Confessions of a Critic: What Makes People Write Nasty Reviews?

Confessions of a Critic: What Makes People Write Nasty Reviews?

The significance of the shamrock will become apparent shortly. Honest

I was going to write a post this week about fake positive reviews, in the context of sponsored content by social influencers, who unfailingly seem to discover that things are absolutely super. Surprise surprise.

We know that social influencers have a vested interest in finding things totally amazing, be that the fact that their friend wrote the book, or the country house hotel gave them a free night’s stay, or the yoghurt was yoghurty, or the handbag was not only free gratis, but also wrapped up in gorgeous paper with a hand-written note which said “Dear Blogger. By accepting this handbag you agree that you will find this bag amazing. And we will not report you to the Advertising Standards Authority. Smooches!!”

Moan, Moan, LOLs

Anyway, I was going about trying to make it funny, in order to take the sting out of the fact that I was basically giving out about people who are only trying to scratch a living, even though I believe the words “I received this product for free in exchange for an honest review” “#ad” or “#sponsored” are woefully inadequate in dealing with the murkiness of social influencer marketing.

But then I started thinking about horrible reviews instead, and the difference between the dubious positivity of branded bloggers, and the savage negativity of anonymous reviews.

Because for people who have nothing to lose – particularly their good name – there does seem to be a woeful tendency towards negative reviews. Why is that, I wondered?

Why do we care so much if we don’t like something?

Right, says I to myself. I’ll write about that instead, says I.

And then I remembered that I’ve done it. I’ve been there. I’ve been the shitty negative reviewer. And I’d totally forgotten.

Oh, Dear

I can’t be sure, but I think that the very first review I ever wrote online was scathing. This is years and years ago, long before Facebook, long before I started blogging, and long before the toxic review culture we all know and love today.

Confessions of a Critic: What Makes People Write Nasty Reviews?

This was me… before the botox

I’d been given a book as a present. It was everything I should have wanted in a book: a historical epic sweeping through different countries and several years, with overwhelmingly positive reviews.

Anyway, I didn’t like it. In fact, for some reason, I took a visceral dislike to it. I know it was because I was annoyed by the sledgehammer ‘Oirishness’ of it. There were so many godawful Hollywood Irish stereotypes in it that I almost vomited shamrocks. The prose was so flowery and overwrought, I had to read a dishwasher manual afterwards just to clean my brain out.

But none of that explains why I felt the need to take it upon myself to go on the Internet and write my first ever book review, slagging the hell out of it like I’d been personally offended by the fact that it had ever been written.

[I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that my review didn’t do one iota of damage to this book or its author, who I’m sure never even knew about my shitty review seeing as the book was an international bestseller with almost 100% positive reviews save for my whingey little bout of self-righteousness. Okay? Carry on.]

So Why Was I Such A Dick About It?

It’s not even that I didn’t get any enjoyment out of the book. I used to read out the worst bits whenever there was a party in my house. People invariably fell around laughing (although admittedly, there was probably a fair amount of drink taken at that point). Some even wanted to act it out, which meant that I ended up regretting only having one copy to divvy out. Go figure.

But I’ve been trying to figure out what triggers someone into writing negative reviews which venture into the twin territories of Nasty and Mean. And I think I’ve come up with the answer, and that is: positive reviews.

Confessions of a Critic: What Makes People Write Nasty Reviews?

Think about it. What happens when you don’t like something? Particularly a book, a TV show, or a movie? You go online, don’t you, to see what other people said about it? And you zero in on the most extreme reviews – don’t you? The ones that say it was amazing, and the ones which say it’s awful?

But what happens if you go online to see what people said about the thing you don’t like and everyone says it’s great? What if you can’t find one single negative review? Admit it. You might get a little pain, mightn’t you? A little pain which says: “I am the only person who can tell people how awful this thing was.” You feel alone. Not only that, you feel responsible.

There is a great wave of responsibility on the internet. So many people who feel that they must tell people what they think, for fear that other people might believe the wrong thing, or have the wrong opinion, or cast the wrong vote, or buy the wrong product, thinking that it’s good, when it isn’t.

I’m 94% sure that that is what I thought I was doing when I wrote that shitty review. I felt it was my responsibility to tell other people – particularly other Irish people, because no disrespect to Americans, but I’m sure they couldn’t care less whether a book is vomity shamrockery or not – that this book was insulting.

Except the thing is, it wasn’t insulting to Irish people. It wasn’t even insulting to me. I might just have been in a bad mood when I read it. Perhaps I’d dreamed the entire shooting script of Far and Away the night before, which set me into full defensive mode, whereby even one “Top o’ the mornin’ to ya” would set my phasers to Maim.

Either way, it doesn’t excuse my shitty review. I was only one person, with one opinion. But I don’t believe the answer to scathing reviews lies in universally positive reviews, either.

I know I keep harping on about this, but 2* and 3* reviews can lend a book a necessary kind of legitimacy. Particularly if universally positive reviews are going to send someone over the edge.

If I could get authors to take one thing away from this, from my experience as a reader, and a one-time shitty reviewer: please take comfort from your negative reviews. They just might be keeping the unreasonably shitty ones at bay.

  46 comments for “Confessions of a Critic: What Makes People Write Nasty Reviews?

  1. May 13, 2018 at 10:21 am

    I used to curl up in the corner and cry if I got a one or two-star review; I’d ignore the 85% plus of four and five-star ones. After a while I gave myself a severe talking to because these ‘disappointing ‘ reviews taught me a lot: firstly, they were subjective; secondly, I was not a special snowflake and thirdly, there could well be a few nuggets of truth in there.

    After that, I realised there were reviewers who were pleased by nothing.

    As you say, harsh reviews give a balance for the reader, but they also reduce a head swollen with a barrowful of 5-stars.

    Liked by 5 people

    • May 13, 2018 at 10:37 am

      True, Alison, some reviewers will be pleased by nothing. But although I imagine every negative review stings regardless of how pragmatic we like to think ourselves, as you say, it’s not realistic to think everyone’s going to like something either. How many times have bestselling books I’ve loved been 1-starred or even subjected to vitriol? Loads.

      Liked by 3 people

      • May 13, 2018 at 10:45 am

        I think this is why the book market will keep expanding. Two people often see the same book through such different lenses. I was discussing a recent thriller with a friend whose tastes were, I thought, near mine but while I went on and on how terrific the book was – pacey, quirky sometimes loopy characters, very clever twists, and great period atmosphere, she hated it. Ho hum.

        Liked by 2 people

        • May 13, 2018 at 11:08 am

          And everyone’s so much more VEHEMENT about their opinions now. It makes me a little tired!!

          Liked by 2 people

  2. May 13, 2018 at 10:29 am

    Your comment on how your review had zero impact on the sales of the book: reminds me of the impact my individual boycott on McDonalds had years ago.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. sophiewestonauthor
    May 13, 2018 at 10:42 am

    I SO recognise this. Sometimes it’s the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome – can I possibly be the only person who notices what shite this is? Sometimes it’s fury at the waste of time.

    One book, written by a friend of a friend made me foam at the mouth and emote along the lines of “This is over-written character-free, humourless, portentous twaddle and should be thrown from a great height. I’ll never get back the 8 hours it took me to plod through it.” But I didn’t post it anywhere and when the friend asked what I thought said, “Not for me, I’m afraid.” Sadly, saintly forbearance proved very bad for my character. I exuded smug for a week.

    Liked by 3 people

    • May 13, 2018 at 11:05 am

      I don’t doubt it, Sophie. Taking the moral high ground is right off the Smugometer. I’m surprised you didn’t find yourself saying to your friend at the end of that week “did I mention that book wasn’t for me? Not that I’d go on about it, or anything, but I have to say, it wasn’t for me.” The fact that you didn’t means that technically, you should be in line for a civic award, in my opinion.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. May 13, 2018 at 12:01 pm

    I’m too much a peacekeeper to write scathing reviews. If for some reason I would give a book I read for one of my review places/ publisher/publicist a one or two star rating, then I’ll try to find a way to get constructive feedback privately to the author, and will not post a review anywhere.

    But in the other side, yeaaahhh, I get so confused at reviews that are all 4 and 5 stars, and the book is soooo not that quality. I had that with a book I just finished that really felt like a rough draft. The premise was god, but the dialogue was stilted, and the characters flat. I had no emotional engagement at all. But all its Amazon reviews were 5 star. Um. No. It *could* be, wth a great deal more polishing. But not as is :/

    Liked by 2 people

    • May 13, 2018 at 1:57 pm

      Seems to me like habitual reviewers stay well away from negative reviews for the most part, Aislynn. It’s sometime reviewers – or more than likely, one time reviewers – who post the scathing stuff.

      But that’s also how we end up with so many positive reviews, from people who don’t want to be unkind, so operate in the spirit of ‘if you’ve nothing good to say, say nothing at all’. And I’m beginning to feel that that’s part of the problem, in that they end up prompting the scathing reviews in the first place.

      Liked by 1 person

      • May 13, 2018 at 5:47 pm

        Hmm. I didn’t think of it that way. I should make that my next psychology project- working on posting less favourable reviews.

        I just don’t get the people who get so nasty with reviews. It’s possible to lay out problems and issues without resorting to that. Sometimes I think the people who post the real nasty reviews are not doing it to help warn others away, but to really hurt the author.

        Liked by 1 person

        • May 13, 2018 at 5:55 pm

          All I can tell you is that hurting the author certainly wasn’t my intention, on the one occasion I wrote a nasty review. I can’t speak for others. Honestly, don’t think people online are thinking about how other people feel at all most of the time. But I do think that people who write reviews all the time are far more conscious of the impact they may have.


  5. May 13, 2018 at 2:35 pm

    5 stars. What a lovely piece of writing Sparling. 😘

    Liked by 2 people

    • May 13, 2018 at 3:45 pm

      Well. You just had to go and prove that I’m as susceptible to a 5-star review as everyone else, didn’t you Bofin!!! Feck you anyway!!! I’m on the champers and it’s not even 5pm!!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. May 13, 2018 at 3:51 pm

    There’s a few other reasons (sorry, I think about this all the time owing to the fact I have no life). People see that an author has been picked up by one of the top publishers and assume the book to automatically be everything they wanted in a book, whether it’s ‘them’ or not, and are shocked that something they don’t like has gotten a bazillion reviews lauding it as the best thing ever put out. Or people are jealous that a top publisher has taken up a book that they think doesn’t deserve to be picked up while they struggle to get a book deal with a small publishing house.

    I think your point about the great raving reviews is spot on. The first thing I do on struggling through a book is to look for the one and two stars to concur with my own thoughts and then you get there and there’s four and five stars lauding it all around and saying it deserves to be huge. Ooer I’m actually getting annoyed as I type 😉 By the by on the fake positive review post you were going to write-I once spoke with a top reviewer in a facebook group on how a very well known, well promoted book had missed the mark. She said she’d enjoyed but had so many issues she wasn’t sure she’d review. Two weeks later I read a glowing review from her with no mention of the editing/ pacing and plot hole issues we’d seethed over plus SHE’S ONLY GONE AND GOTTEN HERSELF INTO THE INSIDE COVER WITH HER GUSH. Cannot take her seriously anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

    • May 13, 2018 at 4:32 pm

      This is so true, and so, so frustrating, Bernadette… you hit the nail on the head. Twice, in fact. How does a reviewer keep both credibility and their place within the circle of publishers and critics? I know it’s such a delicate balance for reviewers, and I have to admit I have no idea what the answer is. Neither the people who pride themselves on honesty nor the people who tailor their opinion to the request seem to be happy about it.

      I agree too that bitterness does play a part. Funnily enough, even though I’ve never written a full TV script, I find myself getting into a rage mostly about terrible TV, especially in Ireland, thinking “who is FUNDING this stuff??! And why won’t they hire a bloody SCRIPT EDITOR?!”, like somebody who’s getting 3 rejections a week. I can’t explain that either!

      Liked by 1 person

      • May 14, 2018 at 8:21 pm

        In a perfect world I guess they’d just get pride of place for honesty and the promoter could quote them to show the world that the reviewer did in fact think the the book was “Amazing” or the author was “an astonishing new voice in Irish fiction”;) Saying that, there’s so many out there that are honest with their good reviews, whether they decide not to put out bad reviews or not. And not to be cynical, but the people putting out the terrible tv very likely used to be a well known tv personality or have millionaire connections! In the same way there seem to be more and more tv presenters, actors and journalists making it in bookworld at the moment, but then, they’ve worked hard to get to that point so … hrrmph, I don’t know!!!!

        Liked by 1 person

        • May 14, 2018 at 10:34 pm

          Neither do I, so I’ll just have to drink to that 😉


  7. May 13, 2018 at 4:40 pm

    Let me start with this: “..whereby even one ‘Top o’ the mornin’ to ya’ would set my phasers to Maim.” That made me laugh out loud, which isn’t necessarily easy to do on a Sunday morning!

    And I hear ya. It’s a strange thing, the swinging polarities of ridiculously transparent “pander” reviews, and the spittle-flying hate-memos disguised as critique. I’ve come to believe most people who are not professional reviewers — which would likely be most people writing online reviews — don’t have the tools (or desire) to ferret out good from bad to find a balance of feedback that’s honest but not completely eviscerating.

    My own experience as a negative-review writer is limited. I do have a severe toxic reaction to marginal-to-crappy books sporting the slate of gushing 5-star reviews from family & friends (as we’ve discussed before), but of course the flip side — unnecessarily savage reviews — is equally idiotic. Your explanation for your frother actually made sense to me: you were doing your fellow Irishmen/women a service by alerting them to the “green” foolishness of said book. That has merit. Right?

    I did something similar, though not in a public forum: I was as a reader for a film producer who was being passionately pitched by a newbie screenwriter desperate for this guy to get involved with her project. He asked me to read it and let him know if it was worth pursuing, as this woman was being very “enthusiastic,” shall we say, in her pitching. I read it, and it was SUCH a sniveling piece of amateurish bullshit I actually felt a moral responsibility to let this guy know just HOW bad it was. Turns out he gave my anonymous coverage right to the screenwriter, no softening blows, which I later learned set her to tears and, it was suggested, to another profession. Did I do the world a service or was I just a judgmental bitch?

    In your case, the book carried on and likely the author did as well; in mine, who knows? But I DO honestly think that honesty is required in reviewing. Of course, so is the art of diplomatic critique. I can do that, I can, I promise, but I don’t see all that much “diplomacy” out there in the viral universe!

    Great post. Top o’ the marnin’ to ya, Tara. (sorry…:) )

    Liked by 1 person

    • May 13, 2018 at 5:53 pm

      Think I just blew a gasket there, Lorraine. I forgot about the rogue vowel swaps of the FIA (Foreign Irish Accent). Still, it’s let off some of the pressure, at least 😉

      I suppose one rule of thumb would be to never say anything you wouldn’t say to anyone’s face, especially online, but of course that’s completely unrealistic. I don’t think a service is being done if someone’s put off writing forever, but I have to say that if people aren’t able to develop a thicker skin and put in the work to improve their craft, I find it difficult to feel much sympathy: but you’ve got to look at where the criticism is coming from. An industry professional? Toughen up. An online review? Pass the de-icer!


  8. May 13, 2018 at 7:15 pm

    So, you’re the “Sassy Irish lass” who lambasted my book. I should have known.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. May 13, 2018 at 7:55 pm

    I hate writing reviews (even though I do) in case someone judges my writing of the review! I need to develop a thick skin in case somebody, someday dares to leave me a bad review. Of course, never finishing writing a book helps protect me.
    I don’t think any book ever could be bad enough for me to leave a bad review. I always feel it just wasn’t for me, although one book I read recently almost sent me over the top I disliked it so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • May 13, 2018 at 10:43 pm

      Remember the days when you didn’t like a book and you just said nothing and forgot about it?? Remember, Tric??

      No, neither do I.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. May 13, 2018 at 9:53 pm

    Ha! This reminds me of when I left a 1 star review of Wuthering Heights because, like your response to your Oirish historical novel, I was worn down by the experience and gave a very emotional response (it’s the only book I’ve failed to finish – by half way I was a bitter, grumbling, poisoned soul and my wife told me to just give up – sound advice). I feel kind of bad about the 1 star now though.
    My next worse review was for a piece of WW2 sensationalist crud. It was clearly one of the worst books I’ve ever read, but at least i got to the end of it (mainly to see what other terrible errors were going to appear). But I’ve learned my lesson and I gave it 2 stars (incredibly, there are an overwhelming number of 5 star reviews, which is astonishing because in places it really is utter shite). I also realised that writing a scathing review can be rather good fun. Anyway, my review of this turgid fantasist ‘biography’ is amongst these:

    Liked by 1 person

    • May 13, 2018 at 10:47 pm

      I can’t click on that, Nick. The title alone prevents me from doing anything other than dabbing a limp tissue to my lips in polite disgust. I’ll have to take your word for it.

      On another note, I don’t think you did much damage with your 1-star on Wuthering Heights, so don’t worry too much. Apparently none of the Brontës give a hoot about their reviews on Amazon. Very thick-skinned women, those Brontës.


      • May 13, 2018 at 11:41 pm

        I don’t blame you, Tara dear. Yes, the title was overblown schmaltz that bears no real resemblance to the rest of the book. My header for the review was “Poorly written, full of factual errors, cringing sex scenes”. Some bits were very icky.
        As for Wuthering Heights, phew! I hear it has gone on to do rather well, despite my one star. I believe the Brontës hail from Yorkshire so probably can’t be doing with owt by a bloke from south of Sheffield.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. May 14, 2018 at 10:29 am

    There’s a difference between constructive criticism and downright nastiness – oh and those 1 star ‘reviews’ because ‘I haven’t read it yet’ (so why leave a comment?) or ‘the packaging was torn’ – not exactly the author’s fault.
    I run a review blog for historical fiction (Discovering Diamonds) I have a wonderful team of enthusiastic reviewers. If a submitted novel is a 1 or 2 star level we don’t review it, but even for 4 (or sometimes 5) star reviews we will often include something constructive (usually a suggestion to ‘maybe do another edit to pick up the missed typos’. )
    I do get the occasional disgruntled, or even downright rude response from authors though: ‘could you please delete the bit about the typos it makes the book look bad.’ Er no, I won’t delete and it isn’t the review that makes the book look bad its the lack of editing. I keep in mind for our reviews that we are reviewing to advertise good books worth reading – we are here for the reader, not the author; we are not an author’s ego-stroking service. Even so – there is no need to be nasty when reviewing. Like I said, if a book isn’t good enough then we don’t review it. (Although we have placed a couple of 3 star comments for traditionally published novels: one by a top author was very badly written, another was poorly edited. We posted these to show that trad published isn’t always up to scratch!)

    Excellent article – one to keep in mind for authors and readers!

    Liked by 2 people

    • May 14, 2018 at 3:09 pm

      Hi Helen! I think this proves that regular or professional reviewers abide by certain standards to benchmark their criticism – as you demonstrate. Unfortunately, non-regular reviewers don’t tend to think about it this way at all, which is why they’re so much more extreme in what they say.

      Having said that, as a reader, I’d prefer to see many more 2* or 3* reviews, from everyone. I know it’s difficult because authors can be so thin-skinned, as you’ve shown, but the number of 4* and 5* reviews just doesn’t feel credible to the reader sometimes!


  12. Susanne O'Leary
    May 14, 2018 at 11:43 am

    This is a very complex issue. From a reader’s point of view, I have often felt annoyed at books I’ve bought that looked promising but ended up being awful; badly written and with many irritating details, like the ones you’ve described, or factual mistakes or stupid comments about countries I either like, belong to (Ireland and Sweden) or spent a lot of time in. I have also felt like posting a scathing review, but as an author I have to be careful not to diss a fellow author’s work.

    Putting on my author cap, I have to say that a bad review can pull down a book’s ranking on Amazon and then it won’t qualify for certain promotions you might hope to do. (many promotional sites have strict rules about the star percentage before they accept a submission) For example, if you previously had an average rating of 4.3 stars, a bad review could reduce that and disqualify you. But apart from that, I have learned to shrug it off and carry on. A mixture of reviews is more authentic than a whole lot of 5*s. In any case, it’s healthy to see different opinions, better than no opinions at all. Plus, it can also be helpful if the reviewer flags certain elements (not enough sex, too much sex, too much swearing etc) so other readers stay away if those things don’t appeal to them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • May 14, 2018 at 3:37 pm

      I can see the author’s viewpoint on this, Susanne – every 1* or 2* actually does have an impact… but readers don’t know that, and neither should they have to – whereas regular reviewers or author-reviewers are almost TOO conscious of it. I suppose my point here was that the ‘kindness’ positive reviews aren’t actually helping anyone either.

      In an ideal world nobody would be gaming the system either with fake reviews, but there’s no chance of that!


      • Susanne O'Leary
        May 14, 2018 at 6:40 pm

        Absolutely, Tara. Readers shouldn’t have to know about the ins and outs of star ratings. Gushing reviews aren’t helpful either- weeeelll, maybe a bit. The best reviews are the 3 star ones where reviewers have taken the time and trouble to point out the flaws and also the best bits. I love those reviews and am very grateful to get them. That said, a one star review can be helpful in pointing out bad grammar, formatting and horrible inconsistencies. I have sometimes re-written bits of a book as a result and even said thank you.

        But… I suppose this was more about nasty reviews. Of the kind: ‘I hated this book and am sorry I wasted some of my life to read it.’ Which is very hard to take, no matter how thick-skinned you are.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. May 14, 2018 at 2:38 pm

    The only negative review for my debut novel was 2 stars. “A dull, slow read…” was written by a reviewer who got a free e-copy. I was crushed at first, until I checked out her other negative reviews. Turned out she was a writer too, and it seemed that if it didn’t have hot erotica in it, she panned it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • May 14, 2018 at 10:42 pm

      I often check a reviewer’s other reviews even as a reader, Jennifer, so I hope you can take heart from that too!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. May 14, 2018 at 10:47 pm

    Thanks! I will.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. May 15, 2018 at 1:22 pm

    Hi Tara – you are the voice of reason! I’m an author and reading your post has eased my laughably fragile ego. I, too, have been clobbered by bad Amazon/GoodReads reviews, but now, thanks to you, I can ‘work on that’. It’s great to see this whole online/’I can say what I like’ culture in a new positive, well-rounded light. That said, I sometimes can’t get my head round how in the past people only told their best friend or their mum that they didn’t like a book! Or simply gave it to the charity shop…

    Liked by 1 person

    • May 15, 2018 at 10:04 pm

      Delighted to help, Catherine! Or at least I will be, once I get over the shock that someone was actually listening to me. It’s an emotional moment, truth be told 😉


  16. January 1, 2019 at 4:45 am

    The reviews I don’t care for are the ones without any supporting data for their opinions! The short frothy ones that could apply to bar soap. The ones that hate without saying why. Write away, little negative reviewer – if you’re right, your review will prove it with pithy quotes taken from the work in question, and people will agree with you.

    But if you’re wrong, your writing will show why – and be almost as good as a positive review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 2, 2019 at 4:12 pm

      I think we need to take them all with a large pinch of salt, Alicia, and ignore what doesn’t feel right. No review will speak to all readers, let alone writers.


      • January 2, 2019 at 5:47 pm

        Some are meh – even 5* ones – to the writer’s soul. Others are downright passive-aggressive, as if the reviewer had to prove something (again, even 4 and 5* ones).

        But sometimes readers just tell you they are in the same universe, which means you are not alone.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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.

%d bloggers like this: