The other day, I was reading Indestructible Object by Mary McCoy, and I thought almost simultaneously, “Wow, I really appreciate what this book is doing” and “Oh no, this is going to get some bad Goodreads reviews.” It’s a YA novel about a teenage girl who’s going through a difficult, complicated time in her life, and she’s made a lot of mistakes. Namely, she cheated on her boyfriend. (They’ve since broken up.) Lee is an excellent character: multi-layered, flawed, and relatable. She recognizes that she’s caused harmed, and she’s trying to be a better person. The passage that made me think “I appreciate this” is when she admits this to a queer friend who tells her she’s enacting a negative stereotype:
“That’s not fair,” I say. I’m not trying to defend what I’ve done, but I also don’t think I should be expected to model ideal bisexual behavior — whatever that is — at all times. When straight people cheated, they weren’t failing the whole straight population. They were just failing one person.
Regardless, I know Goodreads. Main characters are not allowed to cheat, especially not on an innocent party. Especially if the story isn’t about them repenting and being endlessly punished for it. Any time a protagonist acts in an unethical way, you will be able to find negative reviews of the book — but find me one person who’s never acted unethically or made mistakes in their life. (Also, act too saintly and you’ll get negative reviews for being unrealistic!) Personally, I love messy characters who make mistakes and try to work through them. They’re more interesting. “Unlikable” female characters are my bread and butter, but they tend to be torn apart in Goodreads reviews. I just want to read about amoral women sick of putting up with bullshit tearing down this messed-up world — is that too much to ask?
This got me thinking about all the ways books can rack up bad reviews/star ratings regardless of the quality of the book, so I brainstormed with other Book Rioters, and here are the other things we’ve noticed will always result in some bad Goodreads reviews, no matter how well it’s handled.
1) A Sad Ending
When you’re going into a romance novel, you should be guaranteed a Happily Ever After (HEA). It’s the promise of the genre. (Going without is like picking up a fantasy novel only to get a world identical to our own — it’s not what I signed up for.) In other genres, though, sometimes a happy ending doesn’t make sense. There’s room in this world for stories that are wistful, dark, or joyous — but not matter how justified or beautifully written a sad ending is, you’ll likely see angry Goodreads reviews about it.
2) A Cliffhanger Ending
Similarly, we want endings to give us a resolution to the story: a neat, wrapped-up conclusion. When books don’t provide that, many readers get frustrated. Of course, some stories aren’t so tidy. Whether it’s a literary novel that leaves the main characters’ fate up to interpretation or a series that leaves you hanging until the next volume (especially if the next volume never comes), this is a guaranteed way to leave some readers unsatisfied.
3) The Genre is Mismarketed
Authors aren’t the only ones involved in a book, and sometimes decisions out of their hands can tank a book’s reception. When a book gets a flowery, bright cover and blurbs that promise a charming beach read, but it’s actually a haunting exploration of grief and trauma, readers are going to be unsatisfied. This is understandable, but it’s a shame for the books and authors who have been pitched as something they’re not, robbing them of the chance of getting seen in their actual context. This happens all the time, especially with books that get buzz as romance novels, but only have a romantic subplot (which may not even have a HEA).
4) A Child Narrator
One of the riskiest strategies as a writer is to give your adult book a child narrator. My partner is a bookseller who recommends books all day, but no matter how much he raves about them, he has trouble getting anyone to try the Flavia de Luce mystery series, because it has a kid main character. It’s gotten to the point where he gives customers a personal guarantee of a refund if they don’t like it just to convince people to try it. (No one has returned it!) This is definitely a difficult thing to pull off — making sure the voice sounds authentic to their age without being grating to an adult — but even the books that pull it off will likely accumulate negative reviews for the attempt.
In fact, just having major children or teen characters often prompts negative reviews: teens are derided for being too angsty, too immature, or too mature for their age (sometimes, the same book will get accused of all three!) Children characters will almost always get accused of not acting their age in either direction — because kids are weird, and they’re all different. There are plenty of real-life 5-year-olds who seems like tiny grandparents and 10-year-olds who act like kindergarteners half the time.
5) Unusual Formatting or Tense
Similarly to #4, no matter how well you pull off a second person present tense narration (“You run up the stairs and turn right”), there will be plenty of readers who hate it. Which is funny, because they should have known this was happening on the first page and jumped ship then, but here we are. Similarly, if you structure your book unusually in any way (mixed media, a story told in emojis, a narrative that begins at the end and works backward, etc), you can expect to have some unhappy readers on the Goodreads page.
6) The Dog Dies
Look, I can understand this one. I don’t want to read a book where the dog dies. I want to be warned about this before going in. That being said, it probably shouldn’t be a guarantee of low reviews in itself. In fact, animals dying or animal cruelty in books — not matter how delicately and thoughtfully handled — is usually received much worse than even child abuse and death. Go figure.
7) Love Triangles
Obviously, there are plenty of books that don’t do love triangles well. There’s an obvious winner between the two, and it’s just dragged out when we all know who the main character is going to choose. It can be a cheap ploy to try to add some tension to a story. That being said, there are plenty of ways to write love triangles well — especially ones that interrogate the whole idea of pitting love interests against each other or a scarcity perspective in romantic relationships. Again, though, even if it’s the best love triangle ever written, it will probably get negative reviews for including one at all.
8) Being “Too Political”
It doesn’t take much to be seen as “too political.” You don’t even have to mention politics! Just having any character say that sexism, racism, queerphobia, or transphobia is bad can attract you some negative reviews. (In fact, there’s a non-zero chance that me including that line will get this article deemed “too political” by some readers!)
9) “Inaccuracy” In Historical Fiction
You can research your topic your whole life, get a PhD in the field, and have a novel-length appendix of resources and footnotes in your historical novel — but you’ll probably get accused of inaccuracy anyway. Anything that questions what people associate with a certain time period will earn a book negative reviews, even if it is accurate to reality. One reliable example is including characters of color or queer characters in historical Europe, especially if their stories are not just about misery.
It’s not always thinly veiled racism and queerphobia, though. Sometimes it’s just a misunderstanding of the weirdness and variety of the past. This is often called the Tiffany problem, because the name Tiffany dates back to the 12th century, but name a historical fiction character Tiffany and you’ll like get accused of anachronism — because it doesn’t seem like it would be a historical name.
One more variety of this is when those inaccuracies are deliberate choices, especially in fantasy books with vaguely Medieval Europe settings. It’s silly to accuse a book with dragons of not being historically accurate because it doesn’t include homophobia, but it still happens.
10) Sex in Young Adult Novels
One odd thing I’ve noticed in my ten years of book blogging is that the bookish online community has gotten a lot more squeamish about sex in YA. In the 2010s, discussions were being had about the lack of queer sex in YA — queer teenagers have sex sometimes, just like some straight/cis/allo teenagers. Now, though, there’s become a contingent of people (especially on BookTok) who think it’s unethical (there’s that word again) to have sex in YA at all. It’s puzzling to me, because teenagers deserve to be able to explore their sexuality safely in literature.
11) Authors Behaving Badly
Finally, we have the section that I’m the most sympathetic towards: bad reviews of book based not on the quality of the book, but on the actions of the author. This has covered a range of things: authors whose sexual assault/harassment of other come to light, authors who make bigoted comments online, or just authors being garden variety assholes (like publicly mocking their readers).
Readers want to warn others of this behavior, which plenty of people take into account when picking which authors to read. Is it ethical to do this with 1 star ratings and a review of the author’s character? It doesn’t follow Goodreads guidelines (one of the very few guidelines Goodreads has — you can review a book without rating it, but you can’t review the author). It is possible to leave a review without a star rating, which some people have done, but those also might get taken down. Regardless of the reasoning, this does fit into the category of “bad reviews that have nothing to do with the book’s quality.”
So next time you see a title on Goodreads with a low average rating, keep in mind that it might just have one of these common reader bugbears in it and still be a fantastic read. And if you have a dealbreaker quality in your reading life (like a child narrator), maybe check first that the book you’re picking up doesn’t have it instead of rage reading and leaving a bad review.