I sat on this reflection post for a couple weeks before deciding to post it. I hope it helps new bloggers who might feel worried and isolated when writing a bad review.
When I first began blogging at the end of December I started following a bunch of other book bloggers and read what they wrote and watched what they were doing in the same way you would shadow a coworker at a new job. What I saw, and what I really wanted for myself, was authors approaching bloggers and offering their book for free in exchange for an honest review. And boy, did that ever sound like a sweet deal.
Inspired, I wrote up a notice on my Twitter saying that I was happily accepting books published by both indie press or traditional publishers. Within a couple days I was contacted by an author who wanted me to read their book. Great! This was exactly what I was looking for. Reviewing lesser known and newer books on my blog would certainly bring in some traffic and I was excited to help bring positive exposure to new writers. I was thrilled and after a quick back and forth the author emailed me a PDF of their book and I got down to reading.
At first, the book was alright. It wasn’t a genre I usually read or a book I would have ever considered picking up. But I was still riding that high of “an author just chose me personally to review their book!!”.
It took about 20 minutes for the sparkles to fade and for the book to reveal itself for what it truly was. There I was, fresh into reviewing books, and I was reading a book that I absolutely hated. I started formulating my review in my head and making notes in a Word document while I was reading, trying desperately to find something, anything that I could focus my review on. I tried to make a ‘pros and cons’ list but it was no use. I had nothing good to say about it. So what was I supposed to do?
I considered lying. And I’m the worst liar in the entire universe, so it was going to be a dreadfully complicated thing for me to do. I looked at the long list of ‘cons’ that I had written down and considered creatively turning them into ‘pros’. I asked my personal consulting team (my mother, best friend, and boyfriend) and they all told me the same thing. If I didn’t tell the truth and gave a book that I despised a shining 5-star review then what’s the point in having my own space to express my reading experiences? What happens if someone reads this book because I wrote a fake recommendation for it and they think ‘wow, my taste in books is completely different than Ashley’s’. Maybe that one person who took my advice never comes back again and I’ve lost a potential reader, and maybe even an acquaintance that I could have shared real recommendations with. The potential of altering the Goodreads rating of the book instead of offering a unique critique also felt a tad criminal. And even worse, everyone else who had read the book gave it either a 4 or 5-star review. I would potentially be throwing a 1 star into a sea of continual praise. And for some reason that felt wrong.
I wasn’t around for the incident between a particular author and blogger featured in The Guardian but I was made aware of it through reading the blogs of fellow book bloggers. The incident involved an author stalking a book blogger who gave her first book a negative review. Now if that doesn’t make you want to dish out fake reviews for every book you read then you are a lot less fearful than I am. What also upset me was seeing some well-known authors applauding the author in the article for her extremely questionable and frightening actions. The whole thing is terrifying and it made me think — is it worth potentially involving myself in backlash that could affect my life offline?
It is. And it took me an evening of pondering to come to that conclusion. Through this experience, I learned something important. I learned that I have the right to speak my mind even if what I have to say might not be what someone else wants to hear. I also learned that this is what it means to write a review critically. I ended up posting the review in question with the 1 star that I felt the book deserved. But you can bet I took more time editing it than I do when writing a review of a book I enjoyed. My main goal with the review was constructive feedback. I vented a bit in my review because it is my blog and I want to share my reading experiences. But I tried really hard not to hate the book without explaining why I felt that way.
It may seem that I blew this whole situation out of proportion and, in my head, I probably did. I’m a very small blog and I have little to no influence. But I also still felt like the new kid in school who was just trying to make friends. I didn’t fully understand that writing honest reviews means that sometimes you have to tell a rotten tomato that it really is a rotten tomato and not a fresh piece of innovative produce. Writing reviews on books is so personal because they are usually created by a single person and, because of that, book reviews feel a bit more personal than writing a review of a blockbuster film. But the review is about the book and not the person, and most authors understand that.
Writing books is HARD. And getting it published is even harder. I have so much respect for any author who has decided to share their book with the world. I’m writing one of my own, however slowly, and I know that the step of ‘sharing’ is almost harder than writing. I never want to hurt someone’s feelings with what I say, but I do need to balance that with speaking my mind and sharing my opinions. Did I do this successfully? I hope so. But I am still new at this so I’m sure the next time this situation arises I’ll be better prepared. I want my voice to be heard, I want to contribute to the larger discussion of books, and I can only do that by sharing myself in an unfiltered but respectful way.