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Guest Post: Phoebe North Praises Harsh Words

Today, we've got a guest post by YA writer Phoebe North! Phoebe has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Florida and is currently working on a book about a merman. Feel free to laugh--she does! Follow her reviews -- sometimes gushing, always honest -- on Goodreads, and her blog at

In Praise of Harsh Words
by Phoebe North

by Glen Noble, via Unsplash
I write reviews. I also write YA fiction. In a community where well-known authors have taken a stand against anything that could possibly be seen as "author bashing," I’ve placed myself in a pretty precarious position by doing both. Because, you know, I want people to read my fiction and crow about how much they love it.

But I also want to be honest.

Don’t get me wrong—I love Justine Larbalestier, and I don’t fault her for declining to participate in this kind of critique. After all, YA writers form a very real community. We promote one another, support one another, and share community blogs. The expression of negative sentiments about our colleagues’ books risks degrading the warm fuzziness.

I get that objection. But I also come from a very different place. I spent my early twenties in the world of MFA poetry. And, though it was sometimes difficult to go out for beers with my colleagues after a particularly harsh public beatdown workshop, I learned to distance myself from the criticism and to get along with my workshop-mates. In exchange, I saw us all grow--as readers, as editors, and as writers.

And so I’d like to offer an alternate perspective: I want to propose that the whole community might benefit when writers review, and do so honestly.

  • Writers know books. They’ve edited their own clunky prose. They’ve worked out problems of pacing. To do so well, they’ve had to get some distance between themselves and their words. And so it’s easy for them to regard a book critically. In fact, these days I can’t read a novel without my internal editor whispering in my ear: "That character is stiff" or "That description was awesome!"

    When it comes down to it we already look to authors to steer our tastes. That’s why a blurb by a NY Times bestselling author is so valuable. We expect writers who write stuff we like to read stuff we like, too.
    Why not only write positive reviews, then?
  • Highly critical reviews are more useful than those that offer flat praise. As writers, we might think that only positive reviews will sell our books, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Did Harold Bloom’s evisceration of JK Rowling keep her off the best seller lists? How many people picked up Twilight thanks to Cleolinda’s snark?

    These critical responses necessitated a certain attention to detail. It’s much easier to sing a book’s praises—praise needs little justification. But for this reason it also tells a potential reader little about the book in question. If my review is breathless, it also risks being vague.

    Of course, I’m not advocating being an ass. You should always be kind to authors in your reviews, even if the books they write are flawed. But you should still be honest--for yourself, if not your audience. Why?

    Because when someone pens one positive review after another, it’s less meaningful. It’s hard to trust reviewers when they’re overflowing with praise. There are a lot of books out there that are flawed, if good—but far fewer that are remarkable. If you’re a writer, you’re speaking from a position of authority; readers trust your judgment. I prefer not to violate that trust even through omission. Yes, Virginia, bad books do exist.
  • Finally, I believe that writers who review critically are better writers for it. Back when I taught poetry to undergrads my students not only read poems, but also critiqued them. My goal was to teach them to better recognize effective writing. It’s the same deal with reviews. Get yourself used to spotting bad writing and articulating what’s so bad about it and I promise you that you’ll disabuse yourself of the same habits in your own books.

    And I don't know about you, but I'm all for writers writing better!

But won't this ruin the community, you might ask? This is where I want to stop for a minute and address this from the perspective of a writer, not a reviewer.

Criticism sucks. But for published writers, there’s always bound to be an unhappy reader. It’s the inevitable result of sharing our writing with the world. Remember, though, that reviews are not responses to you-as-a-person, but to your work. Remember that you can potentially learn from reviews, no matter how much they hurt. And remember, too, that gushy, false praise isn’t necessarily doing you any favors in terms of sales, either.

So even though a part of me—like any writer—would love nothing but admiration for my writing, I realize that it’s inevitably a false hope, and one that does none of us favors. So instead, I say: speak your mind, and do so thoroughly. Bash away. It’s for the best.

Even if—gulp!—you’re bashing me.

~Phoebe North
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  1. This post was brilliant. You pointed out a lot of things that I see happening, and for me, I do hesitate to say anything that is in any way negative about a book. However, that's not realistic, is it? Bad things, flaws, they've always existed; they always will. And for someone to believe everyone is going to be all sunshine and rainbows about their work..well, that's unrealistic as well. Very much so, in fact.

    Anyway, you've pointed out the flaws in this kind of thinking very well. I loved this post!

    Thanks for it.

  2. Lemme be the first to say -- Phoebe's merman books is gonna be AWESOME. (And I'm a very picky reader.) But don't take my word for it. Check out some excerpts on her site.

    It's encouraging to realize that bad press can be as beneficial as good press. Great interview!

  3. Greatly appreciate this post. I have this great fear of reading book reviews of novels I love because it might turn me off... But absolute opinions are very unrealistic. Thanks again!

    p.s. There's a problem with the Harold Bloom and Cleolinda links though. :) Thought you guys should know.

    Keep up the awesome work!

  4. Well put. This is so true. While I love getting positive feedback on my writing, it's the negative feedback that I love to hate. It stretches me and forces me to dig deeper. While it may sting a little initially, it's not long after that you start to consider it and oftentimes, it's worth receiving. Thanks for the awesome guest post Phoebe, and thanks YA Highway ladies!


  5. Aw, thanks for the feedback so far, guys, and thanks again to Kirsten and the other YA Highwayers for the opportunity.

    (Just FYI, I posted some overspill thoughts that didn't quite make the cut for this post to my blog, though it comes with the warning that I wrote it sans coffee!)

  6. Phoebe, I agree with you. I'm a writer who has edited my own character's voice, thrown out that flimsy hook, etc. etc. When I am reading, my editor brain is on too.

    One book I read had so many flaws at the end I gasped horrendously and forced myself to finish the book. I wanted to get online and explain just where I felt the book went wrong in a book review. I would have done it politely (I'm from the south, we can make anything sound sweet) BUT, I never reviewed the book and here's why. I didn't want my writer/published author peers to read my negative review and say "Well are you published? Geesh!" Because no, I am not published. So how dare me to say those negative things (so to speak).

    Its a fine line an unpublished writer walks and being new to the business, I don't screw things up for me before I even get my foot in the door. Hopefully as my confidence grows in this publishing world I will find tactful ways to review a book I didn't like but until then, I'll just let you do it.

  7. Phoebe, please have my babies.

    This post is brilliant, and so very honest. I avoid reviewing books completely for the reasons you stated and the reasons listed here in the comments...I'm insecure, I'm unpublished and the hippie in me stresses about karma, man.

    But you're right. Critical views can be helpful, not hurtful, to the YA community. I'm planning on reviewing a new book on YAH here in about a month, and I will be honest, dammit.

  8. @Dana I can't deny that it could be a risky choice to make to jump in and start being honest! And I respect those who choose not to. For me, when people point out that I'm not yet published (and I'm not!) my answer is always, "Please feel free to review me negatively when and if I am! I look forward to hearing your thoughts." I've found that it changes the discourse incredibly when you make it clear that you don't expect to be exempt from criticism.

    @Michelle Awesome! I look forward to reading your reviews. When it comes to karma, I remind myself that I'm bound to get negative reviews no matter what I do. Seriously, it's inevitable. And giving only positive reviews does nothing to stop that. Doesn't mean getting negative reviews sucks any less, but remember that you can't control what response other people will have to your writing. It's the inevitable result of sharing your words with the world.

  9. That's so true. Expecting a good review for your own book in return for one you gave would be...kinda skeevy. :) Maybe it's because publication is, for me, such a distant thing, but at this point the thought of negative reviews actually doesn't scare me that much. It'll sting, but I'm not completely freaked by the thought.

  10. Michelle - I don't think karma even comes to play in book reviews... unless you're being intentionally nasty. If all you're doing is speaking truth, well, karma would dictate that people will speak the truth back to you, and isn't that what you want anyway? That's the way I see it.

  11. Jaimie - yep! I totally agree. I meant it's like an instinctual thing for me when I'm being critical of something, just to feel bad when I shouldn't. I've always been better at taking criticism than giving it.

  12. thanks so much for an amazing post, phoebe!

  13. It's remarkable that saying "Let's Be Honest With Each Other" is something that can cause you to be concerned about other's reactions. No, make that "sad" instead of "remarkable."

    Three cheers for your courage, your words and your willingness to be beset upon by those who want us all to believe the world is nothing but niceties, flowers and sunshine. If we are to have our integrity, we need to have honesty right along side it.

    I thought about this same issue a few months ago after reading a book that particularly annoyed me. (Okay, it angered the h3ll out of me) Did I really want to be known on Goodreads for dissing a book and, therefore, the authorof a book (supposedly) in the genre I'm writing in? After a few minutes of wondering, I realized I was going to be honest and let things fall where they may.

    I'm not about to start shutting up now, just because I'm writing.

    I wrote about this today over at my blog, ( giving Phoebe full credit for her posting here. Thanks, YA Highway, for having such a great guest blogger!

    -- Tom

  14. Brilliant post. I totally agree. :) I try to sandwich my reviews. I talk about things I like about it, talk about things I don't, and then finish off with a couple more things I don't like. Because very rarely is there a book I love so much that I can't think of anything I didn't like, or a book I hate so much I can't think of anything good to say.

  15. I agree entirely. Sure, everyone loves to hear they did a great job. It's okay to tell people that. But what I am against are the people who let writers continue being bad. If this passage doesn't make any sense, I want folks to tell me. That way I can fix it. Anyone who is serious about writing will be ecstatic about the advice, because it means they can improve their work. And isn't that what we are all trying to do? Become better writers?


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Item Reviewed: Guest Post: Phoebe North Praises Harsh Words Rating: 5 Reviewed By: YA Highway