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I write a lot of book reviews, mostly on Instagram and for my newsletter. I love writing reviews because I love talking about books, and also because the act of writing about a book often helps me untangle my feelings about it. But, with a few rare exceptions, I only review books I like.
This is not because I think critical or negative reviews are bad. In fact, I think critical reviews are vitally important. Art is not neutral or universally good. Talking about what we like and don’t like in books, what works and what doesn’t, is good for books. Critical reviews are especially crucial when they address issues of race, gender, and other identities, and the ways that authors (sometimes without realizing it, and sometimes intentionally) perpetuate stereotypes. I will always advocate for talking and thinking critically about art. Being a book lover does not mean I love all books equally, or that my opinions are not biased. I have learned so much about books and my own ingrained ideas about them from reading thoughtful critical reviews. I absolutely do not want them to go away. I simply do not want to write them.
Let me start by making a distinction between critical reviews and negative reviews. This is not official terminology. For all I know, I’m the only person who distinguishes reviews in this way! It’s just that after years and years of reading (and writing) hundreds of reviews, I’ve found I need a way to differentiate between these two kinds of reviews.
Negative reviews, as I see it, are reviews in which someone talks about why they didn’t like a book. Maybe the writing was too descriptive for them, or the ending felt too abrupt, or the plot didn’t come together, or the character development was shallow. These are all perfectly valid reasons not to like a book! Sometimes reviewers frame these dislikes as criticisms, but they’re rarely backed up with examples from the text. They aren’t universal criticisms; they’re opinions. I’ve lost count of the number of negative reviews I’ve read of books I love in which a reviewer literally writes a statement that I have written the opposite of in my review. Their review: The writing in this book is dense and gaudy; I was so distracted by it I couldn’t focus on the story. My review: The writing in this book is so gloriously lush; I just wanted to sink into the prose forever. My point isn’t that either review is bad — it’s just that negative reviews and positive reviews are two sides of the same coin.
Critical reviews, in my opinion, do something different. A critical review takes issue with something in the text — the way an author writes a Black character, maybe, or the use of a homophobic trope, or coded antisemitism in the prose. Critical reviews argue a point. The best ones use the text to do so. They dissect and interrogate what an author has done. The critical reviews I find most useful and enlightening are usually reviews that address racism, homophobia, ableism, etc., but these are certainly not the only kind of critical review. A critical review can argue matters of craft, too. And while critical reviews are still, of course, opinions (all book reviews are opinions), they’re less often about a reviewer’s personal preferences and more often about the specific perspectives that allow them to notice something troubling in the text.
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Back to me and my reviews. I do not write negative reviews because I despise doing it. It is the worst feeling. Some people review every book they read, and I have all the respect in the world for that. Some people enjoy writing negative reviews, and hey, you do you. I am not that way. If I read a book I don’t like, I don’t want to spend another second thinking about it. There is nothing delightful or interesting or useful or challenging or surprising for me in writing about why I didn’t like a book. Sometimes I write one sentence on Goodreads, and if someone asks me about a book directly, I’m more than happy to tell them exactly why it wasn’t for me. But I will never spend time and energy writing about what I do not love.
I feel more conflicted about why I don’t write critical reviews. Writing a good critical review is hard, and I am not good at it. It requires a willingness to delve into upsetting texts, and then to write about them with conviction and clarity. It also requires finishing books that I not only do not like, but that I think are actively harmful. It is, frankly, exhausting. I derive no pleasure from it. I try to be a good literary citizen, and so when I do read books that I believe merit critical reviews, I usually point out whatever my issue is in a sentence or two and leave it at that. I refuse to be silently complicit. I’m starting to wonder, though, if this is enough.
The kind of book reviews I like to write, and that I am good at writing, are love letters. So, for years, this is what I’ve done. I’ve written hundreds of love letters to beautiful books about what they’ve meant to me and how they’ve changed me. But I’m starting to see that good critical reviews can also be a kind of love letter: love letters to communities and people and places that are too often ignored.
One of the very few critical reviews I’ve ever written is also my most popular review on Goodreads. It’s a review of Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, in which I point out the author’s appalling erasure of trans people. She does not mention trans women (or nonbinary people) once, and in a book about data bias and the harm it causes, well — that’s a hard no from me. I wrote it in a fit of rage, but it is clear and direct. I make my arguments and back them up. I didn’t enjoy writing it, but, looking back, I can see it for the love letter it is: a love letter to the trans people in my life, a love letter that says, I will stand with you, I will refuse to let anyone try to erase you.
I am not going to start writing negative reviews. I am just one reviewer in a sea of reviewers; if you want a counterpoint to a glowing review I’ve written, I guarantee you’ll be able to find one easily. But I am going to try to write more love letters, even the hard ones, and even when it hurts.
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