author’s intentions, I am not talking to them.

There are two main parts of the no-negative-reviews argument that send me into a tailspin of anger: that the author’s hard work is somehow sacred because of their hard work, and that no one can criticize novel-writing unless they’ve done it themselves.

To the first, I understand that writing a novel takes heart and soul, but everything worth doing takes your whole heart and soul. Writers do not have the ‘blood, sweat, and tears’ market cornered. There is something profoundly arrogant about saying that one person’s effort is inherently above reproach, but everyone who’s working hard…well, they aren’t authors. At this age, one does not get gold stars for trying. At best, you might get some sort of plaque that says “welcome to adulthood.”

Putting forth effort, no matter how great the expense, does not grant one immunity from criticism. I am not judging your effort, after all, I am judging the product. It works the same way for everyone. I’ve been enlisted in the United States Army for ten years. I’m well aware of “blood, sweat, and tears.” I’ve pulled 18 hour days and 15 month deployments, and every six months, I get a performance review. My reviews never say “well…she tried.” Instead they say things like “the training program she wrote failed to take inclement weather into account” or “she crashed three trucks this year. Three!” Or, if I’ve done my job well, “she set up new communication protocols that increased reporting speeds.” I am always judged on what I’ve done, on my results, on whether or not my actions were successful. And the same goes for every other job out there. Yes, that includes writing. If you worked hard on your book, if you poured all of your effort and all of you talent into it, then you are in good company. You are among the adults of the world who work hard at stuff. But we all still have performance reviews.

The second argument can be summed up in this quote by Dave Eggers:

Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.

If you critique because you are envious, then sure. Stop that. But don’t paint everyone with the brush of your own shortcomings.

I do not need to write a book in order to know what I’m feeling when I read. I do not need to write a book in order to be bored by flat writing or engrossed by complex characters. I do not need to write a book in order to recognize that this plot is full of lapses in logic, or that romance makes me swoon with feelz. I am a reader, and reading is an experience, and I do not need to write in order to read. In the same manner, I do not need to film my own movie before I can cry at The Secret Garden, or roll my eyes at the product placements in Man of Steel. I don’t need learn the mechanic’s trade before I can tell if my car runs smoothly or not. I don’t need to get a job at Apple before I can get motion sickness from their phones.

The reason writers learn the tricks of their trade is to evoke a response in the readers, and as I am reading, I will respond. I will respond well or poorly, depending on how skillfully those tricks have been applied, but I will not sit with a novel in my lap and stare morosely at it, wishing I could feel something without first writing.

And when I am done with my reading experience, I will report on it. Because, as I mentioned earlier, I am not talking to the author. I am not offering constructive criticism in the hopes they’ll get better, nor am I yelling at them in the hopes they’ll feel bad about it. I’m not even praising them for a job well done. I’m not talking to them at all. I am a reader, talking to other readers about the experience of reading.

With social media, authors are closer to their audience than ever, and I think it’s time we put a bigger emphasis on the difference between ‘reviews’ and ‘fan mail.’ Because I think that it’s wonderful that we have so much access to our favorite authors; I’m not suggesting that we demolish that! But we need to emphasis more clearly that talking to writers is talking to writers, and reviews are not the correct format for that. Social media, author blogs, and direct email (if the author allows it) are all great ways to show appreciation, ask questions, attempt to open a dialogue (and never-ever-ever deliver personal insults).

Whitley is a Jill-of-all-trades who likes to read a theme parks. She has been known to hide books inside military equipment just in case she needs something to read later. When she’s not busy scheming on how to get back to Disneyland, she can be found blogging at Reading With A Vengeance or on GoodReads.


  1. I agree you don’t need to know what it’s like to write a book to know how to spot a good book. Not being allowed to give a bad review because you might hurt someones feelings isn’t helpful to anyone.

  2. You have hit it right on the head here. Most reviewers just want to give an honest opinion about the book they’ve read. I have run across the odd person that rags on the author or gives bad reviews for everything and everyone. My policy on that is: if I dont follow them, I don’t support it. If no one was following them or readng them, they would most likely quit.

  3. Yey, love this post. I’ve been getting really annoyed at all the arguments about sparing authors feelings by not writing negative reviews since as a reader I want to hear about the negatives as well as the positives!

  4. You are so spot on with this! It’s all about the end product and the book not about the author. It’s hard to distance yourself from what you make or write though so I can see how authors would feel when they say things like that. I don’t believe in author bashing and it hurts to see when that happens and I’m not even a writer.

    Hoooah! I was 6 years active army! You go girl! – that was such a great way to make your point!

  5. I was quite amused at your Eggers quotation because I think that bloggers/reviewers are writers too. And open to the same critique as any writer. I don’t exempt myself from others’ criticism when I blog a review, so why should fiction-writers be exempt from critique? Everyone, irrespective of their role, should conduct herself with decorum and respect. When I review, or comment, or analyse a book, what I and most reviewers do if they take what they do seriously, has a tripartite function: I put the book in a context or tradition; I describe my response to the book; and, I “read” the book, as in analyse/interpret it. You can fault me for the way I embed the book in a tradition; you can fault me for misreading the book. And I welcome this because it may teach me something I didn’t realize, or know, or think about. Or, I may have totally misread. I believe we call that discussion. Bandying about insults isn’t fun, nor is it productive, or interesting. You may argue for or against my interpretation. I suppose the only area where you can’t fault me is in my response because my response has to do with feelings. I don’t fault a writer for what they feel; nor, would I enjoy having something I wrote being derided, or having its shortcomings pointed out. It’s what we do with those feelings that I find questionable, bringing them into a public forum to threaten, or demean, or belittle, or fence in fiction as sacrosanct. It just isn’t useful: it corrals discussion and stunts a genre’s growth.


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