Nasty Reviews

I just wanted to take a moment and ask if I'm stepping over the line--or to ask that, if and when I do step over the line, that I be told I've done so (not to imply that anyone would be hesitant to make that clear to me!). Specifically, after writing this review:

I'm worried that I've been a little too nasty.

(By the way, if the author happens to see this, let me offer some apologies in advance--like the vast majority of the internet's misanthropic denizens, I tend to be opinionated, and have a certain talent for gathering those opinions up and firing them out of a cannon)

I'm trying to cut a balance between being harshly realistic about what I see and believe, while simultaneously trying not to become downright insulting. I'm also concerned about the effects of what I say--not to imply that people here are thin-skinned, but I'm worried people might assume I actually know what I'm talking about instead of realizing I'm just a very loud, outspoken hobbyist with no editorial or publishing experience whatsoever.

Anyway, what I also want to know is this: How far is too far? How do you balance your desire for brutal honesty (if you have one!) with a desire to avoid insult and injury to your fellow writers--hobbyists and professionals alike? I understand it's a pretty old, ongoing question, and one with no clear answers--but I'd like to hear some other people's opinions on the subject, if only to get the perspective of someone who *isn't* naturally antagonistic (like myself).


Hi Robert,

Too far is when I delete your review and consider suspending your account. ;-)

Your review is a bit snarky, yes, and it's pretty clear from your tone that you feel your time has been wasted. But I think that's a legitimate reaction to a piece of writing you've given 2 stars. I usually try to avoid snark, in deference to the author's work, but sometimes that gets to be really difficult -- especially around 2 stars and below. And I've certainly written some harsh reviews here, myself (this one comes to mind:

I wouldn't worry about it. You didn't attack the writer personally, you seem to have gone into the reading with an open mind, and while the review is harsh, it seems well-considered and not just a rant.


I thought it was an excellent review. :-)

I think one avoids nastiness by avoiding name-calling. A story might be disorganized, poorly structured, lacking in grammar, replete with typographical errors, lacking in continuity, believability or focus. It might have stereotypical characters, derivative themes, sparse description, no concept of conflict, plot or arc. It might have stale dialogue, it's humour might not be funny, it's suspense might not have tension. There are a number of ways that a story can go wrong, and they will be matters of fact that we point out. So long as we never say "this makes the author stupid" then I don't think we've been nasty.

Given that Robert and I have similar problems with the same story, that would indicate that they are indeed matters of fact and genuine problems. It would be different if I'd written a five star review, then one of us would be delusional.

There is a certain bravery to sharing stories. It takes imagination to make one, even if there are derivative elements -- the author might not be aware that they're derivative. They have a vision and they're trying to share it with an audience. By pointing out the mistakes in a factual way, we can help them better communicate their vision. Never saying anything would just allow the errors to continue, and that would in fact lead to no audience at all for some stories. What happens to the imagination and bravery then? I imagine they'd become smaller. Giving authors the chance to learn from each other makes everyone a better writer.

I know my own writing improved vastly with the help of Sonja Nitschke, Sarah Suleski, Allan T. Michaels, Jim Zoetewey and Fiona. I owe them an inestimable debt. I pay it back when I help another writer -- Wilf of "Dead Heroes" pointed out how that's possible elsewhere in this forum.

Just stick to the facts.

Well, there's always writer's revenge. Maybe a couple of snarky critics called Gavin and Robert will show up at the next Westwich Writers meeting ;P

I appreciate the responses!

"There is a certain bravery to sharing stories."

That's part of the problem I have; it takes some guts to shove yourself out there, and I can't help but feel when I get a little snarky that I'm punishing people for displaying that courage--something I don't want to do. But I also feel if I pull my punches and keep my blows soft, they'll walk away with the wrong impression--I *want* people to know when I think their work is crap, because I damn well want them to tell me if they think *mine* is crap. My primary rule--that I /try/ to follow--is this: Write the sort of reviews that I would want to read and receive.

"Well, there's always writer's revenge. Maybe a couple of snarky critics called Gavin and Robert will show up at the next Westwich Writers meeting ;P"

If that happened, I'd either be tempted to knock it up to a two-and-a-half star review or rewrite the villain of my current book to 'Brevor Telshaw', a man who spurns the world and turns to mad science after his greatest literary achievement received poor reviews at a local writer's club.

Possibly both.

:) Well, I'm going to admit, blushing mightily, that I might have allowed your review of Breathless to hurt my precious authorly feelings a little bit. But I figured that was my problem, not yours, and on the flip side, I really felt that your writing style in the review was super enjoyable. So while I was cringing, I was also thinking, "Geez, this review is written in such an engaging and entertaining style, it's kind of a work of art on its own." I feel that way about this review too.

Isn't there some old post on Novelr about how critics have their own followings and that web fiction needs critics like that? I would read Robert's reviews for fun.

"I *want* people to know when I think their work is crap, because I damn well want them to tell me if they think *mine* is crap."

Unfortunately, I now no longer feel qualified to give your work an unbiased review, so I haven't. I feel like giving it a snarky review would come off as bitter, and I'm not sure I wouldn't write something glowing just to NOT sound bitter.

Of course, I suppose that's the problem with honest reviews. If you write all about how awesome someone else's writing is, they'll probably write nice reviews for you. But none of us want the Web Fiction Guide to be a mutual admiration society. And writing negative reviews probably doesn't mean that people will return the favor and review you. Which sort of sucks.

I do apologize for being a bit sharp in that review--though I loathe the genre, I have no contempt or spite for the people who produce and consume it. I have a bookshelf full of old Dragonlance novels sitting besides me--which leaves me in *no* position to criticize anyone's personal tastes. Either way, three stars seems to be shaping up into my 'though-I-dislike-this-genre,-it-isn't-a-bad-example-of-it' mark.

"Unfortunately, I now no longer feel qualified to give your work an unbiased review, so I haven't. I feel like giving it a snarky review would come off as bitter, and I'm not sure I wouldn't write something glowing just to NOT sound bitter."

Well, *I* don't mind either way--any attention is good attention, be it snarky or not. But I'm not the center of the world; other people may see a negative or positive review as a response rather than a statement, and that could reflect poorly on you. For that reason, I understand--and sympathize.

I've not been reviewing for a bit, but I thought I'd share a mind-trick I use when reviewing bad stuff on WFG: I write for the potential reader. The core logic of it goes something like this: people read my reviews to decide if a work is worth reading, or not. My duty is to that reader. If I misrepresent a story and point him to bad web fiction, then I've failed as a reviewer because I've wasted his time. Likewise, if the story is good then my duty is to make a compelling enough case for the potential reader to go give the work a chance.

The way I see it, my job is to give the potential reader enough information to make that decision for himself; but also - and this comes first - to prevent him from wasting his time.

"The way I see it, my job is to give the potential reader enough information to make that decision for himself; but also - and this comes first - to prevent him from wasting his time."

Yeah, which is a problem with a lot of reviews, as I see it--rather than describing the story and the sort of people who will enjoy it, they go on and on about how much the story stinks or rocks in their opinion. Part of the review process has to be about describing the book's intricacies, and making it clear what sort of people *would* enjoy it--I think Twilight is crap, but I know people who love it, and I don't want to misdirect them.

That is to say, part of a good review is not just making a judgment call on the quality of a story, but informing readers as to whether they, personally, would enjoy the story--in fact, the latter is probably more important than the former.

I think I ended up awarding a whole extra star to The Seekers because of the synesthesia references, I've been studying that a bit myself lately. After reading Westwich and Limp it seemed a bit better -- and the only other option would be dropping them to one star, and that didn't seem fair. It has more potential, I think.

Which is why I gave it two and a half, rather than a straight two--but let's face it, the mysterious alchemical process by which we assign stars to various works is probably substantially less telling than a tarot reading carried out by someone named 'Mistress Stormclaw' working at the local Ren-Fair. I'm saying it's more likely that the Powers That Be are speaking through a woman who's idea of 'medicine' is suspending three crystals above a bum knee while chanting "Kali! Kali!" than the stars we assign having any real correlation to a work's intrinsic value.

I've almost been tempted to forego giving stars and just launch straight for the reviews--there's more to be done with words than numbers, after all.

You two are becoming a tag team, scattering stories left and right ;)

Well, in this case, it was purely accident; the author asked for reviews, so I decided to give them one. I didn't even see Gavin's review until I was writing my own.

The other time (with the Westwich Writer's Club) it kind of *was* on purpose; I read Gavin's review and thought it might be interesting to read the story myself. After I did, I couldn't help but write one of my own--it was the sort of story for which my reviews often write themselves.

Well thanks both for your reviews anyway, I'm very grateful that you took the time!

I've posted a response in the request thread, but have mentioned some things that are relevant for this thread too:

I'm just going through the "recently vetted" list while I have spare time right now, and writing reviews for whatever I find with only one vote. I figure everything deserves more of a look than that.

I brought over a quotation from R.R. in another thread because I think it applies here:

RR: "But I have zero [patience] for fiction that does not bring me joy. I've read through enough books that were devoid of any molecule of pleasure to know that the situation rarely improves."

I echo this to some extent. I don't have "zero" patience because sometimes I'm willing to go a few chapters to see where a story leads -- but that means it usually has signs of talent, just talent that needs honing. A good example is Wilf's "Dead Heroes," I think all he really needs is a good edit where things get pulled together more, because he bounces from scene to scene too quickly. His writing is fine, it's his organization that could improve.

But with a lot of stories, I know in the first few paragraphs that it's not getting any better. I think it's a combination of things -- years of reading, studying, writing -- years of helping other students in school. The key things for a story to be "good" are fairly obvious by now.

Sometimes I seriously want to write a review that consists of "Skip it and read X." X being another book in the same theme, of course. For instance, given the plethora of college with magic/mutants/freaks stories out there, I would really just like to send people to read Tales of MU instead of reading something over-done. Vampires? really? does the world need more vampires? Werewolves? Zombies? Superheroes? The stories I appreciate in genres tend to do something new with the cliches. When I know of a great example of a story, and I gave it a four because it's not as good as something else by the same author that got a 4.5, it means anyone else is going to end up 3 or less because I know something better by comparison. I think that's fair and it makes sense.

But because I believe in fairness, I write more of a review than "Skip it and read X" because that's not what a review is. It's maybe the point of a particular review, but it can't be the whole thing -- and by going into greater detail, hopefully nastiness is avoided.

The real problem with a "skip it and read X" review is it assumes that anyone who likes the genre will like that story. Take your example - I quite like college fantasy stories - but Tales of MU has zero appeal to me.

I wouldn't use "skip it and read X" because it's problematic - I just meant I'd like to sometimes when I'm frustrated and tired. And Tales of MU might have been a bad example (people love it or hate it) -- I just used it as an example because most people have heard about it.

Also -- despite my personal qualms about that story (it lost track of any real "plot" a long time ago, there's a lot of squicky adult only material, etc.) it might not be for everyone, but the quality of writing in any individual chapter is high. People might have thematic qualms, but I think on a technical and creative imagination level it's hard to fault the writing.

So - for a superhero story -- skip it and read Legion of Nothing. For magic and politics, skip it and read An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom. For fantasy worlds and college kids travelling between them, skip it and read Alisiyad and Queen of Seven. They're just examples of something I'm not going to do -- I'm just sorely tempted.

Funny thing is I tried Alisiyad and I don't rate it at all. The bit I read bored me to tears. The only reason I haven't reviewed is that I don't review if I can't stomach something enough to read at least a few chapters because I'm clearly not objective. (Sorry to the author if they read this - I detest Anne Rice as well, but I don't say her fans are wrong).

IHotGK is another one that doesn't appeal (though I do like Scryer's Gulch).

I do like Legion of Nothing a lot but there are other superhero stories I like just as well (Zoe Whitten's "Waiting for a Miracle" and "A Frosty Girl's Cure" come to mind).

And while bad reviews don't annoy me, the idea that a reviewer might even like to write a "skip and read X" review does. That means you think anyone writing in that genre except the author of the story you happen to like is wasting their time.

Of course the fact I not only dislike Alisiyad, but am writing a "fish out of water" story myself might have something to do with why I'm so irritated. No one likes, even incidentally, to be negatively compared to something they don't like. :-P