[Guest Post] Patrick Swenson on The Positives and Negatives of Negative Reviews

About the Author

Patrick started writing when he was in 2nd grade. His first classic was Mr Mooney Goes to the Moon. It was followed by Mr Mooney Goes to Mars and Mr Mooney Goes to North Dakota. True story. The manuscripts were lost when his family moved from one side of the state of Montana to the other. He has lived in Kalispell, Montana until graduating from high school.

Patrick attended Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA, and received his BA in Education. Some may know that originally he was a music teacher, and more specifically, a high school band director. Patrick was also teaching English and Language Arts classes to fill up my day, and eventually he made the switch to full-time English. He has only taught in Washington State: Three years at Lake Quinault School on the Olympic Peninsula, thirteen years at Evergreen High School in White Center, and, after receiving his Masters in Education in 2000, thirteen years at Auburn Riverside High School in Auburn, where he still works, teaching AP Literature, Creative Writing, Science Fiction, Honors 10 Lit,  and Journalism. Patrick is the adviser for the school’s newspaper, InFlight, and also for the literary magazine, Smudges.

In 1986 he attended the Clarion West writers workshop, and sold stories a few years after. In 1995 he began Talebones magazine, and in 2000 started Fairwood Press, a small SF book press. Talebones ended in 2009 so he could devote more time to writing, and later that year he finished his first novel, The Ultra Thin Man. It sold to Tor in June 2012. He is currently working on the sequel.

Patrick has sold stories to the anthology Like Water for Quarks, and magazines such as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, Northwest Writers, Figment, and others. In 2007 he started the Rainforest Writers Village retreat, which is held every spring at the Rain Forest Resort Village at Lake Quinault, WA.

Patrick’s son Orion was born in 2002. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when he was in 1st grade. He loves reading and video games, his favorites being Little Big Planet 2, theMyst series and Minecraft. He’s in 7th grade, attending middle school in Auburn.

I’ve lived in Bonney Lake, WA since 2007.

You can learn more about him by visiting his website.

The Positives and Negatives of Negative Reviews

By Patrick Swenson


Negative reviews happen to every writer. Sometimes reviewers target the book, sometimes they target the writer. An infographic recently showed famous literary authors linked to negative reviews or statements they made about other famous literary authors. For example, Truman Capote writing about Jack Kerouac: “That’s not writing, it’s typing.”

I’m a debut author. The Ultra Thin Man has been out just over two weeks. Reviews—positive or negative—have the ability to truly influence readers who are thinking about buying it. And yet, negative reviews for my book are going to be far less numerous than reviews for books by well-known writers. Take George R.R. Martin, author of A Game of Thrones. He’ll receive more negative reviews in bulk than I’ll ever see for my debut novel. The thing is, though, that none of those bad reviews are going to adversely affect sales of his books. His fans are legion, and those fans will pick up the next book automatically with a Pavlovian furor, and pay very little attention to negative reviews. Or positive reviews, for that matter, because the same holds true there.

The first review I saw for The Ultra Thin Man was a starred Publishers Weekly review. I was stunned. Thrilled. Over the moon! Booklist did another positive review. I spotted excellent early Amazon and Goodreads reviews. As of today, however, I’ve come across a number of negative reviews. Those negative reviews stick more deeply. (Well, duh.) I can take the gloss off a particularly negative rant by posting or mentioning positive reviews that say almost the opposite. Unless a book is a total dog, a positive review stands in wait to counteract a negative one. I’ve already seen this polarizing phenomenon in the few short weeks my book’s been on the shelves.

Just a few nights ago, I had a discussion with a reader who absolutely loved what I’d done with my world, and she clicked off many specific examples. The next day, I had a reviewer screaming at me to take more time with my worldbuilding. I had another reviewer explain the positives of the noir tropes, and the femme fatale, and I read another comment on the strength of several of the female characters; on the other end of the spectrum, however, I read reviewers harp on the fact that it’s definitely not a feminist novel, and some reviewers dinged specific lines or scenes as too boyish, or even sexist.

Not that I’m ignoring all that.

See, one positive aspect of the negative review is that I’m a writer looking to improve and do better on the next book. I can always improve. A few lines and scenes mentioned negatively made me stand back and say, “Yeah, I see that there. That’s true. I definitely need to think more about this. Or that.” On the other hand, a reviewer can get that point across without snark.

Part of my job description at the school where I teach is advising the newspaper and running the beginning journalism class. I totally understand (and uphold) the idea of “fair comment,” a privilege under the First Amendment of the Constitution. If you write a book—if you produce an album, if you create a movie, or put on a concert—you’ve put yourself out there for fair comment. It is a form of qualified privilege on facts about matters that concern the community as a whole, and obviously this all has to happen without malicious harm. So a politician, a movie star, or an author can’t sue for defamation based on a published negative opinion. This isn’t true for a private person. The moment I said “yes” and signed the contract at Tor to have my book published, I became a public figure in the book publishing world.

Years ago, negative reviews were quite prevalent. There’s a rich history of the literary crowd taking on the “new book” and thrashing it, or accusing it (or the author) of mediocrity. There was a certain amount of respect given to a reviewer who had the critical clout to give a negative review. Audiences listened.

Today, in a world where the internet makes a critic of anyone with a computer or a smart phone, and the entire structure of book publishing is under scrutiny due to new technological marvels, it’s easy enough to applaud those things you absolutely love and flame those things you hate. It’s never been easier to make a fair, honest comment.

Perhaps, in the end, mediocre fiction slides by unnoticed. Word of mouth is the best publicity, and if it convinces readers to pick up and read books, that’s golden. Meanwhile, I can still take criticism—within reason—and improve my writing when it is not what it could be.

Now excuse me while I get back to typing—I mean, writing—my next book.

8 Responses

  • I’m a big anti-snark guy. The problem with snark is that it isn’t about critique, it’s about dismissal, hiding behind affected cleverness – not the same thing at all.

    At any rate, critique can be rough for a writer I think because you have to have a skin that’s at the same time thick and permeable, so a critique you disagree with or feel is unwarranted can roll off of you, while at the same time you remain open to honest feedback from the many, many sources that are out there.

    Nice piece!

  • Just a few nights ago, I had a discussion with a reader who absolutely loved what I’d done with my world, and she clicked off many specific examples. The next day, I had a reviewer screaming at me to take more time with my worldbuilding.

    It IS a bit of a hopscotch, isn’t it.What one reviewer finds fresh and well done, another thinks is trite and shallow.

    We reviewers are a disagreeing lot!

  • I have to admit that I’ve used snark in some of my reviews. Not that often (or so it seems on my end, anyway), but it has happened and robably will happen again, usually when I’m reviewing a book that’s filled with poor fact-checking and plot-holes and inconsistancies. And I don’t do so with the intent of being dismissive, though I get that’s probably how it comes across. I do it because I have a rant inside me and I want to get it out and sometimes being a little snarky is the most concise way of doing so. The best example that comes to mind for that was a book I read months ago that was set in Japan, made use of the Japanese language, but made BAD use of it, with phrases that sounded like the author took one Intro to Japanese class and just left it at that. It made every use of the language seem awkward, and it was used so often, so randomly, and sometimes utterly without context or translation that it just irritated me, and in my review I got a bit snarky about it.

    But in most of my negative reviews, I do try to avoid being snarky if I can, and that’s because I view my reviews in 2 ways. 1) I write them for readers, mostly, and if a person has similar tastes to me, I want to give them good reasons why they may or may not like a book. Snark is punchy, but it doesn’t always give the best reasoning. And 2), because as you say, sometimes there’s constructive critique in the review, points that the author may want to be aware of for next time, interpretations that they may not have considered. And as much as snark is, as Stevel Long said, dismissive, it also means the review itself is likely to get dismissed as having no redeeming value. So unless a book really made me angry, I try to be a bit more level-headed, even when my mental snark-machine makes me want to say certain things just to bring a bit of wit to my writing.

    I’m glad to see an author take the time to say this. Too often I see people talk about how negative reviews have no place, that if one didn’t like a book they just shouldn’t say anything about it, and I can totally get why an author might not want to see someone disparage the thing they spent months working on. So thank you for writing this and for being awesome about it all!

  • Bibliotropic, I think you raise an interesting point about when snark might be used. Though it can be a slippery slope, somewhere there’s a bar set for expectations. Personally, I can see rolling my eyes (or the literary equivalent) at an author who didn’t fact-check, or had obvious plot holes that could have been patched up with a little bit of developmental editing.

    I guess the question is – and it’s a case-by-case one – where that line is. If a reviewer gets a little snarky because character A threatened to kill character B in chapter 1, and character B mysteriously turns her back on character A in chapter 2, I get it. I mean… I got a life to live, cha-cha: I’m going to put a book like that down, and if I write a DNF review, though I probably wouldn’t do it because I’m weirdly sensitive to snark, I can see being like “really? Really???”

    Maybe some of it has to do with expectations of the author investment? A lot of my anti-snark sentiment is based on the assumption that the author gave 100%, and there’s something unpleasant to me about a reviewer not treating that really seriously. On the other hand, if there’s a sense that that’s not the case, maybe that’s a different story? Interesting.

    • I suppose there’s a couple of ways of looking at even that. Maybe the author in question DID give 100%, but their 100% isn’t anywhere near the quality that some readers have grown accustomed to from other sources. Though I suppose that would also beg the question of how someone got such a work published in the first case…

      But yeah, I do think much of it can be chalked up to expectations, as you say. In some cases, I expect that there’s going to be a certain degree of quality control, and when those expectations aren’t met, maybe a little derision isn’t entirely uncalled for, especially because it’s not like the bar is being set spectacularly high. I don’t expect a book to be 100% typo free. I do expect that if you’re writing primarily in English and decide to make use of a non-English language, you make sure you know enough of the language to make it work.

      But then comes that fine line of when is a reviewer bad-mouthing the work and when are they bad-mouthing the author.

      Gah, slipperly slopes are too hard to deal with at 3:30 AM!

      • I assume that you get through a lot more novels than I do – how often does it happen that you are like “uh… I’m a little surprised that this made it through the publishing process?” I’ve come across some surprising clumsiness in plotting/organization, and even copy-editing issues. Do you think that this is increasing? I can’t speak to it, because I just don’t read fast enough.

        I do have high copy-editing expectations, and quality, too. When I read a book that’s mediocre, or has editing issues from a mainstream publisher, the image in my mind that I can’t get past is the author that hasn’t managed to get a book mainstream published, but has written a better book than the one in front of me; that makes me a little angry on that author’s behalf.

        • Fortunately, not that often. Which is good. I’d say that maybe 1 out of every 50 books I read makes me wonder how it made it to publication with the errors that it has. And I hate to play into stereotypes, but I find that this occurs more often with self-published stuff or stuff from small-press publishers more than big publishers. That’s not always the case, thankfully. But I think if stuff like that is on the increase, it’s only due to an increase in ease and accessibility of publishing platforms. Some stuff that wouldn’t have made it to publication in the past is doing so now, because there are few obstacles if you take a certain path.

          More often it happens that it’s a simple fact-checking error, one or two instances in a book where there’s incorrect info. But I also admit that my perception on it is a little skewed; I tend to be kind of self-deprecating and figure that if I saw the error, how on earth could someone else not have? Then I remind myself that not everybody knows that silk isn’t a plant fibre, for instance, or that certain sound combinations don’t tend to occur in Mandarin. This is the sort of stuff that can easily slip by authors and editors alike, because checking every single tiny fact would result in insane delays and nothing would ever get done. This stuff I’ve learned to just get over and move on from.

          • It can be rough for self-published authors because of the upfront investment (potentially of several thousand dollars) required to avoid errors, but if you don’t make it, you’ve sort of shot yourself in the foot. One of these days, there will be a filter that lets readers select – without having to skim, or read the first few chapters – only self-published work that’s gotten a good number of (legitimate) good reviews and is well edited.

            I tend to figure that if I see the error, other people should have, but I’m usually talking about straight-up grammar mistakes, like missing quotation marks, extra periods, and so forth – probably because semi-obscure facts zing right over my head!

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