A Book Reviewer’s Conundrum

Book reviewers and bibliophiles worldwide remain divided on two complex questions that fuel and pertain to their work and love of literature.

1. Why do we review books?
2. What is the best way to rate a book?

These two questions, aside from a pure love for literature and reading, drive the industry today.

Purpose of Book Reviews

Initially, one would assume that as a book reviewer it is the obligation and responsibility of reviewers to take on any book they accept. Although true, it is but one approach. What is the greater disservice to the public, not writing a negative review resulting in hundreds of dissatisfied consumers spending their time reading a poor novel or never getting to that new author on your reading list whose work is brilliant and reaches thousands because of a positive review? To many, including myself, this is quite the predicament. However, W.H. Auden, I believe, puts it best when he states, “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.” Take a moment to really let that soak in. The significance of this quotation lay in the breadth and reality that many works of art and great masterpieces are never discovered or truly valued, but works not worth remembering are just that; not remembered over time.

Therefore, I now think it clear that I, as a reviewer have a responsibility to both warn patrons about negative products and also laud works that don’t receive near enough attention. If a choice has to be made, as some irrational reviewers have predicated, I find it my personal responsibility to readers that I review and introduce a positive work over a lackluster piece that will be forgotten in a matter of time without my involvement anyways. Furthermore, it is a bit sadistic and shameful to take part in anything that can tarnish or hurt another’s reputation. This assessment must and should be made aware to all that review and consider ‘positive reviewers’ as nothing more than ‘marketers and profiteers’. It is far from the truth. The reviewer’s greatest duty is to write and inform authors and consumers about the quality and significance of books. The greatest crime committed in that confidence and trust by consumers given to reviewers is the failure to acknowledge and make them aware of truly marvelous literature.

Some of you are now considering the thought that the aforementioned is a utopian ideal. Not all reviewers are alike and the majority of reviews found out there are not from reputable and professional reviewers. Websites have had frequent issues with authors glorifying their own work or hiring others to do the same. To contrast, some authors and reviewers deconstruct books in order to tarnish a competitor’s reputation. This is a reality and I am not so na├»ve to believe it does not happen. Despite all that, I have faith that reviewers, overall, seek to provide readers and consumers with accurate reviews to help in their buying decisions and development of future works. What choice do we have? The freedom to review and read whatever you like is more significant than the censorship of the whole lot for a minority’s obstructive actions.

Ratings and Book Reviews

To this point, I have discussed the validity of reviewing methodology without even so much as mentioning a rating system aside from a formal written critique. Large online websites such as Amazon, GoodReads, and Barnes & Noble use customer reviewing systems in which nearly all can post reviews based on a five star system. Many issues arrive from this style of rating printed material. The lack of limitations and easy accessibility regarding this rating system style is a blessing and a curse. All customers have access to writing their own reviews. This generates a vast amount of reviews to help customers in their buying decision, but amateur reviews can often be dishonest at the worst or misguided but true at best.

Customers and others can post reviews and select stars in this fashion:

1 Star – I hate it
2 Star – I dislike it
3 Star – It’s OK
4 Star – I like it
5 Star – I love it

In order for the review to be posted or at least submitted for publishing, 20 words or a video must be submitted and a star rating MUST be submitted. Therein lay the real issue. Is a five star rating system the best way to rate books and printed materials? Most reviewers and critics say no. Simply submitting a star rating for a book does little justice for the author, nor does it aid consumers in deciding on the purchase; at least it shouldn’t. Plainly put, customers look at reviews to decide whether or not to read or purchase the product in question. While some look only at the stars very quickly, most readers, after taking the time to click the reviews link, will go through a couple of the reviews. Depending on where they are at in the decision/buying process they will either find the shorter concise reviews or take the time to methodically go over the longer reviews with greater depth. Most importantly, this process saves them time and sometimes money in the long run.

The greater irony is that professional and reputable websites like industry titans, The New York Times and so forth formulate written critiques. Their exempt status is due to, for lack of a better phrase, no true rating system. It is ironic that the best and most respectable reviewers in the business are not expected to give the books they review a rating or number of stars when consumers navigating major websites gravitate toward the number of stars like a moth to a lamp. On the contrary, it is entirely sufficient for reviewing giants to use their words alone to either flatter and champion literary works or tear down their very foundations so all that is left are a few sputtering words that fall upon deaf ears. Many blogs do the same and maintain an exceptional identity as scholarly and well thought out.

Furthermore, the stars seem to be more of a point of controversy than a true value as evidenced by descriptions for the separate ratings. ‘Like it’, ‘Love it’, and ‘Hate it’ are subjective, and often times, vague terms when associated with literature. Despite opaque meanings and terms from the eyes of the literary world, the five-star ratings are easy for customers to understand and with a large enough quantity of ratings average out to a reasonable rating. Arguments (some have proven to be factual) have arisen about publishers and authors creating accounts in order to lionize or defame a book in the rating.

Should one and two star reviews be given on these web sites and considered credible? Yes, of course they should be. If a credible reviewer finds they have the time, energy, and desire to write and post a negative review, more power to them. Customers truly appreciate saving money when valid points are made regarding the inaccuracies and poor writing of a book or novel. There are both substantial and insubstantial 1-5 star ratings across the web. It is more important to keep consumers informed and educated regarding how to sift through poorly written reviews. That is something that has yet to really be undertaken and would most likely need to be the work of website moderators/editors than credible reviewers themselves.

Until that day comes, readers need to be made aware of how to analyze reviews on major websites. This can be done by asking questions and looking for certain topics. To generalize (there are always exceptions!), most online credible reviews on these websites will contain a short plot summary, some sort of purpose or directive, a critique of the author and writing style, and an overall decision as to whether they would recommend the work to readers and sometimes even a certain audience. Look for those things book readers!

Regarding the stars, analyzing that can be a bit trickier. I would hypothesize that the ratings would follow a standard distribution or deviation (sorry for getting statistical). I would presume that if an experiment was conducted looking at the number of ratings for an author and their work would show the following results: a mainstream and well-marketed work with a reputable author will receive more ratings and will more than likely find a fair value in the law of averages whereas a lesser-known book with fewer reviews will be skewed in one direction. In other words, the more reviews a work has the better chance that the average stars shown at the purchase screen are honest.

Alternative Rating Systems

The argument as to whether or not books should be rated on a five-star system seems a bit too late at this point due to how Amazon and others have become ingrained in the lifestyles of consumers and reviewers alike. However, there are alternatives to the traditional system that can be utilized by reviewers and customers alike.

One alternative may be to extend the stars into a seven-point scale which gives a more accurate account of how the customer or reviewer feels. For instance:

1: Poorly Written and Don’t Read it
2: Pretty bad, but not as bad as it could have been
3: Slightly bad
4: No preference or sentiments
5: Pretty good
6: Quite good, but not as good as it can get
7: Well written and a Must Read

This seven-point scale offers more options while maintaining clear and defined parameters in each category. A ten-point scale can leave too much room for ambiguity and categories too close in meaning. However, this method is simply an extension of the current methodology and offers little in terms of finding a voice and rating system singular and effective with literature and books.

What may be the answer is an edgy alternative more like a survey than rating. If customers and reviewers are presented with a series of yes or no questions, with values attributed to the answers, a final tally could be assessed and attached to the novel/book. What would this value carry or mean? Whatever you like; quills, bookmarks, two thumbs up. Any sort of value would be adequate so long as the professional and literary world agree upon it. This series of questions may include inquiries like, “Would you say the book was poorly written and difficult to understand?” or “Was the depicted setting vivid and fitting for the plot?”. I am not the best source as to what these questions should be nor do I claim to be an authority on the topic, but it is an intriguing idea and could transform the way reviewers can rate and apply a value to a novel without having to decide between ‘like’ and ‘really like’.

It is evident, from the two predicaments facing professional and amateur reviewers alike, that although the issues are complex, solutions are in the making and final resolutions can come from new and innovative thinking. The introduction of the internet and its impact on daily life and globalism has truly changed the world. Reviews are more readily available and this has meant an exponential growth in the number of reviewers. Rating systems need to be reevaluated and customized to the characteristics of books. A five star rating system in which the same standards are given to a lamp and a book should not be the case. Furthermore, reviewers must ask themselves why they write reviews and if that reason is a worthy of the authors who take so much time to write the works and consumers that spend hard-earned money on the product.

Do your reviews emphasize the importance of literature in today’s world and its role in educating, entertaining, and remembering what our minds alone cannot retain? Do your reviews identify and recognize the efforts of unsung authors? Do you aid authors by pointing out methods for improvement and ways to enhance their style and content? Do you think about your role and importance in the publishing process?