The dilemma of reviews

Clipped from Goodreads

Clipped from Goodreads

I read a book recently that I had an awful time reviewing. I couldn’t even give it a rating, and that brought me to the dilemma of ratings and reviews in the current era. I’ve seen complaints about how overwhelmingly positive book ratings are these days (and it doesn’t take long after that to see some truly awful reviews, so go fig) and the theory is that people are so oversensitive they’re afraid of saying anything negative and making someone feel bad. (Again – the trolls have no such worries. Just another way our society has become polarized toward two extremes.)

I kind of scoffed at this idea until I found myself doing it. It wasn’t that I didn’t like this book. It was a perfectly enjoyable tie-in to a major media property. It was fun. I’m just not sure it was good.

Then I had to realize that I do this all the time: being more or less positive and avoiding any overly critical comments. If you look at my Goodreads page (and do the minimal sleuthing required to determine which book I’m discussing here), you’ll see I mostly give 4-star reviews. That seems fair to me, as well as accurate. I generally like most things I read. If I don’t like them, I put the book down after a chapter or two. If I mostly liked it but there were some things that didn’t sit well with me, I give three stars. The rare book that hits me at just the right time to knock me off my feet gets five stars, and there are very few of those on the list. But I feel that the variance lies in me, not the book.

I posted about this before – when people have an emotional reaction to a book and then they blame (or praise) the book for their emotions, they’re making a mistake. The emotions are theirs, not the author’s. As authors, of course, we often try to elicit emotional responses, and our ability to do so can be a measure of our writing skill. But that’s only half the story. The other half comes from the reader, it’s something an author can’t predict or control, and those emotions belong to the reader alone.

So my ratings can only partly be an evaluation of the book itself. I figure if an author did the job right, it’s worth 4 stars. If I was particularly impressed or meh about it, I’ll go up or down a star, but that’s more a description of my reaction than of the book. I don’t bother giving one or two stars because I don’t feel the need to trash a book just because I didn’t like it, just because it wasn’t the book for me.

But I had no idea what to do with this book I so recently read. There were a few technical flaws which I have to attribute to a rushed author and editors, probably with harsh deadlines set by the media company. The book was written for a YA audience and with a teen girl protagonist, so it came with the usual tropes: angst, young love, and a level of introspection which is obsessive and shallow at the same time. It had a structure that felt a little forced at times, but made sense in the context of the property it’s a part of. None of this is really my thing but it all makes sense, given what it is. So did I like it or not? Do I rate its inherent attributes against it or accept them as part of the package, thereby overrating it? And do I really want to go on record being negative toward a fellow professional?

This is the real problem with ratings and reviews today. Social media is less about communication and more about creating and reinforcing an identity. If you want people to think you’re nice, you’re going to say nice things on your social media pages and inflate your book ratings on Goodreads. If you want to craft a different persona, you’ll be a clever and smart-mouthed jerk. It’s a sea change from the history of reviewing, at least in books, with mostly anonymous professional reviewers writing mostly neutral evaluations, and the change has made it very hard to target the line between being courteous and being honest, between being critical but fair and sounding unnecessarily harsh.

I’m not sure what to suggest. We’re not going to put the internet back in the box, and it will take a long time for this social polarization between rudeness and hypersensitivity to come back in a calmer direction. But we could think about what we’re really saying before we write a review, and maybe we could decide, once in a while, that we don’t really need to tell the world all our opinions on everything.

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