I'm a writer, so I hear more complaints, attacks, and laments about book reviews than most. I am well aware that some writers pay for reviews. I am VERY cognizant of the fact that writers "trade" reviews because people email me about it all the time. I don't buy reviews, and I don't "trade" them. Authors who want to trade reviews don't want to trade honest reviews (usually), they want you to give their book five stars while snagging five more for yourself. I am also PAINFULLY aware that readers don't trust book reviews anymore - especially if that book was published by an indie writer or a small press. But let's get real here - WE ALL BROKE THE REVIEW SYSTEM! "Five stars" should be reserved for master works and people who have done LOTS of pushups in the mud.
I have written several novels which you can find (along with some short pieces and collections/collaborations) HERE. Take a look if you like. I have a bunch of five star reviews, and I don't deserve ANY of them. Allow me to explain.
I like the things I write. I would even go so far as to say I think I'm pretty good - I have been writing for twenty years. I especially like Joe Café, even though my other novels sell better. So, I think I've written some good books. And by good books, I mean THREE or FOUR star books.
Here's the problem, and I have been guilty of it, too. Let's break it down.
You read a book and, if you're lucky, it resonates with you and you're psyched to tell the world how dope it is. So, you go on Amazon or Goodreads (if you're brave and can understand how the hell it works) and you throw up a five star review. The author, of course, shares the review because we need to EAT. But there's a problem.
I appreciate every review I get, one star or five. OK, I don't care much for the "one star" ones that offer no insight besides "too much profanity," but I'm actually STOKED when I get a three or four star review vs. a five star review. Too many five star reviews looks shady, and I'm not shady. I'm actually annoyingly ethical about this kind of stuff - or I try to be. You want to give a book you like as many stars as possible, and that makes sense. But it's a lie. Here's why.
I've left five stars for books that I now wish I hadn't. Not because I don't think they are good books - I wouldn't have given them glowing reviews if I didn't, but because book reviews are a system based upon perceived consistency. Or they should be. If someone gives Joe Café a five star review, that's really nice. It's also really WRONG. If my novel gets five stars, what are you going to give Steinbeck for East of Eden? FIVE STARS IS AS GOOD AS IT GETS. So, you give me a five star review, how many stars are you going to give The Count of Monte Cristo? Because, while I like every novel I've written, I have never written a novel as good as To Kill a Mockingbird (to name one of many).
Now, it get's tricky because I have also never written a novel anything like To Kill a Mockingbird. But the differences in subject, tone, "social value", etc. don't change the fact that the review system is supposed to judge a book on its merits as a piece of writing. It is supposed to be an honest and objective appraisal of literary merit. Too often, this doesn't happen, even with "official book reviewers."
Here's a good example. Not too long ago, I read and reviewed Sliding Past Vertical by Laurie Boris. It's a great book - one of the best novels I've read recently. Laurie is also a friend of mine. I made it clear that I don't give "special" reviews to people I know. And I don't. It's an awesome book, and I would have loved it just as much if someone else had written it. You should read it. That doesn't change the fact that it's not a five star book. Neither are any of mine. If Laurie and I get five stars, what the hell does Shakespeare deserve? A galaxy of stars?
Look, you finish reading a book and you're psyched on it - you want to tell the world! So, you do. With five big ol' stars. I did Laurie a disservice (it wasn't intentional), I loved the book, but I should have given more thought to how her book exists within the context of literary history. And then there's an even trickier issue - there is a part of all of us that roots for the underdog, so we are more likely to give five stars to a relatively unknown author than an established or long dead and lauded author even though that hurts them, really, making it appear as though they ARE shady review traders. We want to help the 'little guy'. Except...
Except when we want to kneecap a struggling writer. I don't ever want to do that. And, fortunately, it hasn't happened to me (at least not in stars, usually it's smack talk behind my back), but I know excellent writers with books that deserve four stars that get a bunch of one star reviews that are created solely from spite and jealousy. Those are even less helpful than the five star reviews that should have been 3 stars and a detailed review about WHY IT WAS SO GOOD IT DESERVED THREE STARS.
We're all learning. This is a new and exciting time for writing and writers (and readers), but we shouldn't (writers OR readers) complain about the abundance of unwarranted five star reviews or the proliferation of "spite reviews" because we all allowed it to happen. If I get a five star review, I immediately put that bad boy on Facebook, even if I don't want to, because I NEED TO EAT. Part of me wishes it was a four star review because I KNOW I'm not in the same league as Michael Chabon (for example). Someday, maybe, but not right now. He certainly has far MORE reviews than me, but our batting average is similar if you just look at the stars. And that's not fair.
I'm not looking to blame anyone. I am willing to shoulder my share of the blame, as I said (good intentions can lead us in the wrong direction, that's called being human). But I can't sit idly by while people assume that an underdog writer with a lot of five star reviews "just got their friends and family to write reviews or paid for them in 'some way'." Sure, some of my friends and family read my stuff. And some of them leave reviews. And they're probably too generous. Not always. And not many of my friends or family members read what I write, frankly.
Five star reviews should go to books that deserve them. None of my books do. I think an argument could be made that I deserve some four star reviews. I definitely deserve three star reviews. I am not trying to be humble or a martyr. I THINK MY BOOKS ARE PRETTY DAMN GOOD. But "pretty damn good" is not the way I would describe All The Pretty Horses - it would be more along the lines of "absolutely brilliant." And All the Pretty Horses isn't as good as a lot of books I've read. So, I shouldn't even give IT five stars, dig? It's hard, but that means we need to think about it more, not less. And we need to stop pointing fingers unless we point them at the person we see in the mirror as well.
Writers and readers have screwed this up. Go look up the best book you've ever read and look at how many stars it has. I bet you'll be surprised. A bunch of folks thought it was a pile of crap.
I am not trying to convince you NOT to buy my books (please do!), but I AM saying that those books deserve 3 or 4 stars. The problem is that we've broken the system to the point where people see a three star review and assume the book must suck. But if we can't trust the good reviews or the bad reviews, we're stuck. We need HONEST reviews. Writers need them. Readers need them so they can make rational decisions about how to spend their money and time.
Twilight fever is abating, but how many five star reviews did that book get? How many five star reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey are there? I'm not picking on them (not my style, wouldn't be fair). Let's pick on a writer whose work I appreciate: Hugh Howey. I'm all kinds of jealous of that dude sometimes. I'm also happy for his success. I wish him more of it, but look at his reviews. Judging by stars alone, he's as good as Steinbeck. I don't know Hugh personally, but I know enough about him to think that he's A) a good guy and B) not a totally deluded narcissist. Something tells me if you asked him who deserves more stars, he'd go with Steinbeck.
The system is broken, but pointing fingers isn't going to fix it. Thinking about what those stars really mean might actually set us down the path to literary redemption. Three stars means a book is good. Four stars means it's really, really good. I don't know many writers who deserve five star reviews, myself included.
I'm going to say it one more time: I TOTALLY APPRECIATE THE REVIEWS I GET. But ... if you love one of my books, please give it four stars. When I write a five star book, I'll let you know - trust me.
If you want to check out one of my books, go for it. They're here. Like I said, if I thought they sucked, I wouldn't put my name on them. They don't suck. But they aren't as good as Cannery Row.
Until we fix this nonsense, it will hurt us all (writers and readers). I'm not giving any more five star reviews unless the book is outstanding. And I would encourage everyone to remember that three stars means the book was good. Four stars means it was great. Five stars means people will still be talking about it in 200 years.
We've gotten to this weird place where you look at any given book (written recently) and you see a ton of five star reviews, a few four, some one star reviews, and VERY FEW IN THE MIDDLE. A good book should have a lot of three star reviews with some enthusiastic five star reviews and a handful of "this book didn't suit MY tastes, so it's garbage" one star reviews. It should have some four and two star reviews, too. There's a lot of grey in between the effusive five star salute and the one-fingered one star dismissal. Until we get this straight, book reviews will continue to be meaningless.
This has been your public service rant for the day. Now, I'm going to work on the third Matt Stark novel and hope it's good enough to get a BUNCH of four star reviews!