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?

July 6, 2010

Book Reviews: Help or Hindrance?

I recently wrote about the problems I see with book reviews and trying to find a silver needle in a haystack of needles (see Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (I): Reader Reviews). But that article focused on reader reviews, not the “professional” reviews of the traditional press.

One of the most esteemed print reviews still available is the New York Times Sunday Book Review (NYTSBR). Yet every week, as I look at it, I wonder why it is still on its pedestal. I guess I should mention that I much prefer the reviews in the The New York Review of Books, although the two magazines really are no longer comparable. With each passing week, the NYTSBR seems to become increasingly irrelevant to anyone who really wants a useful review of a book.

Why am I suddenly on this hobby horse? It just so happened that had just I begun reading Henry Clay: The Essential American by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, when the NYTSBR (July 4, 2010) appeared on my doorstep with a “comparative review” of this book and At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise That Saved the Union by Robert Remini. So I read the review (“To Save the Union” by Andrew Cayton), wondering did I buy the right book? Should I be reading both books? Should I be reading some other Clay biography?

Well I read the review and still am wondering. Typical of reviews in recent months, if not years, at the NYTSBR, the “review” is uninformative. It neither praises nor damns either book; in fact, it barely discusses the merits and demerits of either book. It gives a reader no guidance. Okay, I understand that the Compromise of 1850 is the thing for which Clay is most remembered although he had less to do with it than popular memory recalls. I also knew before reading the review that the Great Compromise wasn’t so great and that it failed a decade later. But neither fact makes a biography of Henry Clay good, bad, or indifferent, and considering Clay’s role in the 40+ years he was involved in national politics, there had to be more to his life than just the Compromise, and thus the justification for the biography.

Am I so out of touch that when I read a review I want to leave it with a sense that a book is well-written, well-researched, and a worthwhile read — or not? That it reads like a well-written novel or that it reads like a typical, dry, dense, academic text that only scholars who focus on the subject will appreciate?

Although this is becoming an increasing problem with magazines like the NYTSBR, this is also symptomatic of the online reviews of ebooks. Reviews are simply not enlightening. A review needs to balance background material that helps create an atmosphere for the book being reviewed (e.g., some context information about the times in which Henry Clay lived is important, just as it is important to know that he and President Andrew Jackson were in opposition to each other on virtually every matter during the Jackson presidency), with a description of the book itself, with a comparison to other books on the same subject (assuming there are others), and with the reviewer’s ultimate, clearly stated, opinion as to the worthiness of the book being reviewed.

To me it is as important to know that if I want to read the definitive biography of Henry Clay, I should be reading XYZ and not the book(s) under review (or vice versa). To me, it is important to know that although the book being reviewed is the best introductory general biography of Henry Clay currently available, it is so dryly written that a trek across the Sahara Desert would be a beach vacation.

What good is a review that assigns a book 3 stars, or 5 stars, or any rating at all if the reader has no real clue why it deserved such a rating? “Great book,” “quick read” are meaningless reviews, as are reviews like the review of the Clay books that raised my ire.

eBooks are clearly the wave of the future but because of the ease with which everyone can publish all of their meanderings, it is increasingly difficult to find that silver needle in the haystack of needles. The Internet is too wide a target; there is no bull’s-eye for finding a good book to read. Consequently, reviews of ebooks are going to be increasingly important to readers, which is why reviewers should look at the NYTSBR reviews, learn what is inadequate to identify that silver needle, and write their reviews with greater depth and better guidance, reviews that are more than excuses for a writer to write. Only when that happens will independent authors and publishers be able to secure the audiences they deserve.

One other thing all of these reviews should do: indicate whether the book(s) under dicussion is(are) available in print or ebook or both. Recognizing the shifting sands would be helpful.

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