It’s the Reading Experience, Silly!

I can’t seem to shake off the subject of book reviews and ratings, maybe because I deal with it every time I finish reading a book. After my latest thoughts on what I called a “murky business,” I had a light bulb moment.

It’s not the book I’m rating, it’s my experience of reading the book.

That’s why a reader can give the same number of stars to Homer’s Iliad and a cozy mystery. That’s why one reader gives a literary award-winner five stars, while another honestly believes it deserves only one.

Every reader brings different preferences, moods, and expectations to their interactions with books. These of necessity influence their reading experiences — and their ratings.

The comments that go with the rating should explain it, perhaps citing typos and errors, pretentiousness, flat characters, or failure to engage. Or maybe a gripping plot, poetic prose, or characters so real they almost step off the page.

Those of you to whom all this is blindingly obvious may stop laughing now (but do leave a comment).

Images from Pixabay

Advertisements

48 comments

  1. Writing a good book review should be easy, especially if you have enjoyed reading it.
    But it is often incredibly hard to convey our feelings, and I don’t understand why this is.
    Other people manage to write brilliant reviews, so why do I find it so difficult?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think it’s easier to evaluate your experience of reading the book rather than trying to evaluate the book’s worth compared to other books you’ve read or other books in the genre. Saying “This is what I liked about this book,” and “This is what I didn’t like,” is fairly simple, but if you’re expecting yourself to write the sort of review a literary expert would, it starts to look way more challenging.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Another factor is the absence of clear and sole purpose for giving a rating; on one’s own blog one can define what a rating represents, but most public listings of ratings lack that clarity.

    Is the rating outward facing (a statement to others of “quality”) or inward facing (a statement to a recommendation algorithm that you are likely to like/dislike similar books)? Amazon uses it for both.

    Is the rating based on “best” feature, “worst” feature, or some aggregate? For example, my opinion of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work is that he is technically skilled at writing books about characters I don’t care about; do I give him a high rating because his prose is skilled, a low rating because his stories bore me, or a middling rating because his work is a bit of a curate’s egg?

    Even if one adds in comments glossing the rating, it is the rating that sites use for visible and invisible ranking &c. so one is always at the mercy of what other people assumed the ratings meant.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Writers of reviews bring all sorts of baggage to that process, just as they do to their reading experience. As you point out, someone who has been “forced” to read F. Scott Fitzgerald for a course is likely to have a different attitude to the book than someone who seeks it out voluntarily. But their reading experiences may change their attitudes. Or not. Both writing and reading involve mental and emotional processes that are hard to explain or turn into rules.

      Like

  3. Agree! I will give five stars to a book that is simply highly entertaining, like a good mystery, and I will give the same to a story that moves me deeply, even if it’s flawed. A great style might captivate me, or characters with real depth, even if the plot clunks along. It’s definitely the experience! And I don’t consider four stars an insult, either. I often give four.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I didn’t laugh, honest.:-) I’d like to add that when I write a review, I think about the genre. A cozy isn’t meant to be a literary, life-altering story, so I don’t judge it relative to other genres. I rate a cozy as a cozy, a literary novel as a literary novel, an autobiography as an autobiography, and so forth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s the right approach, Priscilla, but I think bringing it back to an individual’s experience simplifies things. Some people may find it overwhelming to place that book into a hierarchy of all the other cozies they’ve read. (A hierarchy of cozies… now there’s a term!)

      Like

  5. Very good points raised here Audrey
    Writing reviews can make writing a novel an exercise in relaxing.
    A good review must give the reader of the said review an insight into the book’s plot, characters and the mechanics by which they come together, then progress. This is hard work because the reviewer must therefore demonstrate they had not simply read the book but looked into its depths (or lack of them). And often detach themselves from whether they liked the book or not.
    We have too many professional critics who get a free ride solely because their name and reputation has them believe they can shred work just because it is there. This sadly encourages shallow folk to think they must imitate these individuals.
    All reviews should bring something positive and informative to the table. Even if you loathe the work, be honest, say so and why through intelligent explanation, leave yourself open to review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Whether one writes a thorough, analytical review or tosses off a few comments, it’s hoped they are an honest reflection of one’s reading experience. And yes — the reviews we write are also open to review by others. Good point, Roger!

      Liked by 1 person

          1. Sadly, a bit of a rarity.
            As I posted up a while ago on a FaceBook group I tried out an experiment and posted up an extract out of Volume One.
            One person did analyse but it didn’t appear to be about my book…at least that was the impression she gave me.
            And the other tried to engage in a cross examination as to why I should post this up when my book was already published.
            I left the group.

            Liked by 1 person

              1. I think I understand that intoxication. Sending off a good rant in response to some obtuse remark is powerful. But there is that corrosive aspect. I’m glad I have nothing to do with Facebook, even though many authors use it to promote their books and connect with readers (or, most likely, other writers).

                Liked by 1 person

              2. You are quite right about the corrosive part… I’ve had to sign off from looking too much, it’s distrcating me from my writing.
                The parts you mention are the best parts of FaceBook, even there, though, you can find folk with an ‘unusual’ point of view.

                Liked by 1 person

  6. From my perspective, even as a writer, the person reading the story owns the story as they read it – it’s gone out to the world to share the words, so they’re only for that person, at that moment.

    It’s how I read. And how I review.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a fascinating comment stream. I had no idea reviewing books on Amson was such a big deal. I must belong in the past. I still like to go to the library and browse. I read an article about libraries in an Australian newspaper today (yes I still read them too but only the ones available in cafes when I buy a coffee). Apparently libraries are having a resurgence over here. People are returning to them for the sense of community they offer and for face to face interaction with others.
    While I can’t comment on reveiwing books I can offer you this idea. The post modern theorist, Roland Barthes talks about the death of the author. He says readers bring themselves to what they read – their values, beliefs and even their moods. In a way every story is rewritten every time it is read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Authors are very much concerned about the reviews they get on Amazon, because the numbers can help their books get more visibility. And libraries are a wonderful resource combining both up to date technology and face to face service and contacts. It’s good to see that they are prospering in some countries. Of course it helps if governments see their worth and fund them accordingly — not always the case.
      And I agree with Barthes that every reader and reading experience re-creates a book for that reader. Ideally, reviews posted on sites like Amazon and Goodreads, and on individual blogs would be a means of sharing those book experiences. But that does demand more of readers, who often don’t have time to read, never mind to write about it.
      Thanks for reading and commenting; I think posts are enhanced by comments.

      Like

      1. Ok, thanks for enlightening me about reviews of Amazon etc. I am definitely out of touch with all of that. I can see how good, honest reviews would help with sales. When I had a novel on Kindle (I took it down when sales flattened) I was very grateful to the people who wrote interesting and thoughtful reviews. I should have remembered that before I posted my comments. All the best – Suzanne

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Yes. How odd. Now that you’ve said it, it’s obvious that reviewing /our/ experience of a book is precisely what we do. I guess that’s why I never review a book I haven’t liked. Thanks Audrey, I actually felt my perspective shift a little.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Always glad to shift perspectives a bit, hopefully in a good way. 😉 And yes — if someone’s reading experience was boring or annoying, why would they want to write about it? They’d be off to find a better one!

      Like

  9. Interesting thought. I’d have to say it’s a blend.

    If one mostly enjoys something, then what aspects could have been better to make it fully enjoyable? Here we’re judging the work itself.

    Determining a rank (I hate ratings) then one, I believe, must reflect upon one’s personal enjoyment and experience. My enjoyment level reading The Girl with all the Gifts is high, but not as high as when reading The Hobbit. Here we’re quantifying our experience of the read and not analyzing the work.

    FYI, I’ve got a thing about the rating of anything. I’ve blogged extensively on it over on anonymole. A rating of “3” on a scale of 1-5 is useless, you’ve told me nothing. Bottom line: ratings are useless. What I really want to know is: do you or don’t you recommend I read, watch, eat, visit “X”? Yes or no? If your answer is yes, then where on your ranking scale does it fall?

    https://anonymole.com/?s=ranking

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! Good point about recommending or not. I’ll ask myself that next time I’m commenting on a book.
      But some might recommend a book only to those who like a particular genre, or lots of description, or nonstop action. So there may be shades of enthusiasm there, which could translate to different numbers of stars.
      I think the star rating system is intended to be quick and easy, which makes it somewhat crude. And of course one can use it to rate anything, not just books — vacuum cleaners, toilet paper, shoes, restaurants (where it’s obviously a specific dining experience that’s being rated).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Rating works only if you choose 1 or 5. “I give that restaurant a ‘3’” So, should I eat there or not? I can only make a binary choice: yes or no? That’s the problem with rating. If 50 people vote a ‘1’ and 50 people vote a ‘5’ then the average is a ‘3’ which tells me exactly nothing. Or if 100 people vote ‘3’ – same thing. A ‘3’ tells me nothing.
        It’s like Goodreads ratings. Although it’s a 5 star system, 90% of the ratings fall between 3.5 and 4.5.
        Do I read this book or not?
        Well, it’s a 3.92.
        Uh… yeah. Thanks for nothin’.
        ~~~
        I’d rather see this:
        YES, read the book. For me it sits between Nora Robert’s Year One at the bottom and Larry Niven’s Ring World at the top.
        Or,
        NO, do NOT read this book.
        ~~~
        Now we have context. If the person has read either of those, then they can pretty much estimate if and when to read this book.
        The choice to read or not to read is black and white (or black on white…). If the answer is yes, then the next question is when do you read it? That’s where ranking comes in handy.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hmm. To me, 100 3’s is a different rating than 25 5’s, 25 4’s, 25 3’s,15 2’s, and 10 1’s. If all 100 readers decided the book was a 3, that tells me it didn’t make a strong impression on anyone. As for recommendations to read or not read, surely that depends on who is making the recommendation. But OK, if 100 people I don’t know say “Yes, read this book!” I’d probably give it a shot. If all of them said “Don’t read it,” I might get curious and have a look at it anyway. But then, I see this issue in shades of grey (especially now that the evening is getting on), rather than black and white. But thanks for weighing in on this; I’ve enjoyed the discussion.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. I agree with you 100%. What I’m reviewing is my own reading experience, so that others can decide whether they would enjoy a similar experience. I really don’t like having to give ratings because stars or numbers or what have you really don’t tell anybody much.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I was thinking about book reviews and my mind slipped over to when I was editor of a small community newspaper, and one of the things I did was to review restaurants and also local plays, etc. I always tried to be fair so I looked at things like how clean the restaurant was, how nice the server was to deal with, looked to see if a lot of people seemed to be enjoying their meals or leaving a lot of food behind, and things I thought might give the restaurant a chance to prove itself. I always asked the owner about the cook(s) and whether they were regulars or if the regulars were new or perhaps sick. It helped me to try to do a good job of writing fairly. Things happen in restaurants, just as I think they do in books.

    My friend and I published a book, Artful Alchemy: Physically Challenged Fiber Artists Creating. It has been a flop, not because the stories of the people were not good, but the book had a bad title from the get go, and the way the stories were dealt with was not powerful either. The book had a lot of potential, but we did not handle it well, and as I noted, a flop. But we learned a lot along the way, and it WAS based on a good experience we had running a nonprofit to help artists with physical and other challenges for some 10 years. I am glad we wrote it regardless. Sometimes we need to learn what does not work as well as what works.

    Thank you for your good article.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome, Anne, and thank you for your thoughts. My impression is that your restaurant reviews must have been quite thorough and fair. I’ve never written such a review, but I wouldn’t have thought of noting how other diners were doing or speaking to the staff. And your comments about book publishing demonstrate the value of easy access to publishing, if only to learn from the experience.

      Like

What do you think? Opinions welcome!

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter 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.