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Monday, October 27, 2008

Theory #44: Readerly Theories: Reviews Redux

I just read "What Is Wrong with the C Review" on Dear Author, and it sparked some thoughts, so here I am again, posting another Smart Bitches Day post. I'm on a roll, aren't I?

I'm not going to rehash everything Jane said, because she made some excellent points and said it better than I could, so go follow the link above and read the post--I'll wait.

You're back? Nice thought-provoking post, wasn't it? It makes a lot of sense. It is definitely true that when I write a review that's less than 4.5 stars, I tend to get into a lot of detail about what I liked and didn't like about the book, basically justifying why it wasn't my favorite book ever. The Dear Author post pointed out to me why that's actually more painful to an author than a horrible review that merely trashes the book without going into detail--it's easier to dismiss the latter.

I'm not sure how that insight is going to affect my reviews--not much, I suspect. I'm writing them for myself and for other readers, after all, and pointing out the specifics helps me make sense of my gut feelings about the book, and I'd hope it's more useful to readers than a general "good book," "okay book," or "this book sucks moose." I know when I read a review, I'm looking for reasons for that grade.

In fact, if I'm on the fence about buying a book, I'll go to Amazon, and read the worst reviews--not the 5-star reviews: they all say the same thing--but the 1-star and 2-star reviews. It gives me a better sense of what to expect from the book. For example, here are three one-star reviews of one of my absolute favorite books, Freedom and Necessity by Emma Bull and Steven Brust:
This has got to be the most torturous bok I've ever read. It's presented as a collection of letters and journal entries from 1849, instead of as prose, and apparently the authors realized this wasn't working at around page 200, and gave one of the letter-writers a perfect memory, and the ability to hand-write letters that must have been 300 pages long, all written in one evening.
I was very disappointed with this book; I bought it because I love Emma Bull's BoneDance, which does not resemble this one at all.
I don't like Victorian books, or pseudo-Victorian anythings, anyway, and wading through the rhetoric and the letters in this was not worth the time.
I consider myself a die hard Brust fan and have enjoyed Emma Bulls works as well. This book was near agony to read and I am still one third of the way from finishing it (I bought it about a year ago). The plot is slow because of the the need for the characters to write each other. Insights that are given into the plot were not stunning enough to keep my attention. I got bored.
What these tell me is that they don't like the epistolary style, and that the book isn't like Emma Bull's or Steven Brust's other work. And if I hadn't read the book before, these negative reviews wouldn't dissuade me.

So I'm also hoping that by pointing out what I did and didn't like, that a less-than-great review will actually convince some other reader to try the book. I don't think I've ever hoped to convince people in general to avoid a book. There have been too many occasions where a book I've loathed has been extremely popular, and I have to assume that its fans want different things from their books than I do. And that's okay with me. Vive la Différence! Variety is the spice of life. etc., etc.

I've talked about reviews before, but I didn't really get into how I grade. In theory:
In theory, anyway. My reviews tend to get inflated over time, and then I have to rein them in again. So depending on where in the inflation cycle I read a book, its rating could vary. But that would be the case anyway, since how much I enjoy a particular book depends on my mood and what else I've read recently, too.

You'll notice that most of the books are rated 4, 4.5, or 5 stars. There's a reason why there's not a bell-curve distribution: I'm not reading random books. If I'd been reviewing and rating books back when I was getting a couple of boxes of freebies every month, there would be a lot more of the lower ratings. In fact, if you look back on the first few months here, when I was still getting the freebies, you'll notice a difference in my average ratings.

What that means is: I'm reading books that I expect I'll like. I'm reading books by authors whose books I've enjoyed in the past, or books that have been highly recommended to me. Of course the average rating is going to be higher.

But this is the thing: four stars does not mean that I didn't like a book. On the contrary. It means I did like it. Just because I didn't absolutely love it doesn't mean I hated it. And three stars doesn't mean the book sucked. I just thought it was okay.

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