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Why I’m a Better Book Reviewer Than You (or Maybe Not)

Why I'm a Better Book Reviewer Than You Are (or Maybe Not)

I read books. I have opinions. I write reviews. Ergo, my reviews are automatically better than your reviews.

Now, just to be clear that’s a joke. Kind of.

Whenever I finish reading a book, I hop over to Amazon and Goodreads to read the reviews. Doing so sometimes helps me solidify my own opinions or consider alternate viewpoints. It’s also endlessly entertaining, thanks to the inevitable slew of diversity in reader reactions to any one book. One reader’s five-star “best book EVAH!” is another reader’s one-star “six hours of my life down the drain.”

Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, right? Definitely.

But there’s something else going on within this review culture that I find concerning: something I’m going to call “review shaming.”

Maybe You’re Just Not Qualified to Review This Book, Ever Think of That?

Now, I know many of you who read this blog are writers yourself — and writers have their own unique opinions about book reviews — but what I’m talking about is actually the culture of shame that exists among readers, as if some readers don’t have a right to offer an opinion (good or bad) on a book they’ve read.

I read a lot of classics, and I see this problem popping up perhaps more frequently than not amongst their readers. Take James Joyce. If you love him, haters will say you’re “lying” “sycophantic,” and full of “bravado.” If you hate him, you get blasted for “intellectual deficiency,” “moral depravity,” and “cultural illiteracy.”

I can’t count how many reviews I’ve read where the reviewer tentatively offered two stars and then felt the need to apologize for not “getting it.” And probably got blasted in the comments anyway.

Shouldn’t Book Reviews Be About Books — Not Other Readers?

I get it. We’re readers. We’re passionate about books. But do we really want to create a culture where other passionate readers are shamed out of their own authentic reactions?

Please note I’m not talking about a reviewer saying they passionately dislike a book. That’s our prerogative. What is not our prerogative is blasting others as fools, idiots, and worse for their genuine disagreement with that opinion. “I don’t like this book!” should never become “no one should like this book!”

What I’m talking about are mean-spirited reviews that move beyond analysis of the book into condescension of other readers. Here’s one of my personal favorites from a two-star review on one of my own books:

…perfect for bored, insignificant office guys who dream of having a glamorous woman tell them they matter…

So if you’re a guy who liked this book? Sorry! Your opinion (and your life?) just got invalidated. Obviously, you’re boring and insignificant.

I don’t bring this up to sniffle over the fact this reviewer disliked my book (I actually thought it was kinda hilarious). But this is the type of opinion that does nothing to further a positive book review culture. It’s not a critique of the book. It’s a critique of the book’s readership.

A Challenge: #NoMoreReviewShaming

As a writer, I am endlessly grateful when any of my readers takes the time express an opinion of my books — whether that opinion is positive or negative (although, yeah, I admit I like the positive ones better). I am most grateful, however, when those opinions are respectful of my other readers.

This doesn’t mean a reviewer needs to bend over backward to accommodate opposing views. Be adamant in your opinions! Don’t apologize for your feelings or reactions to a book, whether you’re a hopeless fangirl or a disappointed critic. There’s no such thing as a “qualified” reviewer. Did you read the book? Did you have an opinion on it? Congratulations, you’re qualified!

I would challenge all of us opiniated readers out there (myself included!) to bear in mind that every other reviewer is just as qualified and just as entitled to view the subjectivity of art from the perspective of their own genuine and heartfelt reactions.

What do you say? How about joining me in the campaign of #NoMoreReviewShaming!

Let’s chat! Have you ever been ashamed to post your opinion about a book — whether positive or negative — because the overwhelming consensus went in the other direction? Tell me in the comments!

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58 Comments

  1. I second that.

  2. Okay, I have a confession.

    Please don’t shoot me. But…I’ve NEVER given a written review for ANY author my entire life. I can hear the gasps. Nope. Hasn’t happened yet. I hear you, I’m adult, why haven’t I taken the time offer a review? No particular reason. Guess I’ve always been the slow poke in the family. Go figure. *sigh* Pretty pathetic huh? These are crimes worthy of stoning I get it. But then again I’ve never read that many books in the first place. Am I absolved of my sins then? Probably not. But WAIT, hold your stones!…I have an announcement.

    For my first review, why not grant the honor to an awesome 5 star book? Sounds most appropriate right? Well, I just so happened to read an awesome 5 star book at the beginning of 2016’s Super Charged Mega reading challenge. Which book do you ask? Drumroll please……………………………………STORMING!!!! a dieselpunk adventure novel by…You guessed it, K.M. Weiland! Congrats KM, you get the honors of my very first author review. Hip, hip, HOORAY! You’re the grand prize winner. You earned it.

    I’ve already given it 5 stars on good reads. But I need to go back and write a review of why it was worthy of the highest rating. Don’t wanna to do it a disservice by not writing one. Cool beans.

    If anyone disagrees with me, so be it. I don’t listen to naysayers anyway. For me, prior to purchasing a book, I look at positive and negative ratings. The 4, 5 star ratings first and then the 1, 2,3 star ratings just for comparison.Just to get an idea of what people like or dislike about it. Negative ratings don’t persuade me that much actually. Especially if it’s a book that I KNOW I want. Heaven and earth could shake, rattle and roll, and I’d still buy it. Neither am I swayed that much by positive ratings. If the book sounds good or interesting enough, I’ll download a sample to get a taste for it. If it doesn’t agree with me for some reason? Delete. But if it soothes the taste buds? Then I’ll make the purchase and place it my kindle kitchen for consumption.

    I like the idea about posting reviews on your own blog except for one reason. Mega sites like Good reads or Amazon are so public, that if an authors flock starts to get harassed, or shamed then it becomes a a major problem. Someone ought to be responsible for moderating unnecessary negative comments unrelated to the book. Anyways, I don’t wan’t to give too much glory to the shamers. Life goes on.

    Adios!

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      First of all, no shame at all in never reviewing or not wanting to review a book. It’s true that authors covet (*picture Silas Marner here*) reviews, because they’re so valuable in their marketing efforts. But I’ve never liked this angle that sometimes comes across that readers *owe* authors book reviews. That’s baloney. If they’re kind of enough to spend the time to review a book, that makes them super-awesome. But they already bought and read the book. If they owed the author anything in the first place, they certainly don’t after that.

      Second of all: THANK YOU! Not only am I doing a happy dance that you would see fit to give Storming five stars, but I truly do appreciate the review. I crown thee super-awesome!

  3. Michael Ryan says:

    Sorry Katie that my comment was so curt. I should make a rule along the lines that I never comment on anything for 24 hours after discovering a plot hole in my own WIP.

  4. To be honest, I am not one to read many reviews on amazon, and for the exact reason you outline here. I don’t want to be swayed one way or the other in my opinion. I choose books from the sample, or flicking through pages. I leave reviews if I really enjoy the book.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Yes, I very rarely *read* reviews before reading the book. I’ll look at the star averages and maybe, if I’m really uncertain, skim the low-star reviews to see if any of my peeves pop out. But I usually buy books based on recommendations from people I know and whether or not the writer’s voice on the first page pops.

  5. I’ve always substituted the word “relationship” for the word “love.” It might be closer to what is meant… Then again, what’s a relationship?!

  6. Chessi Gunter says:

    I don’t read book reviews that much but I have seen a similar case on someones blog. One commentator wrote an enraged response because he didn’t like the blogger’s opinions (which were obviously not supposed to be taken literally). The interesting part was the way the other people reacted. Nobody said anything about it in the comments after his but went on to tell the writer they liked his post and let the writer sort it out himself. It was very effective 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      With a few exceptions where something absolutely needs to be dealt with, I think the best response to haters is silence. If you don’t engage, the whole thing just runs out of oxygen.

  7. I am fortunate not to have been targeted on a book review, but I certainly have seen cases like the ones you mentioned. I agree, we should agree to disagree – politely, with respect.

    I was dismayed with a writer’s group on Goodreads. They were so hateful, I commented on the need for respect. I was told I was too sensitive, and was probably in the wrong place. The group advocated anything goes in a review, no matter how hateful or vulgar the attack, stating that kind of showed honesty. Really? I agreed with the poster, I was definitely in the wrong place and withdrew my membership. In fact, I have shied away from Goodreads since then.

    Strong opinions are one thing, but promoting anger, hate, and vulgarity in a public book review on an author’s page, is not, nor ever will be, acceptable in my humble opinion. So, I heartily jump on your bandwagon. I think we can express our opinions without hate speech and vulgarity. My one star reviewer didn’t tear me apart, or any other readers. The reviewer simply said how much he/she disliked the book. And that’s fine. As you said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that includes books as well as fine art.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      I’ve never had any kind of a negative experience on Goodreads–as either an author or a reader. But there are lots of horror stories going around, not just about ungoverned behavior, but about deliberate intentions to gang up on and bully other members. It’s a crying shame.

  8. Agreed.

  9. Couldn’t agree more. It should be about the book, the whole book and nothing but the book.

  10. I recognize that my book reviews say more about me than they do about the books I review. My reviews might best be described as a breed of Gonzo journalism; I recognize my subjectivity and play it up. Anyone who follows my blog knows I devote as much time to my trip to the bookstore or the library as I do about the contents of the books I find and take home, that I compare and contrast one book with another I read over the course of my reading career. My only concern when I compose a review is whether my review will entertain and potentially enlighten my reader, not whether a reader will conclude I’m qualified to critique such a book.

    If I particularly enjoyed a book, I further hope my review will encourage the reader to check out that book. Beyond that, I try to offer up a slant I haven’t found elsewhere. After all, as you allude to, hundreds of reviewers have something to say about a given book. Why read my comments as opposed to hundreds of others? Because they’re mine. That is, hopefully no one else sounds quite like me or offers quite the same impressions. Sure, I have specific tastes but (in my view) my specific demands as to the quality of the writing, for example, mean a critique (hopefully) unlike others. Though, granted, that’s for the readers to decide.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      From the sounds of it, your reviews are awesome! I love reading reviews that really highlight the reviewer’s personality.

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