Discussion: Is it ever unfair to write a review?



Is there ever a time when it’s just not fair to review something?

Here’s what I mean:

Let’s say you’re reading a book in a particular genre. And it’s a genre you typically never read. What’s more, it’s a genre that you don’t particularly like. For whatever reason, you read the book anyway… and — big surprise — you don’t like it.

Do you write a negative review talking about how much you disliked the book? Or do you just put it down, accept that it was never meant to be, and move on?

Of course, you may be wondering, why even start the book in the first place?

Well, there could be plenty of reasons. Maybe a friend has urged you to read a favorite book… or you stumble across something at the library that catches your eye… or you see the author on a TV talk show and think she sounds interesting.

For me, I’m having this dilemma at the moment thanks to my beloved book group. (Hi guys!) Our monthly book picks cover a lot of different topics, although we do tend to veer toward historical fiction on a regular basis. That’s not all, though — we’ve also done historical non-fiction, thrillers, and contemporary drama, to name but a few.

Our current book — recommended by one of our members — is a romance/chick lit kind of book, which really, really isn’t my thing. Still, everyone else was enthusiastic, so I figured I’d give it a try. Five chapters in, I’m just not digging it, but I don’t want to sit out the discussion, so I guess I’ll do my best to finish it. And who knows, I may end up liking it.

(Doubtful, but why pre-judge?)

Okay, assuming I finish the book and still feel unimpressed, should I review it? On the one hand, it seems fair for me to say, basically:

This book did not appeal to me, and here’s why.

On the other hand, it doesn’t seem fair for me to say:

This is a terrible book, and no one should read it.

(Granted, that’s not something I’d typically say in a review, but let’s go with it for now.)

If I don’t like the plot or the characters, but the writing is decent and it seems to be successful within the usual “rules” of the genre, then who am I to say it’s not a good book? All I think I can truly say is that I read a book that didn’t work for me. And perhaps a romance fan might really and truly love it.

(Likewise, if you read a really gory scary horror book even though you almost never read horror and end up hating it, is it fair to say it’s a bad book? Or is it more fair to say that the book scared the bejeezus out of you and was icky and unpleasant, and hey, I hate reading horror, so I didn’t enjoy it at all?)

What do you do when you read a book that, objectively, you can recognize as pretty good for its type, but subjectively, you really don’t enjoy reading?

I’d love to hear some thoughts on this!


The Fault in My Stars (or, why I don’t use a ratings system)

If you’ve read any of my book reviews — well, first of all, thank you!

But as I was saying, if you’ve read my reviews, you’ll notice something missing that seems to be almost standard on book blogs — a ratings system. And that’s a deliberate choice, not just an oversight or poor planning.

I’ve debated adding in a ratings system off and on since I started blogging. And I always come back to the same conclusion — stars or their like just don’t really work for me.

Let’s look at Goodreads: The ratings system on Goodreads does actually have an official set of definitions:

1-star: Did not like it
2-stars: It was ok
3-stars: Liked it
4-stars: Really liked it
5-stars: It was amazing

That’s kind of vague, isn’t it? How do you differentiate between “it was ok” and “liked it”? If all I can say about a book is that I liked it, then that probably means that it was okay. Hmm. *scratching head in befuddlement*

So are the stars meants to be a comparison? A 5-star book should be the best ever, a 3-star book would be average among all books read, and a 1-star book would be the bottom of the barrel. But compared to what? Here’s where I get completely mixed up.

If I read a YA novel by a new writer and I think it was really good, I’ll give it four stars. Fine.

But then what does that mean in terms of well established, truly excellent writers? Is a 4-star debut YA novel equivalent in quality to, say, The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien? Of course not. Yet by the Goodreads ratings scale definitions, I’d give The Two Towers four stars because, while I really liked it, I wouldn’t call it amazing.

And then I fall into the same-author-relativity trap. I love Stephen King, but I love some of his books more than others. My absolute favorites get 5 stars, without a doubt. But when I read a Stephen King book that doesn’t appeal to me as much, do I give it 3 stars because relative to other SK books, I only liked it? Or would I say that in the grand scheme of all books ever, any SK book should be at least 4 or 5 stars simply because even at his less-stellar, he outwrites a good percentage of other writers?

Argh. I’m overthinking things, I know. And on Goodreads, I play along and assign stars. I try to have some level of consistency, and reserve 5-stars only for books that stand out as the best of the best. But below that, it gets murky. I tend to give 4-stars to any book that I like a lot, but wouldn’t consider the very tip-top. Three stars tend to be my “fine” books — you know, the book was fine, but I wouldn’t write home about it or anything. Two-stars are already in the realm of not liking. My two-star books aren’t “okay” (as Goodreads would have us think) — they’re books that I didn’t care for. And one-star? Hated. That’s all, plain and simple. (For the sake of fairness, I don’t give any rating to DNF books, since I don’t have enough information to assess the overall quality — unless I quit because the writing was atrocious, in which case, 1-star!)

How does that relate to what I do here on my blog? It’s the same thing, really. When I read a book, I have so many feels. Did it make me laugh? Did I tear up just a bit? Maybe I gave an unladylike snort over a particularly snarky passage, or I shook my head in bewilderment over some bone-headed plot twist. Did I like the characters but thought their actions were silly? Did I think it was well-written, but something about it just didn’t really appeal to me? Was it a foray into a genre I don’t typically read, and therefore I don’t feel well-equipped to judge its success?

How do I boil all that down to a quantitative rating, whether it’s stars, happy faces, or dancing bears?

Generally speaking, I can’t. I can tell you if I enjoyed reading a book, and if so, what I especially liked about it. I can tell you when I have mixed feelings about a book, and what are the different factors that play into my reaction. If I think some people might enjoy a book, but not others, I’ll say so. And on and on and on. So much goes into reacting to a book, and for me, I need to write it all out.

On the flip side, I do sometimes appreciate it when I’m visiting other book blogs and see a review for a book I’m curious about. Especially if it’s one I still plan to read, I’d rather not know much about it ahead of time, but I do want to know if the blogger liked it or not. So seeing someone else giving a book 5-stars or 3-stars or 1-star is helpful in that case — a quick and easy summary of the person’s opinion that I can get at a glance without reading through the details.

If anything, I could see myself using a report card style of ratings. I think I know what an A+ means, relative to a C or a D-. If I graded the books I read, rather than tried to assign stars, I think I could achieve a greater level of consistency in terms of what the grade means.

Of course, there’s still the Stephen King problem. Is second-tier Stephen King (or Tolkien or Austen or whoever you consider top of the heap) still better than some other writer’s absolutely best work? Is it fair to grade everyone relative to the best? Are there different standards for different genres, different topics, different levels of comedy and tragedy?

I keep coming back to the same old conclusion: For me, as a reviewer, I need words to express my thoughts, not stars. (Or smiley faces. Or dancing bears.) I don’t seem to be capable of assigning a number — which I think of as objective, definite, and purely quantitative — to something that is essentially subjective, personal, and qualitative.

What do you think? As a reviewer, do you like using ratings or do you feel boxed in by them? When you read reviews, do you prefer the written word or to see a grade or star-rating?

Please share your thoughts!

It Was Fine.

How often does this happen to you?

You read a book. And it was fine. And you find you have pretty much nothing to say about it.

That’s me right now. I read a perfectly decent book this week. Nothing particularly irritated me. There were no nonsensical plot developments or characters acting — ummm — out of character.

But also. Nothing really jumped out at me. It held my attention, but never engaged my emotions. Something would happen, and I’d think, “Oh, I see why that happened.” I wasn’t bored… but I was never excited either.

So, yeah. It was fine.

When I love a book, I can (and do) go on and on about all the reasons why. I can pick apart all of the things that made the book special, find lots of quotes to highlight great writing, name the characters who were especially amazing or infuriating or puzzling or inspiring. Believe me, if a book is terrific, I will absolutely say so. Probably at length.

Likewise, if I really dislike a book, I’m not shy about saying so, and saying why. If anything, if all I have are negative comments, I’ll often decide not to write a review at all, since I find I’m a happier person in general when I try to stick to writing about books that make me happy. Unless I feel cheated or misled or manipulated, and then I’ll probably rant about it for a while.

But those middle of the road books? Hard.

I wish the author well, and I hope the book finds its audience. But I can’t say I thought it was amazing, and I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it. On the other hand, I’m sure there are people it’ll appeal to, and I wouldn’t say not to read it either.

It was fine. I read it, I wanted to see what happened, I stuck with it to the end, and it was fine.

What do you do with your “fine” books? Do you write about them anyway? Keep it short and simple? Or just ignore and move on?