I’ve been reading a few discussions about book reviews and how author and reader behaviors are shaping the content, quality, and bias of reviews. And I’ve come to two basic conclusions for why I find most review sections of sites like Amazon or Goodreads unreliable: increased reader-author interaction facilitating the view that anything “bad” should be suppressed and the belief that “good” reviews is a factor in driving sales.
I am really annoyed when people use the phrase “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” as an excuse to suppress bad reviews. That phrase is a call for civil discourse when people mistake it as a ban for critical discourse. Civility and criticism are not mutually exclusive. I know writers pour all their heart and soul into their literary creations, but at the end of the day, the book is not the author or vice versa. So when someone says a book is bad, the reviewer is not saying that the author is a bad person. They’re talking about the book only. The only proper response from the author is to write another, better book. Lashing out at the reviewer will only make the author look like someone who cannot learn and move on from his/her mistakes. (Conversely, a book can be great but the author is morally corrupt. Both author and reader must learn to separate the art from the artist.)
If a reviewer crosses the line from criticizing a book to trashing the author personally, I still don’t think the author should engage. Any retaliation by the author is going to look bad on the author rather than the reviewer for lack of professionalism. The majority of reviewers review as a hobby and so aren’t–and should not–be held to the same standard. Most people will realize that the lack of civility in the “review” itself is more a problem on the reviewer’s side rather than the author. So just leave it and let the reviewer discredit themselves by their own words.
One might argue that there’s a blurry line with reviews that criticize a book using language deemed inappropriate for those who consider certain words taboo. I think this is a case where one must be extremely careful to take the context into account. Saying that a character is an asshole is NOT saying that the author is one. And for some people, it’s simply a style of speaking rather than being derogatory.
As for the second point, I suspect that only soliciting positive reviews to drive up sales is a bad strategy. If every book had five star reviews, all reviews would become worthless. Also, when people discover that the book isn’t as great as what those reviews say, people aren’t going to buy your next book despite the high sales of the first one. With no regular readers, the author is just going to be a flash in the pan.
Books are the bailiwick for free thought and discourse. So I find it really troubling when some authors try to direct and shape the resulting discourse (i.e. the reviews) in order to make a quick buck or feed their egos. Of course writing is a business as well as an art, but that is absolutely no excuse to resort to unethical practices.
Personally, I find the low rated reviews the most helpful as the observed flaws reveal far more about the book than an unqualified fangirl squee. A critical review is often a thoughtful review. On the other hand, I am suspicious of all positive or all negative reviews for one book as it is a possible indicator of someone trying to game the system.
I rarely write book reviews these days, but when I do, I tend towards a more critical analysis. I avoid giving stars or grades. It’s not so much that I like or dislike a book but why. I want to examine why something works or doesn’t work in the book and try to interpret the text to figure out what the author is trying to say with the story. And if an author (or crazed fan club) comes along trying to browbeat me into taking down what they perceive to be a “bad” review? I’d just shrug and keep on going. It’s my opinion. And no one has the right to dictate what it should be.