When it comes to book reviews, I tend to feel that a full spectrum of opinions is healthy. As the author of a published book, I want disgust just as much as I want praise. A review that tells me “I liked it” is nice for me to read, but doesn’t necessarily create reader interest or engagement. Because books are marketed using hyperboles (every book is “a masterpiece,” according to its back cover), readers are often desensitized to individual reviews and remain skeptical that a book is worth reading until they’ve heard it from different voices.
Last April, a profoundly negative review of my first book appeared on Vice Canada’s website. I had previously exchanged emails with the reviewer, who said she had “seen the title floating around” and “was intrigued,” arranging for her to receive a review copy. I only stumbled upon her article by accident a week after it was posted. The article was titled “Barf,” followed by my book’s title. The writer could have notified me by email that her article was up, but didn’t.
Reading the review, I thought, “This looks more like vandalism than a review.” The writer’s primary objective, I felt, wasn’t to give my book a fair review, but rather to try to be funny by skewing her article towards extreme negativity, A.K.A. “negative blogging.” I also felt like the writer, throughout her article, was
projecting her own biases and anxieties onto my book, had done zero research on me, was trying to lecture me about my life and writing style, and that the evidence of her claims worked more like counter-evidence.
After reading, I showed the review to my friend Lucy, who encouraged me to share it on social media. I explained that I felt fine owning up to it, but didn’t want my social media friends trying to defend me. Her response was, “This is cool, it’s a ridiculous review from a massive publication.” What happened after that was surprising to me. My link to the review generated 140 comments from a wide variety of people, many shares, Facebook friend requests, exposure for me as a writer and, ultimately, sparked book sales.
The discussion the negative review triggered seemed far more interesting to me than anything a positive review could have produced. Some people gave me life advice. Some people wanted me to email Vice and ask for the review to be taken down (which I didn’t.) “Vice sucks,” some people felt. By attacking my book with a level of scorn that was out of sync with its target, the reviewer inadvertently created engagement and interest, which is probably the goal of book reviews. What this tells us, I think, is that though it’s tempting to assume that negative reviews = negative consequences, we can also choose to face them as irregular opportunities.
Guillaume Morissette is the author of I Am My Own Betrayal (Maison Kasini, 2012) and the forthcoming novel New Tab (Vehicule Press, 2014). His work has appeared in Maisonneuve Magazine, carte-blanche, Little Brother Magazine, Metazen, ThoughtCatalog, HTMLGiant and many other publications. He lives in Montreal.