An American Editor

August 6, 2012

The Uneducated Reader

I’m not an admirer of anonymous reader reviews at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and other forums where “readers” can anonymously “critique” a book. Occasionally I will look at these so-called reviews, not for information purposes but for their amusement value.

What struck me during a recent perusal of reviews of a book that I think highly of, Shayne Parkinson’s Sentence of Marriage (for my review, see On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet) were two particular reviews. The first review gave the book a 1-star rating, anonymously, of course, with the statement that the reviewer hadn’t yet read the book. The book wasn’t discussed in the review and if the reviewer’s words are taken as true, he/she had yet to read the book but still rated it, giving a rating that was deliberately designed to lower the overall rating of the book. If you didn’t read the book, why rate it? And why give it a 1-star rating?

The second review that caught my eye was one that several other readers found “helpful.” This review raked the book over the coals. The review gave the book a 1-star rating and was titled “Disturbing, sick, just plain bad.” Rather than summarize the review, I reprint it here:

The main character is stupid, for lack of a better word, and her innocence and lack of instinct when it comes to “Jimmy” is unrealistic, she’s 15, not 8, just clearing that up. This is one of the most disturbing, sad books I’ve ever had the misfortune of reading. I only got about 600 pages in before I skipped to the ending to confirm my suspicions; It doesn’t get any better, in fact, it gets worse. I’m not referring to the writing, that was good enough, but the story in general is just depressing and it serves no real purpose that I could find. This is a Warning, this book was just sad, it helps you fall in love with the characters and then it screws them over in the worst possible way, it’s [sic] doesn’t even have the benefit of being a horror story. There’s no suspense, no action, just plan [sic] and clear depression, it kind of made me want to kill myself….and the characters….

The above review was immediately followed by what amounts to another 1-star anonymous review, this one titled “This author is a sadist.”

To me, these reviews illustrate the problem of what I call the uneducated reader. The reviewers are upset because there is no suspense, no action, no Batman coming to the rescue. The reviewers think that 15-year-old girls in 1890s New Zealand were as streetwise as 10-year-old girls in 2012 New York City. The reviewers apparently lack familiarity with either the genre of the book (not all historical fiction is Vikings on a rampage raping and murdering innocents) or the social mores of the time depicted in the setting of the story.

These reviewers are the type of reader that is the bane of authors — the reader who is clueless and draws baseless and unwarranted conclusions and loudly trumpets his or her uninformed opinion on the Internet. More amazing and sad is that other readers claim to find these “reviews” helpful!

A scan of other anonymous 1-star reviews of Parkinson’s Sentence of Marriage convinces me that either these people never read the book or do not understand what they read or have no familiarity whatsoever with history. If they are writing about a book that they actually read, then they certainly read a book that was much different from the one I read. This is not to say that every reader of Sentence of Marriage has to agree that it is a 5-star book. But at least be honest and fair with any criticism.

Complaints about poor editing, for example, which was the subject of several 1-star anonymous reviews, simply isn’t true. You may find the characters standoffish, the story not compelling, or myriad other things wrong that are important to you as a reader, but in this instance, it is not legitimate to complain about the editing, which is excellent.

Although I have focused on the reviews given Parkinson’s book, the problem isn’t limited to her books. As I said before, the problem is giving free rein to anonymous reviewers who are unknowledgeable about the book being reviewed. This is not to suggest that to review 19th century historical fiction one must have a doctorate in 19th century history; rather, it is to suggest that a reader should be familiar enough with the general subject matter and history so as to not make false comparisons and thereby draw incorrect conclusions — or, if you insist on making comparisons, state what the comparators are.

I have often wondered about the need some readers have to “review” a book. It is not that I think if you have nothing good to say you shouldn’t say anything. Some books deserve negative reviews, but when you give one, be constructive, not just negative, and be factual, don’t make up false reasons.

Personally, I think anonymous reviews and reviewers whose identity cannot be verified should not be permitted to post reviews. I also think that negative reviews that are negative simply because of price should not be permitted. I also think that reviews that state upfront that the reviewer hasn’t read the book should be deleted because they unfairly distort a book’s rating.

Reviews serve an important purpose and reviews that are clearly unfounded or that are based on superfluous items, such as pricing, undermine the credibility of the review process. Perhaps this is why I so admire and enjoy the reviews I read in The New York Review of Books. They have credibility in a world that doesn’t seem to care too much about credibility (this is the disease of the Internet — the demise of the value of credibility).

The online reviews at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the like should be challengeable by other readers and by authors. For example, one should be able to challenge a review that gives a rating and the comment that the reviewer hadn’t even read the book. If the challenge is upheld, the review should be removed, especially if the review is anonymous. It is unfair to prospective readers and to authors to let such reviews remain.

The review quoted above that some readers found “helpful” is so far off target that it is ludicrous, yet some, if not all, of the readers who found the review “helpful” won’t have bought the book and read it, thus missing out on what they well may have found, as so many others did, to be a compelling, well-written novel. Such reviewers should be challenged and made to defend their review. More importantly, reviews should be only accepted from verifiable sources, sources that can be flagged if they abuse the review process. These uneducated readers who write anonymous, scathing reviews that bear no relation to the book being reviewed make it difficult, if not impossible, to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to indie-authored books.

What do you think?

19 Comments »

  1. I admit that I do occasionally leave review on mystery books that I feel are well written or that I enjoy and I am certainly an uneducated reader. My reviews are limited to B&N, Amazon, and Goodreads. I try to comment on the characters, the setting, and style of writing. I do not write long reviews. If I like the writing, but not the content (I have done reviews for a website and didn’t always get to choose the book) then I will state that it is a matter of taste, that the topic is just not my cup of tea, but that I am willing to read another book by the author due to their writing ability. I admit I have a selfish motive for this in that I want certain series to continue provided the author is willing. If the series is still holding strong, although everyone has a hiccup now and again.I do not write reviews on any other fiction and the only non-fiction books I’ve reviewed have been my “technical” books for yarns and fibers. That being said I would like to state that anyone who doesn’t have the courage to put their name to their comments is not worth consideration. An author I know got a 1 star rating because the person, anonymous, didn’t like Amazon’s price. This person didn’t even own the book! I agree that this is a questionable situation, but while I read Booklist on a regular basis, I don’t often seen PW and the NY Times Book Review rarely covers my personal reading so I will continue to read the reviews on B&N, Amazon, and Goodreads mainly for entertainment. Now that I think about it the only review I reacted to was one in the NY Times years ago for Tom Robbins Jitterbug Perfume. The reviewer was not terribly complimentary so I immediately purchased the book and enjoyed it immensely.

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    Comment by Mare F — August 6, 2012 @ 5:39 am | Reply

  2. I agree that some way to cull out unqualified, uneducated reader reviews would be nice. (I mean, how can you possibly review a book if you haven’t read it? And why on earth would you advertise the fact? What does price have to do with anything, when you can get the same book from different sources at different cost?) The number of such reviews is so high that monitoring them could create a paying job for somebody! : )

    As a professional reviewer, I know that reviewing is terrifically challenging. I routinely defend it on writing forums where author equivalents of unqualified, uneducated readers bash reviewers as a species, considering them literary prostitutes, liars, and whatnot. I suspect these same folks base their experience on the types of reader reviews discussed above, as well as the amateur blog version.

    Many reader reviews are all about that particular person, not about the book. Such reviewers are simply taking advantage of today’s freedom to publicly express their opinions and arouse a response. It’s very gratifying for the insecure.

    Professional reviewers understand that their job is to analyze a work fairly so that a potential reader can decide whether or not to purchase it. Toward this end, when I want to buy a book, I sometimes sample reader reviews of it — a handful of 5-star and 1-star ones — in order to triangulate its general position. Then, if I remain intrigued by the premise, I’ll give it a try. I care more about other people’s reviews in the case of nonfiction, where I need to know if the book will be as useful as its promotional material suggests.

    As a reviewer, I work for two different companies. One is a big, established name, and pays; the other is an up-and-comer, and doesn’t pay. The differences between their criteria are profound, but they share one adamant bottom line: No viciousness allowed, and all reviews must address both the positives and negatives of any book. It’s hard to provide this when the book stinks! But it’s an important challenge, because reviewers must never lose sight of the fact that they are expressing opinions, and that other people’s opinions may (will) differ. Some readers may really like the book — you must assume they’re out there and write for them, too.

    I once got attacked on a forum for my statement that I write reviews to make everyone in the publishing chain happy. People immediately assumed I write butt-kissing reviews. What I meant is that the sole purpose of a review is to bring a book’s existence to the awareness of the paying public and encourage them to buy it. So when I compose a review, I remember that somebody wrote it, somebody produced it, somebody promoted it, and somebody wants to read it. You can’t serve all those somebodies when you trash a book so badly that it will never be purchased and read!

    Ergo, one’s opinion must be tempered by intellect and a book approached in full analytical mode, then discussed as a work of craft. Untrained reviewers generally don’t know how to do this, so they fall back on pure subjective response.

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    Comment by Carolyn — August 6, 2012 @ 6:37 am | Reply

  3. Someone who hasn’t read a book has no business posting anything about it! That’s outrageous, and the author should have recourse to having such a “review” removed.

    I just wrote a review about a book that I didn’t enjoy, but I managed to find positive aspects of it. I didn’t think it was worth anyone else buying it; I see one role of the reviewer as warning people off books that may not be worth their time and money. That one has been reviewed elsewhere and got reasonably good, although not glowing, reviews. And I recently turned down a request to review a book written by a friend, because I had a role in editing and producing it, so I wouldn’t be assumed to be objective, even if I were (I wouldn’t post an anonymous review).

    I don’t read Amazon reviews, because I’ve seen enough about them to think – perhaps wrongly – that most of them are written either by friends of authors or trolls like the ones Rich cites. I have no interest in the opinions of people who won’t own up to those opinions. That’s one of the environments where anonymity creates chaos and erodes credibility.

    Whether readers are uneducated, friends and family of authors, or just plain jerks, there’s a serious flaw in the world of anonymous reviews. And we can’t really ignore it, because it does damage the books and authors under attack for no good reason.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — August 6, 2012 @ 9:27 am | Reply

  4. Ruth remarks: “I have no interest in the opinions of people who won’t own up to those opinions. That’s one of the environments where anonymity creates chaos and erodes credibility.”

    Sometimes it’s unavoidable. One of my review organizations requires us to write anonymously. The rationale, if I understand it correctly, is to support honest reviews, because anonymity protects individual reviewers — as well as the organization — from lashback by irate authors.

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    Comment by Carolyn — August 6, 2012 @ 10:03 am | Reply

  5. I think the title of this post says it all: Increasingly we’re dealing with uneducated readers — at all levels, not only correct use of the English language, but in regard to history, culture, religion, and the broader sweep
    of literacy. As a former newspaper editor I saw the industry increasingly urging us to “dumb down” content to be understandable by no longer 8th grade but now SIXTH grade reading levels, and even so my daily paper
    is so full of errors in usage and syntax, not merely typographical errors, that I just about despair.

    Unfortunately in the internet era when anyone can post anything — ridiculous and uninformed (not to mention crude and insulting) as it may be, authors and potential readers are paying the price. I totally agree that
    an anonymous and unverifiable “review” — much less a “review” from someone who hasn’t read the book! — should be removed or reported for the site host to remove.

    Makes one wonder about the future of literacy, doesn’t it… Sigh.

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    Comment by Patricia — August 6, 2012 @ 10:23 am | Reply

  6. I completely agree that what you’ve outlined is the way it should be, but I don’t think Amazon or Barnes & Noble are at all interested in credibility. Their bottom line is money, and even though those reviews by uneducated readers are unreliable, they do help to sell books. I’m afraid that the largest group of consumers the big online booksellers have is the uneducated reader. Knowing that their reviews were to be censored and that their identities would be known would probably decrease the amount of reviews that get written at all, and sales would decrease. It’s very sad. I think we just have to do what we can to put excellent reviews out there so that readers—uneducated or educated—get at least one accurate review.

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    Comment by Ariel Price — August 6, 2012 @ 10:23 am | Reply

  7. Then again, the late blogger Jon Swift wrote a series of hilarious Amazon book reviews on the lines of \”I haven\’t bought or read this book, but\” as satire on those kinds of reviews, which are common on political books. (His blog was in the style of Stephen Colbert; inevitably, a naive commenter would vehemently object to the blogger\’s \”principled conservative\” stance on this or that. Yes, I really do miss him.)

    I used to write reviews for a respected crime fiction review site, but I eventually decided I couldn’t afford the time.

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    Comment by joyfulalternative — August 6, 2012 @ 11:07 am | Reply

  8. I always try to review a book I’ve bought from Amazon, print or Kindle, when I’ve read it. There is a raft of excellent reviewers in America who do this I know. In Britain, where I am, not so many. It is completely outrageous that people should post – especially negative – reviews about a book they haven’t read. Amazon makes this reasonably difficult to do by only letting you review if you’ve bought the book through them. Reviewers should have to give a real e-mail handle (if not a real name) when reviewing. Burning authors like this is irresponsible. I’ve never come across it here.

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    Comment by judimoore — August 6, 2012 @ 12:40 pm | Reply

  9. “Complaints about poor editing, for example, which was the subject of several 1-star anonymous reviews, simply isn’t true. You may find the characters standoffish, the story not compelling, or myriad other things wrong that are important to you as a reader, but in this instance, it is not legitimate to complain about the editing, which is excellent.”

    I call these troll reviews and are often the only review posted by the reviewer. I don’t think any author who does well escapes these. Just check out the titles on the bestsellers’ charts. Tall poppy syndrome at work perhaps? Who knows.

    I’ve also had 1-star reviews where the reviewer admitted he’d never read the book. One reviewer even criticized my “grammer”. There is nothing that can done about these, though I have no doubt anyone perusing reviews knows exactly what they’re about and simply ignore them. I certainly do,

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    Comment by Vicki — August 6, 2012 @ 2:41 pm | Reply

    • I’ve often come across reviewers who are friends of the writer who review nothing else (I’ve even had a couple of those meself!) but these ‘trolls’ (lovely way of describing them, Vicki!) who just post one stinking review, ever, must be very strange.

      Like

      Comment by judimoore — August 6, 2012 @ 3:02 pm | Reply

  10. Reblogged this on because i am and commented:
    why rate if you haven’t read it?

    Like

    Comment by nowwhatsmyname — August 7, 2012 @ 8:17 am | Reply

  11. Glad to see this given that I’ve been reading a number of articles about review inflation. I guess it’s another aspect of the same thing. That said, I did once review a book I couldn’t finish–a science fiction story that made heroes of the Waffen SS, made anyone who held any liberal views (e.g., open-mindness, willing to consider negotiation rather than rushing to war, concern for the less fortunate) into pathetic mindless traitors, and was filled with heavy-handed dialogue. (I did read at least half the book). The review was taken down by Amazon which I don’t think was fair. I think the review accurately described my reaction, as an educated reader, to a book. I like to think I would be equally offended even if I didn’t hold some of the views being attacked. Certainly reviews from neo-Nazi supporters weren’t taken down. So, there seems to be a process for takedowns… maybe only if the publisher has clout with Amazon. Not sure.

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    Comment by Rob Preece — August 7, 2012 @ 10:54 am | Reply

    • I didn’t know Amazon took down reviews. The 1 star that I mentioned based on price not content was allowed to remain. Curiouser and curiouser.

      Like

      Comment by Mare F — August 7, 2012 @ 11:04 am | Reply

  12. What I look for in reader reviews are consistencies in the description of the book, more than whether the reviewers liked or disliked it. When I see the same qualities described across several reviews, that gives me a pretty good idea what the book is like and whether it will match my preferences. So generally I’m happy to have access to a lot of opinions. Quite a few reviews are useless, I agree. But I find them easy to ignore. Thanks for posting.

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    Comment by Peter Galen Massey — August 7, 2012 @ 8:17 pm | Reply

  13. […] are readily sullied today by anonymous rantings. As I noted in The Uneducated Reader, people give credence to anonymous book reviews, even to ones where the reviewer clearly has not […]

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    Pingback by The Shirking of Responsibility « An American Editor — August 8, 2012 @ 7:00 am | Reply

  14. I offer reviews for authors but I most definitely read the book first! I state in my Information Sheet for authors, regarding reviews, that I will not post a bad review, no matter how horrible the book is, but I will not let bad writing, content, or editing go by without a comment, privately in an email.

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    Comment by Susan Uttendorfsky — August 10, 2012 @ 5:17 pm | Reply

  15. It’s pretty easy to spot a an educated review and uneducated one. I disagree with you on one point: that someone should have enough background knowledge in a certain subject in order to review it. What if that is someones first encounter with a certain culture or era of that country?
    I agree with you that we need to have a verification source and we should know who the reviewer is, even if it’s Joe Snuffy who’s first review it is. We all have to start somewhere.
    I personally only review a book if I can’t find a review that meets my feelings.

    Like

    Comment by Raul Felix — August 14, 2012 @ 2:01 am | Reply

    • Wise words, Raul. For my part, I enjoy reviewing. And now that reader blogs are one of the chief ways in which readers work out what to read next (especially in e-books) I feel that a considered review is a service that readers and writers can make use of. The trolls show themselves up as such by what they write. I suspect that any reader sensible enough to read reviews of what s/he intends to buy next is sensible enough to spot a troll … ?

      Like

      Comment by judimoore — August 14, 2012 @ 8:23 am | Reply

  16. I have never not read a book because of a review or because it didn’t have enough stars. People are entitled to their opinion whether you feel they are qualified or not. To be honest, your review on uneducated reviewers sounds like your angry because you cant understand how someone didn’t like this book that you find exceptional. I don’t often write reviews but when I do it is usually because I either really found the book enjoyable and thought everyone would benefit from reading it or I hated it and wanted to vent, which I did with no remorse on goodreads and amazon about 50 Shades of Grey. If you really find them that disturbing don’t read them and just assume that just because a book got a bad review doesnt mean people wont read/buy it.

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    Comment by Brittany — October 19, 2012 @ 11:53 pm | Reply


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