The dreaded one-star book review

This morning I posted my review of Dr. Jeffrey Anderson’s Second Genesis. This was not a book that I enjoyed, and it’s very memorable for being only the fourth item I’ve reviewed—out of more than 500—to which I’ve applied a rating of one out of five.

It’s interesting that authors and fans seem to think that reviewers take great pleasure in cutting down other people’s work, when in fact I’ve found the opposite to largely be true. I’ve seen many people be soft in their ratings because they’re afraid to hurt the author’s feelings or they’re afraid someone will get angry at them for not liking the work; it’s easier to be liked for being a nice person, after all. I think hard before I give something a low rating, certainly, and I always feel a mild sense of dread when I post such a review—I know someone is going to give me hell for it, whether it’s the author or a fan, friend or relative. I often catch hell just for giving something a less-than-perfect review, after all, particularly if it’s a popular book.

This attitude mystifies me. It presupposes that there is such a thing as a ‘perfect’ book or writer, with which one cannot find fault; since I believe that the skill of writing is something that a writer is always developing or perfecting, I cannot agree with this. If this were true, there would be almost no need for editors in the book business, as publishing houses could simply take perfect manuscripts from these perfect writers and publish them as-is.

This attitude also presupposes that there is a set definition or set of standards by which we could identify the perfect book. As people seem so much more willing to accept when it comes to the visual arts, artistic works are something we judge and interpret through our own internal viewpoints. No two people will see the same painting or the same book in the exact same way. We all have different tastes; for instance, I have no interest in Westerns, and I know plenty of people who don’t want to read horror while I love a good fright. I’d likely find a supposedly good Western to be boring, and someone else might find my idea of a good horror novel to be pointless or offensive. This should make it obvious from the get-go that there’s no perfect book, no one set of standards by which to judge books, and no one viewpoint about a book which will be ‘correct’.

I read some commentary over at the book/daddy blog on a book by Gail Poole, and the subject was, rather than ‘objective’ reviews, fair reviews. This is an argument I’ve had with people before, always those same people who are berating me for finding some fault with a book they love. These people argue that it’s entirely possible to write a completely objective book review—one that leaves out entirely any biases or feelings on the part of the reader.

I wholeheartedly disagree. I believe it’s entirely possible to write a fair review, but not an objective one. We are, after all, human beings. We can no more turn off our emotional reactions to a piece of art than we can throw a switch and stop loving or hating a person. Nor can we prevent those reactions from coloring how we see and judge that work. However, we can certainly be open and honest about our biases, and provide enough information when writing a review that even those who don’t see things the way we do are capable of gleaning useful information from our reviews.

To me, there is little better compliment with respect to my reviewing than to have someone tell me they can tell by my effusive review of something that I loved that they wouldn’t enjoy it, or to see someone purchase an item based on my having panned it. Both scenarios tell me that I’m doing my job—that I’m providing enough information in my review to help someone else make her own choice based on her own preferences.

I started reviewing on a whim in 1998, and oddly, it wasn’t until recently that I realized with a start that all my other writing endeavors and publications simply aren’t what I want to pursue; reviewing is where my passion lies. This was a somewhat difficult realization, as many writers sneer at reviewers as being somehow less than “real” writers. I’ve been told wonderful things about those pieces of fiction I’ve had published, and that feels great, but it doesn’t hold my interest the way reviewing does.

The one thing that’s very important to me, however, if I’m to do so much reviewing, is that I always be honest in my opinions. I won’t slam a book just because others think it’s cruddy. Likewise, I won’t praise a book just because people rake me over the coals for not liking it (my favorite is the person who told me I must have lost my lover to an SF author—apparently disliking one book makes me jealous and spiteful). I tell people not to send us review copies unless they’re willing to risk that the review won’t be positive, and I mean it. To be honest, I find it very uncomfortable letting someone know I’ve posted the review of their book when it’s a less-than-complimentary review, because I know what it’s like to get both good and bad reviews of your work and how difficult that can be. But I can’t let that stop me from saying what I think, or how could anyone trust the reviews I write? If reviewers can’t be honest then they might as well not review at all—their words would be little different from the publishers’ own press releases.

Anyway, that’s my rant for today, brought on by the (luckily!) unusual event of giving a book such a low rating.

Oh, I almost forgot. The real irony of getting berated for those low ratings? I’ve also been accused of being a softy for giving out so few of them. *sigh*


Books are a girl’s best friend

Posted in News & Musings, Writing
2 comments on “The dreaded one-star book review
  1. This is an excellent post! I agree, objective reivews are impossible and the reviewer’s emotional response to something is an important part of the review.

  2. heather says:

    Thank you! I certainly do my best to be fair in a review, but I think I’d be doing a disservice to readers to pretend I could be objective, and I’m very wary of reviewers who think they can be.

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