Animation by Kayelle Allen at The Author's Secret

Monday, June 18, 2012

That Old Chestnut - Reviews!

Dear Amazon, It's only worth half a star... 
Okay, I know I’ve talked about this in the past but it’s a subject of endless interest to writers, if not to readers.  Reviews!  I think we’ve all established that every reader is entitled to his or her opinion and that the purpose of reviews is to enlighten other would-be readers and possibly encourage or warn them off products, books etc. 

To writers, they are manna.  Getting feedback from their readers is crucially important to most authors.  After all, we don’t write for ourselves, we write in the hope that others will receive some enjoyment from our efforts.  And if we can make a living out of pleasing people in that way, the vast majority of writers will describe that being in or very close to heaven.

You hated my book that much, huh?
But there seem to be some reviewers who turn the review process into something similar to hate mail.  They use it to attack, not to inform, explain, enlighten etc.  When it comes to books, there are some readers who think nothing of attacking a writer’s skill because the book didn’t live up to their expectations in the first chapter and therefore they didn’t bother reading any further.  I’ve seen such reviews and can only feel pity for the writer who probably spent the best part of a year writing something for some impatient reader to slander in five minutes.  And I say slander because some negative reviews are exactly that.

But then there is this other category of negativity that helps neither party.  I recently received a review which said, quite simply and succinctly:

“This book sucked and I can't believe I read it all the way through.”

What is anyone to make of that?  Hopefully, like me, potential readers might not believe it either.  Why would someone bother to read 200 pages of a book that “sucked”?  I just want to ask this reviewer what it was that kept them turning the pages.  I’d ask her: What “sucked” but kept you “sucked” into its pages all the way through?  Tell us more, please!

I couldn't get past the first chapter...
If I know a book “sucks”, I abandon it after the first ten or twenty pages and forget all about it.  I don’t waste my time struggling through the next 200 pages for the dubious thrill of writing a one-sentence one-star review on it. 

Recently I saw a 1* review written by someone who hadn’t even bought the book being reviewed (no, not mine, thank goodness) because s/he didn’t like what they saw from the ‘Look inside’ feature.  Next thing we know we’ll be seeing 1* reviews because someone didn’t like the look of the cover.


Some people are so hard to please...
I love hearing from readers.  I certainly don’t expect them all to like my stories and nor do I consider it their responsibility to teach me my craft, but I’m always willing to listen and learn from them.  That way I can hopefully improve and next time write something that will give them greater enjoyment.  I think most writers feel the same way.  Reading and writing is a kind of symbiosis.   It really shouldn’t matter if a book is self-published or the product of a major publishing house.  Its aim is exactly the same – to entertain readers.  And sometimes, just sometimes, those readers should think before they launch their attack.


Dia said...

Great article (and pictures)...

"Imagine if all of life were determined by majority rule. Every meal would be a pizza. Every pair of pants, even those in a Brooks Brothers suit, would be stone-washed denim. Celebrity diet and exercise books would be the only thing on the shelves at the library. And — since women are a majority of the population — we'd all be married to Mel Gibson." - PJ O'Rourke

I suppose what I'm getting at is that essentially the internet allows anyone to comment and it turns into an echo chamber for the lowest common denominator of viewpoint. The above was a comment on democracy written before the internet really 'took off', but nothing is really different between majority rule and the internet. The fact that anyone can post a review/comment on any of these websites over whatever triviality they choose (I am in equal measures shocked and disgusted at the idea of giving a review from the look inside feature - let alone 1 star!!) was supposed to be the key benefit of the internet, but it's rapidly turning into its worst feature. Likewise, the anonymity the internet provides is key to allowing educated, free speech on important issues. Unfortunately, these privileges are twisted, mutated and abused so people can do things such as you've described in the article.

At the risk of getting further off topic, you'll find this "empowerment" reflected in online scientific circles too (if you can call them that). People professing the earth to be 6000 years old, evolution to be a lie, climate change a conspiracy theory, etc, etc, think their uninformed fearmongering somehow should hold equal weight to an expert testimony. On Amazon, this belief allows any idiot to write a 1 star review and claim a book sucks and have it sit proudly next to a review by a PhD in literary criticism. And then there's nothing anyone can do about it - post a reply to the review and you look hypersensitive, do nothing and it affects your ratings, try and complain to Amazon and you'll get nowhere. In real life you get freedom of speech but not freedom from the consequences of what you say. The internet breaks that.

"Think of how stupid the average person is and then realize that half of them are stupider than that." - George Carlin

Apologies for the depressing rambly rant :(

Jenny Twist said...

I suppose we're all experiencing the same kind of cruel. mindless criticism that celebrities get from the gutter press. The implication being we have asked for it by putting ourselves out there. Well, I don't think writing a book which is intended to give pleasure to others deserves to be punished in this way. I think it's high time some distinction was made between free speech and the right to assasinate other people's reputations without fear of reprisals. Have you tried reading the other reviews by the same person? Chances are they've given a 5 star review to some utter bilge, presumably because they liked the cover.
Sorry, I'll cease ranting myself now. Don't let it stop you writing your lovely books, Lyn.

Anonymous said...

I generally read reviews of a book before I buy it on Amazon. The negative reviews are just as helpful as those that are more positive--and sometimes it's the scathing review that convinces me I really have to read something! No book is for everyone. My personal preference is for reviews that say WHY a book was appealing or not. Most puzzling to me are those with a narrative that conflicts with the rating. Know what I mean? The 3-star rating with a description that goes on and on about how this is such a great book. Seems like that would equal five stars, huh?

ManicScribbler said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a interesting and thought-provoking comment. I suppose, when it comes to the internet, we need to learn to take the rough with the smooth. You are absolutely right, it is an open forum and therefore willingly lends itself to abuse as well as being arguably one of the greatest inventions of our time.
You speak with a great deal of wisdom - you can come and 'rant' on my blog any time you like :)

ManicScribbler said...

Interesting analogy, Jenny,
Many readers probably think writers are 'fair game' and forget (or don't realise) that the sole ambition of most writers is to bring pleasure and entertain someone with their words. And the internet, as Dai said, just makes it so much easier for someone to dash off a toxic comment. Without it, I wonder how many of this readers would take the time to write an actual letter/review to...and there's a novel thought! To whom would they write their vitriolic comments? The author? The publisher? I understand these reviewers think they are writing for each other - but I wonder if they really are...
Thanks for dropping by and for your kind words of support.
Love as always x

ManicScribbler said...

Anon, I have to agree that the star-rating seems to be quite arbitrary at times - it seems to mean different things to different people. I've also noticed that it means different things on different sites - for example, one reviewer gave one of my books 5* on Amazon but then I noticed the reviewer placed the identical review on Goodreads - where it received 4*. It's hard to work it all out.

I think many authors would happily not bother reading reviews (and I believe there are some who don't) but reviews act as a form of dialogue between reader and writer and they can be invaluable in helping a writer to improve.
I think the words of the review are far more important than the number of stars and therefore, as you say, one that discusses the book constructively is valuable to both other readers and the writer.

Thanks so much for dropping by and leaving such an interesting comment. I hope you'll come back again.

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