A recent (and somewhat contentious) discussion on what “belongs” in a book review prompted me to consider the question at a deeper level. I’ve been reviewing books for a few years, and it’s something I genuinely enjoy doing. I love to read, and my reviews at this point are split 50/50 between what I’ve bought and free review copies provided by authors/publishers.
As an author, I can understand wanting to receive good reviews. This is especially true for people who are self-published or go through a small press. We don’t get the advantage of being picked up for review by the New York Times unless our work manages to viral. It’s even more true for niche writers, such as those of us writing LGBTQ+ literature.
That said, there are a few misconceptions people have about what it’s like to be a reviewer. So I’m going to clear up some things.
1. Reviews are not for the author.
That should be obvious, right? I mean, sometimes they are. Uncle Bob writes a cookbook of his favorite chili recipes, or Grandma Jane writes a mystery-thriller with a crime-solving horse, and every family member might get a copy and review it on Goodreads. But most reviews are not personal gifts (or punishments) for the author. The purpose is to tell the world what the reviewer thought of it so they can decide whether or not to buy it themselves.
2. Reviews are not personal.
Even if someone thought a book was complete horseshit, chances are good they don’t know the author. Part of that is Amazon’s rules. You can’t review books for people you know, although how they determine your level of “knowing” someone is debatable.
I have actually tried to write a review with the author in mind. The person is my “author crush” (you know, the one who writes in your genre who you’d like to be when you grow up). I read a book and tried very, very hard to make it personal, and yet I still had to put in something for readers. I have many people following me on Goodreads expressly for my reviews, and it seemed unfair not to make sure they didn’t one-click just because I loved it.
3. Reviews are personal opinions. Yes, all of them.
Even if a book is critiquing only the literary style, the plot, and the character development, it is still the reviewer’s own opinion whether or not the author did it well. This is true regardless of whether the author is Uncle Bob, Grandma Jane, or Neighbor Joe or if it’s J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or Ernest Hemingway. If you doubt this, go look at the reviews for any author published with a Big Five house or any book considered classic literature. You will find people who simply use the space to say they hated it or it was the best thing since sliced bread, but you’ll also find people who authoritatively critique the so-called objective elements. Reviews are opinions, but some people are better at expressing them than others. And some people just want a good story and don’t care if you are a minimalist (Hemingway) or love your adverbs (Rowling). What makes a book good or not is subjective and depends on a whole lot of factors.
I found that The Handmaid’s Tale was a fantastic story but painful to read because it was not well edited. It wasn’t a deal-breaker, but I struggled. I don’t like to have to work that hard to enjoy something, and that would have factored into my review if I’d posted it. Whereas another reader might not have minded or even noticed the issues. I cried my way through Elizabeth Berg’s The Art of Mending because the characters were so similar to people I knew. I read them as being well-written because I could sense them so well. Another reader said they hated that book because the characterization was bland. Which of us was correct?
4. Reviewers have the right to determine for themselves their criteria.
Because books and reading are both personal and communal experiences, there’s no set of rules to determine precisely what makes a book good. There are some common elements, but even those are subjective. Some readers have a set of things they look for as marks of a good example of the book’s genre. Others are looking primarily for entertainment. Neither of those is better than another. Personally, I’m looking for a book that both entertains me and speaks to me as a person striving for social justice. Anything that takes a step backwards is probably going to get a content note from me. If a book features a black character but I end up feeling like I’d be embarrassed to give it to my black friends to read, it’s not getting a good rating. There might be a few people in my circle who would love it anyway, but I’m more concerned with the wider implications. I recently gave a high rating to a book which had less than spectacular writing style but addressed a social issue that’s relatively uncommon in fiction. Other people were much more bothered by the author’s style than I was, and I don’t have a problem with that. After all, what good is a book that has an important message but readers find irritating to read? It’s okay for both of those things to exist simultaneously. In fact, it’s ideal—it gives potential readers a chance to understand more about the book and make their own decision.
5. Reviews for websites are generally not professional.
The definition of professional is “paid.” So if reviewers for a given website are not receiving payment for their content, they are not professional reviewers. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be good at what they do, but you can’t expect the same level of writing from a website called “Friends Love Books” as from the NY Times. That said, you should be able to expect higher quality writing from a book blog/website than from someone who happens to have picked up the book for fun and decided to leave a review. If you’re mostly getting poorly written reviews which don’t tell you anything about why the book is or isn’t good, you have the right to avoid sending things to that website for review.
6. Not all reviews come from websites.
People read stuff. They like it or they don’t. Sometimes they post their reviews. Positive reviews might be a way to find like-minded readers for discussion. A lot of people who write negative reviews do it because they’re venting or want to be validated by other readers. Is it sometimes annoying? Yes. But we’re not hall monitors of the internet, and we can’t control what other people think or type. Best to ignore it and scroll on past, no matter how hard it is not to look.
7. No one complains about positive reviews.
In all the time I’ve been reviewing, I have never once seen someone gripe that a favorable review was unprofessional, biased, or otherwise a bad thing. The most I’ve seen is people wishing that readers wouldn’t leave only a star rating, but they say the same regardless of the number of stars. Other than that, most authors are thrilled by positive reviews. You could write absolute nonsense and no one would gripe that it’s badly written tripe. The second your star rating dips below a 3, it becomes an issue of “bias.” Perhaps rethink this.
8. The power of a reviewer vs. an author is not a zero-sum game.
An author’s career does not rest on a single 1-star review from Judy’s Favorite Reads that calls the book overly sentimental trash. Both authors and reviewers have the power to destroy each other, especially if the reviewer is also an author. The recent episodes with people attempting to reveal an author’s personal details or the times authors have gone shark-attack on reviewers for negative feedback are proof. It’s unnecessary to create that much drama just because someone didn’t like your alien cowboy tentacle erotica. Equally bad is for a reviewer to personally attack an author because they didn’t like some fussy detail. You don’t launch a Twitter battle because you have an overly developed sense of righteousness. It’s not the review that harms; it’s the vicious actions people take apart from it. We may all hate Amazon’s ever-changing review policies, and they certainly need some nuance, but they do help in some of these situations.
9. Readers have the right to not like something and say so.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “Well, why did you read it if you didn’t like it?” Sometimes I finish it because I was asked to. Sometimes I think it’s going to be the type of thing I like, only to discover it contains material I find offensive later in the story. I have a list on my blog and on my page for the site I review for, and I make it clear what I will and won’t take. I’ve had authors lie to me outright or by-pass my rules because they think theirs is an exception. I’ve also had times when the content is what I was willing to take, but it turns out the author and I don’t define it the same way. I usually finish a book because I want to give it a fair chance. For example, I don’t read books marketed as “gay for you.” But I’ve read books which looked like they were going that direction and ended up being fantastic by the end. A book can’t always be evaluated based on the first couple of chapters.
10. It takes a long time to craft a good review.
I spend anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours on a review post, depending on the length of the book and the genre. A romantic comedy short story takes much less time to review than a literary story of the same length. This isn’t because the literary work is “objectively better” or even because I like one genre more than the other. I see them as being entirely different things which I will evaluate based on many factors, and I’m not comparing the two when I read or when I review. This is why I can give Harry Potter (any of them) the exact same star rating as The Old Man and the Sea. I’m not evaluating poor Harry as a work of high literature; I’m viewing those books as engaging children’s/young adult books.
Ultimately, the question of what “belongs” in a review is the wrong thing to be asking. It’s not my job as an author to cater to reviewers (I’ve tried that; the experiment did not go well). Nor is it my job as a reviewer to stroke an author’s ego (that also ends badly the first time you hate one of their books). In both cases, it’s only my job to do the best I can with the tools at my disposal and hope someone gets something out of my work.