The Dilemma of Reviewing “Important” Books When You Didn’t Like Them

Children’s literature (middle grade and YA) has seen a wealth of “important” books lately. Once called “issue books,” these types of stories typically address serious and relevant topics such as substance abuse, eating disorders, mental health concerns, sexual harassment or assault, racism, bullying, and more. While, in years past, the “issue book” generally only focused on one issue at a time, contemporary authors tend to pen stories where several of these issues intersect–so one might, for instance, read a book about a girl experiencing homelessness, sexism, and body image concerns all at the same time, instead of experiencing only one. This has all been amazing. Many important issues are being highlighted and represented in literature, where young people can see that they are not alone. But what happens when someone writes an “important” book about issues that are serious and relevant–and the book just is not that good?

The difficulty with reviewing books that focus on issues that people think are important is that, quite frankly, not every book is a five-star read. A book could feature something readers have greatly been desiring–perhaps a protagonist living with a specific, under-represented medical condition, for example, or maybe a character living through a historical moment that is not often depicted. Readers may greatly want to support and love this book because it features something close to their hearts. But, in reality, some books are not that well-written. The prose might be choppy, the dialogue unrealistic, the characterization flat, the pacing uneven, or the plot nonsensical. No matter how much readers want to support the representation of a certain issue, they might have to recognize that the book simply could be better.

Reviewing such a book proves a terrible dilemma, however. How can one take a book that features something like a protagonist struggling with an eating disorder and then give it a less-than-stellar review? What if the book is based on the author’s own life experiences? It can feel more than a little awkward to read a story about a very serious issue, an issue that may be very close to the author’s own heart, and than not call it absolutely amazing. And, of course, other readers who may feel strongly about the issue in question may take umbrage that anyone would even consider critiquing the writing style, the dialogue, the characterization, or the plot, when the All Important Issue is being represented. For some, the mere fact that an issue has been depicted should supersede all other considerations.

However, reviews are meant to help readers make informed choices about how to spend their time and money. And that usually means that, even if an important issue is represented in a book, readers of a review will still want a well-rounded picture of the book–what the prose, pacing, characterization, and plot are like, as well as what issue is being focused on. It is possible to be sensitive to the fact that people will be excited to support a particular issue in a story, while also recognizing that some stories are more effectively told than others. Reviewing an “important” book and noting the places that could use improvement, as well as the places done superbly, may be uncomfortable, but perhaps that is just part of what it means to be a reviewer.

What do you think? Does it feel awkward critiquing a story that focuses on an “important issue?”

28 thoughts on “The Dilemma of Reviewing “Important” Books When You Didn’t Like Them

  1. Bibliosini says:

    It’s definitely awkward to review an “important” book that I didn’t end up liking. I usually review those posts multiple times to ensure that the way I have worded and discussed my points doesn’t come across as insensitive or insulting. But it’s always a very nerve-wracking process each time!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I try to review my posts as well and make it clear that I acknowledge that other people may find the issues important, but still I would like to point out things like the writing style didn’t work for me. Reading is such a personal experience. I think people can become very invested in defending a book they loved when others don’t seem to love it as much.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Bucky says:

    I think you can acknowledge the importance of the issue, while at the same time making the case that the book in question isn’t the best book to deal with it. Place the issue front and centre, and demand a better book, because important issues need good books!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I agree. And I think at the heart of the matter is who the review is for. I believe that reviews are written for readers and tell readers whether they want to consider investing time and/or money in a product. To that end, I think the review has to be honest about weaknesses as well as strength.

      Other bloggers, however, see themselves supporting authors. In that case, I could see that a blogger would be hesitant to point out something like poor character development, since something like that might encourage people to read something else. However, in this case, I would argue that the review has become not very useful to me, the consumer, because it’s functioning more as marketing material, which I, as a consumer, have learned to be wary of. No cover blurb reads, “Mostly good, but could use a few improvements!”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bucky says:

        I agree completely – I would also add that being unduly kind is doing a disservice to the author, too, who needs good critical feedback to help them improve their work.

        Like

  3. Nish says:

    It doesn’t really feel awkward. A book should be good first of all – regardless of whether it addresses an important issue or not.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think that’s certainly what readers want–a book that speaks to them that they also find to be well-written! I believe a good review will help readers determine if they want to invest time and/or money in a book, so it’s important to be fully transparent about the reading experience in the review.

      Like

  4. Books Teacup and Reviews says:

    Great post! I agree with your points. It’s great to acknowledge important topics but at the same time if there is some issue or something readers doesn’t like it should be pointed out. It can help readers decided whether they want to read book with particular issue or not. And reviews after all are about opinion regardless of topic.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I see the review as written to help the consumer decide if they want to invest in the product. To that end, I think it’s important to be honest in the review both about what one think works in a book, and what doesn’t work.

      And great point! I think most consumers are aware that reviews are just one person’s opinion! People like different things, and that’s okay. A review that isn’t five-stars doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t read a book. Maybe something that bothered the reviewer wouldn’t bother me.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Joanna Corbet says:

    This is a really great post! I think as book bloggers we all want to support books/authors/publishers that are tackling important and difficult issues and that highlight under-represented voices. But, like you say, not every book is a five star read.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, it can be so disappointing to pick up a book that you are excited about for whatever reason, only to realize that it didn’t meet expectations. But, that happens! I think it’s important to be honest about one’s reading experience in the review, to help other readers make an informed choice about whether they want to invest in the book, whether it’s through time or money.

      And, really, some people seem outraged by anything that isn’t a five-star review–but a book can be strong, just not the best thing ever! And even a really negative review likely won’t hurt a book’s sales in meaningful ways. I read negative reviews all the time and still read the book because things the reviewer might have pointed out as a fatal flaw, something like “slow-paced,” might not be something that I would be bothered by.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Jess @ beyondthefrontcover says:

    I definitely find it awkward, I wouldn’t want to come across in a way that would insult the author or the issue in question – it definitely needs to be approached sensitively. However, we have to be honest when we review because otherwise it’s insincere, and just because an important issue is addressed that doesn’t mean the book is great overall.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. BookerTalk says:

    It wouldn’t be a problem for me. If the author hadn’t conveyed the toxicity in a way that engages my interest then it doesn’t mater how important the issue is, it just hadn’t worked as a pice of fiction

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I see the review as being for the consumer, to help them decide if they want to invest their time and money in the book. To that end, I don’t think a review that ignores the weaknesses in a book is very helpful. And, of course, it’s quite possible to write a less-than-stellar review and still be kind and balanced.

      I think we can be very sensitive to any type of criticism because writing is such a personal process and we get emotionally invested in our stories. However, I do think even a book about something I find important should be well-written if I am going to invest in reading it. Life is too short to be reading books that don’t work as pieces of fiction.

      Like

      • BookerTalk says:

        Well said Krysta, a book that only talks about the positives when there are some significant weaknesses noticeable isn’t very helpful at all. It’s also a matter of credibility – your readers expect you to be honest and truthful so if you ignore the weaknesses, they could start to question other elements of your reviews

        Liked by 1 person

        • Krysta says:

          I agree! When every review is completely positive, it just isn’t as useful to me as a review. I understand some authors, for instance, do this as a courtesy to their fellow authors, and I understand why they wouldn’t want to hurt/offend people they might or work with. But…I also don’t read authors’ reviews routinely or even take the cover blurbs they provide very seriously.

          Like

  8. Diana says:

    That’s a very thought-provoking post. Personally, I don’t see any problem reviewing an “important” book negatively. We are not reviewing “issues”, but a book in question. That should be understood without any excuses and preliminaries in the review. And, to be fair, if the issues are important, a book review cannot be all bad since the review can focus on those important issues and praise the author for highlighting them accordingly. So, it can’t be a one star review, possibly? There should not be anything particularly awkward in reviewing such books because we don’t review the experience contained or the author’s personal circumstances (the issues) but the way a book was written, presented and put together. That’s a completely different thing. I imagine something like a memoir of a Holocaust survivor would be a tough book to review, but while we can comment that it was written badly and clumsily put together, we can also praise the courage of that person and the bravery of putting forward the important issues. Honesty is the key.

    Like

  9. missmaheeslibraryofreads says:

    I would find this quite a challenging experience. In my work as a librarian and book blogger on the side I find that commenting on those “serious issue” books tricky to say the least. I guess I look at the book as a whole and try to be as honest as possible. Most of the people I meet value our honesty as professionals.

    Like

  10. DoingDewey says:

    I sometimes struggle with this myself, but I typically remind myself that I’m doing authors and readers of such books a disservice if I hold them to a lower standard than other books. Representation is important, but we deserve good books with good representation.

    I do sometimes worry that my complaints may come from a lack of understanding of the issue being represented, in which I will sometimes do as another commentor suggested and link to another review from someone who has a different, hopefully more informed perspective.

    Like

Leave a Reply! We'd love to read your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.