Rated X: How Do You Feel About Book Reviews?
Contributor

            I’ve been thinking a lot about ratings lately. I’ve been a reader my whole life and with the advent of Amazon and Goodreads I joined the throngs and have sometimes posted my opinion about books I’ve read. Mostly I’ve posted reviews for books I love, hoping that others will find them too, hoping that they’ll be thrilled I let them know about this particular find.  Is there anything more fun than sharing a discovery of a great restaurant, movie, or book?  Occasionally I’ve given a middling review.  Once, I wrote a very poor (read venomous) review of a very popular book; one that some of my friends loved, the media loved, and Oprah loved. Quotes from this book were thought so profound that they made calendars out of them, for the love of Pizza. I didn’t get it. At all.  While I’ve usually subscribed to the “If you don’t have anything nice to say, just don’t say anything at all,” philosophy, I couldn’t keep myself from blasting about this particular book. I figured the author was already a bestseller and had made a gajillion dollars, so I wasn’t hurting anybody, right? Maybe I was even a little jealous of the book and the author getting Oprah-fied. I gave this book a 2-star review, not because it was badly written (it wasn’t), and not because the story wasn’t relevant (it was), but because I found it somehow disingenuous.  It seemed self-indulgent, a little pretentious, over-hyped, and limited in its perspective, and it kind of made me mad. I wrote that. It was my opinion at the time.

            But lately, I’ve been thinking about that one nasty little review I authored years ago. It’s haunted me a little like a bad smell, a tiny bit of bad karma I’ve left floating out there. No, I’m not naming the book here. I still don’t like it. I still think it was over-hyped. But I don’t think the author deserved my scathing little abuse of writerly power, or my insensitivity.

            Like everybody, I’ve received my share of reviews in my life.  From the time we’re five, we all get grades—our first formal reviews. I’ve received performance reviews from bosses and been asked to complete “self assessments” in that process known as the dreaded 360-degree review.  Yipes.  Always hated doing those. Oh how I don’t miss corporate life. I’ve delivered one or another kind of training for the past thirty years, so I’ve gotten my share of participant evaluations, mostly pretty good ones, I’m happy to say. Heck, every time I cook a meal for my family I get a review. “Not my favorite,” my husband said, oh-so-gently after a recent experiment with a new crockpot recipe that took hours to prepare.  I had to agree. But I’d have been much harsher in my review; the dish was dreck!  So, see, we all get our share of reviews in every day life, good, bad and ugly. 

            Recently I’ve learned first-hand that when you publish a book and post it on Amazon, you’re inviting a whole new layer of scrutiny.  My transition from book reviewer to reviewed author has been an education. Unlike those performance evaluations or family meal reviews, Amazon ratings are posted right out there for the whole world to see. It already feels a little like getting naked in public to put a book out there, but to have it reviewed publicly is a whole new sensation of vulnerability.

            Before I joined writing groups, got to know other published authors, and published a book myself, I never really thought about the author reading the reviews of her own book. I know it’s ridiculous I didn’t think of this, but truly, I didn’t. I didn’t think that somebody who’d been on Oprah would read my puny review. I’m just one little reader and she hangs out with Oprah, after all. But now that my book is out there, I read the new reviews each day and I figure other authors must do this too. We’re all vulnerable. We’ve all taken a risk to expose our hearts, our ideas, and the product of our hard work out there for all to see. I’m one who welcomes critique, but nobody likes to get slammed.

            Before my author-ly perspective, when I started writing reviews, I kept the 5-star reviews for those books that truly blew my socks off and that I recognized as great art.  At first, 5-stars were reserved for books like East of Eden and The Kite Runner and Bastard out of Carolina. These are real literature, right? On one hand I had the “If you don’t have anything nice to say…” and on the other, I had my idea of literary integrity.  Consequently, I gave a lot of 4-star reviews to books I loved, but couldn’t quite classify as literature.  (Please read the word literature with an English accent and with four distinct syllables and the pronunciation of extra t’s for emphasis.  Lit-ter-at-toor. In this context I mean it to sound just that lofty.) I mean, how could I rate Christopher Moore’s Dirty Jobs on the same level as Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides?  I loved Dirty Jobs.  It was funny, unique, and such a fresh voice it made me want to cry.  But how could I rate a funny, fantasy sci-fi book about a modern-day soul merchant to those other pieces of lit-ter-at-toor?

            I always wish we had the option of half-stars, and I’d have given Dirty Jobs 4-and-a-half stars. But neither Goodreads nor Amazon will allow these. If they did, I’d probably want the option of quarter-stars anyway. That’s probably why they don’t give fractions as options.  Yup, 4-and-three-quarter stars. I like it.

            What I really wish is that we could give an X-rating to a book.  No, I’m not talking about pornography, just an X so that we don’t have to give ratings at all, but can just make comments as in, “I read this, and here’s what I’ve got to say about  it.” I’d feel a whole lot more comfortable if I could make a comment without ascribing a star rating. Then I could recommend, but not rate. I could write, Fun Book or Great writing or Beautifully written, but a little tough to follow without comparing the book to any other book. Note to Amazon: It would be nice to be able to comment without offering a rating, even if it doesn’t help you on your metrics.

            As I got to know more authors I got an education about what it really takes to write, edit, and publish a book.  Whether it’s a romance, some sci-fi, a cozy mystery, a self-revealing memoir, a bit of fluffy chick-lit that’s just dang fun to read, or a piece of great literary fiction, I started to really appreciate the art of the craft and the craft of the art.  Sure, there are junk books that people just slam out there. There’s some dreck, to be sure. Truthfully, I don’t get past fifty pages of these. I have a 100-page rule and a 50-page rule.  A well-written book gets 100 pages to engage me, but if I’m still confused or bored after 100 pages, I close it up and move on.  Life’s short and it might be a good book, but it’s not for me—or at least it’s not for me right now. I might come back to it when the mood suits.  A poorly written book gets 50 pages.  Every author deserves 50 pages just for the effort, but if the writing hasn’t improved and it’s still really annoying me on page 50, I’m done.  Again, life’s too short. But whether it’s genre fiction or high-brow lit-ter-at-toor, I’ve started thinking differently about the ratings I give for books. 

 

            In recent years I’ve started evaluating each book on the merits of what it’s trying to be.  This is true whether the book is a bestseller, a classic, or if the author is a dear friend of mine—these are especially dicey review waters when you know the author. Whether it’s a beach read or a profound literary work, I recognize each work on its own scale.  No longer is To Kill a Mockingbird the standard-bearer for my 5-star reviews.  I mean really, how many books would measure up? Instead, I offer ratings for each book on the basis of what it is, not as measured by some extreme measure of perfection.  Here are the questions I ask myself:

  • Did I enjoy reading this book?
  • Did it entertain me? Enlighten me? Inspire me? Educate me? Broaden my perspective? Any of these is good!
  • Is it well written?
  • Is it original?
  • Do the characters and the story ring true?
  • Did the story or the characters linger with me between readings, or after I was finished?
  • Does reading this book make me want to read more books on this subject?
  • Does reading this book make me want to read more by this author?
  • Did the book engage me throughout? Emotionally? Intellectually? Sensually? (Yup, physical sensations count: hunger, anxiety, ahem… arousal)
  • Would I recommend this book?
  • Am I glad to have spent time reading this book?
  • Was I sorry it was over?

 

            The questions above help me look at a book for what it is, not to measure it against Pulitzer Prize winners (which are not always my favorites, by the way). I’m the same with movies.  I went to see Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in “The Heat” a couple of weeks ago. Look, “The Heat” is no “Sophie’s Choice” or “The Godfather”, but then, it’s not trying to be. The characters and the performances were terrific and the dialogue was outrageous and hilarious. It’s got slap-sticky moments—beautifully executed, I might add—contrasted with touching exchanges that are moving and authentic. While the plot itself is always a little predictable in this type of movie, I didn’t care a lick.  It was just fun. I left the movie feeling better than when I went in. 5-stars. I don’t care.  Today, Dirty Jobs would get 5 stars by my measure because many years later, this book still lives in my head, still makes me smile, and still stands out as original. 

            What about my little bit of reviewer’s karma? I think I might have been repaid for that in the form of one rather snarky 2-star review of Fire & Water (the only one I’ve gotten to date, thankfully, though more will come, I’m sure) from someone who titled the review BORING. Ouch. (Even when contrasted with more than 100 positive reviews, this one sticks in the mind.) Then the author of the review admitted that she had only read a few chapters.  Who knows, maybe I didn’t make the 50-page cut, or maybe Fire & Water just wasn’t her kind of book, or maybe she just wasn’t in the mood for it.  But I feel evened up in the karma pool and justly so.  My apologies to the author who received my 2-star review. I failed to remember that a real person was on the other end of what I wrote.

 

            Today I write reviews of books all the time, but I rate them on the basis of how well they achieved what they were trying to be, not how they compare to other books. When I write them, I’m always aware that there’s a writer on the other end and that she worked hard on the book, may or may not have made any money doing it, and is vulnerable to the slings and arrows of reviewers.

            And how, you might ask, would I rate my own book? Damn, we can’t ever escape that 360-review. Okay, here goes. When I use the same questions that I use to evaluate others’ books, Fire & Water is a good read, compelling, suspenseful, interesting, well-developed, complex characters, skilled dialogue, a few typos, a couple of pretty sensual love scenes, and a story that lingers.

            I’d rate it X. 

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