Thoughts on reviews and reviewing

Posted by Shannon Haddock on July 26, 2014 in Rants, Reviewing |
English: Icon for lists of science fiction authors

English: Icon for lists of science fiction authors (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For reasons that are complicated to explain without getting into oddities of book promotion that I’m pretty sure most indie authors already know and no one else cares about, I’ve been reading lots of things to review them lately.   I’ve also just recently gotten in the habit, probably because of this (and possibly because my OCD found keeping notes on things as I read them to be a nice process to latch onto), of writing reviews for everything I read.  The only exception in the past few months are Stolen Time by J. M. Brink, because I’m not reviewing a work when I co-created the setting, and “Oh Pretty Bird” by Seanan McGuire because I couldn’t figure out how to fairly review it, because my appreciation of it was so tied into my appreciation of earlier works in her InCryptid setting.  I’ve also begun getting reviews.  So, reviews are very much on my mind of late, needless to say.

There are some common bits of author wisdom passed around.  One is “Never respond to reviews”.  I violate this.  I don’t respond to every review, I don’t even respond to many, but some, I do respond to, so far just to clarify things like “The sequel to The Crown of Eldrete will be more clearly space opera, so that’s why this one was marketed as such” for readers of the review.  I also Like (on Goodreads) and mark as helpful (on Amazon) truly helpful reviews.  Note that I said “helpful.”  I’ve liked a two star review, and even thanked the author of it.  Why?  Because his criticisms were valid.  If what he was criticizing the lack of was what you were looking for in a story, you’d be right to not read Jake’s Last Mission.  So, it was a helpful review for readers, so I liked it, same as I would if I was a reader and found it.  On the other hand, I’ve got a four star review of The Crown of Eldrete that I marked as unhelpful on Amazon because it would give the reader the impression it’s straight up fantasy.

Another bit of author wisdom is “Bad reviews are more helpful than good reviews”.  This is, mostly, bullshit.  Of course, I’m not counting three star reviews as bad reviews as some authors do, and most of my most helpful reviews have been three stars.  But, for the most part, one and two star reviews — not just on my stuff, but on lots of other things I’ve read lately — are useless.  “This sucks!”  “This was a horrible book!” and the like are more common that truly thought out criticisms.  Now, I’ve left enough two star reviews lately that I’m starting to wonder if I’m the pickiest reader ever, but I try to always make clear why I didn’t like the book.  Note, “why I didn’t like the book”, not “what the author should fix”.  This is a thing many reviewers seem to have trouble with, especially ones who are authors themselves.  The purpose of a review isn’t to be a beta reader and tell the author where they goofed up.  It’s to tell a potential reader whether or not this book is worth their time.  Yes, in many cases what makes a book not work for you as a reader can be seen as “where the author goofed up”, but I guess it’s mostly a difference in phrasing.  “This book could be good after another revision pass to tighten up the plot” is a phrase I’ve actually seen in a review.  That’s not a review.  The book is published.  If you’re reviewing it, treat it like it’s something you bought having never heard of the author, even if it is something you got for free as part of a review exchange with the author.  I’m reading two books right now that I’m not particularly enjoying.  One is by an indie author as part of a review exchange group.  The other is by someone who’s been dead for thirty years.  I’ll be reviewing both the same way.  The difference is, I’ll cringe as I post the first review and not the second, because having talked to the other author, even for only two seconds, I know there’s a person who’s going to see my criticisms and be hurt by them.  But, I can’t put the line about receiving the book for free for an honest review in a review unless I treat it as dispassionately as I would any other review I’m writing.  Maybe this makes me a heartless bitch.  I prefer to think it just means I’m being professional.

Which brings me to another point:  If you have published a book, be it through one of the big publishers or on your own, you are a professional author.  Act like it!  Don’t give vengeance one star reviews.  Don’t automatically mark all low star reviews as unhelpful.  Don’t encourage your fans and friends to do so.  It’s petty.  Again, just because the reviewer got your book for free for the express purpose of reviewing it doesn’t make them any different than any other reviewer.

And now, I have some comments on writing reviews.

First — and I know there are many who disagree with this — you have to judge a book by the genre, and in some cases even sub-genre, it is.  It’s not fair to judge, say, sword and sorcery, by the same standards you’d judge hard science fiction.  What they’re trying to accomplish are very different things.  Magic that doesn’t make complete sense if you try to break it down scientifically is part of the fun of sword and sorcery.  Hard science fiction, on the other hand, better have science that can be explained by current theories.  Contemporary fiction needs to seem like it takes place in the real world.  Erotica better be arousing.  It does a reader no favors if a book has all five star reviews praising the quality of the writing if the book fails to be what it is supposed to be.

Second, you have to judge a book with an eye towards when it was written.  I’m tired of seeing reviews of Little Women that criticize how unfeminist it is.  For the 1860s, it was a rather feminist work, actually.  I see reviews of classic space opera like Triplanetary that criticize the science, despite the facts — and this goes back to my first point — that scientific rigor is not a feature of the sub-genre and under scientific theories of the day, some of it wasn’t that far-fetched.

Third, a review should, well, review the book.  “This was the best book ever!” isn’t a good review, regardless of how many stars you leave.  Why did you like the book so much?  If you can’t tell, that’s fine.  I have a hard time reviewing books I love.  It’s easier for me to criticize things than to compliment them.  Maybe that says not-so-good things about me, but I’m sure I’m not the only person with that problem.

Really, what it all boils down to is this:  reviews are for other potential readers to know if they want to read the book, not a place to give feedback to the author, and therefore a review should be of the book as it is and based on what it’s trying to be and do.

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