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A Reader of Fictions: On Reviews, Ratings, and Opinions

A Reader of Fictions

Book Reviews for Just About Every Kind of Book

Saturday, August 17, 2013

On Reviews, Ratings, and Opinions

Generally, I don't write discussion posts that I've planned way ahead of time. I write them when something happens, when inspiration strikes and my creative juices are flowing, and I can't NOT write something about it. Such an incident happened yesterday morning. 

On Goodreads, I've been fielding more friend requests than usual. With each one, I'm evaluating to see if we have similar opinions on books, since I don't trust the general community of reviewers all that much. Just look at the average ratings on some of my favorite and least favorite books and you'll get why. As such, I try to collect some like-minded people, so that I can trust their reviews and be aided in deciding whether to read something. I do make exceptions for those I know better, and thus can better evaluate whether I'm likely to share their opinions or not. This is all to explain why my friendship request question is what it is: "what's your most common rating and why?" or something similar. With this, the person generally expands on how they rate books. If they're afraid of one stars or give out 5 stars more than anything else, we'll have issues.

Today, I got perhaps the most puzzling review request response ever. While I won't name names, I do want to share the request in its entirety, and then I want to talk about why I find it so upsetting. I have not altered the quote in any way, nor is this intended as an attack on that author; I just have a lot to say with regards to some points raised.
"My most common rating is a 4 star. I'm an author and I know how hard it is to write, so I'm reluctant to go lower unless the work truly warrants. I see a lot of reviewers give low ratings cause they didn't like the story, which in my view is an opinion and not truly a review of the story and how well it is written, executed, etc. I love to give 5 stars. "

To start with, this is odd because my Goodreads average is a 3.12, so it seems like, rather than wanting to be friends, this person would loathe me for daring to critique books. Moving past that, let's think about what she's saying here.

Sure, this person is technically correct that evaluating the book based on the story is an opinion. Why, yes, it IS an opinion. Explain to me, though, dear readers, how rating and reviewing how well a book is written and executed is NOT an opinion. I've written reviews where I praised the beauty of the writing and then seen a friend's review, also honest, that said the writing was atrocious and overdone. A great example of this dichotomy in opinion would be the Shatter Me series, which is either generally found lyrical and gorgeous or the worst in purple prose. While writing does have some more objective qualities than story maybe, unless all the review goes into is grammar, it's all opinion. We all like different styles of writing and our evaluation will be an opinion based on our own preferences.

Even evaluating a book for grammar can be a matter of opinion when it comes to fiction. A first person perspective might include intentional grammatical errors. Take, for example, books written in dialect, like Blood Red Road or The Knife of Never Letting Go. Then, there are books like The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which annoyed me with its grammar fail but which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize; though I couldn't take the errors, apparently others saw them as perfectly acceptable and fitting for the narration of that character. The same can be said of simple sentences, which personally annoy me in books but might be in line with the intellectual level of the character.

There is very little that anyone can say about a book that is NOT an opinion. Even professional reviewers, paid for their opinions and likely more qualified to weigh in on a book's merits, do not deliver the same evaluations of books from on high. A book might get a starred review from one professional review publication and be panned by another. No matter how objective one tries to be, they're always bringing their own opinions to the table. They've been shaped by the books they've read, the knowledge they have, and their own personal preferences. That cannot be entirely eliminated. Following the logic of this person who requested my friendship, EVERY SINGLE REVIEW IS INVALID. This is what I have to say to that:

That's not all I want to comment on here, though. We also have the commentary on being an author and how that affects this person's ratings. This is something I've heard and seen a lot. A lot of authors feel uncomfortable writing negative reviews, the stated reason being understanding of how hard the craft is and the actual reason generally being more about not wanting to piss people off and make enemies. Now, I think it's perfectly logical for authors not to want to anger their fellow authors by ripping their books a new one. However, if you won't provide honest, helpful reviews, why review at all? If, for every book, you're just going to say: this book met minimum requirements of being a book, so four stars, what's the point? We could go through and rate much of what's on GR for you right now, unread. Of course, that's the author's business and they're perfectly welcome to do that, just as I'm perfectly welcome to rate all books 1 and 2 stars unless they blow my mind if I so choose (note that I do not do this). Still, this person saw fit in her review to critique the way that reviewers do things, so I feel like I have license to do the same.

Listen, I get that writing a book is hard. I do. I'm in awe of all of the people who can do it and, even more so, of the people who can put that book out there in the world to be criticized and evaluated. At the same time, though, by nature of publishing the book, authors are inviting such criticism. Expecting that people will evaluate your book on how hard you worked rather than on the plot, world building, writing and characters is illogical. That's never going to happen. Besides, how can we tell how hard you worked? Some authors write quickly and can bang out a decent novel in a couple months or less even. Some craft their novels over a decade, but there's no guarantee that book will be any better than the one written in a couple of days or that the time spent on it will show. I do sympathize with how hard book creation is, but, if you want to keep the book unsullied by the opinion of the masses, the only way to do that is not to publish it. This has been said before, but go look at some of what you consider the best books ever written and take comfort in the fact that even they have scathing reviews declaring the book to be without any sort of merit. Readers having opinions of your work is a guaranteed side effect of letting them read it.

To sum up, reviews ARE opinions and Goodreads is built for reviews. If you don't think that readers should be allowed to give opinions on novels, then Goodreads probably isn't a good place for you to be. Comfort yourself that they ARE just opinions if that helps, but don't try to argue that reviews can be anything but an opinion or that there's one right way to do things.

Oh, and, just to be perfectly clear, in no way do I think that all authors think like this. I know that this one does, and that a few others might share these opinions. Many do not. I've had authors thank me genuinely for my reviews, even if they had criticism. I've gotten review requests from authors whose books I've given 3 stars previously. Some authors genuinely appreciate thoughtful criticism and use that to improve. Please do know that I do not think the opinion stated in this friend request message is not representative of authors as a whole.

That's my opinion of all of this. What's yours? Do you think book reviews can be totally objective? Is it fair to comment on the story? Do you have thoughts on how authors rate books on Goodreads?



Blogger Alexia Boesen said...

I am absolutely flabbergasted by the review request that you received.

I do have a high rating average on GR but that has more to do with the fact that I have been reading some truly awesome books lately. I am definitely not opposed to rating books low and I have done that on several occasions.

I do include the story in my reviews but I don't make that my sole criteria in reviewing books. My reviews are also based on editing/writing style,character development and how I feel while reading the book.

Writing a book IS hard. I'm working on 2 novels right now and it is SO hard. However I would feel pissed off if someone rated my book based just off "how hard I worked on the novel"

Okay I think I'm done rambling now.

August 17, 2013 at 1:09 AM  
Blogger Charlotte @ Gypsy Reviews said...

I think the beauty of reviews have always been in the fact that we all have different opinions, you will always have positive and negative reviews for a book and I think it's fascinating to read from both perspectives. Authors really need to accept that if you want to succeed and improve as an author, you have to accept criticism. You're never going to improve if you keep ignoring criticism. Being afraid of negative reviews and trying to stop people from writing negative reviews is just childish. This is what comes with being an author, if you're not prepared for the negative reviews and criticism, this isn't the field for you.

I'm not a fan of authors rating positively for every single book they read at all. I understand they don't want to develop a bad rep but they're not exactly going get me to buy a book based on their opinion unfortunately.

Books reviews can't totally be objective because of our varying opinions. Anyone's opinion is valid as long as there isn't any bashing to the author and everything the reviewer talks about is valid and pertains to the story. There is no correct way to review a book. If we can't talk about the story in a review, the review is going to be really boring and not informative at all. We might not see it in the same way as the author did but it shouldn't really matter too much, we don't all see matters eye to eye, this is how the world works. You just gotta accept it or you're gonna have a hard time in life. *shrugs* Just do what you think is right in a review and write how you felt about the book.

A great discussion post Christina!

August 17, 2013 at 1:17 AM  
Blogger Wendy Darling said...

I am in total agreement that all reviews express an opinion--or at least good ones do. Otherwise it's just rehashing jacket copy and marketing material, and who reads reviews for that?

Coming from a PR background, I actually do understand why some authors choose only to review books they like. Putting forth a public statement--and that's what all forms of internet posts are--is awkward at best. I see a lot of people expressing outrage over these sorts of policies, but I wonder if they'd expect a director to trash someone else's work or the equivalent? Maybe if you're Anthony Bourdain or Megan Fox you won't care about burning bridges with potential colleagues, but I think most people in the public eye have to think about professional courtesy.

Having said that, this is why I rarely trust author reviews or jacket blurbs, even from authors whose work I enjoy--there's not even a dozen authors whose opinions I really weigh seriously if I'm reading over reviews, especially with tit for tat exchanges, agency/publisher sisters, or whatever. I get it, I really do--but that knowledge just makes me appreciate authors who review honestly even more.

The email you received would rub me the wrong way too, because it's a troublingly skewed perspective on not only what GoodReads/citizen reviewing is all about, but also rating books because of the effort involved. If the product doesn't work for a consumer, it doesn't matter one bit if the creator is fulfilling a lifelong dream after studying for years and is PERSON with FEELINGS and children to support or whatever. Anyone who makes these sorts of pleas to a reviewer's sensibility has not stopped to think about whether she's ever expressed a negative opinion about a meal at a restaurant or the like. Do you care about the chef's Cordon Bleu credentials or the owner's struggle to pay his bills or all the staff the restaurant supports? No. Because all of that effort still didn't result in a positive experience.

And this:

If you don't think that readers should be allowed to give opinions on novels, then Goodreads probably isn't a good place for you to be.

There are days when I feel like this should be the message that pops up every time an author interacts on GoodReads.

Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

August 17, 2013 at 1:54 AM  
Blogger GillyB said...

Underscored, italicized, bolded, starred. Every word. And I'm pulling out the quote that Wendy mentioned above, because it's just the absolute truth:

"If you don't think that readers should be allowed to give opinions on novels, then Goodreads probably isn't a good place for you to be."

THE POINT is to express your opinions on novels. That is literally THE POINT if reviewing. I get an author not wanting to get into that FOR THEMSELVES--glass houses, throwing stones, all that jazz-- but to malign the entire enterprise is just... wrong.

Automatic GR rejections, obviously. But at least it lead to a perfect post!

August 17, 2013 at 5:25 AM  
Blogger Kimberly @ Midnight Book Girl said...

Wow. As I stated the other day in my post it's impossible to be objective when reviewing a book. You can't set aside all the other things that you have experienced or read and just focus on the writing and execution, and even with that there is no "standard."

Furthermore - as an author don't you want your reader to feel things? Isn't that part of the story? I'm not a writer so maybe I'm wrong, but I like to think that an author writes a book because they have a story to tell that will make me feel something or make me think about something.

August 17, 2013 at 7:45 AM  
Blogger Ellis said...

"I love to give 5 stars." Everyone does, because that means the book was truly amazing. Giving them out because you like giving something five stars is like falling in love with someone because you love the feeling of being in love. It cheapens the effect because it's inauthentic.
There seems to be so much confusion on what a review is. It is not a celebration of the fact that someone somewhere finished a book. It is not an essay, analysis or paper on the timeless themes present in the work. As per definition, reviews carry a level of opinion with them, because they are an evaluation of the product.
I understand that, as an author, it's not the easiest thing to dole out low ratings. Personally, I'm more annoyed by authors who rate their own work five stars. I once saw one giving his book three or four stars. That was hilarious, but overall, I'm not really a fan of the trend.

Elend agrees. He says hi.

August 17, 2013 at 8:51 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I would agree with everything you've said here. When I'm rating books, I tend to go with what goodreads describes the stars as meaning - 3 stars is liked it, 4 is really liked it, and five is it was amazing. It says my average is 2.77, which is lower than I would have guessed, but I suppose it's probably true.

I feel bad giving a one star rating for a book that I didn't like but thought was fine technically and well-written, but I always add in something about that in my review. I always say that there was nothing particularly wrong with the book, I just didn't like it.

August 17, 2013 at 11:43 AM  
Blogger Alessandra said...

Geez, a friend request you wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. I've just started rating books on Goodreads, and my average is now 4.12, but mostly because I've just added a bunch of books I read in the past years and I mostly remember the best books.

August 17, 2013 at 12:19 PM  
Blogger Kristilyn (Reading In Winter) said...

I've only gotten flack from ONE PERSON so far for a review on Goodreads. And he kept going on and on and on ... first of all, like you said, it's my opinion and I'm entitled to it, and second of all, the author in question was a VERY famous author and I doubt my little 2-star review has any impact on whether people will read his books or not. It was so annoying that this guy thought he could just harrass me based on my opinion. Thank goodness for the 'block this user' feature!

I do agree with you -- reviews should be done however each reviewer wants to do them. If I were to rate ONLY grammar on some books, they'd get a horrible rating! For me, I try to look past horrible grammar (for as long as I can) and just enjoy the story.

Oh, and I'm ALL for screening friends on Goodreads.

Great post!

August 17, 2013 at 1:01 PM  
Blogger Kimberly @ Caffeinated Reviewer said...

Great post Christina, I kind of look at author reviews of their peers the same way I do paid reviews- as paid opinions! They never carry wait and are what I like to think of as fancy spot-lights. They showcase cover and offer a little info but aren't really opinions. I want to know if the characters had depth, was the pace well done, did you get lost, were there holes in the plot etc. and for those I look to bloggers, and consumer reviews. Great post, and maybe this author is able to compartmentalize them too.

August 17, 2013 at 1:31 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

I was too. I'm pretty sure I stared at GR for about a minute going REALLY?

People can rate however they want, but her policy on why she only rates highly is what I find so strange.

Including the story is important. It's a pretty crucial part of a book, imo.

Just because someone worked very hard, that doesn't mean the quality matches. Thus why I might get a higher grade on tests that a friend who studied for hours when I just read through the chapter in ten minutes. *shrugs*

August 17, 2013 at 2:54 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

I agree. Seeing a range of opinions makes me trust that a book has been fully vetted. I'm skeptical of books that have exclusively 4 and 5 star ratings, because I have no way of knowing if they're all honest unless a personal friend read it. I feel bad having to be like "suck it up" to some extent, but no one forced you to publish your novel. If you leave it on your computer and only you can see it, you can keep thinking it's perfect.

There are very few authors on GR whose opinions I will listen to at all. Their ratings are so inflated, and it's hard to tell which reviews are the truest ones.

That's exactly how I feel about reviewing. One of the great things that makes them interesting is the reviewer's personality and biases. You know why they didn't like something and if they value something different, you can consider that you might still like it. If they were objective, only one person would ever need to review anything.

August 17, 2013 at 3:00 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

Rehashing jacket copy reviews are THE WORST. What, exactly, is the point? That work has been done for you already.

I do really understand why authors might not rate books negatively, but I think there are ways to do that without resorting to the method this author uses. Some specifically state that they only rate books they enjoyed enough to rate four or five stars or don't actually rate books, so that they can honestly list positives and not have to commit to a rating. These methods are valid. I still might not be GR friends with them, but that I would respect.

Author blurbs have burned me more than once, so I pretty much ignore them now. I mean, Courtney Summers and Kody Keplinger blurbed Nobody But Us, and it was pretty much the worst ever for me.

Love the metaphor of a meal in a restaurant. Even if they worked hard, if your food isn't cooked correctly, you're going to be upset.

No one is making you be on Goodreads. If you can't handle it, then you should just avoid it. Le sigh.

August 17, 2013 at 3:07 PM  
Blogger Shelver506 said...

I'm about to threaten Spock's facial hair. Ick.

Great post, Christina, as always. We've already discussed this on Twitter, so all I will do is repeat my hearty YES.

August 17, 2013 at 9:07 PM  
Blogger Kat Kennedy said...

What a weird, weird request. It's this entitlement spirit that makes people think they should always get an A for effort. Dude, sometimes it takes an effort to crap but people won't buy it from you!

August 17, 2013 at 9:11 PM  
Blogger Tez Miller said...

Dude, sometimes it takes an effort to crap but people won't buy it from you!

Awesome quote :-)

August 18, 2013 at 1:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is so ridiculous. According to several theories, an author is practically obsolete from the reading experience. It doesn't matter how hard the author worked on the book, once it's published, it's out of their hands. And you're so right about differing opinions - that is why there are a variety of books and the world is an interesting place to live instead of a uniform, boring place. Oh and Shatter Me was a terrible experience for me. I couldn't finish it because reading the purple prose felt like someone was dragging their fingernail down a blackboard. Ughhhh. Also, if Shakespeare could be criticized for his (superior) rhetoric, I don't see why modern authors can't.

August 18, 2013 at 11:15 AM  
Blogger kara-karina@Nocturnal Book Reviews said...

Oh for f*ck sake! That old horse again! It reminds me of a saying "of dead people say only good or none" (or something similar). I've said that before, - a book is a product. If a consumer writes a bad review about a hoover, nobody says it's because this person is mean or jealous of the manufacturer, right? :) Why is it any different with books?
The only reason most of my reviews are 4 or 5 stars is because I tend to DNF anything less to save myself time and brain cells, otherwise I'm totally fine with bad reviews.

August 18, 2013 at 2:31 PM  
Blogger fakesteph said...

Wow, just... wow. You really hit my reaction points and LOVED your gifs. :)

August 19, 2013 at 4:27 PM  
Blogger The Insouciant Sophisticate said...

I think what I liked most about this post was that it prompted me to start following you on GR as I thought I already did (I don't think our tastes are similar enough to warrant friendship and that's okay).

I'm kind of amazed by what seems like an almost guaranteed 4 from that requestor-I used to rate a lot of books as 4 but the more I read, the more willing I am to give a 3 or 2 (usually I don't finish books that would earn a 1 star and I don't tend to rate books I don't finish-I just want to move on!)

August 22, 2013 at 12:57 AM  

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