It is pretty much a given, in the internet age, that if there is a website where you can buy things, sell things, or read about things, there will be ratings. And where there are ratings there are rankings. Most of the time, there are reviews as well. We’ve all seen the problems with essentially anonymous reviews that don’t even require you to have actually -used- the object in question to review it. But I’m not talking about the obvious spam nonsense. Today I’d like to talk to you about the dangers in reviewing, and call upon reviewers to consider a few elements that might help make these reviews and rankings a little more useful for the readers of the world.
The inspiration for this article came from my following on twitter of Lord Grimdark himself, author Joe Abercrombie (@LordGrimdark). He’s spent time on various occasions posting one-star reviews of one of his books on Twitter. Without fail, these are people who are criticising the books for being violent, for being gory, for having unsympathetic characters. Two of his one-star posts read, as follows:
“Everyone is either a completely amoral, despicable swine or a hapless oaf scrabbling to survive like a vagrant.”
“Books like Abercrombie’s are nothing more than showcases for violence, squalor and depravity.”
Or, as someone who has read and enjoyed several of Abercrombie’s novels myself: “Books like Abercrombie’s do exactly what they set out to do.”
This is the issue at hand here. Is it fair, correct or helpful to rank books solely on the degree to which you enjoyed them, ignoring entirely the degree to which they succeeded in their goal, or were examples of skilled craft?
Having been a reader of Speculative Fiction since I first became literate, and a writer of reviews for the past several years, I feel like a certain level of detachment needs to be involved in writing a review or generating a score. Your own personal feelings are very important, and should obviously feature highly in your review of a book, but in a world where a lot of new authors are relying on the balance of star ratings on Amazon or Goodreads to get new readers, “I didn’t like it” seems like a pretty crappy reason for a one-star review.
The onus is on us as readers to make a critical evaluation of a piece of writing as a piece of writing outside our enjoyment. So what I’d like to do is formulate a basic ruleset for things readers should consider before leaving a review of a book. Do with these what you will, they’ve served me well through many years of reviewing Speculative Fiction, and might at least function as a basic tool to make you think before you close a book and slam a one-star review in the author’s face.
1. Consider what the goal of a book was, in isolation from your experience. – Speculative Fiction is a creature of many many sub-genres and styles. Not every book is going to appeal to every reader. It is the great strength of Speculative Fiction that there really is something here for everybody. It also means that there is plenty that isn’t for you. If you read a piece of sword and sorcery and don’t like it because it has too much action, too much violence and not enough character development, the problem here isn’t with the book, it’s with your expectations for the book. If you read a romance novel and then gave it a low rating because it had too much romance and not enough action, or criticised a horror movie for being scary and not funny, you’re the one at fault here. The important questions to ask here are “What was the book trying to do? Did it do that?”
2. Do your research. – If there’s one thing the internet is good at, it’s attaching labels to things, whether they be books or pictures of cats. As mentioned above, Speculative Fiction is a creature of many subgenres. In many cases the extreme ends of these are every bit as wide a difference as between two mainstream genres. There’s as much difference between “romance” and “true crime” as there are between “sword and sorcery urban paranormal romance” and “epic high fantasy eco-thriller” and yet both of those latter two books could be on the shelf in “Sci-fi and Fantasy” right beside each other. Being a skilled reader is necessary to be an effective reviewer, and you need to know what you’re reading, and what is implied by that reading. You know what your tastes are, and should be able to tell going in whether a book is likely to be to those tastes. Giving a book a poor review because you made a mistake picking the book isn’t fair either. The important questions to ask here are: “What books do I like? Am I already going to dislike this book no matter how well-written it is?”
3. Consider not reviewing the book. – This may seem a little strange as advice from a reviewer to a reviewer but it’s actually very important. I do have the advantage over a lot of readers that I read very quickly so I rarely have a shortage of completed books to consider reviewing and if you are reviewing/rating books with the goal of starting to do it professionally, you can’t always just pass on a book because you need the content. But if you finish a novel and are thinking that this novel needs one star, you need to stop and think. Was this -actually- a complete failure of a book? Was it poorly written? Terrible pacing? Hopeless characters? Derivative plot? Unless it was virtually all of those, it almost certainly doesn’t deserve one star just because you didn’t like it. Reviews should communicate something worthwhile and substantial about a book and its place in the genre. It is actually okay to come away from a book and say to yourself “Well, that was really not for me” and just leave it. I might also suggest if you don’t have any actual mechanical criticisms of the writing, and can bring yourself to accept that for what it was, you might have had misplaced expectations but it still executed on its goal, that you consider three-stars as the way to go there instead of one. The important questions to ask here are: “If this book failed to meet my expectations, is it because my expectations were misplaced, or because the book actually failed to meet its own goals? If the former, am I justified in ranking it as a bad book because my expectations were misplaced?”
Any time you review a book, whether it’s to just throw two or three sentences alongside your star rating on Goodreads, or write five paragraphs on Amazon, you’re entering into a sort of covenant with the author and the other readers. You’re promising the author that you’ve put some thought into your words, that they reflect your actual opinion of their work, and that you’ve given them a fair shake. You’re also promising the other readers that your review will actually be helpful in educating their choices on which books to read. If you give a bad rating to a book that is actually exactly what it wants to be because you turned out to not like that genre, you’re doing a disservice to both the author and readers. So take some time, and don’t just hit that one-star rating unless you really mean it.