Lord knows independent authors couldn’t survive without the wonderful amateur book reviewers on sites like Amazon, Goodreads, and Librarything.com. I love my thoughtful reviewers (the 2-stars and 5-stars alike) and often thank them for their time. If I ever hit it big in e-publishing, it will be because of them.
But there’s a particular kind of reviewer that drives me crazy. Their approach or conception of what it is to rate or review a book is deeply flawed, unfair, and–frankly–unhelpful to other readers. I’ve boiled down what bothers me about this kind of reviewer in a simple statement:
Your dislike for a genre or format does not constitute a fair criticism of a work.
To make the reviewing world a better place (and to vent) I thought I’d submit a few gentle suggestions about what’s wrong with this approach. If you find my thoughts snarky or combative, please forgive me. I try not to clamber up on the soapbox too often and promise to get back to more informative posts soon.
Merit, Not Taste
I get it. Not everyone likes horror. Or fantasy. Or literary fiction. That’s fine. We all have different tastes.
If I don’t write a good horror novel because it’s bad horror or a bad novel or I made twelve spelling errors on Page One or start the book “It was a dark and stormy night”, then you’ve got a beef. But giving my book one star because you don’t like horror novels is an ad hominem opinion of the worst kind, because–forgive me–the fault lies with you.
For example, one reader on GoodReads.com gave The Moonshine War by master crime fiction writer Elmore Leonard a 2-star review because it was:
“Too suspenseful for this listener. When I read suspense books, I can control, to an extent, how I feel about the characters and situations. I get so wrapped up in audiobooks, that I couldn’t finish this one- the suspense was driving me crazy.”
Really? Your inability to handle the suspense in this suspense novel because it you chose to listen to it is Leonard’s fault? I understand that there aren’t international standards for this kind of thing and a 5-star rating system isn’t the best or most nuanced system for getting your point across, but this is a lousy reason to dislike a book.
The writer fulfilled his end of the “purchase agreement” by providing you with a piece of entertainment of a stated nature and type. This isn’t up for interpretation. Unless the piece is grossly misrepresented in some way in the description or on the cover or website, your purchase of/reading of/listening to the author’s work is your tacit agreement that they’ve done that part of their job. Then you get to grade the work on whether it was a good example of that genre or format. That’s what rating is.
If you don’t like suspense, why did you pick up the book with guns and police cars on the cover? If Romance isn’t your thing, perhaps you shouldn’t buy the book with the shirtless man holding the lovely wench with ripped bodice on the front.
The following is the very first line of the description to my short story collection Three Shorts:
Hidden crimes, psychological twists, and dark humor…
Here’s what one reviewer said after giving the collection its only 2-star review:
These were fun little short stories, but not the types of stories I usually seek out. One story was scary and one was crime related, neither of which I’m a fan of.
For the record, Three Shorts is in the “crime fiction” section of Amazon and has bullets on the cover. Without a PMRC-style rating system, I don’t know how to communicate more clearly that the stories in the collection are “scary” and “crime related”.
What I’ve learned after reading a few of these critiques is that the reviewers are rating THEMSELVES, not the book. It’s a strange kind of solipsism that turns the rating system on its head. It asks not “how will my experience with this book relate to others” but “how did this book relate to me” (full stop).
Perhaps with the rise of e-publishing and subsequent decline of Big Publishing industry’s agents and editors, “readers as reviewers” will come into their own, maturing into the next generation of critics and gatekeepers. But I won’t hold my breath. Even then, there will be a subset of readers who don’t understand the function of the objective review–that the purpose is to enlighten others about a piece of writing and not an opportunity to talk about themselves.