Monday, August 13, 2012

To Review or Not to Review?

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

I have a confession to make: For years, I never bothered to write book reviews.

It's not that I didn't want to, I just didn't have the time. Or I figured that no one cared what I thought about a book. And the people who did, well, they talked to me personally. So I didn't need to write reviews.

That was before I started writing in earnest. Before I stumbled across someone who said the best thing you can do for an author is leave a review, especially if you liked his or her work. Because by leaving a review on Amazon, or Goodreads, you might influence other buyers.

So I started trying to remember to leave reviews, especially for mid-list authors (you know, not the ones getting six figure advances from a Big Six publisher) or authors I'd connected with on social media. Then one day I ran across this article in the Huffington Post from Nina Badzin: why she doesn't trust online book reviews. And it got me thinking - am I leaving "fluff" reviews?

I have two degrees in English, a BA and an MA, both grounded in literature. So I had to learn how to write a review. When I said Moby Dick was one of the worst books I'd ever read (and it still is), I had to defend that. Likewise, when I said I thought Pride and Prejudice was one of the better classics (and I still do), I had to defend that. And those argument had to be better than "I enjoyed it" or "I didn't enjoy it."

So when I leave a review, I try to say what drew me in and where something fell short. I rarely give a five-star review (in fact, I'm not sure I ever have left a five-star review). To me, five stars means that is the best thing I've read and there is nothing I could have improved. And that just doesn't happen that often.

Wait, I rated the final "Harry Potter" book five stars - and that was more for the entire series than one book. But I digress.

Then the question came up in a writer's group, "If you haven't read the whole book, can you leave a review?" and "Should you ever leave a negative review?"

Here's my take. I recently left a 3-star review for a book. I enjoyed it. I'd buy another from that author. But there was something missing. And I said so, and why that something meant three stars. I don't consider that a "negative" review. That's honesty.

Would I leave one star? If I had to. Believe me, I'd not waste a single minute rating Moby Dick one star. But I'd say why.

As for not finishing a book, well, it's true that one can often realize a book is no good after a few poorly written chapters. But if your criticism is thematic, well, you can leave a review - but you run the risk of missing the development of the theme. Because theme takes more than five pages to develop.

This happened to a friend of mine recently. She got a one-star review from someone who admitted she'd stopped reading the book because of some slights against African-Americans. Okay, fine. Into every author's life a few one-star reviews must fall.

But the beautiful thing about most review sites, such as Amazon where this review had been left, is it allows for comments. And comment I did. And I pointed out, politely, that perhaps the reviewer had done herself a disservice and she should read the entire book.

I hope someday to be published, either traditionally or indie. And when I do, I hope my readers, who I assume are fellow story lovers, will do me the kindness of leaving a well written, thoughtful review. Do I hope most of those reviews are good ones? Absolutely. Do I want my friends to leave gushing reviews because they are my friends? No. I want the truth. If a story is lacking somehow, tell me. But tell me in a polite, constructive way so I can learn. Don't leave a "I just hate your genre so I'm giving it one star" review. That is neither helpful nor instructive.

So tell me, book lovers, do you leave reviews? If you're a writer, how do you deal with less-than-glowing reviews?

Image used under Creative Commons via clarism_4


  1. Great post, Mary. I think you're right about the whole reviewing process: an honest 3-star review can actually be more helpful than an over-the-top 5-star review in most cases.

    1. Exactly. I read a lot of really good books. But I don't gush over them. The fewer things I find lacking in the book, the higher number of stars. Maybe it's my LitCrit history coming out in me. I know as a consumer, I tend to discard the reviews at the low end and high end - unless that's all the reviews are. Then I have to skim through them to find the ones that are based on valid points. And no, giving a police procedural novel 1 star because "I don't like police procedurals" is not valid. If you don't like PP novels, why'd you read it? (And if you were duped by the blurb, that's a different criticism and perhaps a valid one).