Book Reviewing: a Murky Business

Continuing the theme of reading I started a few weeks ago, I decided to revisit the topic of book reviews. They are so important to writers, both for book sales and validation. These thoughts were prompted by other bloggers’ opinions about and experiences with reviewing books. While readers’ comments on books may seem essentially genteel and harmless, book reviews can stir up some visceral emotions. For a couple of examples, just Google “the greek seaman” or “author stalks reviewer.”

Hoping that “if you give, you get” applies to book reviews, I resolved some time ago to write a sincere, thoughtful review of every indie book I read. I would post the reviews on Goodreads, and also on Amazon or Smashwords, depending on where I acquired the book.

I’ve found it’s easier to make this resolution than keep it. Reviews are best written right after finishing a book, but if I’m tired or distracted I don’t do it. Then I start reading something else; days go by, weeks go by and the review is unwritten. Even for books I really liked, that deserve a favourable review. Sometimes those reviews are never written.

Then there’s the DNF book, the one I give up on because it’s poorly written or just doesn’t interest me. My policy is not to review books I haven’t read from start to finish. It’s not always the book’s fault.

That brings us to the star ratings that accompany reviews. So far, I’ve written no one- or two-star reviews. Many think they are unnecessarily harsh and punitive and should be avoided. That leaves only 3, 4, or 5 stars, otherwise known as OK, Good, or Excellent. That’s a pretty narrow range.

I reserve five stars for books I love so much I think it’s likely I’ll read them again. If I want to buy myself a copy, especially a print one, after reading a book from the library or an ebook, that’s definitely a 5-star.

I give 4 stars to books that are reasonably well-written and interesting but fall just short of great because of what I call lumpy writing — awkward sentences and scene transitions or too many typos. Or, for some intangible reason, I just don’t think it’s a great book (subjectivity strikes again).

Three stars are for books I make myself finish only because I’ve committed myself to reading them, constantly checking the number of pages remaining. (Thinking back to comments on a recent post about reading, I might call these “life is too short” books and give up on them. Which means no review.) Three stars also go to books that aren’t bad but pretty much disappear from my conscious mind right after I read the last word. In other words, “Meh.”

And then there’s the question of whether it’s even possible to boil our thoughts about books down to a number. That’s why an actual review is helpful; it’s a place to explain the rating.

Something else that bothers me is too many of the “reviews” I write are just off-the-cuff remarks with little or no structure or planning. I think that’s how most readers write their reviews, although I sometimes see long, detailed, and serious reviews that make me think I ought to do a better job with mine. Which reminds me — a plot summary is not a review. The “blurb” or book description already provides as much of that as the reader needs and you want to avoid spoilers. So just say what you like or dislike about the book.

The hardest review to write is the less-than-enthusiastic one for a book whose author I’m acquainted with, if only through blogging. It’s like telling a friend their book is less than great. I consider some of those bloggers to be friends; the only difference is I don’t have to look them in the eye while delivering the bad news. Depending on the personalities and relationships involved, the best approach might be to send a private email rather than post a public review/rating.

What might happen if no one wrote negative reviews or never tagged books with one or two stars? Three stars might become the default “bad” rating. Come to think of it, some authors get upset at those already. And if the only reviews were positive ones, what would that say about books with no reviews? Some potential readers might dismiss them as no good, while the truth may be that those books were never read by anyone, or their readers were too lazy or preoccupied to bother posting reviews. Innocent books condemned without due process!

Maybe the “positive reviews only” practice is just a cop-out. It’s much easier to say nice things than critical ones. While it is possible to write a thoughtful, helpful, critical review, it does take more work than a positive one. If a reader is too busy/tired/distracted to write a even a positive review, they certainly aren’t going to attempt a negative but helpful one.

The best reviews, in my opinion, are nuanced. Positive but not wildly enthusiastic. Critical but not unqualified condemnations. I’ve actually been motivated to seek out and read certain books because critical reviews of them intrigued me.

Like so many other aspects of writing, book reviewing is complicated and there’s no easy formula. Nevertheless, knowing how important reviews are to authors, I will continue to write and post them.

Your turn, bloggers — what are your thoughts on reviews and ratings?

Image by olekowy from Pixabay

52 comments

  1. Negative reviews don’t scare me off as a reader. Sometimes I dismiss the reviewer instead of the book because the reviewer will give one or two stars and say something like “Stupid book, waste of time.” Or the negative review doesn’t scare me off because of things that wouldn’t bother me like “The author was just trying to show off his vocabulary and make the rest of us feel stupid.” (Heck, if I read this book, maybe I’ll learn a new word or two.)

    I did not think about it until you said so in your post, but if reviewers don’t post their 1-2 star reviews, then the rating system gets skewed, and 3 stars becomes the default bad review.

    Well then, since negative reviews don’t scare me off as a reader, and since I don’t want to skew the rating system, I’m going to start posting my 2 star reviews. Previously I’ve privately emailed the author rather than post 2 stars. (I’ve never come across a 1-star book, not yet anyway.)

    I do think there’s a difference between a negative review and a mean review. I’ll strive to be helpful-negative and not mean-negative.

    How ’bout that, Audrey? Your post today changed my review philosophy.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Definitely a difference between negative and mean. I think readers of reviews can tell the difference. Thanks for pointing that out. And even though the star rating system is a blunt instrument, many writers are distressed when a 1, 2, or even 3 star rating drags down the average for their book. But I think thoughtful reviews of any type are gold.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As an “old” English major, I’ve always tended to treat reviews as if I were writing a paper for college – a thoughtful analysis – although I don’t spend as much time or make the piece as lengthy and detailed. Mostly if I don’t like a book, I don’t review it. I agree that summarizing the plot is a waste of time when the blurb is posted right above. I try to give quoted examples of aspects that I like, especially in the area of effective descriptions. For that purpose, I make notes as I read. I’ve been fortunate to garner some quite scholarly reviews on my own books, and also some definitely amateurish ones.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m going to try and improve the quality of my reviews, using yours and those of a few others as models. If typos and other careless mistakes are all that stands between a good book and a so-so one, it’s worth pointing that out in the hope the author will improve. But there’s no guarantee of that.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I dislike 5-star rating systems.More stars are a bit better, but in general, I think reducing my reaction to a numerical value is silly.

    For example, if I had to use a star system, I’d give both “Right Ho, Jeeves” by P.G. Wodehouse and “The King in Yellow” by Robert W. Chambers 5 stars. Does that mean that I think if someone likes the former they’d necessarily like that latter? Of course not! Both books are so completely different in almost every way. But if it’s so meaningless, what’s the point of having such a review system?

    It’s very difficult–in my opinion, sometimes impossible–to write a thorough review without spoilers. There are times when I just can’t explain my reaction to a book without explaining how all the pieces fit together (or don’t) and that may very well mean spoiling some things. I follow a policy of giving readers fair warning if I’m about to spoil something, and then I go ahead and talk freely about it.

    I never thought of it like this before, but often I end up writing two reviews and combining them: one for people who haven’t read the book and are trying to decide if they should, and another for people who did read the book and want to ponder it a bit.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Your reviews are great, Berthold — detailed enough to be useful but without spoilers. And they’re well-written too, which is to be expected of someone who’s also a writer. I often read reviews after I’ve finished reading a book, just to see what others thought of it, so I appreciate your final paragraph.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I don’t write or rate very many books I read. For the most part, when I do, it’s limited to indie authors. The big stars of the publishing world don’t need my reviews. I try to stay away from negative reviews, but if you’ve read my blog long enough, you’ve seen me write a few negative things about some of the indie books I’ve read. The reason? I think there are indie authors out there who are damaging the reputation of the indie author world by putting out bad stories — poorly edited, full of typos, and just not very good. And when I read one of those stories, I want to call them out on it. But the book or story has to be really bad for me to do this.

    I also don’t write positive reviews just because I “know” the writer through blogging or social media or those few I know in person. Credibility means a lot and we lose our credibility when we promote or praise books that aren’t worthy of the praise or promotion. I see a lot of indie authors promote the books of other indie authors before they’ve even read them and I marvel at that.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I think an actual review, posted to a review site, has to be based on a complete reading of the book. Authors often distribute advance review copies so as to have reviews on the release date. It could be really awkward to accept one of these from a writer one knows and not care for the book enough to write a genuinely positive review. But if too many of us write “false positive” reviews, it skews the whole system. On the other hand, I hear about people buying reviews, so maybe it’s already skewed.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yeah, unfortunately, there is a lot of skewing going on in both directions. I refuse, though, to buy into the “only write positive reviews” idea. Kind of defeats the whole point of reviews if the only ones written are the positive ones.

        Liked by 3 people

  5. I also don’t review a book I don’t finish, but, thanks to the great blogging community we belong too, this rarely happens. If I follow the blog, I usually like the book and the writing, thank goodness. As a result, I also have never posted a review of less than three stars. None of the books I read are ever that bad.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. If a book is really bad, I generally don’t finish reading it and therefore don’t review. But when I’ve put in the time and mental effort to read the whole thing, logic demands a review, even if it’s not enthusiastic. Such a review should be helpful to both the author and to prospective readers, though. Those are the ones I tend to postpone, sometimes indefinitely.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I have written a few reviews both in my blog and as a librarian/English major. Fortunately, I’ve never had to review a book I could not stand or had no redeeming social value. I try to be candid in most areas of my life–if you are honest about the things you like then you should also be credible about the things that are not as you would prefer. Sometimes a well-placed criticism is more helpful than multiple nice jobs because you don’t know what needs to be improved. As you usually do in these op-ed types of postings, you give us a lot to think about and provide good examples to support your opinions. Wish the press this button was working so I can reblog this.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It would be good if all reviews were written with well-intentioned sincerity, but there are a lot of complications, ranging from feelings of obligation all the way to outright malice. This post was my way of mulling over the issue, and I don’t think I’ve cleared it up for myself, but I’m glad it started a bit of a discussion. Thanks for your contribution, Pat. And for pressing it!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I think you can be tactful without ripping an author or book. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been asked to write a job reference for a person who you feel is a weak candidate for a job. Sometimes when I’m reading one of these less than stellar references, I feel like one can read between the lines.
    At the same time, if the criticism is constructive, then comments can be quite helpful. I appreciate that the members in my critique group are tactful but honest.
    One final point is that a review is just one person’s opinion. I have read a negative review of a restaurant, movie, or book, and found I had a much different experience.

    Liked by 5 people

  8. Huh. I think 1 and 2 star reviews are super important, as long as they’re thoughtful. (I try to be thoughtful when I write critical reviews, though I may not always succeed.)

    Obviously, other readers can make up their own minds, but I would want to have all of the information about what bothered someone about a book before I decide to read it.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. I appreciate your bringing up the question of review, Audrey. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I don’t like the “star” system of reducing a reading experience to a number. And I suspect there is “star” inflation, just as there is grade inflation in higher education. In both cases (reviews and student essays), I want to approach the writing on its own terms and frame my discussion in terms of the type of reading experience I had. Approaching writing reviews this way is also making me a better reader, I believe, because it forces me to put aside my own preconceived notions of what good fiction or poetry should be.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The kind of reading that’s necessary to produce a worthwhile review, and the writing of such reviews is probably good exercise for us writers. That it may also help readers and fellow writers is a bonus. Thanks for your comment, Liz!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Great food for thought. I don’t usually review books unless I love it. But, someday I might want to write a book, so maybe I should start! HA HA. The one I just did was for A Murmur of Bees. 5 stars. I highly recommend it.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I think there’s a significant gulf between the old-style book review for the literary column of a magazine or newspaper (of the kind I used to write) and today’s ‘reviews’ with star ratings, per Amazon etc. To me these present more as social media comments – which, in effect, they are. I often see reviews of this kind that are neither nuanced nor thoughtful. But they still have powerful effect on a book’s fortunes and sales thanks to those pesky algorithms, more so than even the most defamatory of the old-style literary book reviews.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I miss those old-style literary book reviews. I think you’re right about the social media nature of the star ratings and accompanying comments. Given all of the algorithm shenanigans, it does make me wonder where publishing, reading, and reviewing are all going to land.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. lol – you put me to shame! There are books I’ve been meaning to review for ages now, but keep forgetting. And then there’s the question of how many stars? As a general rule, I’m a complete coward when it comes to reviews. I’ll only review a book if it’s a genuine 5, or sometimes a 4 that’s only a little off a 5. They’re the ones that grab me and don’t let go, the exceptional ones. I do feel guilty about the ones I don’t review, but I simply don’t have the energy to do more. Mea culpa?

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Your rating system is identical to mine. I’ve never given a 1-star review, and only one or two 2-star reviews for books by well known, traditionally published authors who wrote like they just didn’t care about the plot or characters that much.

    I believe there’s something positive to say about just about any book, but like you, what I don’t say is as telling as what I do. It’s the nuances, as you mentioned. It’s rare for me not to finish reading a book, but again, I’d never review something I hadn’t finished. Great post and discussion, Audrey!

    Liked by 3 people

  14. Interesting observations. I try to review most books that I finish. (If I don’t finish a book it was destined to be a low mark.) I agree with you that 3* then becomes the default bottom mark.

    I try to sum up a book’s attributes concisely, recognising that every one has at least some merits. I also find it difficult to give a less than glowing review to an author with whom I’m acquainted through blogging. Best maybe to stay silent.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Apart from maths and science exams where there is right or wrong,( unless that has changed as it is a very long time since I did one ) grading is not simple. At camera club competitions the marks are 1-10. Well no judge has ever stood in front of club mmembers and given somebody’s picture 1!.If a judge tries to use a broad range of marks and gives somebody 6, that person is very disgruntled, especially if it got 9 in another competition. Maybe it would be good to make comments about why you enjoyed a book without giving stars.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. I am a member of the Amazon Vine programme, known by Amazon as a ‘Vine Voice’. This comes from being in the top 5,000 reviewers, based on an aggregate ‘score’ given to my reviews. As a result, I get a lot of ‘free stuff’ to keep, in return for a ‘fair review’. It doesn’t have to be a glowing review, as I can give one star if I think something is poor.

    But when it comes to books, I always buy them. The reason for this is that an Amazon Review of a ‘Verified Purchase’ definitely carries more weight with prospective buyers. I get offered free copies of books written by bloggers, and also through the Vine Programme, but where books are concerned, I firmly believe I should buy a copy to support the author, especially as I rarely pay more than 99 p to £2.

    Like you, I don’t review anything until I have read it all, or used the product. And I always review immediately after reading, or on the day of use. I have been known to go back and amend a review too; if something failed after limited use, for example.

    This means I am reviewing all kinds of stuff on a daily basis, from hairdryers, to lawn-mowers, and books too. The most popular reviews are almost always of a ‘Verified Purchase’.

    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for this extensive comment, Pete. I’m impressed with your status as a reviewer (although I seem to recall from one of your posts you end up lumbered with a lot of “stuff.” It’s great that you actually buy the books you review, too. Those books must be ones that appeal to you, which means you actually read them. Accepting a free copy and having to write a negative (or hypocritical) review would be a pain.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Honest reviewing certainly is a challenge. We live in an age of exaggerated acclaim. Everyone wins the trophy.

    I faced a similar challenge as a supervisor in the military. Everyone typically “inflates” evals to avoid blowback. Maintaining your integrity comes at a cost.

    Maintain your standards.

    Liked by 1 person

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