This post could also be titled, “A Book Review Discussion Without End.” In as many days, I’ve come across three separate blogs discussing the pros and cons, the ups and downs of positive and negative book reviews. If you want to go off and read these posts before mine, go right ahead. I’ll wait. Each post has its merits and is well-worth the read.
Great, you’re back! Let’s continue … But first, a caveat:
This post on reviewing is for I would call creative writing only: memoirs, fiction, poetry. In the case of manuals, self-help, or how-to books, 1-star reviews are sometimes well-deserved. Even if the majority of reviews are positive, there is often a shelf-life for certain kinds of how-to books. Buy with extreme caution.
Because I taught First Year Composition (one semester only; I swear the experience sped up the graying of my hair), I find these discussions interesting but also confusing. Why do we even need to have a discussion?
For one, we know there are people out who like to write negative reviews of novels for the sake of negatively reviewing someone. These are undoubtedly people who feel so miserable they want everyone else to feel miserable too. Yes, their 1-star reviews can undermine an almost perfect 5-star average rating, but such reviews are usually useless and “not helpful.” The above-mentioned posts will do nothing to stop nonconstructive 1-star reviews. So what are we talking about?
Can a reader leave a constructive, rational 1-star review that would be helpful to other readers? Possibly, but what is the point? In my training for First Year Composition, I learned to take any student’s essay, no matter how badly written, and find something positive to say about it. (Believe me, I did have to be trained to do that. I would never have developed such a skill naturally.) And maybe it’s because of this training that I’m loathe to leave 1-star reviews for any book I’ve ever read. If we limit starred reviews to Amazon, the one star means “I hate it.” Who would want to say they hated any book? Okay, maybe you might want to say you hated Mein Kampf on principle and so you give the book one star. (By the way, the average rating for Mein Kampf is 3.8 and the median looks like it’s tilting toward 5 stars.) But should you leave a 1-star review because you disagree with a book’s content?
I’ve perused a few of the 1-star reviews given to Mein Kampf and many of them take exception to the quality of translation. I guess you can “hate” that a book has been poorly translated. I definitely wouldn’t like one that was and if I were a researcher, I would feel compelled to let other readers know. Still, 300 readers gave that book 5 stars, and some of those extol the translation. Go figure.
So what’s my point (something I myself often lose sight of)? That reviews are … tricky. Even with something like a translation, there are differing opinions. Do the 300 5-star reviews outweigh the 1-star reviews? I’m not sure. Since I don’t speak or read German, I won’t know a good translation from a bad one.
And there often, if not always, is some bias at play in reviewing. Not the sort of bias that comes from our perennial 1-star reviewing troll. But from our own sensibilities and preferences. I have read genres outside my comfort zone (XXX erotica, anyone?) for the sake of reviewing a debut indie novel and supporting that author. And when I write those reviews, I make it clear that this may be the first novel in this genre that I’ve read. Regular readers of that genre can then discount my review, or at least take it with considerable salt. Even in the rarefied atmosphere of literature and literary criticism, reviewers can be biased, having such a slant for what they deem good literature that they lack the imagination to enjoy something different.
“[…] it is striking how frequently [James Wood] finds that a novel has succeeded when it deals with the questions Wood himself likes to ask and that it has failed when it strays into territory alien to him.” Christopher Beha, How Much Damage Can It Do? On the intellectual element in modern fiction. Harper’s Magazine, Feb. 2015, p.85
So the bottom line? For me, anyway: do your fellow readers a service and write reviews of novels you’ve read, especially those independently published. Be honest in your reviews, but be constructive. If you really think a novel warrants a 1-star review, explain, clearly and concisely, why it does. And in the case of Amazon, you have to explain why you “hate” it. Think about that. A novel that I might not have the stomach to read again may be a favorite beach read for someone else.
And if that novel’s “territory” is “alien” to you, then I’d argue you have even more responsibility to write your review with a great deal of caution.
Have I resolved anything here? I didn’t think so.