Has Literary Culture Gotten Too Nice?

by | Aug 8, 2012 | Culture | 55 comments

Writing in Slate, Jacob Silverman argues that literary culture, driven by Twitter and blogging, has gotten too nice:

if you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan. It’s not only shallow, it’s untrue, and it’s having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page.

I think we’ve all encountered shallow and forced positivity online, and all those likes and RTs and squeefests can, at times, ring a more than little hollow. I’m a bit wary of reviewers who choose not to write negative reviews, which, by the way, is completely hypocritical because I have a self-imposed rule not to give bad reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.

But I disagree with Silverman that old school negativity is an integral part of a more virtuous literary culture. Sure, we need both positive and (thoughtfully) negative reviews, and above all we need honesty, but there’s no reason thoughtful literary criticism and squeefests can’t coexist. It’s a big Internet out there.

Besides, uh, have you seen some of the reviews on Goodreads? Some of them would make H.L Mencken blush they’re so hostile.

Even if one accepts the premise that we’re getting more positive in the Internet age… what are we losing again? Old school literary smackdowns may have been entertaining for those who agree with the reviewer, but I’m not sure I see how hysterical pans really advance constructive dialogue.

So basically… if there’s a problem I don’t see a problem.

What do you think? Too many rainbows and puppies out there? Would we be better off with more negativity and fewer niceties? Does the problem have more to do with cliqueishness than positivity?

Art: The Happy Violinist with a Glass of Wine by Gerard van Honthorst


  1. Victoria

    I think the danger of all this positivity is that the few reviewers (and writers) who choose to be unabashedly honest in their opinions come in for a lot of very aggressive–and not at all friendly–criticism FOR BEING HONEST. That sets a frightening double standard where even genuine positivity doesn't look real, because anything that falls short of exuberant fannishness comes under attack.

  2. D.G. Hudson

    "Does the problem have more to do with cliqueishness than positivity?"

    That might be your answer right there. Bonding together gives strength. Everyone wants to be liked.

    This nails it: "…that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer's biggest fan. It's not only shallow, it's untrue, and it's having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page."

    It is chilling and not in a good way.

  3. Ava Jae

    I agree with you, Nathan. The life of the writer (both published and unpublished) isn't an easy one, and I for one find it encouraging to see so many people gathering together and trying to support each other, regardless of where you are in your journey as a writer. Is it genuine 100% of the time? Maybe not, but I think it's unfair to assume that the support isn't genuine at least most of the time.

    And as you said–there are some downright cruel reviews out there that are borderline abusive (and sometimes not borderline at all) on Goodreads and Amazon. Insinuating that everything on the internet is puppies and rainbows is far from the truth.

    On a final note, I don't think it's such a bad thing that some writers are developing fans based on their personalities first, rather than based on their work. I've personally discovered two authors online whose personalities won me over before I looked at their work–and I couldn't be happier that it worked out that way because when I read their books, I realized that not only had I come across two wonderful people, but they were excellent writers as well.

  4. Matthew MacNish

    You must have to be published to get your ass kissed all over the web, because an overabundance of niceness is not really my experience in the publishing internet-o-sphere.

    My personal experience aside, I do think your point is valid. Does the world need balanced, honest opinions on art? Sure, but I don't really see them currently lacking.

  5. author Christa Polkinhorn

    I don't see a problem either, Nathan. Check out any book on Amazon or elsewhere. Even literary master pieces have plenty of 1-star, negative, often outright hostile reviews–and not all of them can be called "intelligent" or "honest."

  6. Jaimie

    I think the "hysterical pans" which are (rightfully) scorned have scared people from saying they dislike something at all. People fall so easily into extremism. (Implied: NOT ME!)

    I try to say when I really like something and when I don't like something equally. I also try not to make disliking something into an art form. That's just cruel. But if I loved, for instance, The Name of the Wind and was disappointed with, for instance, The Wise Man's Fear, especially the Felurian stuff… why hide that? I would say that to Patrick Rothfuss's face — in the proper context — as I wouldn't scorn anyone who said it to my face about my book — in the proper context. Patrick Rothfuss has even responded to this specific criticism of his protagonist as a Gary Stu: "Someone can think Kvothe is a dolphin, it doesn't make it true." (Quoting from memory there.) And that's cool. I like him.

    But yes, I would say the literary culture online is either too nice or too indiscriminate. And in the case of writers not saying they disliked a book, I suspect they're trying to manipulate karma. Just write a book that stands up for itself and speak your mind and let the cards fall where they may.

  7. M.G. King

    I'm a puppy and rainbow kind of gal myself; if the culture is going to skew, I'd rather it skew positive. Negative comments posted online have enormous power that they didn't have a few years ago, when most reviews were posted in back sections of newspapers and journals, and not alongside the "Buy" button. There's plenty of negativity going around these days. Thoughtful, constructive, and genuine might be the gold standard, but I won't complain about those who settle for squee.

  8. ChiTrader

    Good post, Nathan. I'm in the "Far too many rainbows and puppies" camp. A logical extension of our "everyone's a winner, give the kids a ribbon or a medal merely for participating" culture.

    Any negative in a child's life is seen as debilitating, so everyone gets an A or B in school, no one is told they are merely average, which I interpret to mean that one is just as good as most people, and implies competency. Competent doesn't sell much these days. "Great" does. Yuck, how I'm sick of the overuse of that word. It has lost all meaning.

    Competition is discouraged in phy ed classes so the unathletic aren't traumatized by getting hit with soft rubber balls in dodgeball.

    With respect to writing, I see reviews as being just like grade inflation. Any book that is legible and shows minimum competency gets a five-star review just so the author can brag that her book is "great" because a bunch of overly kind reviewers said so. How many books are truly great? One in one hundred? One thousand? Ten thousand??

    Yet first time authors as well as megapublished writers with 50+ books in print(each one perhaps a little less inspired than the last)get raves with each book in order to boost sales.

    The only people who seem to have a handle on what quality writing consists of are agents and publishers, based on the number of queries they reject each year. But even they are forced to be biased in favor of their clients because of the monetary relationship that exists between authors and agents/publishers.

    Sooner or later, reviewers will be forced to inflate the star system, with six stars becoming the new rating for "head and shoulders above 99% of the books written in a given year."

    To me, excessive five-star ratings on a book by a new author only means they are marketing the heck out of their books with the help of friends, relatives, and other writers who play the "You shill for me and I'll shill for you" rating game.

  9. E.J. Wesley

    There is definitely a measure of "playing the game" going on. I first noticed it with authors banding together to promote each other's books by doing "recommended read" blogfests, etc.. Twitter takes it to another level entirely.

    Not that I'm necessarily opposed to such things, btw. Just noticed it.

    My belief, in general, is that we need to support each other if we can. And that's hard to do if you're not overly enthusiasitc. Do I wish it wasn't quite so hammy and overdone? Sure.

    I rarely read blog reviews anymore, simply because I can't trust most of them to be reviews. They're recommendations, which is fine, but not really what I want/need if I'm looking for critical analysis.

    Anyway, I'd probably not recommend authors be in the business of giving 'honest' reviews of the work of their peers. If that's your thing, it might be best start a different identity as a book blogger.

    You wouldn't give 100% honest public reviews of your coworkers at any other job. At least not if you wanted to stay employed for long.

  10. Serenity Bohon

    Bleck! I hate this topic. It makes me sad. I struggle with this whole reviewing nonsense. ESPECIALLY THE STARS. It's so difficult to sort our own preconceived notions from whether or not the book actually failed in some way. And it's nearly impossible for me to give an honest review of a book by someone with whom I am on the same team – i.e., every other writer. I seriously peruse the ratings I have given on Goodreads every now and then just to make sure I'm okay with my system. And I really never am. It seems that anything less than a 5 is a slap in the face. And I hate that. Yet, reserving all 5 stars only for those that seriously impressed me is the only reviewer conviction I have fully settled upon.

  11. Stoich91

    The problem, methinks, is not people being too nice, but being inauthentic. In a day and age where almost anyone can get (at least E-)published, honest feedback is becoming invaluable. Word of mouth is the best marketing strategy for good books, and when feedback is inauthentic, this strategy is abused and it becomes distorted.

  12. Caroline

    I attempt to be positive in my reviews, but I refuse to put a "puppies and rainbows" spin on bad editing, word choice, or writing in general. I can, however, be respectful in my critique. I often feel sorry for those writers who don't avail themselves on the amount of help that can be found on the internet. They are doing themselves (and their work) a major disservice.

    But with that being said, writing and publishing a novel (whether by traditional publishing or self-publishing) is a major feat and an author should be respected for their time and willingness to put themselves out there. I get very irritated by readers who lash out at authors on Goodreads or Amazon with no sense of what the author has accomplished. These sorts of reviewers often cannot see the difference between something being poorly written and just not liking the story. It's a very big difference.

    On the question of cliques, I do believe there is some of that going on. So many authors meet up in forums and link together their blogs and suddenly, they are self-superior "guru" types with no other presence than what they say online (and often they aren't even published). It's irritating, especially for someone like me who takes online stuff seriously, but not so seriously that I think I have better advice than the next person.

  13. Carolina Valdez Miller

    I agree that the mutual adoration across the board is exhausting, mostly because it rings false. There's genuine no-strings-attached kindness and then there's an artificial kindness, which requires the bearer of said kindness (RT, tweet, shoutout and other various lickings) to be repaid in full. That's not niceness–that's anything but. Artificial kindness (whether online or in real life) is just another version of negativity, which can hijack our ability to trust all the messages being put out, even if they may be genuine. No, we don't need more negativity in our literary culture (Eee gads, no). Just a little more honesty in our rainbows and puppies.

  14. Michael G-G

    The internet/Twitter etc. creates a semblance of community. Add to this that writers–particularly kidlit writers–are generally nice people, and you have the current puppy dogs and rainbows scenario.

    If you want unbiased reviews, search out librarians rather than writers. They tend to be evenhanded, eschewing sparkles and hatchets both. One of my favorites is Karen Yingling not only because she seems to read a book a minute, but she always points out a book's strengths as well as weaknesses, and whether she thinks it will gain readership among her middleschoolers.

  15. Kristen

    The literary culture bothers me, but not for the slant between positive vs. negative reviews. When I read a review, I want to know what the reader liked about the book and what the reader didn't like about the book. I don't care if it's a negative or positive review, because we're all individuals, and we have different things we like/dislike.

    For example, I'm big on books with character development, and I get bored to tears with detailed action scenes. Let's say I read the following two reviews:
    Book 1) I loved this book! The action scenes were excellent and non-stop!
    Book 2) I hated this book. It was so dull because there weren't any explosions and it was all lovey-dovey character development crap.

    Based on these reviews, I would choose book 2 over book 1 even though book 2 got a negative review where book 1 got a positive one. Why? Because the reviewer and I have different tastes, and the things he describes as awful are things I love in a book.

    So long story short, the negative/positive aspects of reviews don't matter to me. I just want to know what was in the book that people reacted to, and I wish more reviewers would keep that in mind instead of creatively describing how awful/wonderful a book is without saying a single concrete thing about the book.

  16. Anonymous

    I never post anonymous but screw it I'll do it this time.

    You know what I think is the problem, not that everybody is too positive, but that agents are looking for the wrong stuff in choosing clients.

    I think it's messed up that self-published authors cannot get agents and then end up doing fantastic on their own and getting an agent.

    I think the people in publishing need to get smarter about what they're doing.

  17. Maya

    I don't think it's bad for authors to stay positive and support each other. After all, there are plenty of readers who will give us the painful truth. Just like in Hollywood, where actors generally put on a good face for their peers, we should try to be professional and positive and leave the criticism to others. First of all, it's hard for readers to be believe you're being impartial anyway (and let's face it, I'm not going to write a negative review for a friend). Secondly, it's a small community and you might well meet the writer whose book you bashed on GR. Not a great way to make friends and influence people.

    If anything, I wish that authors would remain MORE professional and stop harassing regular reviewers who didn't like their book. Grow a thicker skin, people, or get out of the biz.

  18. Anonymous

    I think the people in publishing need to get smarter about what they're doing.

    Here, here. I recently attended a conference and objectively speaking (and I'm not even querying yet!) the things the publishers were saying were so risk-averse it's ridiculous. They will only try to sell what already sells. They claim they want something different, but all they want is more of the same. They white-wash covers, put extreme limits on the number of minority characters they are willing to have in their books, and jump on band-wagons. An editor said she would only be interested in my YA sci-fi if it was dystopia. Seriously? I am so SICK of dystopia and I doubt I'm the only one.

    The recent seven-figure deal with the wanna-be 50 shades book is yet another example of the publishers getting really excited for MORE OF THE SAME.

  19. AR

    Good questions. I also avoid negative reviews. I prefer to boost what I love rather than slam what I don't.

    It's a fallacy to treat the new democratized publishing world, with reader reviews, as equivalent to the old aristocratic version, with learned reviews. Why should mere 'consumers' feel the need to develop a complex criteria? After all, they bought the 'product.' All they have to do is love it or hate it.

    In the case of a qualified person giving a real old-time review, I think you have to clearly lay out your criteria for what you are saying. For instance, express an understanding of what the author tried to do and say, how such a thing should be done and said, and specifically how the author failed or succeeded.

    One thing that blows my mind is how basically illiterate people can use the internet to sound educated. Their grammar and spelling has been beaten into shape by a combination of some long-suffering teacher and the computer's dictionary/grammar-check functions – but they can't connect the logical dots from one phrase to the next. This morning I read a comment on an article at Poetry Foundation dot org, in which someone excoriated the essayist for saying that lyrical poetry is a cognate to nursery rhymes and riddles. She felt that the essayist was being snobbish for making lyrical poetry superior to nursery rhymes. Apparently she thought 'cognate' meant "highly superior" – however, all her words were spelled correctly and she used a bunch of phrases and qualifiers that sounded faintly academic. So funny but also disheartening. It makes me wish there were more trade-based high schools out there and that they were less stigmatized.

  20. Andrew Leon

    There is a problem, and it's even more prevalent in the indie world than the traditional world. I pretty much won't buy independently published books anymore, because the reviews are -always- positive and frequently from people that didn't even read the books. Just other authors that went and said something like "this is guy is great! buy his book!" I was fooled by that a few times and read the absolute worst books I've read in my life because of it. The current refusal to do negative reviews harms everyone, but, especially, it harms the consumer, because it becomes impossible to distinguish not just good from bad but what I might like from what you might like. At the end of the day, lying is still lying even if it's "no, those jeans don't make your ass look fat."

  21. Cora Foerstner

    There are so many good responses here that I almost didn't respond, but I decided to add my piece.

    You hit the mark with honest review. As several people said, there are many negatives with the overly positive as well as agressive negative reviews. Both types are rarely constructive; often they do not give a reader concrete, specific analysis. I'm always pleased when I come across a review who does give a thoughtful, honest review.

    Honesty: yes! A reviewer can be honest without being caustic and bombastic. I would add to honesty that good/great reviews are thoughtful and analytical as well. Even books I love/like have issues.

    Having said that, I do enjoy H. L. Mencken. I wouldn't mind if a new Mencken rose up and wrote for the Internet.

  22. Maureen McGowan

    Huh, I kind of blogged about this today at the Drunk Writer Talk blog… Group think today. 🙂 There's a link to a goodreads ARC giveaway on my post there… I won't link here, but anyone interested can google. 😉

    I fully believe that professional reviewers and all readers, for that matter, should be honest in their reviews–even if they hated a book. But I don't think that means authors shouldn't support each other and draw the attention of their own fans/followers to the work of other authors. It's good karma if nothing else. 🙂

    I, for one, think it's fabulous that authors support each other.

    I'm also an author who's chosen not to criticize fellow authors' work in public. Do I like every book I read? No. But I'm an author, not a professional critic so I keep those opinions private (or amongst friends). I could choose to post my thoughts as a reader, but to what end? It feels to me a bit like: don't sh*t where you eat.

    There aren't any other professions I can think of where the workers publicly deride their co-workers' or competitors' work.

    You don't see actors, or screenwriters for that matter, publicly criticizing each others' acting skills.

    That's what critics and the general public are for.

    I know there's this tradition in the literary world of authors reviewing other authors' books… but it's always seemed odd to me. Aren't there enough qualified lit profs and librarians etc. etc. to do the critic job without authors pooping on each other? (clearly I have a scatological fixation today.)

    That said, I love it when readers are honest. Even when their words sting or are completely inaccurate. (i.e. describe things in the book that aren't there.)

    I look at Goodreads in particular as less of a review site, and more of a social networking site for book lovers. Some of the members post thoughtful reviews that could have ended up in a review journal or newspaper if more of those were thriving these days and/or still publishing reviews. But most members just post their gut reaction to books. And that's great.

    In my mind, anything that encourages reading is, well, to use a frequently misused squeefest word: awesome.

  23. Anonymous

    I'm curious as to why neither you nor Silverman has stated outright the logical consequence of this love-fest – that writers are not made aware when their writing is of poor quality.
    The most alarming problem that I see is not the critics participating in this mutual admiration society, but the editors. I know that there is a market for everything, but there is such a thing as objectively poor grammar, structure etc., and editors need to be honest with their clients if they are to be truly kind to them.
    I've watched as freelance editors jump on twitter and join writing hashtags so that they can make 'friends' with writers and get work from them (usually ones that have given up on traditional publishing.) I'm looking for freelance editors, at the moment, so I've been reading books that have been edited by some of the more popular editors on social media, and some who have been recommended to me by self published authors. As I read, I find myself genuinely angry to think that anyone has been paid for editing these works. I'm not talking about prose that might not be to my taste, I'm talking about gaping plot holes, appalling deus ex machina, scene after scene which does not further the plot and, worst of all, "ending" the work based on word count, regardless of any plot arc – at all – being resolved (seemingly justifying it by calling it a "series").
    Sure, not every writer listens to their editor, but I know these writers, and they shared their process, talked about how they were working through the changes suggested, and they believe they have produced quality work – because their editor told them it was ready for publication.

    The question is, does it matter? If these guys are all proud of their self published work and some are even selling fairly well, are the editors wrong not to actually try to help them make their work better? Am I not being a coward by not telling them what I truly think?
    Obviously, my personal view is that it does matter and that I am a coward (hence the anonymity). Story telling is vital to human psychology, and evolution. However ugly or beautiful the prose, if stories without endings, or psychologically real characters, or illogical "plots" become the majority of stories published (even the traditional publishers are putting them out there, now) we are failing to provide the next generation with the tools to become good storytellers. Eventually, stories won't quite entertain or move us,so they won't teach us anything, either, but no-one will know why (except the screenwriters – assuming they have enough stories to recycle!)

    For my work, I'm going to keep looking for an honest editor, because I consider lying to me, telling me that my work is great, when it's not, to be not just unprofessional, but not at all friendly.

  24. Nathan Bransford

    To put it another way, I've never found there to be a shortage of people on the Internet willing to tell you how much you suck.

  25. Robert Michael

    Long ago, I remember the unwritten rule "Don't say so-and-so is a bad writer" or "Don't say that trade published fiction has a bunch of stinkers." I understand that literature is an art form. Not all art speaks to all people. This is true for movies (we review them, too), art (critics abound), and theatre (being critical here is an artform in and of itself). We are culture that is addicted to reviews (restaurants, plumbers, television shows, sports).

    What is happening, I believe, is that smart authors and publishers realize the power of a positive review and they "game the system." This is similar to the movie reviews a decade ago that would pull positive review quotes out of a negative review and then use that in their advertising. It is another version of publicity spinning.

    As far as negative reviews are concerned, I think the problem is the extremists reacting. If you examine closely the pattern, you will find that enormously popular books and authors get the highest volume of vitriol. Often, these negative reviews take on undercurrents of racism, elitism, colonialism and a host of other -isms. The point is that positively negative reviews that push the boundaries of good taste often don't use valid explanations for their views.

    This same problem occurs on the positive extremes as well. A glowing review that gives no legitimate reason for that particular view is common. I like those sites that offer the question for comments "Was this comment helpful?" I vote that we all start clicking the corresponding box so that we can help level the field.

    Because, in the end, why do we have reviews? We use them to make intelligent purchases with our hard-earned discretionary income. Reviews are supposed to aid us in that search. When reviewers are paid, when reviewers are dishonest, or hostile, it cheats the potential customer.

    And, to all those out there that don't leave reviews, let me encourage you to do so in the future. You don't have to be flowery or long-winded (like me). You just have to be honest and specific. What appealed to you? Or, conversely, what repelled you?
    If we can collectively provide more honest, unbiased, non-publicist reviews, then we have a better chance at killing the rainbows and puppies and squelching the haters who gotta hate.

  26. ninabadzin.com

    Nathan, I happened to blog about this yesterday. Loving the comments on your post (and on mine too.) We're all thinking about these thing since Silverman's article. I was thinking about them before too when I asked in the comment section of a friend's blog if we can really trust reviews from aspiring novelists. I won't go into all the details here since they're in my post, but my opinion is still–NO, I do not trust most reviews, not the overly positive or overly negative ones.

  27. Raejean

    I agree with Nathan when he said there is no shortage of people who are willing to tell you how much you suck.

    I believe in being honest, and I also believe we can be honest without being rude, hurtful and biligerant. As a writer, I take my work to my critique group because I want to hear what works along with what doesn't work. I trust they will be honest while being kind.

    I shoot for the same consideration when writing a book review. I haven't liked everything I've read, but I try to picture them sitting across from me as I write what I think in a constructive manner.

    I'd love to see more people, in all aspects of life, raising up to the challenge of being honestly kind!

  28. Beth

    I had a no negative review policy for a while, and my blog suffered. Not because I wasn't giving good reviews, just because I wasn't reviewing enough. I'm a harsh critic even on books I enjoy. So I went back to my tried and true honest but not mean review policy. It's made a difference. As for the question have we gotten too nice? I'm not sure. The reviews that personally attack authors, and the way every PNR review is compared to twilight makes me think not. On the other hand, the way authors have been attacking negative reviews makes me think they're not used to it–as in there aren't enough neg reviews out there.

  29. Anonymous

    It depends where on the internet you look. The internet is full of everything, from cheerleading to the kind of vitriol that could strip paint.

    The best thing to do is read a reviewer's policy statement. If you want the good, the bad, and the ugly, written by people who are not authors themselves and who don't work for publishers, they are out there. There are ninety kajillion book reviewers on the internet. You can find what you're looking for.

  30. Naja Tau

    Hmmm! Very interesting points. I personally haven't been privileged with much politely fake feedback from people online. Quite the opposite a lot of the time. So I know how I wouldn't like to be treated and I go out of my way to be polite if and when I have intelligence and the emotional fortitude to do so.

    Linking this question to the one about, "Why the heck is America so violent?" I think that many people in an individualistic culture are very quick to invade each others boundaries, to disagree on what constitutes conventional behavior, and to hold in contempt other people's emotional world views. You can see so much of it documented in writing on the internet. Do a Youtube search for something like pit bulls, Obama, or… geez, anything really!

    I tie this into the idea of online shallowness. Based on both the blank praise and the anti-social remarks I see everywhere in comments online, I think that most people struggle to analyze and articulate their thoughts and feelings about a text. That inability to analyze and articulate may increase people's tendency to lash out at each other, and even worse- lead to a fear about articulating your own opinions- even if those opinions are respectfully honest. No ordinary person going about the course of an ordinary day wants to get cornered and attacked. In order to be truly honest, you must feel safe enough to BE honest, and that safety from personal attack and manipulation just isn't there on the internet yet.

    I think that some of the online shallowness has also increased because of the increased accountability that Google and Facebook created. You're not so anonymous, and coworkers and employers can link to your online profiles.

    I also think that the increase in online college classes may have impacted people's agreement on what constitutes "netiquette."

    Just some of my thoughts. I always enjoy the online community created here,

  31. Anonymous

    There is a difference between being constructive and being an asshole just because someone gave you a box to stand on in the public square. I don't think we need more negative anything. More constructive criticism, certainly.

    But some of these reviewers are simply being mean to get traffic to their blogs. That's despicable.

    Also, if you're an author and you're unprepared for negative reviews, then don't publish. Yes, they hurt. Cry to your dog and then write something else. Or get drunk and complain to your sig other.

    But for f's sake, stay off Goodreads when you do it – those bitches are NASTY and they will NOT forgive you.

  32. janet

    This is a great question. My feeling is that it takes GUTS to follow your dream, and no one should try to piss on your parade. Does that mean that there aren't poorly written books out there? NO. It means that we need to lift as we climb. Do not deny someone their right to happiness and their dream just because you don't happen to like their style, their grammar, their story or their book.

    I'd rather people practice being overly kind because of social media than be twits to each other because it's easier and makes them THINK that they look smarter or better educated.

    Do your thing. Write your book. Share the characters and stories that are aching to get out of your head and heart. And…kill people with kindness. The world needs WAY MORE of it, not less.

  33. AM Riley

    I expect reviewers to be more honest than kind, but I really am disgusted when writers decide to give a fellow writer, especially one who writes in the same genre, a nasty, negative, review. They are essentially dissing the competition and it smacks of pettiness and jealousy. In those cases I think niceness is the only professional stance to take.

    Or better yet, say nothing.

  34. Mike Jung

    I also agree that there's no shortage of people who are willing to tell you how much you suck. It's not just the reading public, either – Kirkus takes pride in being "the world's toughest revieweers," do they not?

    Someone mentioned in a previous comment that editors need to stop participating in this mutual admiration society. That person appeared to be talking about freelance editors, but it made me think of editors at traditional publishing houses, and I don't see those editors going out of their way to avoid honest criticism. Quite the opposite, in fact, and the evidence is the sum total of queries and manuscripts that are submitted and subsequently rejected every year.

    As a published author, I can also say that my editor doesn't allow my work to slide – he pushes me to write the best books I possibly can, and if he thinks there's something that can be better, he tells me.

    I have no data to back up any of my assertions, but I don't think there's an imbalance in favor of positive energy. If you ask me, the positive energy in the book world is still catching up to the negative.

  35. Jake Richert

    I recognize that my behavior has changed since leaving college and all of those writing classes I loved. No matter who it was, almost everyone's story paired their compliments with constructive criticism in workshop all in an effort to help the writing.

    There were times when no one could think of anything to say about a story (good or bad), not because it was perfect but because it was too far gone or to raw of a first draft (it's extremely difficult to help anyone out with a first draft since–hopefully–it's just the jumping off point). But we always tried to help out to help the writing as best we could.

    Now, if I have trouble reading something because the writing isn't what it could be, I put it down and leave it forever and rarely speak of it again. I save my reviews (whether in person or online) for works that I am excited about. It doesn't help the writer of the book/story I couldn't and didn't want to finish. It leaves them not knowing how they can improve.

    Positive comments (and puppies and rainbows) are nice but my confidence increased once I understood how to fix my errors and improve my writing, and then reached a skill level where I could see the other errors that I was not at point to recognize before.

    As long as we avoid border-line hate-speech and criticizing for the benefit of no one, constructive criticism can only help our fellow writers out and, since seeing someone else's writing problems can help you recognize your own, it can help ourselves.

  36. James

    I just think there's more.

    We live in a time when everyone who purchases a book has the ability to be a critic and voice an opinion (twice actually. Once on Amazon, once on Good Reads). These are reviewers with no agenda of critically reviewing a book. In most cases, the ratings are of the liked it/didn't like it variety–with a somewhat unrelated point system attached.

    You point out, Good Reads straight up rapes some work. Usually it's done to be funny, the Fifty Shades of Grey review with pictures and videos comes to my mind.

    What's even more baffling are the 4 star reviews that are luke warm. "It wasn't great. 4 stars!" Or the 2 star reviews that love it, "AWESOME! Was captivated, a real page turner. But I hate Helvetica. 2 stars."

    Actually, the REAL version of this review is — "Good book. I don't like the genre(then why the hell did you buy the book) so I can only give it 3 stars, even though it's the best book I've ever read in this genre."

    There's also nothing quite like being ripped a new one, by poor grammar and terrible spelling.

    I just think there's more.

  37. Bryan Russell

    The Internetz is too nice? Is that chap online?

  38. Natalie

    I agree, Nathan, with what you've said and what Ava Jae wrote in her comment. When I decided to self-pub my first book, I was able to quickly find kindred spirits on Twitter and Facebook, others who have chosen the same path (at least for now). We support each other. I will not publish untruthful reviews or say things I don't believe. But you can be a "friend" by retweeting, hosting an interview on your blog, re-posting an announcement to your FB page. And it is more fun to be engaged with others who are climbing the same mountain you are.
    Being a writer/author is damned hard. Why shouldn't we be nice to each other? Why shouldn't we help each other out? The "us" and "them", and "me" versus "them" mentalities of the old publishing world are going away. Good riddance.

  39. Anonymous

    Hi Nathan. I'm reminded of what Dr.Seuss said,‘Be who you are and say how you feel, because those who matter won’t mind and those who mind don’t matter.’ If you love a squeefest (& I include myself in that number), then squee your heart out. If you're inclined to be a harsh critic then slay your dragons. Either way, as long as you are being true to who you are at core, then nothing else matters!
    Yvette Carol

  40. Katie

    The title of this post made me laugh. What are some of the things I've seen going in the literary community lately? Hmm. Twitter or Goodreads-incited flamewars between authors and readers, sites dedicated to trashing and ridiculing books of a certain genre and the authors who write them, the many, many people who trash self-published or the corresponding people who trash authors who choose to sign with an agent and go traditional, Goodreads lists of authors who "behave badly" and corresponding lists of reviewers who behave badly (and stalkerish posts of personal information like where these people live, work, and regularly hang out–yikes), and many other things. Lately the literary world–at least online–has seemed more like a battlefield than a field of rainbows and puppies.

    I am never going to support the idea of encouraging people to be nastier or more negative than they already are, because clearly the literary community is perfectly capable of doing that on its own.

    That isn't to say that I'm opposed to critical or honest thinking. OF COURSE reviewers should be honest about their opinions. I think that goes without saying. But for too many people, "honest" is just an excuse to be cruel or snarky, often almost as a game.

    Is too much shallow praise or lack of sincerity a problem? Maybe…? I dunno, I feel like the worst thing that happens there is that people praise a book and then those praises don't pan out. Should this problem be corrected by encouraging more negativity and critical words? I don't think so. Like I said, we have plenty of that already. Too much, I'd say. I think as a community we should strive for meat instead of fluff, of course. But that meat can still be served kindly, respectfully, and politely.

  41. Jenna St. Hilaire

    Great question, and one I struggle with. I'll write a negative review, but only if I can separate my emotions out, explain what appeared to be wrong with the book, and point out anyplace where I thought the author succeeded.

    To second a couple of other commenters: it's the Goodreads stars that bother me. Goodreads stars are set vaguely on a scale of taste, from "didn't like it" to "it was amazing". I've considered just not giving stars because my taste is not always guaranteed to correlate to quality.

    E.g., I recently gave a very popular YA book a one-star review–it was one of those violent dystopians, made me practically ill to read–but it was actually reasonably well-written and I made that clear in the review. Even included a disclaimer against the star rating.

    It still bothers me. I worry about the author seeing the review and only seeing the one star, rather than the affirmation contained in the review itself.

  42. paula shene

    I'm a puppy and rainbow kind of writer – for some of my stories. Others not so sweett, but I write children and adult fare so that broadness is to be expected.

    We tend to forget there is a difference between a review and a critique. With a critique, one pays to get bashed, and the review one buys to knock or buys and wanting it free, knows that bashing will earn money returned.

    To me, a review is giving a potential reader an inside track and I will not make a negative review. If I believe one is required, I contact the author and let them know why I think there is a problem, including my reasoning, but also not in a bashing manner.

    I, in fact, have a review due on a book for a friend. The writing is excellent, his stories, however, are disturbing, antisocial, and could be construed as being from a psychopathic mind. I will write the review and ask him if he wishes me to post it.

  43. E.B. Black

    I don't see it as fake. Maybe because I've never complimented another writer on facebook, twitter, or goodreads and not meant it. I always mean what I say.

  44. CMM

    At the risk of being negative, I think the point of the essay was missed. It's not about a lack of negativity so much as a lack of honesty. The online book culture is built mostly out of writers following writers, and the primary reason anyone follows, or retweets, or likes anyone else is to get attention for themselves.

    The beginning of the essay touches on something that bothers me deeply–writers are becoming famous online not for their books but for their twitter and blog posts. And that's part of the writer's point. Once you become "friends" with someone, it's much harder to be honest and tell them when you don't like something they've done.

  45. Michele Shaw

    This is an interesting question. I think there is a plethora of fake "love" on the net for friends, cliques, or others people see as potential help. But there is genuine love as well. The problem is sorting it out, and I have chosen not to. As a reader,I still purchase books by reading the blurb and a few pages or by the rec of friends who share similar reading tastes. If I stumble upon a book I don't like, I stop reading it and move on. In the end, I think the niceness helps some people and it's only a problem if you let it become one. As far as opinions of my work, I'm a writer, not a mind reader. If someone says they like my book, I'll never know for sure if they are telling the truth or not. We can all choose to believe what we want and participate in the lovefest or not.

  46. K. C. Blake

    I'm with you on the hateful reviews on Goodreads. There are a lot of Simon Cowell wanna-bes out there. Sometimes they just want to be clever and make fun of a book because it makes them feel better somehow about themselves.

    On the other hand, I agree with the poster who pointed out that once you become online buddies with a writer it is hard to tell them their book bored you to sleep. That's why I try to keep my friends separate from the books that I read. If I make friends with you, I probably won't read your book. Or I'll read it and just won't tell you that I read it unless it blew me away.

  47. mindbuilder

    Many excellent responses so not sure how I can add much more except to say it is one thing to give support to a writer through false postings on social media and another to be honest to the work and not the person.
    After all, isn't a critique supposed to be objective? What has happened to objectivity?
    I'm not implying support for someone who wants to give a negative and hostile review. There are too many riding either end of the scale and not enough of us in the middle!

  48. Kerry O Cerra

    I'm a co-founder of the online book recommendation site for kids and teens called Whatcha' Reading Now? We have a policy of only reviewing books we love. This is not simply to play nice, but if we are going to endorse a book, we want it to be one all three of us truly liked. So, while there are plenty of books we've read and disliked for one or more reasons, we don't see a need to put that out there. After all, someone else might feel differently about that work.

    We theme each of our WRN? issues (humor, love, friendship, mystery, etc…) and I can tell you there have been many times we've struggled to find a book all three of us loved enough to feature on our site and give it our stamp of approval. So, this whole age of being positive on the Internet doesn't mean we're all sugarcoating things, it just means some of us choose to focus on the good and let others make up their own minds on the rest. We get large shipments of books from major publishers each week for review, but we're very selective in what we use. Because we're writers in addition to being reviewers, we're aware of and sensitive to all the hard work that goes into producing a book. That alone is a good reason for not going "harsh" in any review. It's just the way we roll at WRN?

  49. thewriteedge

    I definitely think there's an assumption these days that people need to be nicer to one another. I can attest to this with a personal experience. In addition to writing and editing, I review books and I got to know a writer a little bit before reviewing her book. I didn't like the book and said so in my review, albeit respectfully. In no way did I degrade or disrespect her; I simply stated in the review what I didn't like about the book itself. And she got angry, telling me in an email how she felt like my comments about the editing of her book were unwarranted (even though I said repeatedly in a private email to her that I was on her side and urged her, for her own sake, to find a new editor.) A few days after my review appeared on Amazon, another review of the same book appeared that praised it to the high heavens.

    I'm not saying reviewers, editors, and others should rip a book to shreds. But if it isn't good or if the story is weak and needs work, we shouldn't be afraid to say so (provided, again, that we remain respectful in our approach.)

  50. Hallie Sawyer

    I don't think there is anything wrong with writers/readers/bloggers to support authors by talking positively about their books. I look at these more as recommendations rather than reviews. And when it comes down to it, I think if a book doesn't have a buzz about it, that should be enough. There is enough negativity in the world (the news) so why not keep the ugliness to ourselves. And puppies rock.

  51. Mira

    I've been thinking about this lately. It's an interesting issue.

    I think it's a mixed bag. Certainly the community that is forming is wonderful. Authors supporting each other is terrific!

    But the downside is the pressure on authors to be 'honest' (alot of the not-so-nice commenting people mentioned is done by readers, not authors, or it's posted anonymously). I think there's a definite loss there, in terms of honest exchange of opinion and truth.

    I think we are entering the world of public scrutiny and celebrity. Just like actors and musicians tend to have almost scripted positive responses to their interactions with fans and interviewers, authors are beginning to feel the same pressure.

    It is really easy to say the wrong thing and have someone swear they will never read your book, or promote your book, or feature it on their blog, or whatever, because they didn't like what you said. Authors may be wary about generating that type of ill will. The two-edged sword of the internet, which is allowing authors to finally have some visibility, is also placing them at the recieving end of other people's immediate opinion.

    Some brave souls may ignore this pressure and speak out anyway. And thank goodness, because we need honest voices. For an actor to give a scripted response is one thing, that's what actors to. But to silence the voices of writer could be a great loss.

    For those brave souls who speak out, if they are lucky, they'll get a positive reputation for frankness that people will accept. Men will probably find this easier than women; an outspoken woman still tends to draw harsh critique, for the most part.

    My final concern is that this pressure to be 'nice' will impact what people write. That they will soften their books because they are worried about the reaction from readers.

    Of course, writers will speak. We do have the fortunate options of pen names. That may help balance the pressure to be popular rather than truthful. And, again, some writers will always choose truth over popularity.

    It will be interesting to watch.

  52. Peter Dudley

    I agree! This is a great post, and you're awesome! The guy you quoted is the best! I love your blog! You talked about a subject I love!

    Full disclosure: Positivity is my #2 "StrengthsFinder" strength. So I tend to think everything's great. I'm totally a rainbows and kittens and cupcakes kind of guy. But the saccharine squeefests make me gag a little, and I stay out of them. It often comes across more like sycophantic ass-kissing celebrity worship than actual dialog. I also don't ask for autographs when I meet super awesome famous people, which I have a few times recently. Even that one time when I really was tongue-tied star-struck. (Sorry, Nathan, it wasn't you, though you're a close second.)

    Anyway, someone wise once used to yell at me quite often, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." Reading between your lines, it sounds like on Goodreads you'll list the books you've read, but you'll only actually review the ones you like. That seems completely honest to me and very stable and sustainable. I think it's a good approach in person, and a good approach online–twitter, facebook, blogs, etc.

  53. A. M. Perkins

    I once read a piece that was absolutely terrible – poorly plotted and conceived, bad grammar, incorrect word usage – you name the problem, it had it.

    I thought long and hard how to nicely point out some of the issues and gave a review with selected constructive criticism that was still overwhelmingly positive and encouraging (and, again, to be nice, gave it more stars than it deserved).

    I got a scathing rant in return, with profanities, insults, and diatribes delineating my many failures as a human. Fun.

    I would never be deliberately mean to someone, but that's the kind of thing that makes me not want to be completely honest, either.

  54. Netbug

    I deal with the opposite usually. In fandom everybody is looking for a way to tear somebody else down. X_x


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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