Rules for Reviews

A few years ago I was chatting with a writing buddy of mine who also reviewed books.  He told me something interesting: apparently he doesn’t give bad reviews.

Now, to be clear, that doesn’t mean that anything he reads automatically gets a good review, but if he reads a book and he can’t give it at least three stars (I think it was three, it might have been four) he just doesn’t review it at all.

A year or two before that, he’d confided something similar to me when we was judging manuscripts for a writer’s conference competition.  In that particular instance the potential score for a book had ranged from zero to, I think, eighty.  He told me that he never gave a score below sixty.

In that particular instance it rather made sense.  A score of less than seventy by one of your judges pretty much knocked you out of the running for winning the competition.  My friend felt that giving a score lower than sixty was basically just adding insult to injury.  Kind of like if an editor sent you a rejection letter that said ‘you should really quit trying to write.’

But while I agreed with him about the contest scores, I couldn’t help but feel that his rules for book reviews were a little less logical.

Mostly it’s a question of who you are writing the review for.  If you’re writing a review for the author, then the rule makes sense.  I have, on several occasions, read a book by someone I know, or a friend of someone I know, intending to write a review for them.  But when I get to the end of the book and find that I can’t give it four or five stars, I generally don’t do anything at all.  Because I went in to this planning to help them.  Writing the review that I feel the story deserves would be like slapping them in the face, and I just can’t do that.

But most of the time, if I read a book and it just sucks, I mark it like I think it deserves.  Because, as long as I don’t know the author, I’m not writing the review for them.  I’m beholding to the reader, and I don’t just want to put good books into the hands of readers, I want to keep bad books out of their hands.

My friend has been a writer even longer than I have, and he’s more sociable than I am, so I think that on some level he feels a greater kinship to other writers.  And perhaps he’s been burned by more cruel reviews than I’ve had to face, or more low scores without any explanation.  I do know that those are incredibly frustrating.

But maybe another part of the problem is that we can’t agree on what the various stars mean.  I remember looking at the goodread stars one time.  It turns out that, from their perspective, only one star reviews are ‘bad.’  One start is for ‘didn’t like it’.  two stars is supposed to mean ‘it was okay.’  three start is I liked it, for starts is I liked it a lot, and five stars is “I loved it!”

But when I’m scanning for books to read, what do I usually look for?  Four stars and above.  A 3.2 star ranking isn’t very impressive even though it means, if the star system is to be believed, that on average people liked it.

Or maybe they don’t.  When I take a survey with five answer slots the slots are usually ‘strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, strongly disagree.’  I’ve sort of always done my reviews the same way.  After all, if I read a book and think it kind of sucks, I don’t want to recommend it, but I don’t want to give it the same score as a book that I think is unreadable.  If I had my druthers (whatever a druther is), I’d change the way we do reviews.  get rid of stars, come up with a scale that made sense.  Something…

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