A review is just somebody’s opinion

posted in: On writing | 10

A review is just somebody’s opinion. It’s something of a truism, of course. And sometimes, it’s not even true. Some reviews are deliberate attempts to undermine a book’s (or a movie’s, or a restaurant’s) reputation. Sometimes they’re the reverse – paid-for reviews, or reviews left by well-meaning family and friends. Let’s exclude those from the discussion and only consider what might be termed ‘genuine’ reviews.

I think everyone who’s been in the writing business for more than, say, five minutes has learned that not everyone is going to like their book. My science fiction romance books may contain too much sex and not enough science for some readers. Or, the other way around, too much action-adventure and not enough romance. That’s a matter of reader expectation which can be addressed in a number of ways – cover and blurb being the obvious ones. Even then, though, what can you say to a person who is disappointed to read a $0.99 short story, not a novel, when the description clearly shows the length as forty pages? Or the ‘reviewer’ who complains about the gore in a book clearly marked as extreme horror? Or the reader who can only have ignored the blurb stating the book is dark, transgender homo-erotic when there is no happy-ever-after?

But back to real reviews. Like so much in life, people’s take on a story depends so very much on their own life experience. An author friend recently received a review on a book that dealt with deep, dark subjects. The reviewer couldn’t believe that the main character would make the same mistake more than once. Surely he wouldn’t go back for more! Really? Tell that to the battered wife who believes him when he says it’s the drink talking, he loves her, he won’t do it again. Or the heroin addict who knows the next dose may kill her, but shoots up, anyway.

Some people find swearing a complete turn-off. I’ve expressed my opinion on the ‘F-bomb’ (an expression I despise) elsewhere. But I do have to wonder if those readers have ever been anywhere where a group of teens gathers, and listen to the conversation. Other people wonder why the character would venture down into the basement by herself when she hears that strange rustling? But people do. Because we’re curious. This is not the ‘too dumb to live’ scenario, where the fourth person in the group goes down the dark path under the trees, after her three companions have already disappeared one at a time, in the same direction. People are a mixed bunch. Some women do still have a tendency to see their ex as something of a child, who has fallen into something beyond his control. Some people think it’s wise to marry somebody imprisoned for murder while they’re still inside. Some people tend to try to see the best in everyone.

The easy answer to this apparent disconnect between the words on the page and the reader is that the author hasn’t written the book well enough to convince. That may be so, but what about the reviewers who did ‘get’ it, who were convinced? If they’re in the minority, that’s a problem the author may care to consider. If they’re not, all s/he can do is shrug and move on.

To paraphrase the immortal Obi-wan Kenobi, “what I told you is true – from a certain point of view.” (Return of the Jedi)


10 Responses

  1. Dale Furse

    Good post, Greta.

    Liking a story is definitely personal taste. I can’t stand some characters some of my family and friends love. That can go for TV shows, movies and musical band members. I don’t think authors should worry about reviews where personal taste is obvious. Now reviews that tell you something that bites because you know very well they’re right, they’re the ones we need to take notice of. 😀

    I’ve also read around the traps that you haven’t made it until you have a one star review, lol.

    I also like Leiah’s points. 🙂

    • Greta

      That’s because 1 star reviews are so often just nasty, and you can see they’re sour grapes, or tall poppy syndrome. I’ve had a few. Which goes to show you don’t have to be very tall to be one of those poppies 🙂 Whatever. If I don’t like a book that much, I just stop reading. Life’s too short.

      Thanks for joining in.

      • Dale Furse

        Haha, I didn’t know that was why. (Red-faced smiley)

        But you’re right, there’s always something else to read. 🙂

        • Greta

          Oh, it might well not be the ONLY reason. But like I said, if a book’s simply not to your taste, why waste your time? I can understand people getting annoyed if the book obviously hasn’t been edited or proofed. Although anyone checking out the sample usually cottons on to that. But bad-mouthing a book you haven’t even read? What is the point?

          • Dale Furse

            Yeah, it’s like I saw a heap of people, authors no less, say they wouldn’t ever read Harry Potter or Twilight because they just knew the books sucked. Umm, how do you know if you haven’t read them? I could understand if they just said they weren’t in a genre they enjoyed reading but they still didn’t know if they sucked or not.

            Btw, I loved Harry Potter and I didn’t hate Twilight. I read every one of them. See? I love those genres.

            • Greta

              I loved HP. Didn’t read Twilight so can’t really comment on the writing. Sometimes I think it’s band wagon stuff. So many people say it, it must be true.

              Even so, although I read SFF, I don’t read Terry Brooks because I read enough of his work (parts of two books) to realise I just don’t like his style. But I wouldn’t try to review because I feel you have to read the whole book to review. (And with a lot of the 1 and 2 star specials, it’s either clear they didn’t read the book, or they say so themselves.

  2. Leiah

    That’s so very true, Greta. As a book reviewer, I have certain “hot-buttons” that can guarantee that I will drop stars. Yes, these are my opinions, but I think some of my opinions will be shared by others – and of course, some will not! These are, of course, my opinions, take it or leave it!

    Editing is the first thing that I look for. Poor editing shows a lack care and pride in your work and a lack of respect for your reader.

    Characters. Are they believable? Do their actions make sense within the world of the book? Hate them or love them, do they work in the world created by the author? Does the character match who they are supposed to be? For example, if your character is a female CIA agent, is she smart, strong, and able to take care of herself without wimping out and doing stupid, girly stuff so the “hero” has to constantly sweep in and pull her backside out of the fire?

    World building. When the book requires an alternative world, does the world make sense? If the world is “our world” has the writer done their research regarding the area the writing is set in? Do I believe the world that is created?

    Overall story. Flow, readability, consistency of story. All the things that keep your mind focused on the book, allowing you to disappear into the story.

    First, tell the author what you liked about the book. Positives! Then, anything that could be done better – editing, etc. Did the writer provide a book that is worth spending my precious reading time on? And that is the true test of a book – is it worth spending your precious time reading?

    Reviews are important. I know I have people that follow my reviews simply because if I like, or hate, a particular book they know that they will like, or dislike it. Of course, there are those that read my reviews simply because if I like a book, they are sure to hate it 😉 All the things you say about “bad” reviews is also very true – there are people that won’t be honest, for whatever reason, and there really isn’t anything that can be done about that – but ignore it!

    • Greta

      Thank you for sharing your perspective. You’ve made another excellent point in that it makes a difference if the reviewer is a person whose opinion you trust. One friend says she only takes notice of a review if she knows the reviewer. And even then, opinions can differ.

      I haven’t mentioned editing and formatting because for me, as for you, one expects that the building blocks of writing are a given. While it’s not possible for an author to please all the people all of the time as far as the story goes, there’s never an excuse for spelling, grammar and formatting errors.

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