There’s this horrible mentality revolving through the book reviewing world that we have to ‘be nice’ to each other, reviewers and authors and authors’ precious ‘baby’ books because if we’re mean the author might, I don’t know, never write again? Or we need to ‘be nice’ or we won’t get book perks like authors blurbing the books that every reviewer is writing because every reviewer wants to be an author and of course we’d love an author we think is shit to blurb our books, right?
I’m here to tell you why it’s bullshit.
“The purpose of constructive criticism is to improve the outcome.”
Constructive criticism is reserved for works in progress. Once a book had been completed and released into the wild, what’s the point in saying ‘I think the book would have been better if the dinosaurs ate the vampires’. The author can’t change it. The publisher’s not going to recall the book, edit the story, and sell it again. But if you provide this feedback to an author during the process of writing, maybe they would realise the ending needed to be a little more exciting and would rewrite so the dinosaurs win the war.
A book is a project with an end goal, much like a work of art, like a painting. If you tell the artist during the creation stage that you think something needs to change, they can work around that. Once the artwork is complete and hanging in the gallery, what’s the point in telling the artist you think it would be better if there was more purple?
Or if you tell a chef while they’re preparing a meal that you’re allergic to shellfish they can work around that. Once the meal’s completed and in front of you, and you refuse to taste it because you’re allergic to shellfish, the chef has every right to get mad and say, WHY DIDN’T YOU SAY SOMETHING WHEN YOU WERE IN THE KITCHEN WATCHING ME COOK IT FOR YOU? I mean sure, you can send the meal back and ask for an entirely new one, shellfish-free, but you really should have criticised it before the dish was completed.
The same is with books. Authors are expected to have more than one set of eyes on their manuscript during its production. There’s alpha readers, beta readers, editors, proofreaders, agents, the whole shebang. That’s the time for provide ‘constructive criticism’. That’s the time when the author can change their book and improve it.
That all being said, I do have to make one thing perfectly clear:
Books received as Advanced Review Copies fall under this ‘during the writing process’. There’s a reason why legitimate advanced review sources like Netgalley and Edelweiss advise that our reviews contain ‘constructive criticism.’
It does get a little more confusing when you receive an advanced review copy with an embargo date that matches the publishing date, and I haven’t quite figured out how I feel about that. But there have been instances where Netgalley’s early reviews have helped authors improve their books (by changing the ending, or one example I can remember clearly is when my friend Paige pointed out that motorcycles don’t have accelerator pedals and that was adjusted for the final version), so my ‘constructive criticism is bullshit’ doesn’t extend to ARCs, which are part of the publishing process. I’m talking about the end product, the book you pick off the bookshelf or borrow from the library past the publishing date. Some ARCs even have disclaimers in the front of them that the product you’re reading isn’t the final product and to take that into consideration when reviewing, or to double check quotes upon publication.
And of course I need to add a disclaimer that writing a review without using constructive criticism doesn’t mean you can be cruel or a dick – well, by all means, if that’s your style, go for it, I’m all for reviewers reviewing however they want, whether it be the constructive criticism’s mandated ‘friendliness’ or oppositional or just a review filled with flailing gifs – just that constructive criticism is for authors during the creative process, and book reviews are for other readers. If the book sucks so much you can only list the bad points, what’s stopping you? If you adore a certain book but can still see that plot hole from a mile away, you don’t have to mention it if you don’t want to.
I haven’t even touched on the uselessness of constructive criticism for authors who are deceased: “I liked Hamlet but I thought it was boring in some places, it would have been better if we had more of a Macbeth-type action-orientated character murdering everyone instead of all those boring talking scenes.”
“Thanks for that,” says Shakespeare from his grave. “I’ll get right on it.”