If You Can’t Say Anything Nice …


SOMEONE once said that if I didn’t have anything nice to say when writing a book review, I should not say anything at all. She was, in particular, referring to reviews of books by local writers.

I have always had problems with the belief that reviewers should “go easy” on local writers. Writing a bad review, offering criticism, even of the constructive variety, is not supposed to be supportive.

I disagree. On the contrary, offering constructive criticism seems to me like a way of showing whole-hearted support.

If a reviewer writes, “I hated this book, just because … well, I don’t know. It’s just terrible, just godawful, but I can’t really say why”, that would be unfair and uncalled for.

On the other hand, I don’t see anything wrong with a reviewer offering an opinion like … “The author has created some very interesting characters, but I wish he had spent more time developing them and less time describing the colour of the sky. His descriptive passages take up a large chunk of the book and can be distracting, as they are so long-winded they sometimes cause the reader lose the point or even the plot. It is a joy, however, to read the more action-oriented scenes. Here, the author really shines. He also writes engaging and believable dialogue.”

Reviewers (and everyone, really) are entitled opinions and if they are balanced, which the above example is, I think they are entirely valid in a review.

A local writer recently got his knickers in a twist when a reviewer commented on spelling and grammatical errors in his book. Such mistakes are more a reflection of poor editing than bad writing so authors should not take it personally when they are pointed out. Just remember to get a more thorough editor next time.

Local writers should welcome constructive criticism with open arms. Local publishers don’t offer much advice: The editors seldom comment on style or ask for rewrites. They are so overworked that correcting grammar and spelling is often as much as they can manage.

And for writers who self-publish, their work often goes straight from the word-processor to the printers.

Therefore, in Malaysia, reviewers may be doing the sorts of things editors or even literary agents do elsewhere. These people tell the author if their book works, what’s good about it and what could be improved on. Ideally, this would happen before the book is printed, published and arranged on the bookshelves. But, really, it’s not a bad thing to have happen to one’s books, at any point.


It was this post by Roger Sutton [pictured above, of The Horn Book] that made me write this piece. I especially like his conclusion … ‘The author-reviewer relationship is unavoidably adversarial: one is judging the other. To have it otherwise means we should just all go work in publicity.’ (NB: 2nd July, 2016: I love the headline: ‘Just Don’t Go Out So Much’.)


‘A bad review may spoil your breakfast, but you shouldn’t allow it to spoil your lunch.’

~ Kingsley Amis


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