Now, I'm not talking about being mean or nasty, etc. I'm talking about a critic doing their job: reviewing both good and bad books. Do reviewers have a duty to tell their readers if a book doesn't meet certain standards or if it's rubbish and simply written for a profit?

One of my favorite reviewers admitted that: "It can be hard to publicly proclaim that a book someone worked really hard on is not very good...Even if I know in my heart that a book stinks, it's hard for me to tell everybody that."

Recently I read Washington Post reviewer Patrick Anderson's TRIUMPH OF THE THRILLER, which gives his assessment of today’s best and worst thriller writers. His standards are pretty high, and coincide with my own. I respect him even more for castigating the popular dribble of James Patterson, David Baldacci, and Patricia Cornwell. He writes: “The sin of most of [these] people…is not that they write clunky sentences, although some do, but that they treat their readers like idiots. They deal in cliches, stereotypes, cheap thrills, and ridiculous plots.” My favorite parting shot is from his review of Patricia Cornwell: “You couldn’t pay me to read another of her novels.”

Do we have "praise inflation"? Would it help if reviewers were more honest with readers? Should the feelings of the writers be taken into account? Would writers (and editors) work harder, if they knew there were repercussions for turning out crap. If critics just write good reviews, how can readers make distinctions between a good book and a great book?

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A literary critic/reviewer should be honest, definitely. Any good review will have both positive and negative things to say about the book. If the review only has positive or only negative things to say, then it's not a good review. Unless a book is perfect, then it would only have positive things, but what is book is perfect? I haven't read one yet.

A reviewer should be as ruthless as his sensibilities dictate. If he reacted strongly to something in the book then that should be expressed strongly. However, all claims must be backed up with reasoning and evidence. This applies more to lengthy reviews, but then I don't consider one paragraph wastes of space such as PW or Kirkus reviews to be worth much. Those are mostly plot summary with maybe a sentence or two at the end bestowing judgment.

James Wood is a great reviewer. He reviews literary works, but the point is he doesn't just bash a book; he analyzes it, picking out quotes that help make his argument, and all the while doing it in a where that belies his passion for stories. So it is possible to be honest, even brutally so, while still being compassionate.

I don't think the writer's feelings matter at all. Once a work is published, it is out there in the public eye. If the writer can't take or doesn't want to take criticism, then don't put the work out there. And a review is an assessment of the work, not the author, so it doesn't matter what the author's feelings are in that regard. The work has to stand on its own. The author should know not to take it personally and that you can't please everyone.
Most of the critics who've reviewed my books have been reliable and respected for their work. Yes, I do care about an unbiased review, otherwise it's meaningless. My understanding is that they simply do not review abominaby bad books (very little review space and many hundreds of books), and that when they review big names, they tend to point out flaws as often as not.

My own feeling is that the best selling authors are fair game for negative comments. Their sales are assured regardless of bad reviews (i.e. Cornwell) and their negligence in churning out poorly written crap over and over again speaks of greed and arrogance. Let's remember that Patricia Cornwell once upon a time wrote some pretty good mysteries. About three, I think.
I would agree with John that the feelings of the writer do not matter - unless, of course, the reviewer is making a personal attack. Many authors make the mistake of taking an entire review personally, but as long as what's being discussed is the book, it's fair game.

What I mean by that is saying, "Joe Blow is a smelly toad" is just a personal insult. Saying, "Joe Blow's latest book had a few things that didn't work for me as a reader" is fair game.

I'm going to qualify this. If you review professionally, you have an obligation to write some negative reviews. If you review as a hobby choice, on your blog, I'm not going to dictate to you what you should or should not do. However, in order for me to understand the merit of a recommendation from a reviewer, it helps if I not only understand what they like, but also what they don't like, and why. That helps me to see if their reasoning applies to my reading tastes, because taste is subjective.

One of the greatest tools for me, personally, has been reading 4MA. The reason is, people respectfully disagree about books all the time. Through reading comments there, I've come to understand that no book is universally praised, no matter how universal we might think the praise is. Extremely popular books have ended up on DNF lists, and when they do the tops and bottom many books that made the tops on the survey were also on the bottom. Different readers look for different things, and as reviewers we put the work through our own filters. I have said openly that I may be willing sometimes to review cozies, for example, but they aren't my thing. It'll be harder for a cozy author to wow me and get that over-the-top-enthusiastic-rah-rah-you-must-read-this-book review, while a police procedural stands a much better chance of getting me excited. If readers understand that, they can understand that a recommendation from me for a cozy means the book is extremely impressive, while an "okay" on a police procedural might mean to them that it's weak.

Reviews are for readers - not reviewers and not authors. Certainly authors can learn from reviews, and we all use pull quotes for our blurbs and promotion, but the point is to help readers decide which books they want to read. The only obligation is to be honest to them.
I've been fortunate to review over seventy books for the New Mystery Reader web site; some great, some good, some not so good, and a handful of serious stinkers. I agonized over this exact topic about a year ago, and received some excellent advice right here at Crimespace.

A reviewer should be as honest as possible. Praise and criticism should be justified and defended, as necessary. Personal attacks are verboten, as Sandra points out. The key phrase I picked up was, "Does the book pass the $25 dollar test?" (I wish I could remember who sent me that phrase; if you recognize yourself here, thank you.) A reviewer's ultimate goal is to advise the reader whether this book is worth the twenty-five bucks he's liable to spend on it. Tastes vary, which is why the reviewer should justify everything written about the book in question, good or bad. I also think it's only fair to avoid being too snarky about less than flattering comments, though I also agree with I.J.; best-selling authors need to have thicker skin than newer writers. They're established and get a lot of acclimation, money, and other perks for their work; the standard should be a little higher.
Yup.
I've been reviewing books on my blog for less than a year, so I'm fairly conservative with my comments. I also recognize that reviews, especially in print, are getting less space. The internet has changed that online dramatically, of course, as there is an explosion of new blogs about books.

But I haven't written any negative reviews. It's not that I haven't read books I don't like...it's just that, with all the good books out there that aren't getting the attention they deserve, do I want to use my blog to say "Don't read this book" or do I want to promote the books I do like? I think the good books deserve more attention.

Am I being dishonest? I don't know. I'll have to think about it. Excellent discussion, though.
I think your solution works well, since you're writing reviews for your own web site. Recommend good books, and don't go out of your way to pan any. Most people are looking for recommendations of what to read, not what not to read.

My situation is a little different. I get books sent to me, and, like it or not, I feel an obligation to the editor of New Mystery Reader to send her a review. Some of them are less than flattering. She will occasionally keep one out of print if she thinks it's just too negative. That works well for us: she knows I read everyting she sends, and I know she'll monitor my comments on those occasions when a book truly irritates me.
Should critics write negative reviews? YES, YES and YES!!! But remember, it's only their opinion. Just like the critic who writes a positive review. Above all else it should be honest and done with taste. No one likes to receive a negative review of their work, but if you do, look at it like, how can this help me? Sure, you're mad as hell right now, but read the review and use it to help you write a better manuscript next time.
Praise inflation? Absolutely. I have one name to say - Lee Child. While the "pros" gave Nothing to Lose a pass, the readers have not. Most of his fans are rating this one 3 stars or less. I can only assume that the major reviewers were unwilling to go on record with an honest assessment of this best-selling author's latest effort.

That said, I feel for reviewers. They are drowning in books and must be under a lot of pressure to get a certain number read before their publication deadlines. It must be difficult to find adequate time to write what they want to say.

With the advent of Internet review sites, there are more places to get reviews but I don't think the quality of the review has improved. Constructive criticism is becoming a lost art. The ability to point out the flaws in the work while making recommendations for improvement is a great talent and the reviewers who do it are to be commended.
But that sort of criticism is the prerogative of English professors and editors. To be sure, things can be learned from reviews (if one knows the reviewer and respects his judgment), but reviewers are not in the business of improving authors. They inform would-be readers.

Don't think I read NOTHING TO LOSE. Lee Child is uneven as far as I'm concerned. He is, however, generally, a fine thriller writer. My guess is that reviewers read and decided to pass because the book was weak. That also is a critique of sorts.

I'm more concerned when awards nominations are influenced by an author's past literary prizes.
Yeah, crime fiction doesn't even have literary critics, that I know of. Someone like Harold Bloom or James Wood, who write in-depth reviews that really critique work. Those kinds of reviews really inform the reader, at least more than most reviews we get now, which is just a basic plot summary with a sentence or two of opinion about it.

So I think constructive criticism is just fine within the literary community. But within the genre community, from what I've gathered anyway, such criticism is almost non-existent. Even here on Crimespace, usually when someone criticizes a work they always refer to it vaguely, without mentioning what book it is or who the author is. It's as if people are afraid to say something negative about a book within their own community. Perhaps because they don't want to do or say anything to jeopardize their career? I guess when the bottom line is the end game then you do have to walk on egg shells more, trying to keep everyone happy. But I think genre fiction is hurt because of it. More honest, open discussions are sorely needed.
Well, I do say what I think, even if it's negative. In fact, if the author has a big name, I'm quite likely to comment on weaknesses. Partially, that's because I was irritated, having expected better, and partially because you can't hurt a best-selling author with a few negative comments.
But I also dislike many books because they're not my sort of thing. By my standards then, they are wanting. But by someone else's they may be very entertaining books. Those I generally do not comment on.

I agree that one would like to see reviewers back up their verdict with examples.

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