Honesty, Likability and Book Reviews

Before I had my internet outage last week, I read a remarkably honest article about reviewing books when you have vested interests (are part of the publishing industry or are an author yourself). Sadly, I cannot remember the author nor find the article to link it here, but it left quite an impression. I started wondering just how honest my own reviews are, what my own hidden motivations are. I am about to write something that is deeply uncomfortable to think about, something which may not endear me to all those involved in publishing. But here goes…

Books, from wired.com

My primary purpose, when I started reviewing books on my blog, was to give an unvarnished opinion of what I had liked and disliked about a certain book, while recognising that it’s a matter of personal taste, that my taste is not infallible (far from it!), but I felt that I owed potential future readers full honesty.

Are you Kafka? No? Not sure about 5* then...
Are you Kafka? No? Not sure about 5* then…

I didn’t realise that star ratings are perceived very differently on Amazon and Goodreads than they are in my mind. To me, 5 stars is only for the truly exceptional (just to give you an idea: my favourite authors of all time, like Kafka, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, have got some 5 stars, but not for all of their books). Four stars is very high praise indeed, while three stars is a good, solid read, but it doesn’t really stand out in any way. Two is ploddingly average but readable, while 1 means I did finish it but rather regret the time wasted. And no stars at all means I cannot even begin to discuss the many, many things which I disliked about the book.

Then I discovered that many of my friends (in real life, on blogs or twitter) were authors and pressing their books upon me for review. I don’t want to hurt them, I know how much work goes into writing, finishing, editing a book. Belatedly, I also discovered that anything below a 5 star tends to provoke an author’s ire, however cleverly I argue my case (and point out both pros and cons). Admittedly, authors who’ve been in the business for a while and have had some success tend to be more … well, relaxed and professional about it. Many of them are still speaking to me after I gave them 3 or 4 star reviews on Crime Fiction Lover, and I think some publishers are resigned to the fact that I very, very seldom give out a 5 star. Which makes that rare bird all the more precious (to my mind). After all, if everything is a 5 star, how on earth can we ever decide what to read next?

However, I have been known to write to publishers or authors (particularly debut authors or self-published ones, who I feel need more support and understanding) and say: ‘I cannot give your book a good review. Would you like the honest feedback or would you rather I didn’t review it at all?’ Most of the time, invisibility is preferable to notoriety.

stars

I also have another problem with the swathe of 5 star reviews: they become a fashion statement, a self-fulfilling prophecy, a buzz – whatever we choose to call it. Once the first few reviewers have declared it a ‘wonderful work of fiction’ or ‘the next Big Thing’ (with Girl or Wife or Daughter or Husband or Man or Twins in the title), all the others can jump on the bandwagon and echo those sentiments. It’s called herd instinct or crowd control. If one influential person whose opinion I generally trust has declared this to be a work of genius, there must be something about it… And if I didn’t like it, then there must be something wrong with me, surely? Of course, this is exactly what publishers and publicists are hoping for, but where does our duty as a reviewer ultimately lie?

Book launches.
Book launches.

Each reviewer will have to decide this for him or herself. It is hard to give up the love-fest of ARCs and invitations to book launches and retweets or mentions by publishers, so it’s understandable that we don’t want to anger the publishers with less enthusiastic reviews. Oh, the embarrassment of meeting an author whom you slated at the next literary festival and having them hint that they’ve read your blog! Besides, I am truly grateful for the opportunity to read so many new and exciting books (for free), even if not all of them make me jump with joy. I couldn’t afford to read all of them otherwise…

Things get even more complicated if we aspire to be authors ourselves. Will we alienate agents, editors and fellow authors if we give them a bad review? Will they take revenge on our own humble offering in the future? And, anyway, who are we to criticise those who are more experienced, more talented, better connected than us? They clearly know something we don’t.

Of course there are reviewers who can get genuinely enthused by most of the books they read. I am not accusing anyone of hypocrisy. But I have discovered something very much like diplomacy in certain situations in my own reviews: ‘a page-turner’ may be my code word for ‘doesn’t require much thinking on my part’, ‘a profusion of characters which might confuse readers’ is another way of saying ‘stock stereotypes and far too many of them’. I’m not entirely proud of that, but it was my choice. I’ve opted for politeness over brutal candour when things are negative, but you can also rest assured that every word of praise is absolutely well-earned and honest.

From classicrarebooks.co.uk
From classicrarebooks.co.uk

As for who gets the completely raw and unfiltered review nowadays? Well, I’ve noticed the classics or dead authors are coming in for their fair share of bashing! Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust… they’re all fair game. It is also far easier to be honest about books in translation (because the author is less likely to read that review?). Finally, it is far easier to express your opinions about books which are not in your favourite genre, Caveats work a treat: ‘I don’t usually read science fiction, but…’ or ‘I don’t have much experience with YA, but…’

So what can you expect from me? Where do my responsibilities lie? With readers like myself, who have perhaps spent too much money and time to acquire the latest bestseller and are very sorely disappointed by it. With authors, who should know I will never get my fangs out for the sake of being different, courting controversy, getting more blog hits or seeking revenge. In fact, I don’t do fangs. I try to be fair, to remind everyone that I am just one solitary voice of opinion and bring my own biases to the table. But when I say ‘outstanding’, when I urge everyone to read a book, you can be sure I mean it from the bottom of my heart.

From red24management.com
From red24management.com

 

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73 thoughts on “Honesty, Likability and Book Reviews”

  1. Very good post, and I tend to agree with everything you say! I’m lucky in that most of the review books I get sent are ones I want, and I will always give an honest review. In fact, I try to read books I think I *will* like as life is too short…. The tricky thing is when you get approached by an author and you don’t want to upset them. I’ve been fortunate in not having that experience, but I do tend to be selective about what I accept for review. As for the hype and the 5 star reviews, I hate that. Not much gets that high a rating from me, and if it does it tends to be something epic and special – like Woolf as you say. Honesty is always best, and I’d rather say what I really think and risk upsetting someone, than pretend – I think the bloggers I read always do this, and they’re the ones whose opinions I trust.

    1. Thank you for nicely detailed explanation of your own strategy. You raise some excellent points – I like the ‘epic and special’ 5 * rating policy! I also have tried to cut down on books I accept for review, but I sometimes think I will like a book (judging by author, description, topic) much more than I do.

      1. Yes, it *is* tricky – we never know truly whether we’ll like a book until we embark on the first few pages….

  2. Great post. I too only rarely give 5 stars but I’ve been having to alter that to comply with Amazon et al’s ratings. I’ve also noticed that I am invariably underwhelmed by books that I have seen get nothing but rave reviews and I am left wondering if there is something wrong with me, that I’m too hard to please. I try to remember that we can’t all like the same book for if we did the world would be quite boring.

    And if someone feels I haven’t gushed enough, tough, I rarely gush. Doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy a book though 🙂

    1. Maybe it’s a cultural thing as well. I am a trainer in my ‘normal’ life and I’ve noticed that UK/European feedback to my courses tend to be more ‘restrained’, while in the US everything is ‘awesome’, ‘fantastic’, ‘stupendous’. It does mean my colleagues who run more workshops in the States, though, get higher averages than me, but I no longer pay attention to that. I know inside if things went well (or so I tell myself, though sometimes it is a little discouraging to hear ‘it was one of the best courses I ever attended – 3 stars’.

  3. Excellent post, Marina. My own stance is that after many years of reading books for work that I didn’t particularly I only review those I’d recommend to a friend. As far as publishers are concerned far more than 50% of unsolicited books makes their way to the charity shop although only when published. I know from experience working in magazines that publishers send out lots of copies in the knowledge that many of them will not be reviewed. Sadly, I think some bloggers think they should enthusiastically review everything they’re sent putting themselves under dreadful pressure. As unpaid reviewers, we are doing publishers a favour. If I request a book it’s because I’m pretty sure I’m going to like it but if it’s not what I’d hoped I won’t review it as I’m unlikely to finish it. Authors, however, are a whole different issue! Here, it’s very personal. I’ve hardened my heart and decided not to accept books direct from a writer. It causes me too much too much angst. So, in the light of all that, what I read on my blog reflects what I think about the book. Apologies for the very long comment – almost a post in itself!

    1. No, I love to get your reactions and thoughts. It’s something I’ve agonised over for quite a bit. The budget for sending out review copies seems to be far greater in UK and US. In France they have a very limited amount of books to send out, and book bloggers are seldom their priority. Which means that they buy the books and feel very free to give an honest opinion.

      1. Ah, that’s interesting. I think publishers in the UK and US were quick to recognise the potential of book bloggers. Or perhaps US and UK readers took to blogging with more alacrity than the French.

  4. A fascinating insight, and one that I feel I’d have to write a full post to respond to properly. So I might do that.

    With regards to five stars, I don’t use a rating system in my blog, but if I think a book should be read, then I play the system on Amazon and Goodreads and do the author a tiny favour by giving it 5 stars. Having said that, I usually ignore those ratings myself…

    1. I don’t use a star rating on my blog either – it’s a relief not to have to quantify things. And I’d love to read your own blog post about it – hoping to spark a debate!

  5. I agree with everything you say here. I’m also very frugal with my 5 stars – giving out maybe 1 or 2 a year. There is a big problem with conflict of interest in the blogging world and I agree it is a hard line to tread. I’ve met authors who I’ve given less than glowing reviews to and it can be awkward, but in the long run I’ve found that I’m respected more because of my honesty.

    I’m finding that the number of bloggers I can trust for book recommendations is decreasing as many think it is OK to write reviews containing their honest, positive thoughts on a book – whilst leaving out any comments on the parts they didn’t like. I’ve gone on to buy books on their recommendation and when I go back to mention I didn’t enjoy the book they agree with me – saying they didn’t like the book either, but didn’t want to leave a negative review. It is frustrating – and I’m so pleased that there are still some bloggers, like you, who can maintain their credibility and with hold their glowing 5 star praise for the few authors who really deserve it.

    1. That was the expression I was looking for: conflict of interest. Seems like I hovered all around it, but never quite alighted upon it. You sound even more hardcore than me – I do occasionally give 5 stars on Crime Fiction Lover (where we do have a star rating, not much I can do about that) – perhaps about 4-5 a year – simply because the book had me reading it breathlessly and gave me much pleasure. I suppose it’s easier to justify it with genre fiction.

  6. This is a brilliant post. I am not a book reviewer and so was very interested to hear your opinion. I share your view that 5 stars should mean something akin to literary perfection, it is the same as a 100% score. In my mind very rarely do works achieve that and that’s fine – it would be very unnatural if the majority of books were almost perfect! As a writer I think that honest but tactful (oh, our fragile author egos!) feedback and reviews are the most helpful – both to writer and reader alike. I don’t see the point in viciously slating a book just to appear controversial or for the sake of it. It is someone’s bloody, sweat & tears after all. As a reader I am hardly ever super excited about every single book I read so the deluge of 5 star Amazon reviews just make me suspicious!

    1. Tact is a highly underrated quality nowadays, don’t you find? It’s all about honesty, which at times turns into plain unpleasantness and even trolling.

      1. Very underrated, I’d say! I think some people get carried away with their own importance and, of course, it is very easy to be vitriolic when sat behind the safety of a keyboard.

  7. *snap!* I agree. Five stars, for me, means brilliance – authors like James Joyce or Kim Scott. Nearly everything I read is either four stars (because I’m mostly pretty good at choosing books I know I’ll like) or three stars, same as you, a good solid read that’s enjoyable but not unforgettable. I only ever rate books at Goodreads, I’ve heard too much about phoney reviews at Amazon to play in that sandpit.
    I don’t have much direct contact with authors… occasionally they thank me for a kind review via twitter and I tell ’em thank you, but that I don’t do ‘kind’ reviews, I do honest ones. I’ve only ever had one author tackle me over what he thought were the flaws in my review and of course I’ll never touch one of his books again.
    When I’m in doubt, I remind myself that my loyalty is to the reader like Jackie at Farmlane Books: the reader invests money and time in books and is entitled to the best we can do to evaluate the book (subject of course to personal taste). It matters to me that my readers trust me. If I’m out of step with popular opinion then I link to other more positive reviews so that my readers can check out other opinions.
    It’s nice to get those free ARCs, but I don’t feel I owe anyone anything for them. A book in Australia costs about the same as an hour of a cleaning lady’s time, and it can take 2-3 days to read, and maybe 2-3 hours to write a review. So bloggers are like us are offering a cultural subsidy: we are investing our time and effort and the publishing industry and the author gets the benefit. (And unlike newspapers which are thrown out if they are paper-based or behind a paywall if they’re online, our reviews are out there forever and for free).
    I have hundreds of books of my own and I have access to books from every library in Victoria through Z-portal. I’m not dependent on free review copies so if I never got another one it wouldn’t bother me.

    1. What excellent points you make, Lisa! I think I will use them as a reference for myself (and a way of assuaging any remaining feelings of guilt I might have). I also think that’s a very good strategy: linking to other reviews, with widely differing opinions.

  8. Oh man, I’m so glad you’ve written about this. I avoid star ratings altogether in my reviews (I use them on Goodreads, but very casually, since I don’t think of Goodreads as my primary reviewing platform; I mostly use it as another place where I can put a link to my blog posts.) I think they’re a facile way to rank a book, and given that a review is (or should be) all about diving into the subtlety of how a book’s component parts work together, they can be actively misleading.

    It’s interesting, too, what you say about alienating publishers and publicists. I generally tweet my reviews at them, but only if they’re not actively negative; if I had a real issue with the book, I promote my review through social media but don’t tag the people who got my copy to me. Sometimes they’ll ask what I think, of course, and then I send them the link. It helps to consciously consider myself *not* their employee: we’re doing them a favour by providing free publicity, not the other way round. (Getting a free book doesn’t constitute payment in kind, IMO. If I were freelancing professionally, I’d charge more per hour than the cost of a hardback.)

    1. Like for you, Goodreads for me is not a reviewing platform – in my case, it is pure accountancy, being able to see which books I’ve read, what will come next, able to break it down by gender, language etc.
      I’m very unsure about tweeting reviews to the authors/publishers, unless I’ve promised to do that. If it’s a good review, I feel like I’m advertising too much: ‘praise me for praising you’, and if it’s negative, well, like you, I don’t want to rub their nose in it!

      1. I generally find it helps to maintain good relations, but I’m now starting to worry that it gets publicists too interested!

  9. I have to agree with everything you say. I am very sparing with five star reviews, and I am conscious that my views are very subjective so I don’t attach stars to a book until I’ve written about it. My thinking is that then, if anyone is interested, they will see why and that my rating is only my opinion.

    There tend not to be too many negatives, because I’ve decided life is too short and there are too many good book in the world to read books I don’t like. I try to be honest but tactful when the need arises though.

  10. This is a really excellent post, Marina Sofia. I’ve often thought that the way Amazon and Goodreads’ star system works has changed quite a lot over the last six or eight years. As a reader, it means that you don’t always know what you’re getting, even from a book with a lot of five-star reviews. Of course as an author, it’s nice to have those starts .But the problem is they lose their meaning if they’re not awarded quite judiciously, and in a meaningful way. This is one of the reasons for which I trust your reviews.

    1. Awww, thank you, Margot. I try to be balanced in my reviews, but we are all of us human and some things will appeal more to some of us than to others. I actually really like the way you write reviews (well, actually you don’t write ‘proper’ reviews, you feature books under your spotlight) – you carefully analyse the book, given it all the space it needs, pointing out what might annoy or offend some readers, but all in a very charming and knowledgeable way.

  11. I’ve struggled with this over the years and then decided not to rate books on my blog. I don’t enjoy writing negative reviews of books that an author has sent me, so I’ve got very picky about what I accept for review. Part of me thinks who am I to slate a book when I’ve never written one myself. But if I have accepted one I always try to say what I do like as well as what I don’t like. If I really don’t like a book I don’t write anything at all about it on my blog. I do use the star ratings on Goodreads though and think of these as purely personal based on how much/ little I’ve enjoyed the book. I do give 5 stars but mostly it’s 3 or 4 stars. I wish we could give half stars as most of the books I’ve given 5 are really 4.5 rounded up to 5, as 4 doesn’t seem right. I’m probably bring too generous!

    1. Yes, they really should introduce half-stars on Goodreads – I’ve sometimes struggled, or changed my mind and wobbled between 3 and 4, for example.
      In terms of being picky about which books to review, this generally works when I review for Crime Fiction Lover or other websites, but I am a bit of a mug when it comes to friends and acquaintances. They can spot my inability to turn them down a mile off, so I often get the ‘You are such a fast reader, would you mind taking a quick look at my book and giving me your honest opinion?’ (when I’m sure they actually mean my good opinion).

  12. I wrote a similar post a few years back. It’s an interesting topic.
    I don’t use a star system. I’m actually averse to it. I fid it very misleading. And reminds me of school. That said. I try to be honest in my opinions but if it’s a new author – well, I would rather not write about it if I didn’t like it. I find that one can do a lot of damage to someone. It’s petty and heartless.

    1. It’s a topic that all of us book bloggers are confronted with sooner or later, right?(Unless we specialise in classics or translations from obscure countries – and sometimes that seems like a very attractive option…) I agree that it’s heartless to tear apart a debut author’s work – I’m always willing to give someone a second or even a third chance if I can detect some potential there (even if it’s as yet unfulfilled).

  13. I find it the same when reviewing theatre / performance. By the criteria I use (and we use “half stars” system) 2.5 stars is actually an average review, and 3 is good. People tend to only want 4 and 5 stars all the time (understandably) but everything can’t be, and isn’t, that amazing. Reviewing is tough!

    1. At least we don’t have to worry about selling papers, I suppose… I sometimes think professional reviewers have to court controversy at times simply to raise their profile. I think 3 is good, as you point out, it’s above half!

  14. Brilliant post, MarinaSofia. I have to admit I never felt any kind of pressure while reviewing books, maybe because I live in Spain and I am a virtual presence, rather than a person for many publishers/authors.

    I love what you say the star-rating system and how it is taken for granted as objective, but it is not. Far from it. I usually give contemporary crime fiction debuts 5-star ratings, but because they are terrific given the genre and the contemporary themes. Now everyone is a “something girl” – be it gone, lost, etc. So when an author presents me with a character as original and disruptive as the original Amy Dunne, I’m in.

    I know many people who do not enjoy negative or critical reviews, but I think the blogging community integrity depends on them.

    1. Well, I’m based in France, so am a ghostly online presence to most publishers and authors… but I’ve met some of the authors I’ve reviewed in Lyon or Geneva etc. So it can be a pleasure or a pain, depending on how ‘positive’ my review was. Of course, most famous authors with lots of sales couldn’t care less, as my small review isn’t going to make much of a difference…

  15. I no longer accept books from the authors precisely for the reasons you list here. I get most of my ARCs from Amazon Vine or NetGalley (or, of course, I buy them myself). I have been in receipt of sad or upset e-mails from authors in the past when I have reviewed their books unfavourably (or what they think is unfavourably).

    I have recently found, however, that authors do contact you directly after a review and comment even if you didn’t get the book directly from them. Usually this is complimentary and very nice but I’ve had a few who took exception to my comments and even if they did it in the nicest possible way it does affect how you react and makes you wary. I don’t get invited to book events and I have never done book blogging tours so I don’t get that sort of pressure.

    I’ve thought a lot about this and I do think that the ease of communication with people has made a difference to how I review – I feel that I have the author potentially looking over my shoulder as I write. I have decided on the following :

    – If I don’t finish it I don’t review it – usually
    – I will be as honest as possible but I will be clear that it is my opinion and try and represent the good stuff about a book without being completely negative
    – I will never attack the writer or imply that they are a bad writer – I will talk about the actually book and what I found troublesome about it
    – I will not accept books for review where I know the author or where I have been in direct correspondence with them
    – I will always be very clear in a review when I have received a free copy or if I have any other interest in it

    I always remember that no one makes a decision just based on one review and that my opinion is just one of many – when I am looking for books though I have definitely come to mistrust the all 5 star review items as it feels contrived. I am often amused too by how often my review is the first on a given book which does not have 5 stars.

    I do this for fun !

    1. Some very good principles you’ve outlined there… I wish I could just learn to say no to author friends, but I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to that. I feel I should be supportive, especially if I feel they are in a bit of an underdog position. So usually my reviews of those books start with the sentiment: ‘Although I know this author, I wasn’t expecting to like this book, but wow, I was pleasantly surprised…’ If not, then I usually try to keep silent or give them personal feedback rather than trumpet it online.

  16. Very interesting post, Marina 🙂 I understand completely where you’re coming from. A big part of my own rating has to do with how a book made me feel… Of course, I take into account the writing, the setting, the characters and the plot too, but really, I’m a very happy reader if a book can wreak havoc on my emotions. And I am not as sparse with my 5 stars as you are, even if I have become a bit stricter over the years than what I was in the beginning.
    I don’t really care much what publishers think – if I continue getting ARCs, that’s OK, and if I don’t, that’s OK, too.
    And like other people commenting said, I won’t tag an author with my review on social media if it isn’t a very positive review, no need to rub their nose in it – besides, I don’t really write my reviews for them, but for other readers.
    It’s definitely a balancing act in many ways, though, and I think we all need to find a way to write reviews that work for us. I enjoy going back over my reviews before deciding on getting a second book by an author for example.

    1. You make a very valid distinction between how a book makes us feel (even if we can spot some flaws) and whether it is well-written, well-structured, praiseworthy etc.
      If I write a review immediately after finishing a book which had me reading it all in one breathless go, unable to put it down, then I may well give it a 5 star for that very reason (it will usually be crime novels which I review for Crime Fiction Lover, and perhaps it’s easier to do that for genre novels, especially when you read LOTS of them!).

      1. Yeah, feelings are important for me, and also, I do read a lot of genre novels, so I guess my rating also has to do with how good I find it based on that specific genre. It’s definitely difficult to know what to do with those stars quite often, though, and I see more and more blogs not using stars or ratings at all.

  17. What a thought-provoking post! I want to keep my freedom in my very little blog, and being French I may be very picky and grouchy and harsh. French people love to find fault in books as in anything else. But I see Goodreads as a mostly American platform so I usually am very generous with 4 stars there, but I try to reserve 5 stars to exceptional books. I also have been known to apologize in a subsequent post that my previous opinion about a book was quick-tempered. All that to say, I really didn’t think it through!

    1. I love the way you use your nationality as an excuse for your reviews… Perhaps that’s why French publishers don’t waste their money sending ARCs to bloggers – they know they will be picky and grouchy and harsh!
      And you are sooo right about changing your mind later on. So often it happens to me: I read a book, think it was OKish but nothing special, and then weeks or months later, it is still in my mind and it has started growing on me… (the reverse can also happen). So it’s a confluence of book, topic, personal taste, the time at which it finds us, memory and so much else.

  18. Interesting discussion! I rarely get sent review copies any more which is great because it means I can read exactly what I want!! I’ve also never given star ratings for the books I write about because I’ve always found them to be open to misinterpretation. I just try to be honest and polite in what I write…

    1. I love your attitude: yes, it really can be as simple as that – honest and polite.
      Probably when I move back to England, the importance of review copies will diminish for me. At the moment, it is hard to get my mitts on newly published books in English (without having to pay P&P which sometimes exceed the price of the book).

  19. Fascinating stuff, MarinaSofia! I must say I think there is a real problem emerging in the closeness of reviewers to authors and publishers and the proliferation of free books feeds into that, I think. I reckon I’m an honest reviewer – but then I reckon we all think we’re being honest. But I always give more weight to positive reviews from reviewers who routinely give less than positive reviews too. There are a few reviewers whose opinions I discount entirely because they give glowing five-stars to everything and spend their lives sycophanting around authors on Twitter. In the end, I’m not really looking for someone to tell me whether a book is brilliant or otherwise – that’s way too subjective a judgement (though of course I do it myself!). I’m looking for them to tell me roughly what it’s about, without spoilers, and whether it’s well written, well-structured etc – enough for me to decide whether I want to invest time reading it. Gotta say, with so many books and so little time, if a reviewer raves about a book and it turns out the author barely has a grasp of correct grammar or can only write in clichés, I tend to eliminate the reviewer from my approved list along with the author…

    1. I think what you say is harsh but fair… I’m much less likely to believe a reviewer who has ‘misled’ me (whether deliberately or not) in the past.
      And you are more in the camp of structure and style reviewing rather than the feeling. I try to combine the two (and like reviews which combine the two), but I probably veer wildly between the two in actual practice.

    2. P.S. You are in no danger of mincing your words, by the way. Some of your reviews have had me helpless with laughter and trying to imagine what you would have written if you had really HATED the book…

  20. Well said! I don’t rate books I write about because I find the whole five start thing troublesome like you do. I am also careful to say that even though I might not have liked the book a whole bunch I am certain other people will. I try to be balanced, sometimes I fail. But no one is perfect.

    1. Yes, I like that: ‘no one is perfect’ (famous last line from one of my favourite films: Some Like It Hot). And no one is infallible. In fact, when one of my favourite book bloggers says they don’t like a certain book, it’s more likely to make me want to read it to see if I feel the same…

  21. I read this post earlier but wasn’t able to respond due to it being far too hard to type comments on my phone. I think I probably give higher star ratings than you do – a five star from me means that I am happy to recommend it to others and I think it will stay with me as a good read – there are categories, it can be one of those books that I just have to know more and so race through, it can mean it said something to me, it resonated with my experiences and a whole host of other reasons – that doesn’t of course mean that the person reading my review will feel the same about it. I also tend to choose books I know I will like although like everyone else I get a few duff ones.
    Where I do agree with you is the wording I use in my reviews which I think says what I need it to without being nasty, as above, lots of the books I enjoy aren’t highbrow literary fiction, after all I read for relaxation for the most part! That said like many other readers I have a (fair) few deal-breakers which always get mentioned in my review.
    I don’t believe I ‘suck up’ to authors, publishers or anyone else for that matter, that really isn’t in my nature and I’m ok with that – It really wouldn’t be the end of the world if I didn’t get ARCs there’s libraries and that good old on-line retailer that is my best friend, but I do want other readers to get a sense of what a book is about from my review – what I (it is my review after all) liked loads, liked a lot, wasn’t keen on etc. etc.
    Great post and you’ve got so many comments so I’m glad I finally got to through mine into the ring.

    1. At the moment, living abroad as I do, and having less access to English language books, I do depend on ARCs at times, but I’m sure that will change when I return to the UK. As for how we choose to review the books, whether we judge them on the basis of some literary merit (whatever that might be) or the feelings they arouse in us, I found this perfect quote just this morning:
      ‘The beauty of a story may be intellectual, like the beauty of a mathematical proof or a crystalline structure; it may be aesthetic, the beauty of a well-made work; it may be human, emotional, moral; it is likely to be all three.” (Ursula Le Guin, from the introduction to A Fisherman of the Inland Sea)

  22. I don’t like to take review copies from anyone directly. I like netgalley as if I don’t like/enjoy a book, I won’t review it and no one’s feelings are hurt.

    1. Sounds like a very sensible strategy to me. I have cut down on direct review copies, but I do still get some (and, even if I didn’t request them, I still find a way to feel guilty about them if I don’t review them – but I shouldn’t, I know!).

  23. Interesting post. Certainly has generated a lot of comment. I may be alone in this but I think blog reviews could use a good dose of negativity overall. It’s very rare that I come across a truly bad review. In fact, I sometimes think I’m the only one writing them and I don’t do it very often. I think this is largely because we all read what we want to and we want to read what we like. But I do wish people would “unleash the Kracken” now and then. Books should provoke passion, one way or another.

    My reviewer idol is still Dorothy Parker who reviewed both theatre and books. When she loved something she would heap praise on it to the high heavens and when she hated something she would unleash the Kracken. Her bad reviews, and her good ones, still make for excellent reading when you can find them.

    I try to write about books the same way I would talk about them in person. If you disagree with me then let’s get coffee and “duke it out” or latte it out. There are few things I enjoy more than a good book fight. Be passionate, one way or another.

    So, now I’m off to follow fanfiction above. Sounds like a blog I would enjoy.

    1. Ha, ha, I agree about Dorothy Parker’s excellent reviews. Wasn’t she the one who said that Katherine Hepburn in a play ran the whole gamut of emotions from A to B? Unfortunately, I am no Dorothy Parker…
      One hatchet job which I enjoyed greatly in recent days was the Digested Read of Maestra, written by John Crace in the Guardian. Have you seen that? It was a book which I thought was poorly written, had too many designer labels and implausible situations, and was aiming for the market for scandal rather than proper readers. And he made that clear:
      ‘If you asked how it began, I would have to say it was when I noticed that 50 Shades of Grey had sold millions of copies without having any recognisable plot. As I sat at my desk in the top London auction house where I worked as an assistant curator, it occurred to me that if I could combine having lots of sex with some action, then I might be on to a winner…’

  24. I might encounter these writers online from time to time, but it’s very unlikely that I’ll be forced to meet them in the flesh – there are a couple where these meetings could prove to be somewhat awkward 😉

  25. I agree with pretty much everything you said. I rarely give 5 star ratings too, and I end up feeling bad every time I give less than 4 stars to a book I’ve received for review since I know the author is going to see it (though I’m trying to make myself stop feeling bad for 3.5 stars at least lol since that’s still good in my opinion). And if it’s a publisher I got it from, then yeah, it can be a concern that they might not be willing to give me anymore books. And I have definitely thought about how it could affect me if I one day publish a book. However, I’m still honest and will give 1 and 2 star reviews if that’s how I honestly feel. But I never write snarky reviews. I do my best to stay respectful and fair and I’ll try to emphasize that just because the book wasn’t *for me*, that doesn’t mean it won’t be for everyone. I never tell people NOT to read a book. If I feel so strongly that I can’t review a book respectfully, I’d rather not review it at all.

    If I were to get a book directly from an author or publisher and couldn’t give it at least 3 stars, then I’d do what you said, ask if they still want me to post the review. However, I have encountered some great authors who were appreciative of 3 and 3.5 star reviews, liked them, shared them on their FB pages, thanked me, etc. So some authors are able to appreciate respectful, helpful reviews and understand that not every book will be for every person. It’s just a shame that there are authors who don’t respect that and that there probably are *some* people out there who give books higher ratings because they feel bad or because they want to make sure they keep getting ARCs. But I don’t fret over it since it’s not something I can control. Plus, the more reviews I’ve read, the better I’ve gotten at mining them and picking out which points seem accurate in order to figure out if a book is for me or not. It’s like an art form lol.

    1. Thank you for your very well-thought out comments. I agree that reviewing (and reading between the lines) has become an art form. You make a valuable distinction between being sarcastic or destructive and being fair/balanced and providing constructive criticism. It’s very much like in team meetings at work when you just say someone’s idea is’rubbish’ or you say ‘this idea might not work in this exact form, but if you do X, Y, Z, that might be better’.

  26. Interesting post and discussion here. I don’t usually rank/ rate my books, but in the alternative I’m stingy when it comes to saying I recommend a book or highly recommend a book. I may have said this before, but one of my band directors ranting about the prevalence of standing ovations had a big effect on my when I was a teenager. As for the book blog/ Goodreads worlds, I too am suspicious of people who only post positive reviews. Reading taste is so subjective: no one can gush about everything they read, can they? Or maybe I’m just an easily annoyed reader. Hope you find a system that works for you re: author review requests!

  27. I feel the need to point out that, regardless of what authors may think or desire, the Goodreads star system pretty much lines up with yours: 1 star = did not like it; 2 stars = it was ok; 3 stars = liked it; 4 stars = really liked it; 5 stars = it was amazing.

    My average rating hovers just above 3 and I’m fine with that, although I do have friends that tell me I’m “too harsh” with my ratings. Of course, many reviewers don’t follow the listed definitions and there are clearly people who only give 4s and 5s. For me, it is almost never the 4s and 5s that tip the scales in a book’s favor. I look at the overall “score” of a title, then read a few of the 1- or 2-star reviews to get a sense of whether I want to read something. I find the details there usually give me a much better idea if something is for me than a good “gushing” review. It’s true that YA and certain genres skew high, but I do think there tends to be less “grade inflation” at GR than on sites like Amazon or Netflix.

    That said, I agree that half-stars would be very welcome, and it was at the top of my list of requested features when I was invited to GR headquarters with other local librarians.

  28. Very nicely put. I’ve had similar thoughts myself, and eventually concluded that (in my scrappy, ever-so-humble Goodreads notes) the best thing to do was be honest. It’s the only way, I think, to fulfil one’s moral obligations to author, publisher and potential readers alike. (I also tend to note, because those notes are just witters, really, any external factors that might have affected my judgement — “Part of the reason I eventually flushed this novel down the lavatory may have been that I had an infernal hangover at the time,” sort of thing.)

    I was forced to think this attitude through quite a few years ago (while I was still a quasi-professional reviewer) when I came across a piece of execrable tripe that had five or six rave quotes on from well known authors (a couple of whom I know). I asked my editor what to do, and by way of reply he sent me the last five or six reviews he’s published, by various hands, of this author’s books. I wasn’t alone!

    Like you, I don’t give five stars very often.

  29. I completely agree with you. I’ve only given out two 5 star ratings this year out of the 61 books I’ve read so far. Last year I gave out eight. Mostly, I give out 4 star ratings. I do give out 3.5 and 4.5 also, with some 3s thrown in too. I don’t have too many 2s though, but I’m really picky about what I pick up to read, so I have a pretty good idea going in that I will like it. A large number of my reads are in series that I already know I like, or by authors I already know I like, though I have had to give authors I like 2 stars before. If I DNF, I don’t rate.

    So far, I’ve yet to have any issues with author (*knock on wood*). I’ve heard of other people who’ve had authors get upset over 3 star reviews, which is crazy. That kind of crazy does nothing by run off potential readers. I’ve read books based on low ratings before. Just because someone else doesn’t like it, doesn’t mean I won’t. Lines in a review, “it was too dark” or “too creepy” are something that would encourage me to read it. There are some people who are turned off by “too much sex”, where that is a draw for someone else. Great post.

    Melanie @ Hot Listens & Rabid Reads

    1. How I like that point you make: that a description of ‘too rude’ or ‘too dark’ or ‘too graphic’ might put some people off, but will appeal to others. I also find that if a book has divided the readership, has received some rave reviews but also some poor ones, I am more likely to want to read it, to make up my own mind! While if it’s all 5 star, I think: ah, all the authors’ friends are doing ‘stroke, stroke’ reviews.

  30. I do give five star ratings, but if I loved a book, then it is a five-star to me. If there were things a few that bugged me, but I really enjoyed it, then it’s a four, if it was okay (some things I liked and some things bugged me fairly equally) and I could take it or leave it, then it’s a three and then on down. I felt really bad about a recent review that I gave a three. It didn’t deserve more than that, but I felt bad because it was for a tour I organized and the author needed more reviews so I put myself on the tour (normally this works out…), but then the book was so-so to me. I debated back and forth, but by the time I knew how I felt about the book I couldn’t not be on the tour so I was very honest, but professional (I’ve never felt I should be anything else or be mean to the author) and still gave it the three stars. It was a hard choice, but I really believe in honest reviews. I applaud you for sticking to them as well!! 🙂

    1. And that’s probably one of the reasons I don’t do blog tours (the main reason being that I have trouble reading and reviewing to deadlines). Unless I’ve already read and loved the book. Thank you for reading and commenting, very much appreciated!

  31. I’ve just read this, and your article, and all the comments, are fascinating. I’m not really happy with GoodReads system, as I’ve left far too many 5-stars as I’ve went straight from the end of the book onto GoodReads, and you really need a day or two to percolate (like a coffee machine!) your full reaction to the whole book, not just the very end (sometimes it’s sheer relief at having finished the damn thing!) I hope people realise any stars are given purely as a crime fiction fan (so if you love chick lit it might not appeal. I’d far rather people waited (…and waited!) for my full review and then they’d have a better idea if it suits them – the setting, storyline, and type of crime fiction all come into that – for example, I love cold cases. But I am probably too generous overall. I tend now to say Highly recommended, and variations of it, on my blog. But this is definitely food for thought (personally I love it when Fiction Fan hates a book, but I don’t have her wonderful acerbic tongue – like a good teacher’s!)

  32. Before I had my internet outage last week

    By the way, MS, I have to confess I keep reading this in my myopic fashion as “Before I had my internet outrage last week . . .” and imagine you leaving wrathful comments all over articles about Donald Trump, or something. 🙂

  33. Really interesting post. We are all doing different things, so I guess it becomes useful to work out what the individual blogger is up to. I tend to abandon books I think are not that good or to my taste – like I leave the theatre or a concert at the interval, ditto. My time matters to me, why stick reading something not that good. So I half read and abandon without review – unless I have been forced to spend more time than I want to – mainly a Vine book. In which case my annoyance at being forced to continue might produce anger and a vicious pen, on Amazon, where you have to star.

    I don’t star the blog, but nothing appears on the blog unless it was a clear 4 star for me on Amazon. If it is 3 1/2 rounded up, it still doesn’t cut blog mustard..but that does mean I’m always enthusiastic here. It takes so long to write a blog post, picking out quotes, finding media, that I only want to spend extra time with something I enjoyed.

    As far as Netgalley goes, I e-mail them with a shorter resume to say why I won’t be reviewing their book on my blog. I don’t think it particularly affects whether I get approved or not for other books, but, I’m not bothered if it does.

    That is I think the freedom amateur reviewers have – we can do just what we like. It certainly gets harder once you make a connection with a writer. If you loved their writing, and then a subsequent book disappoints. A book is always so personal too, someone’s dearly gestated baby, and if I think the baby is hideous, I’d prefer to quietly walk away from it, and hopefully the author won’t even know I read it, or read a few chapters of it.

    As you can see, short and succinct is outside my skillset!

    1. You are so right that a blog post/review can take quite a long time to write, research, find the right quotes etc., so you don’t want to waste that precious time on books which are not worth it. Then again, I suspect it takes less time to write a damning review – although some of them are well argued and thoughtful, in which case they take just as long.

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