Book Reviews and How to Access Their Value

First, anyone can dislike anything for any reason.  A person might not like the color of my car, how I comb my hair, or the way I eat French-onion soup.  It happens.  Would any Newsletter subscriber lose sleep if another person didn’t like your habits pertaining to the three areas I just mentioned?  Is a book review really any more personal?  But we do take a negative response to what we write more acutely primarily because the rebuke can be seen to not only pertain to the writing but to the author’s intellect as well. How ridiculous.
The reason I say “hanging onto” a bad review is silly is because it’s based on another person’s opinion.  Again, it’s opinion and not fact.  If we asked ten people on a perfectly clear day to advance how nice the weather was, I guarantee everyone reading this Newsletter that someone would say it was too hot or too dry or it would be nice if there were some clouds in the sky because of that person’s susceptibility to sunburn. 
Luckily for all of us, the vast majority of readers evaluate a book on its merits related to the quality of the story.  If a character doesn’t end up pleasing a reader, or if the hope was for a different ending, most folks are good enough to consider the whole of the narrative and not dis the book entirely because of a personal preference.  I didn’t like it when Old Yeller died, but I certainly didn’t consider the tale to be a lousy story.  I hoped that Meggie and the priest would marry in THE THORN BIRDS.  It didn’t happen, yet this is in my top-ten of all-time favorites.  Some people wanted to see Lieutenant Henry’s wife survive in A FAREWELL TO ARMS (including me) and Rhett marry Scarlett (I’ve never been in that camp).  Regardless of these perceived shortcomings by some readers, each of these books did pretty well–as written.   

Where I’m going with all of this is that THE THORN BIRDS, GONE WITH THE WIND, and A FAREWELL TO ARMS have all received one-star ratings on Amazon, should we want to use this company’s review mechanism as a model for analyzing ratings.  I would like any subscriber who has ever received a poor review to go on Amazon and look at the first one-star review for each book–and then look at the reviewer’s history.   Here is a “highlight” for each title:

For THE THORN BIRDS, there’s this:  “The book was listed as good condition and I wouldn’t call it good. The binding is worn and torn and there is writing in it with a black sharpie.”  Okey-dokey.   I guess this means it’s a horrible read.
For GONE WITH THE WIND, a one-star review reads in part:  “I cannot believe how overtly racist this book is considering it is supposed to be a classic piece of literature and even won the Pulitzer Prize.”  If we look at this individual’s past history, the reviews begin with a programmable pressure cooker, followed closely by an assessment of Old Wisconsin Beef Snacks 6-inch, 40-ounce package, and ends with a Bluegrass Songbook by someone named Peter Wernick (who is told by this reviewer to stick to the banjo).  Not one other review on this person’s log was for another novel.

As for A FAREWELL TO ARMS, a one-star reviewer wrote:  “I give the Kindle version of this book 1 star — less if I could.  Hemingway’s book definitely rates at least 5 stars.”  That, for me, said it all:  The story is great but the book’s presentation vehicle, the e-reader, was not desirable for some reason, so the narrative gets one star.  I’m missing something here, but isn’t the review for the story?

In fairness, the GONE WITH THE WIND reviewer has every right to consider the book racist, the same as those who find TOM SAWYER and HUCKLEBERRY FINN offensive.  This is no different from Joseph Conrad’s THE NIGGER OF THE NARCISSUS, a title I cringe at every time I cite the work.  However, while this is a despicable title, the name of the book has zero to do with the brilliant metaphorical references within.  But does racism play into the brilliance of Ms. Mitchell’s writing to the extent that the narrative would be given one star?  This is beyond me.

And in what vein should a potential reader consider A FAREWELL TO ARMS since a reviewer gave it one star because of not liking the e-format in which it was presented?  Does this make the story lousy, as well?  Likewise, does a worn binding make THE THORN BIRDS a horrible story?  Both issues have as much to do with the story as Old Wisconsin Beef Snacks, which I’m going to rush right out to buy as soon as I finish typing this Newsletter.  If I can just find the 6-inch 40 ounce packs, I’ll be in five-star heaven.  Why Amazon doesn’t separate its book reviews from what its customers think of Blue Bell Mayonnaise and Pampers is beyond me.

Whenever I’m asked to review a previously published work, I always go to the one stars first.  The reason is that this enables me to legitimately see if there is a pattern to the dislike.  And while I look at everything written about the book and then go to the two-stars and do the same, if there is no specific area of concern, this provides me with a frame of reference.  However, each negative review that pertains to the book and not the mustard stains on the cover gives me something to consider when analyzing the work as a whole, since the lay reader is of course the most crucial component to satisfy.  Seriously, what else really matters?
Again, when I read the one- and two-star reviews, I look for what I refer to as “reviewer patterns,” as this enables me to make an assessment of the reviewers’ credibility.  Recently, while reviewing a client’s previous material, I found a two-star review with the word “treacle” in it, implying that the book was maudlin.  This erudite reviewer apparently had won a contest for learning the word, as “treacle” appeared in ten of this chaps dozen or so book reviews, of which each work received his two-star thumping.

Another sage gave a client of mine a one-star review for a book that has been enormously popular, and upon perusing this literary pundit’s “backlist,” I noticed that everyone he reviewed received a single star and the declaration that each respective work was decidedly “liberal,” yet not one word was provided about any story’s actual content.

To be sure, there are books worthy of one-star reviews; I’ve probably written a few.  And if a reviewer cites a poor storyline, contrived occurrences, weak transitioning, a lack of continuity–there are these as well as a host of what I’ll refer to as “substantiated reasons” for legitimately panning a story.  But I place “smaller print than anticipated,” “a dogeared cover,” or that the author is “a relative of a member of the ACLU,” as not valid reasons to give a book a one-star rating.
It also must be understood that there are a sorry group of folks who have no life except to try to make other people miserable.  These are the same misfits who like to rile Internet chat room participants by taking an opposite view for no reason other than to cause someone strife.  There are documented cases of parents being told that a child of theirs has died, only to learn it was a hoax.  It has to be understood that there are those out there who will do anything for attention, and this means anything–with no concern for the harm their actions might bring to others.
Then there’s the person who thinks he or she is really smart and has wisdom that must be shared.  What better place than in the world of literature?  And what could possibly be superior to this super-genius’s book review?  It’s laughable, and should be treated as such.  The oldest advice continues to hold up:  Don’t get too excited about a good review, and by the same token don’t get depressed about a bad one.  Yes, it hurts.  But it’s just one person’s opinion, and that individual might well fall within the category of some of the malcontents I’ve detailed in this section.

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