Thursday, October 9, 2014

How WE ALL ruined book reviews.


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!

28 comments:

  1. Spot on, JD. The "star" system no longer means a thing. There are so many books out there and so little time, how are we to choose? My less-than-perfect method is to scan a listing and if a title and/or cover makes me pause, I read the author's synopsis or description. That should be a good example of the best the author can do. Often that alone will dissuade me from purchasing the book.

    PS - Joe Cafe is damn near a five star.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you kindly, my friend.

      Delete
    2. Yes....too may books to read and very little time. It is tough to decide which is the best.

      Delete
  2. I have mixed feelings on this. I agree that most five star reviews aren't necessarily deserved. Having said that, I don't think a star should be given based on whether or not the writing matches up with Steinbeck (old guy) or Shakespeare (really old, dead guy that I canNOT stand to read). Not even Stephen King (whose stories I do not enjoy, with a very few exceptions - people who walk into paintings, not for me). It should be based on how much the reader enjoyed the book, connected to the characters. I've read 2 (soon to be 3) of Laurie's books. I gave them 5 stars. Because I LOVED them. Kept reading when I should have been writing or doing laundry or sleeping because I wanted to be part of the story. That is five star material to me. Perfect? nope. But neither are any of the classics or the uber-prolific or the mega-selling authors. I'm sure I'll earn a few haters here, but I have never gotten past chapter one of the first Harry Potter. Didn't like the writing, could barely stay awake. And my children asked if we could read something else. So, not five stars in my reviewers book. There - my 2 minutes. I mean 2 cents.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's more than just two cents, G. And I have mixed feelings about it, too. It's a tough thing to negotiate. The biggest problem is that we all view the system (and what it' supposed to do) differently.

      Bottom line, I want people to think about all this, not agree with me. ;)

      Delete
    2. don't worry - I never just agree for the sake of agreeing... :D

      Delete
    3. Maybe the books that I love are not the classics but they are good in my opinion.

      The star thing is pretty bent. I am surely guilty of contributing to that farce that is the Amazon reviewing system. It's a mess but with that being said it is subjective. We like what we like. We support who we chose to support. When you go running around bragging how you have just written a book worthy of 5 stars I can bet there will be plenty of haters out there who don't agree. Such a touchy subject.

      Delete
  3. Anytime society makes up a marking system to grade something, be it a book, or your performance review, it is going to be bias. Granted, as writers, we all think our own work is crap-- that's not uncommon at all. But to say that people shouldn't give you a 5 star is a bit extreme. Many people want to see you succeed, and perhaps they are giving you a 5 star because their boss didn't. A 5 star review to an employee means a raise. Anything less could possibly not give them one. So given that, I believe some 5 stars are beautiful tokens of love. They only get cheapened when unsavory people cheat and buy their way into things. An example? You can buy your way onto the NY Times Bestseller list. So if people have done this, I personally believe they are the ones cheapening the system-- not the people that really liked your book. Just my opinion. Perhaps I'm a little bias myself because I've given many, many famous, and not so famous, authors 5 stars if the book is beautifully written.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Another excellent point. I was a teacher for ten years, and I know VERY well how futile any kind of universal grading system is. Thanks, Amanda. :)

      Delete
  4. I agree in principle, Dan. But I think we've gone past the point of no return. Readers and writers alike view the rating system differently than professional critics. They see the way reviews have been rated recently, have come to accept the current state of affairs and judge reviews accordingly. I actually DID love your books - at least the three I've read - and rated them with five stars because if I didn't readers searching for their next book might pass them by as second class. They're not. So when I review I rate according the what I perceive the understanding of the reader is with regard to that system. I wish it were not so, but at the same time I feel like we're stuck with it, at least for the time being.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I totally agree. We are past the point of no return, no doubt. And I appreciate the kind words. :)

      The question in my mind now is this. Is there a better system, or would any system be doomed due to capriciousness and humanity. I'm stoked on all the differing opinions and angles here and on FB!

      Delete
    2. As a reader, I want to give rave reviews to books I loved and hesitate to leave a bad review if I didn't like it. As a writer, I want to scream JUST GIVE ME MY DAMN 5 STARS! LOL. Just kidding.... (not really). yeah, kidding. (maybe)

      Delete
  5. I have a slightly different perspective, to me, a star is twenty percent, so if I give something five stars, that's 80 to 100. A good indie book can be 80% and get the same 5 stars as a classic like Clockwork Orange. A 3 (being in the middle) I reserve for average. If I give out 1 or 2, that author eff'd up, either poor editing, bad cover, bad story, etc.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a pretty logical breakdown. I like it. The problem is getting everyone to follow it. ;)

      Delete
    2. Thanks JD, I don't think we need everyone to follow it. I just think we need people to be consistent in their grading system, root out obvious fraud (both the paid 5 star and the revenge 1 star), and write meaningful reviews. I may think Clockwork Orange was the best book ever written for it's use of made up language and complex story, but someone else may give it a one star because of the rape and violence. The review part allows us to impart our reasons.
      Lou

      Delete
    3. True, Lou. The actual text of the review is important and often neglected. Which is a shame, because it is far more important than a star system everyone uses differently.

      Clockwork Orange is a kick ass book, too. ;)

      Delete
    4. I completely agree: "The actual text of the review is important and often neglected." I would also say that the star rating, as it stands, is very misleading and subjective. As a reader I pay much more attention to the text of a review. When a one star review rants about too much swearing, or is upset that one of the characters is gay or dies or behaves badly-- it means nothing to me. When a one star rants about the book needing a good editor--or has huge plot holes or flat characters--THAT means something. As a writer (The Performance, by Ellys Phox) I probably don't deserve the five stars I have gotten either, but at least they include things like "good writing, believable characters, engaging plot without holes, clean and well edited" That is what I want to hear as a writer.
      What I would love to see is a rating system that included a star rating in each of the following: Subject matter, Writing style, Character development, Plot/purpose cohesion, Overall enjoyment, Recommendation. I would love to see Amazon create a rating format where these, or something similar, were included and averaged to reach the rating.

      Delete
    5. Now, THAT is a damn interesting idea, Ellys. I never thought of that. It makes a lot of sense, though. 5 stars to cover everything from character development to plot to narrative consistency to personal taste is a ridiculous concept, but I can see how your system might work really well.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

      Delete
  6. Great post!

    I agree in theory, but the fact is that a review represents one person's opinion, not the opinion of society in general or book critics or anyone else.

    That means that what is a five star novel for one is a one star for another. Look up To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath or a variety of other classics - almost all of them have some 1 star reviews.

    Does that mean that they stink? Of course not, it just means that some people didn't find them as enjoyable as others did.

    The same can be said for any art form - movies are a perfect example. The critics often pan summer blockbuster movies, yet millions of people go and see them, while films the critics love often get far smaller audiences. It doesn't mean that either film is good or bad, just that they reach different audiences.

    I think book reviews (heck any reviews) have value - they show what people who read that genre think of a particular book. Not everyone is going to like Twilight, but those who do love it. I didn't care for it, but I doubt too many people who loved Twilight would enjoy The Hunt for Red October as much as I did.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is different strokes for different folks...still, this is very thought-provoking, so thank you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank YOU. The more I think about this, the more I think the problem lies squarely with the stars. Because you're right, a review that explains one's opinion can be very valuable.

      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

      Delete
  7. Great post, and so true. I have long been a proponent of doing away with the star rating system and using text only. And, I think we should require real names on reviews. I compare book reviews to what else I have. In my iTunes list, of more than 9,000 songs, about 7% of those are rated a 5. In my movie list it's barely 6%.

    Admittedly, I'm a little tough, but how can some of these reviewers give 5 stars to about 90% of the books they review? Doesn't hold water for me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well said, my friend. I've been enjoying the responses here and on FB. It seems everyone wants to do away with the stars. :)

      Delete