What’s the Point of a Negative Book Review?

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What does a writer expect, in a book review? Image by Decoded Arts. All rights reserved.

What does a writer expect, in a book review? Image by Decoded Arts, All rights reserved.

In the world of book reviewing, reviewers, who are sometimes published or unpublished authors themselves, seem to take great pleasure in writing negative comments about books. In these cases, readers may wonder whether the art of reviewing books has become an exercise in negativity – but both negative and positive reviews can benefit all audiences.


As Mayra Calvin points out in The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing, “There is far more to competently reviewing a work of fiction or a book of non-fiction than what we all remember from the turning out of book reports in our school days.” A book review enhances perspective, promotes new literature, and most of all, challenges readers – whether it’s positive or negative.

Book Reviews as Windows into the Writers’ Worlds

A book review assesses a published book, explaining what is good or bad about it so that readers can determine whether or not they should read it. A thoughtful book review critiques the book, especially its contents, argument, thesis, plot, and characters, in addition to how it fits with previous works in the genre. In the City University of New York’s article, “What is a Book Review?” the reviewer poses and challenges the following questions:

  • Does the author seem prone to a bias or a prejudice?
  • How does the author’s slant (if any) find expression?
  • Does he or she challenge other writers’ work and, if so, is this done in a persuasive manner, or does it seem motivated by petty professional or personal rivalry?

Well-Written Book Reviews as Selling Points

A good review does not require a positive or negative slant, but rather is one that is well-written and provides the reader with several points to ponder about the book. A good review will definitely help to promote the book being reviewed even if the review itself is negative.

Even Tolkien's books received negative book reviews and yet they are some of the most read books in the English language.

Even Tolkien’s books received negative book reviews and yet they are some of the most read books in the English language. Image courtesy of Strebe.

J.R.R. Tolkien, the well-known author of the highly-acclaimed The Lord of the Rings trilogy, wrote about his experience in the foreword to the second edition: “Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.”

Some book reviewers are real professionals; others reveal lesser qualities that frustrate the authors whom they review. Meg Waite Clayton notes that Ernest Hemingway wrote about the undermining talent of critics and book reviewers in Green Hills of Africa: “If they believe the critics when they say they are great then they must believe them when they say they are rotten.”

Many writers remain too busy writing their potential masterpieces to really care what the critics have to say about their work, believing that book reviewers sometimes show professional jealousy.

Benefits of an Effective Book Review

When the reviewer competently reviews a book, the book review encourages the reader to read the book while also challenging him or her to either agree or disagree with the review. Well-written reviews do not require a positive or a negative slant in order to make a substantial point about the book.

People sometimes tend to talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ reviews as though the reviewer were either promoting or trashing the book in question. But really, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ reviews sometimes reveal a judgement of the review itself and the reviewer’s ability to make his or her points about the book.

If negative book reviews cease to exist, that leaves us with only the positive review. If life were always positive, always rosy and bright and cheery, then we wouldn’t need reviews at all. We could go around reading every book and deciding that, since someone wrote and published the book, it must deserve some positive feedback.

In reality, we need the negative reviews as much as, if not more so, than the positive reviews. The negative reviews challenge the reading public to pick up a book and read it for themselves, to make their own decisions on the merits of the book.

The Future of Book Reviews

Do we need book reviews, either positive or negative? Sadly, if we reply, ‘no’ to this question, then it would follow that we no longer need books. Many of us have lived so long with books, it’s inconceivable to think of a world without them and, so it follows, inconceivable to think of a world without both positive and negative book reviews.

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