Today I'm going to address an issue that seems to be taking over the Internet and causing some real outward ripples. I'm talking about bad book reviews.
Now, I don't mean reviews that say things like, "This book wasn't for me" or "I didn't enjoy it" or "I never felt connected to the characters." Reviewers don't have to like everything they read - if they did, what would be the point of having reviews? If every author everywhere got nothing but five stars all the time, the buyer wouldn't have any basis to go from, and we might as well do away with reviews altogether.
I'm talking about the book reviews that slam and hurt and demean. I've seen reviewers say that authors should give up, that they never should have even put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, in today's world), and any number of other hurtful things - including "This author is too stupid to live."
Let's pause for just a second and think about this.
There's a lot of power that comes from being a media reviewer. I know, because I am one. I wrote book reviews for years for Families.com and for about six months for Meridian Magazine. I'm a reviewer for the Association for Mormon Letters, and I post reviews here on my blog. With a little time spent tapping on my computer, I can tell the entire world (well, portions of it) what I think, and it's a pretty heady feeling. Power! Power at my fingertips! But with that power comes responsibility. The thing I must keep in mind at all times is the fact that there is a person at the other end of that review, a person who has put their heart and soul into that creation, whether or not I personally care for it.
When we live in a world of computer screens, when we don't interact with others face-to-face as often as we used to in our culture, we forget that this world is still very personal. We can't lose sight of that fact.
So think for a second about that author. Let's say that the book really did stink (from your perspective, because this is such a subjective area). Does that author need to be personally attacked, or does that author need encouragement? If you met that author in person, chances are, you'd want to encourage them to learn and grow and keep trying. Sadly, the anonymity of the computer tends to make some people lose that compassionate edge.
I'm not saying that all the reviews I've left have been warm and cuddly. I have pointed out things that the authors could improve upon, but that's because I've wanted those authors to learn and grow. There's a huge, huge difference between constructive criticism and hurtful, demeaning comments. If you've read a book that didn't click for you, maybe you could make a suggestion as to how it could have been improved. And I'm not talking about one I read today that used "WTF?" and "Oh, hell no" in lieu of suggestions. (How is that even helpful?)
The thing I wish all reviewers understood is this: It takes a huge amount of courage for an author to publish. They've taken their inner guts and stuck them on display for everyone to see. They're not just telling a story - they're showing the journey they've taken. And then they stand back with their eyes half closed, peeking out around them, to see not only if their story is accepted, but if they are accepted. And that scathing review, the one that calls them stupid or what-have-you, hurts more than just the criticism of a story or a character. A personal attack does not make for a better book, no matter what the reviewer might have intended by it. "It has to hurt to heal" does not apply here.
Let me be absolutely clear on something - I'm not saying that you can't leave a less-than-positive review. I'm not saying that you have to be glowing and sparkly and dance around leaving five stars wherever you go. As I stated at the start, what good would that do? Not only that, but we've got this amazing thing called freedom of speech, and we should get to use it. In fact, I'm using it right now.
What I am saying is this - compassion instead of raking. Education instead of mocking. Encouragement instead of demeaning. Support instead of backbiting. If you really want your review to make a difference, if you really want to use your reviewer power in the best possible way, if you really want to help the author, seek ways to be that moment of uplift, to be that voice saying, "You can do it. Try again." And if you're one of those reviewers who loves to run around spewing hatred and vitriol, all I have to say is, I think you need a warm hug.
Update: Be sure to read the comments - there are some great points in there about responding to reviewers. Courtesy goes both ways.