I feel like a psychic - I've been having lots of thoughts about negative/critical reviews in the past week, and then the Huffington Post goes and posts an essay that hews very closely with my thoughts!
"Nice" reviews are a topic that come up with some regularity in the blogosphere. In the last two Book Bloggers Behaving Badly posts, bloggers who do only nice reviews have come up a couple of times (usually in contrast to people who viciously tear apart a book). I've discussed critical reviews with people on Twitter, and the big fear seems to be that if we write negative reviews, the authors will find them and their feelings will be hurt. Before last week that was something I'd never really had to worry about; the only author comments I've ever received have been on mostly-positive reviews. But then last week an author discovered one of my critical reviews of his work - Mr. John Granger didn't appreciate what I had to say about Spotlight. Which spawned a conversation about online reviewing ethics with my dad of all people (I love my dad but technology savvy he is not).
Part of that discussion with my dad was about the preponderance of positive reviews I see online, and I did figure that a lot of this has to do with how most of us are women. Women in general are socialized to be peacemakers. We tend to avoid confrontation, and writing a critical review certainly leaves us vulnerable in the case that an author finds our writing. As book bloggers, we all have a great amount of respect, and probably even some awe, for authors. Most of us are life long readers and authors are our superstars. The last thing we want to do is to offend those people in some way.
But my view is, and has always been, this: authors know they are putting themselves out there. They have put themselves in a much more vulnerable position than we have as bloggers, and if they have even an ounce of adult maturity they'll recognize that critical reviews aren't a personal attack. As for those terrible, vicious reviews I hear about so often - that appears to be a strawman argument to me, because I've never seen a review that was truly personal and scathing. In fact, even when I see less-than-glowing reviews, the reviewer usually does everything she can to soften the blow and rationalize why she didn't like it or why someone else might like it. Yes, it's possible that my negative review will discourage someone from reading, or even buying a book, but that's how life goes. I certainly don't want to end a writer's career before it even starts, but that's why I make sure to lay out exactly what bothered me about a book, so you can judge for yourself whether what bothered me might bother you. For example, I know I was totally harsh on How Beautiful the Ordinary - but that's because I was borderline offended not only about the glaring omission of bisexual characters but that this book was nominated for a prestigious award while other quality books were totally passed over. But I also noted that David Levithan's story is interesting, so if you're a Levithan fan you might want to at least get the book from the library. I also hope the review encourages people to start noticing who isn't included in what they're reading, from varying sexual orientations to race and beyond.
Really, I think as a whole we need to toughen up. I'm not saying every blogger needs to start writing incredibly harsh reviews. Some of us use our blogs more as reading logs than as a formal review-type site - which is totally cool. Some of us give up on books that would make us write a negative review, and don't want to dedicate blog space to something we didn't finish - which I also understand. But I know I as a blog reader am just as interested in the books you hate as the books you love. The books that rouse our passions are the ones that tell us something about ourselves and can communicate something important to your readers. Knowing what you dislike, as well as what you like, can help me form a better opinion of how your thoughts on a book might reflect my own.
In general, I think we in the YA blogosphere want the books we read to be recognized as something other than "kiddie stuff," something that is "less than" real literature like adult best sellers. One definite way we can start to influence that perception is to take our jobs as reviewers seriously, and treat the books like the serious works they are, and not just review, but critique, them accordingly.