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To Write, or Not Write, a Book Review

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 fictionHarper’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.


Gratuitous Cat Photo Starring Junior

Categories: Book Review Reading

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Marie A Bailey

Writer, blogger, knitter, cat lover, and introvert.

30 replies

  1. BTW my post might make it seem like a person absolutely should leave a negative review if that was their honest opinion but that wasn’t what I was getting at. My post was that people should not discourage other people from voicing their opinion because it might be less than stellar.

    I agree though, a review should be absolutely honest and it is up to the person whether to leave on or not.

    In my opinion, a big problem comes with the star rating system. I mention this all the time but I hate star rating systems for reviews. I much prefer the thumbs up or down model because it all comes down to did the reviewer like it and why. The star system is too arbitrary, because even though Amazon might have their definition printed out, it will still mean something different to each individual. I know some people who will never give something 5 stars because that means perfect to them. Which is silly because nothing will ever be perfect. Essentially a ‘like’ ‘dislike’ model allows for the subjectivity of opinions better, whereas giving something a numerical rating objectifies it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought you made a good argument for why people should feel free to leave an honest negative review. Perhaps if Amazon’s labeling of stars was a little less harsh … why should a 1-star mean “I hate it”? I might be more willing to give a 1-star if it was labeled less harshly. As it is, I think it just opens the field to nasty reviews, not helpful ones. That said, I’ve heard some indie authors say that they’ve received 1-star reviews that were very helpful to them. They’re probably thinking that their friends and family will always leave 4- and 5-star reviews, and it’s the “real” reader who will leave the 1- or 2-star 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the ‘Overall Star Rating’ is what causes so much trouble. A lot of people look at that without looking at reviews, which is how a book can be sunk or raised to the clouds by an onslaught on either side. With that average, a 1-star tends to feel like it has more impact than a 5-star too. Personally, I think the system would work better without that star average that can be really misleading. That way a review can be taken as it is instead of how it affects the ‘big’ number.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yup, that star rating system is problematic, especially since Amazon uses averages. I’m sure they could adjust their algorithm to show medians, which I think would be more helpful for readers and authors alike, if they were to stay with that system. But I agree it would be better to not have it at all.


  3. Thoughtful piece Marie and nice coming from an accomplished reviewer. I think a review should reflect the quality of the book and not the personal quirks for the reviewer. It is hard since everyone takes a personal approach when stating likes and dislikes of a book. Authors can only hope that good outweighs bad under these circumstances. I have also suggested that if a book is so bad why finish it? There are too many good reads in this world to continue down a path of poor quality.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Other than my students days, the only time I read through a poorly written book was because I had agreed to a review. This was a number of years ago, before I resumed my blog and the review was private, one that I sent directly to the author. It wasn’t fun, and I don’t want to go through that again 🙂 I’m not a professional reviewer (as in paid for my time) so I don’t feel I have to finish a book if I’m not enjoying it. And especially not when I have a few shelves worth of good books still waiting to be read 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A sound philosophy, Marie, and you definitely practice what you preach. Sometimes I think the negative reviews are just a knee-jerk reaction the reader indulges in, just to get the initial impulse off her chest. Then it’s on to the next thing. Not fair to the writer, but it seems like there will always be a certain number of people who do that.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Kevin. I agree that some readers just have a “knee-jerk reaction.” It’s usually evident by their poorly written reviews too. I often read the 1-star reviews to see if they have any value. Sadly, often they don’t.


  5. Most every book I read I can find nice things about, but if I can’t get through it, it would warrant a one or two star…I guess for effort, but I won’t go there. I see reviews with those ratings and comments that the reviewer could not finish…but why go there? Yet, after reading a book and forming my own opinion, I’ll read the critical reviews first…just to see what others might not have liked about the book and whether or not I agree or disagree. So I can’t say severely critical reviews are useless. Honestly, I think I’m a bit selfish in that I don’t want my name associated with negativity, so I won’t write anything if I can’t say something nice. I don’t think that’s being dishonest. All my reviews are honest, I just choose to focus on the positives.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It sounds like you write your reviews much like I used to grade my student papers … and much like I write reviews as well. If I am going to write a review (and I admit, I don’t always), I find something positive to say even if I didn’t like the book overall. I really believe there’s always something positive one can say. (Well, for the most part. I did include in my post a link to some valid 1-star reviews that had nothing positive to say.)
      I also read other reviews before writing mine. Other reviews can help give me some context, help me understand if my dislike of the book is due to it being “territory alien” to me, or because it really has flaws. If the latter, I hope my review helps the author as much as the reader.


  6. This is great advice, Marie. I’ve always thought your reviews are constructive and honest. When I read a nasty review on Amazon, I often wonder if the writer of the review has a personal vendetta against the author. I think one can be critical without being hateful.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Jill, for your kind words. I agree, some 1-star reviews I’ve read seem hateful; at least so biased on a personal level that they are not helpful to me as a reader. I will flag those as “not helpful.” I know those reviewers don’t care about my opinion of their review, but at the least I can alert other readers.


  7. Reviews are so tough. Everyone brings their stuff to my writing, and they layer it onto a story. I have no control over reader backstories, which inform so much of how they enjoy a tale.

    I also think books that incite hatred deserve four or five stars, even though the reader didn’t like the book. I tend to review that way. Any book that makes me feel something, whether good or bad, is a good book. I don’t have to like it to deem it a good book. That it made me feel something is the critical thing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, that is interesting! Thanks for making that distinction, Andra. I’ve read books that I generally disliked, but if I find myself still thinking about that book days and weeks later, well, apparently it had an effect on me and that, in and of itself, gives it value.


  8. Excellent advice Marie. I don’t like the star rating because it just makes easy for someone who hasn’t even read the book to select a rating. I agree wholeheartedly with you; if you’re going to review a book then explain why you did or didn’t like it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Yolanda. Great point that people can leave a star rating without having read a book. It would be more helpful to readers and authors alike if one had to write a review in order to leave any rating. I shy away from some products if all they have are ratings but no reviews. If it is a stellar product, I want to read why it is so I can make an informed decision in purchasing. Ratings by themselves don’t help at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I generally don’t review books – good or bad – but it’s only fair to take the time to explain your star rating if you do. The only book I would give 1 (or zero) star to is “50 Shades” – utter drivel from start to finish 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I love this line: “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.)”
    Yes, yes, and yes!
    But as far as one-star reviews, well, I’ve browsed but not read books that deserved them, books that were sloppily put together, no editing, no character development, weak storyline, etc. My take is that if an author expects a reader to pony up money to buy their book, they need to give the reader the courtesy of a well-edited, grammatically correct and well-written effort.
    Of course, I realize that writing talent varies and that some authors have incredible stories to tell but will never be able to write them with lyrical or singing or snappy prose. I get that, and as long as they do their homework and take the time to carefully edit and carefully rewrite, I won’t judge them harshly.
    I just cannot stomach authors who take shortcuts and then expect me to dole out my hard-earned money to buy a half-assed effort. (Sorry: Can I say half-assed on your blog??)
    P.S. I agree with BerLinda that “50 Shades” was embarrassingly awful, especially the sex scenes, which I actually laughed through. (Wait, were they supposed to be funny?)
    Cheers and thanks for making me think,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cinthia, you can say anything you want on my blog 🙂 thanks for coming by and commenting. I tend to avoid leaving 1-star reviews as well. If a book is really bad, usually someone else out there will leave such a review


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