Reviewing Reviewers8 December 2020
by Carl Knauf
“I never have nothing good to say, I’d rather tear things down, than build them up.”
-The Offspring, “Cool To Hate”
If you haven’t been following society in the last decade-plus then there’s something wrong with you, and you need to get out of your sweatpants and breathe some fresh air (with different pants on—I don’t want anyone getting arrested and put on a certain list). On the other hand, if you have taken a moment to grace social media or tune into the news then you will realize that people complain about their freedoms and rights all the time—the best being the complaint about freedom of speech. However, the sole fact that someone is openly complaining about their freedom of speech without authoritative consequence means, in fact, that they’re free to speak, so it really makes no sense sometimes.
The point is that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and that’s how it should be, but as we progress from a “networking” standpoint, too many voices are being heard. Sounds like a mental problem. Oops, I mean, “disorder.” Remember, you need to be sensitive toward others’ issues. Actually… this is where society becomes a tad hypocritical.
In the process of telling people what they’re doing wrong, you’re also telling them how to act, think, and speak. Who’s taking away whose freedom of speech now? When we start arguing about rights and freedoms, we’re really only arguing with each other, not necessarily the “government.” And when we argue with each other, we—yep, you guessed it—censor each other. It’s kind of funny how double standards complete a full circle.
Everyone has had a platform for some time now; everyone has a pedestal to preach their regurgitated theories. Most opinions have spanned generations; it’s not like these philosophical rationalizations are fresh outlooks on life that will revolutionize society. With that being said, more and more people are offering their opinions from the way a country should be run to how well a refrigerator runs.
Let’s force an analogy here. Grade : Students :: Reviews : Authors
Grades help or destroy students, and place them amongst their peers and higher education; reviews help or destroy authors, and place them amongst their peers and the direction of their career. If you higher-education folk recognize that format of the analogy, it’s from the MAT, which is a brutal placement exam used by some graduate programs. Within this analogy explanation, there’s another comparison: both can be explained by objectiveness and subjectiveness.
The MAT is objectively brutal because many of the timed questions you just will not know and don’t have extra seconds to work out the answer. If you answer 79 of the 120 correct, it means your IQ is in the top 2%. A D+ makes you a genius on this test. Why would they make a test so hard that brilliant people would still miss 40 questions? Beats me, but others may know why.
When some questions may be difficult for one, they may be easy for another. For example, people who know how to play an instrument may understand music terminology while someone who just listens may miss the reference; or someone who has an extensive vocabulary may not be able to answer a math equation and vice versa. Subjectively brutal.
Reviews for authors will be objective or subjective, but what’s their true worth?
I personally prefer objective reviews. I feel that the reader looks more at the story and writing rather than the topic or opinions of characters. Here are four good examples:
- “…[the author explains almost everything via narrative instead of leaving things up to interpretation].”
- This is good constructive criticism that an author should take into account. Your readers aren’t dummies, they can figure things out.
- “The plot was good: it progressed more quickly than it would have in reality, but that kept the read[er] engaged, there are some inaccuracies, but not commonplace enough to deter most readers.”
- This suggests that the book could have benefited from a little less pace, and the author should either watch their fact checking or consistency, but it doesn’t bash the story for minor issues.
- “This is a fast and easy read… the characters are well written and the author gives great attention to detail. There’s plenty of mystery and just enough good humor to keep you reading till the end.”
- This directly focuses on readability, character development, and the author’s style, and also the dynamics of what makes the narrative engaging.
- “…the story is complex, with interweaving parts and historical references that will force you to use knowledge you may have tucked away… and in the end, feel that the book enriched my overall learning experience beyond just the story itself.”
- This gives other potential readers a little more detail in what they’re getting themselves into, but doesn’t summarize the plot, and also presents plenty of intrigue, almost mimicking what one could expect in the story.
Subjective reviews are simply based on a reader’s preference, but are still valid because everyone has different tastes. However, does preference tell others more about the book or the reviewer? A little of both, but a subjective review is more of a statement than a critique if that makes sense. Here are three good examples:
- “Every single woman in the book (and there are many) is inexplicably smitten with CHARACTER. It seems as though the majority of them only exist in the book to show what a charming, seductive man he is. There isn’t a woman in the entire book that isn’t painted as either a dumb, lust-stricken bimbo or a mere tool to increase the book’s sex appeal.”
- This shows others more about the reviewer’s stance on how women are portrayed, and there’s no significant input to the main plot. Every author is allowed to write characters how they choose, and occasionally stereotypes are written with intention to boost another character’s traits. This reviewer actually proves that, but puts a negative spin on a writer’s strategy.
- “There were way too many characters to keep up with without getting confused or simply bored. At least three or four of them could be cut from the novel without affecting the story or the relationships of the other characters in any way.”
- This speaks more of how confused and bored this specific reviewer became. Just because they couldn’t figure out why the characters were placed in the book, doesn’t mean they don’t belong. An author feels that each character in their work serves a purpose, even if minor.
- “I barely related to any of [the characters].”
- This one always makes me laugh. Read a different book then, not everyone is going to relate to you. A 50-something-year-old bitter man who suffered through tragedy doesn’t relate to a 20-something-year-old cheerful girl whose biggest issue in life so far was when she posted an unflattering picture on Instagram.
Other issues that stem from a subjective review are the thought of whether or not the writing was strong or poor, and reader misconceptions. Here are two good examples:
- “BOOK by AUTHOR was a clever endearing read but riddle[d] by [the] misuse of words, incomplete sentences, and dropped suffixes. One has to hope that the ARC presented was unedited and not the final effort.”
- This is a little questioning because I don’t think any published book would have incomplete sentences, but the main problem here is the insult. What if the reviewer was wrong (and probably was)? They’re teetering on the edge of defamation if an author was to overreact.
- “There were a few factual inaccuracies that were a bit too ridiculous to excuse.”
- This was a review posted for a FICTION book that WASN’T historical fiction. So… yeah.
People need to remember, especially when dealing with fiction, that a novel is not a term paper, and to be mindful of what genre you’re reading. Some situations may not make total sense to heighten the intensity of the plot, and some sentences will not be grammatically correct for style and voice purposes. The best example I can give of this is from Jonathan Coe’s “The Rotters’ Club”. The book ends with a 13,955-word sentence. Do you think those 30-some pages were grammatically and structurally correct? Probably not, but it captured the essence of exactly what Coe was trying to write.
So what really matters in a review? What should you really consider? You don’t have time to dissect what everyone is saying, but look for similarities in the positive and negative aspects of a novel. If just one person doesn’t like the writing style and is finding multiple mistakes, but nine do enjoy the style and don’t mention any errors, then that person probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about. On the contrary, if nine people say the book is poorly-written, and one person thought it was the best book they’ve ever read, then that may be the support of a family member or friend.
Unfortunately, that happens all the time, which is also fine. Another danger is that other “readers” will copy tidbits from posted reviews. You see this with paid promos. This recently happened to me. I ran a promotion for one of my novels and received a two-star review that simply stated the reader didn’t find the book interesting at all, the sentences didn’t make any sense, and the book was poorly written. I’m fine if I get a two-star review if that reader didn’t find the book interesting—again, people have different tastes—but attacking the writing without examples to back it up raised questions of the validity of the reviewer. The woman who ran the promo called that reviewer out, and they ended up recanting their post.
Authors know the gig; we know that there are going to be bad reviews for our books and that’s perfectly okay. Just make sure you have an explanation on hand, because, as we also know regarding society, people are on edge to make a spectacle of something that isn’t important because they have the freedom to do so.
Reviewers, be honest and constructive, and don’t censor a person’s writing because of bias.
Authors, be willing to accept criticism and use it, and ignore the subjectiveness—don’t change your style to appease a handful of disgruntled readers.