The integrity of The Book Review has been demolished by too many reviewers who use the book review space as a personal venting venue, whether it’s to beat an author with one-star reviews because s/he said something in public that annoyed people, or to slap an author with a one-star review because the F word appeared on too many pages.

Unfortunately, there’s really no way to stop the bad-review assaults written by people with personal vendettas, but it is possible to improve the quality of book reviews – making them truly helpful to other potential readers – by answering a short, simple set of questions while writing the review.

First, some examples of what not to do. Consider the following reviews pulled directly from Amazon:

“Don’t waste your money. Justin Bieber needs a more supportive family not so self absorbed, he seems like a nice person to bad he does not have a solid support system.” – One-star review of Nowhere but Up: The Story of Justin Bieber’s Mom

“She is putting her story out there and being vulnerable to the people who love her and follow her that is a very personable thing to do . I love her more for it” – Five-star review of Nowhere but Up: The Story of Justin Bieber’s Mom

I have no idea whether I want to read Pattie Mallette’s book based on these reviews. What I do know is that one person feels bad for Justin Bieber due to his apparently lacking support system, and another really likes Justin Bieber’s mom. These are valid emotions, but they’re not book reviews. Neither does anything to help a person make a purchasing decision.

“Amazon lowered the price by nearly two dollars less than two days after I purchased the book. I will definitely be very slow to purchase kindle books in the future” – One-star review of J.K. Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling

“Just read this was really written by J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith! No wonder it didn’t read like a first novel!” – Five-star review of J.K. Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling

The first review of Rowling’s book lowers her review rating – sure, by a tiny fraction, but lowers it nonetheless – because a system entirely beyond Rowling’s control (or interest, I’m sure) altered the price of a book after someone had made a purchase. That’s like me buying a sweater for $50, finding out it went on sale two weeks later, and then getting so mad I missed the sale that I publicly rate the knitters of the sweater as sub-par.

The second review tells me only that the book was written by someone who has written books before.

“The main character is a despicable man who treats his best friend like a slave, stands by and watches as he gets raped by men, later beats his friend up for no reason except to get a rise from him. Still later he plants evidence to frame his friend for stealing (which of course the poor friend did not do at all). The only two good characters in the book die a miserable death.” – Excerpt of a one-star review of The Kite Runner that concludes with, “If you like sick stories, this one is for you, but if you are like me, spare yourself the pain of the pointless and horrible book!”

“Hosseini’s first book and arguably his best, although A Thousand Splendid Suns is close to equal this. Life in war-torn Afghanistan through the eyes of a child.” – Five-star review of The Kite Runner

The first review of The Kite Runner goes on at some length about how nearly-unredeeming the protagonist, Amir, is. The review is written with such passion and anger that I can only imagine the reader furiously flipping through the pages, mouth agape, NEEDING to know what happens next and absolutely livid with Amir’s cowardice. This review tells me that Hosseini’s writing was effective and evocative, and that the reviewer wants more uplift in his fiction. What it doesn’t explain is the one-star review, because “I just don’t like that guy” doesn’t necessarily make a book bad.

The second review is a simple overview and “I liked it,” and if a reader hasn’t read Hosseini’s other book, s/he’s SOL.

Any and all readers who take the time to leave sincere reviews after reading a book, whether the reviews are negative or positive, are slobberingly appreciated by writers. TRUST me. (Emphasis on “sincere review after reading a book.”) We love that you had enough interest to buy the book, then read it, then take the time to give it some thought and actually write what those thoughts were. I think I can safely speak for all of us when I say we are truly, truly grateful.

But our gratitude doesn’t mean diddly. While constructive criticism in reviews can and does help us when working on subsequent projects, it’s really there to help other  readers. “This was a great book” is a fantastic thing to say and it will make most authors happy, but someone trying to decide whether to read the book will have a hard time deciding based solely on the fact that another reader liked it. What if that reader thought Snooki’s style book was the epitome of literary genius?

If you want to leave a helpful book review for other readers, consider finding a way to answer three or more of these questions in your commentary (please note that the questions apply primarily to fiction):

    • What elements does the author use to tell the story, and are they used effectively? (Dialogue, setting, point of view, unique and complex [or not] characters, sensory elements…) What are some examples of what you liked/disliked about any one of those elements?
    • How well does the book move forward? That is, are the supplied details essential to the story or do they seem to go on and on for no reason? Consider including an example or briefly summarizing a representative chapter and explaining why it’s either effective or ineffective. (Even if you disagree morally with choices a character makes or the direction a story takes, are you compelled to continue reading because the writing holds you captive?)
    • How would you describe the writing? What makes it either “well-written” or “poorly written”? Consider including examples that stand out to you as exceptional or exceptionally bad. (If the F word is used, is it used believably by a character or narrator who would say it as frequently as s/he does, or does it seem gratuitous? If gratuitous, how so?)
    • Are the characters and scenes believable, or do certain actions or behaviors seem contrived or cliche?
    • Did the story make you feel something? What did it make you feel, and how did this story make you feel it?

The above suggestions for review-writing are, admittedly, the things I personally look for when trying to decide whether I want to spend the money on a book. What do you look for?

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Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. I’ve also found it the other way around. There are way too many 5 star reviews. To me, that also tarnishes the value. I understand some people LOVE books that the rest of think are okay, but I’v seen it far too often. Maybe in this world of social media where many authors and their readers are “friends” it’s harder to bare your teeth and be totally honest in your review for fear of upsetting your new “friend”. I know I’ve given 2 and 3 star reviews for my Facebook buddies, and each time I do I feel bad, but I believe in being honest…even if it hurts.

    Reply
  2. YES! This type of post should be a weekly feature for all reviewers, as we can all use a refresher course on what book reviews are/are not and what constitutes an appropriate/inappropriate review.

    Avoid the “3rd Grade Book Report” retelling of the plot. The synopsis is provided by the author to give readers a glimpse into the book. A glimpse without spoilers.

    Did you finished reading the book or not? Did your mind wander or did you start reading another book, while you were in the middle of the first one? Some of the BEST reviews I’ve read, have been written by people who did not finish reading a book, because they told me WHY.

    Did you receive an ARC? It helps me remove the “I loved it, because it was free,” language and focus on the mechanics of the book.

    I prefer book reviews that focus on the reader’s experience while reading the book. “Best” or “worst” descriptions do nothing for me. Tell me how the book spoke to you, evoked memories or visceral sensations. It should be a personal picture of what you went through as you were reading.

    Reply
    • Excellent point about leaving a review even if the reviewer didn’t finish reading the book. I think I’ve seen it argued that an unfinished book can’t result in a trusted review (how does the reader know all the front matter won’t begin to make sense or suddenly become interesting in the second half?), but it is useful, as you said, to know whether someone was so bored or frustrated that they stopped reading. As long as we also know WHY.

      Reply

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About Kris Tsetsi

Kristen J. Tsetsi is the author of the novels "Pretty Much True..." and "The Year of Dan Palace" and the short fiction collection "20 Short Stories," all published under the name Chris Jane. Website: http://kristenjtsetsi.com

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